Søren Kierkegaard, famously known as a ‘knight of faith’, was a religious author who later donned the title of the first existentialist philosopher in history. Furthermore, faith and religion played large roles in outlining many of his works and life. In his work, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard outlined the three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Kierkegaard himself was regarded as a religious ‘knight of faith’ and lived his life accordingly. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote under the alternate persona of Johannes de Silentio in order to highlight the internal conflict with religion that one must face in order to mature into the religious stage of life.
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The different stages of life, as outlined by Fear and Trembling, shape the way Kierkegaard views maturity and progression as one reaches the end. In his work, Kierkegaard highlights the three main stages of life that he believes all humans go through: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The ideology behind the three stages is that a human will progress through them as they mature. In his work The Dialectic of Contradiction in Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic Stage, Stephen Dunning describes the transition between the stages by stating, “… the aesthetic stage will ultimately develop through the reflection of the ethical stage into the mature inwardness of the religious stage” (386). While people will not move through the stages at set periods in time, the time when someone’s emotions and ethics evolve is when they advance into more mature stages of life. The three-stages of life, as defined by Kierkegaard, became the foundation for many religious movements. An example of this was that Kierkegaard was considered to be “… the moving spirit behind neo-orthodoxy and is, perhaps, the most original religious thinker of modern times” (Popkin 274). While neo-orthodoxy wasn’t an official movement until the late 1910’s, Kierkegaard’s philosophies helped shape the movement.
Through the development of the three-stage life ideology, Kierkegaard was able to progress his own faith, as well as aid the development of philosophical movement. Unknowingly, Kierkegaard helped create the foundation for the ‘neo-orthodoxy movement’ – or the ‘theological crisis’. The purpose of the movement was to stress the importance and sovereignty of God, and how humans must act accordingly (Neoorthodoxy, 1). The ideology of the movement was derived from Kierkegaard’s philosophy regarding existentialism. The point of existentialism was to emphasize that the individual had freedom and choice, and should live in a reasonable way despite living in an unreasonable universe. Then, when one was able to acknowledge their existence, and they chose to live fully for God, they would be able to pass from the ethical to the religious. This passing of stages was the point at which Kierkegaard believed one could bear the title of a ‘knight of faith’. Ronald Green describes the process by stating, “‘the knight of faith’ who relinquishes ‘the finite’ may, like Abraham, somehow get it back” (193). Kierkegaard’s ideas of the religious stage orbited around the idea that an individual could understand their existence, but give it up to follow God. The idea was that by following God one would gain back their purpose. Kierkegaard’s profound ideas about regaining everything by losing everything to their faith ultimately led to his philosophies being widely spread through multiple religious movements
Johannes de Silentio was considered to be in the ethical stage of life, and therefore was unable to fully comprehend the religious. While Kierkegaard would have considered himself a religious man, Fear and Trembling helps outline the struggle he would have faced in the ethical stage. The transition between the ethical and the religious stages equated to the period in which one would become a ‘knight of faith’. In Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio inquired that “If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment… what would life be but despair?” (18). By asking this question, Silentio understands that there must be something after death. Eternal consciousness must first last beyond the life we currently have, and secondly must pertain to the soul. If there were nothing eternal beyond the life we live now then there is no reason to live, other than to die. However, Silentio remains in the ethical stage because he has not yet devoted his eternal consciousness and purpose fully to God. He has not yet made the ‘leap of faith’, which would allow him to enter the final stage of Kierkegaard’s model. Silentio himself had not yet understood the religious stage. Furthermore, Silentio has yet to comprehend what it truly means to be a ‘knight of faith’ and therefore remains in the ethical stage. “In infinite resignation there is peace and repose; any one who wants it, who has not debased himself… can discipline himself into making this movement, which in its pain reconciles one to existence” (Silentio 54). In the ethical stage, an individual has permanently resigned to his suffering, and he has not moved beyond the point of loss to be able to regain what was missing. The purpose of teleological suspension is to regain contentment and peace, by giving up one’s own purpose and life in order and then fulfilling eternal purpose.
The connection between Kierkegaard and Silentio’s views regarding human life was highlighted by teleological suspension of the ethical. In his work, What Neither Abraham nor Johannes De Silentio Could Say, John Lippitt explains that “The teleological suspension of the ethical must have an even more definite religious expression. The ethical is then present at every moment with its infinite requirement, but the individual is not capable of fulfilling it” (Lippitt 94). Because of the stage Silentio is in, he would not be able to fulfill his ultimate purpose. However, Kierkegaard would be able to, because he has learned to regain himself by virtue of the absurd. The difference between their two stages brings focus to the contrast between the ‘knight of faith’ and the ‘knight of infinite resignation’. Avi Sagi, in his work The Suspension of the Ethical and the Religious meaning of Ethics in Kierkegaard’s work, explains how “…Abraham is the ‘knight of faith’ because he suspended the ethical and followed the divine command ordering him to sacrifice his son, rather than heeding the moral obligation which would have compelled him to refrain from this act” (83). In this example, Abraham was able to acknowledge his humanity and ethics, but suspend them in order to act out God’s will. John Davenport describes how quickly the change between the two knight-titles can be, by stating, “Abraham makes two movements. He makes the movement of infinite resignation and gives up Isaac… but next, at every movement, he makes the movement of faith” (886). Thus proving that while one can go from infinite resignation to being a ‘knight of faith’, it is far more strenuous to fully mature into the religious stage of life.
Overall, Fear and Trembling was a work that emphasized the difficulty and internal struggle that one would feel when maturing into the religious stage of life. Søren Kierkegaard himself was a devout and religious man who, despite his immensely profound faith, had still struggled with advancing through the stages of life that he highlighted in his works – similarly to Johannes de Silentio. This was evident in how Kierkegaard defined and explained the three-stages of life. He was considered to have reached the religious stage, even though he acknowledged not all people would. Through his work Fear and Trembling, Silentio explains the questions he had regarding Kierkegaard’s religious stage – namely, how one could sacrifice their own son. Kierkegaard himself answered that concern by explaining teleological suspension of the ethical, ultimately explaining the ability to advance through life’s stages.
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