It’s still winter here, no matter what anyone says about first days of spring

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Granted, this picture is from something like a month and a half ago. But it better represents my mood than a picture of ugly patches of frozen sludge would.

I was done with today before most people had even hit snooze on their alarms for the first time. Racing season has officially arrived and, with it, freezing mornings spent shivering on the Charles playing Minesweeper with icebergs and 30,000 dollar boats (the cost of losing? putting nine lives at risk). The only thing that gets me through is the thought of getting back to the boat house and collapsing in front of the radiator. Starbucks is a close second.

But round about the time my fingers stop aching, feeling is returning (painfully) to my toes, and I stop feeling dizzy from the cold, I realize, with a sinking heart, that this is only round 1 and I’ve got to be back at the boathouse, ready to subject myself to round 2, in just over 5 hours. Life (and the weather) is a bitch sometimes.

So in the midst of this bone-achingly cold existence we call coxing for the crew team (it snowed all Saturday and this morning—conveniently letting up for class, but not for crew—it’s nearly April, folks), class almost (almost) feels like a respite. At least when I head to class I’m guaranteed to be warm, if nothing else.

But, let’s be real. Nothing is a respite. Everything is go, go, go, can I get through this so I can make it to (and through) the next thing. I’m taking it bird by bird as much as I can, but, well, there are a lot of birds. I’m only writing this because I have a French paper on Ourika and Adieu due tomorrow, which I’ve done far too little on, an American Novel paper on either The Sound and the Fury, A Farewell to Arms, Tender is the Night, Leaving the Atocha Station, or Lolita due Friday (clearly I have not even gotten as far as choosing my book yet), and I need to prepare for a talk I’m giving at an event for the Medieval Studies department on my Charlemagne project from last semester on Wednesday night. And this is on top of normal homework and 4+ hours of crew a day. If anyone would like to shoot me now, they’d be more than welcome.

Of course, the natural reaction to all that is to do this instead. So have a paper on Kierkegaard and the Knight of Faith.

The Essential Factors of Love and Paradox in Defining the Knight of Faith

Who is the knight of faith? Abraham was one: we take that away, if nothing else, from a cursory reading of Fear and Trembling. But who exactly is this shining figure, this paragon of faith (if not virtue)? Johannes de Silentio (the mouthpiece of Kierkegaard) gives us pages and pages of description, largely in negative relation, concerning not what the knight of faith is, but what he is not: the tragic hero. But towards the end of the text, he does give us a little gem of encapsulating description: “the knight of faith has the passion to concentrate in one single point the whole of the ethical that he violates, in order that he may give himself the assurance that he actually loves Isaac with his whole soul”(36). Right there is the heart of what it means to be a knight of faith: the paradox of a violation of the ethical connected with a proof—and product—of love.

In Fear and Trembling, Silentio attempts an understanding of the Abraham story which will reconcile Abraham’s actions with his legacy as a paragon of faith and—perhaps most important, explain the paradox of how he could intend to sacrifice his son. In attempting this understanding, Silentio is obliged to find a category for Abraham to occupy, and finding neither the aesthetic nor the ethical suitable, he creates a new one—that of the religious, and with it comes a new role, exemplified in Abraham, the role of the knight of faith. However, it is not as simple as merely adding a third category and sending Abraham off to inhabit it; rather, that third category of the religious must be fit into the hierarchy of the categories and given a relationship to them. In Fear and Trembling, Silentio contends that if the religious is to be added as a category—and it must, for there is no other solution to the question of Abraham—then it must be added as a category higher than the previous two, trumping them and, necessarily, conflicting with them, leading Silentio to the conclusion that the ethical must be “teleologically suspended” in order to accommodate it.

It is important to note that Silentio’s encapsulation of the essence of the knight of faith incorporates the necessity of the paradox (that he who exists as the paragon of faith must violate the ethical) as the means by which to recognize love—also necessary. The language in this line is more violent than we are accustomed to hearing from Silentio up until this point. Whereas he has usually contented himself with “suspending”the ethical, here it is made clear that this suspension “violates”the ethical. Suspension is a much gentler word, in part because it implies a temporary state of affairs: we shall only be suspending the ethical for a short while and then we will let it fall right back into place. But violation is a much more radical choice as it connotes a lack of respect for the ethical and a violent treatment of it, on top of giving no indication as to the amount of time for which the ethical shall be violated. A term so rife with violent possibility might, at first, seem odd when coupled with the knight of faith, but indeed it is essential to the paradox of his character: that he is capable of the violation of the ethical, the universal, all that he has been taught to respect and hold dear, in favor of a single divine command.

Do not think, though, that any common-garden criminal can be a knight of faith. It is not the violation of the ethical that makes the knight of faith, but his ability to violate the ethical “concentrate[d] in one single point …in order that he may give himself the assurance that he actually loves Isaac with his whole soul.”Isaac is that “single point”and the violation of that point in which all the ethical is contained is not any old violation, but the most extreme violation possible. Silentio (and God) do not suspend (or violate) the ethical lightly. The important thing about the violation is that it only occurs in the most extreme situations. Abraham only has the potential to become a knight of faith because he has Isaac and because he loves him as much as he does. For Abraham, Isaac and Abraham’s love for him, considered together, is that one single point in which is distilled the entirety of the ethical. Only a person with, as Silentio describes it, the “passion”to invest all of the ethical in one vessel is capable of the sort of love necessary for a sacrifice of the scale God requires as proof of faith.

And therein lies the necessary paradox upon which faith rests: the tension between two  opposing loves, the more powerful of which requires the sacrifice of the other in order to prove itself as true love anchored in faith and true faith anchored in love. That love, Abraham’s love for Isaac, is the essential factor for Silentio about which violation of the ethical for the creation of the religious and accommodation of true faith pivots: “since God claims Isaac, [Abraham] must …love [Isaac] even more, and only then can he sacrifice him, for it is indeed this love for Isaac that makes his act a sacrifice by its paradoxical contrast to his love for God”(32). True faith cannot exist without paradox: great love and the willingness to sacrifice that love against every other impulse must coexist if one is to do one’s duty to  God.

This leads us to the question of divine command: is Silentio’s God a commanding, absolutist one who demands obedience above all else, including adherence to his own previous commandments (for instance: “Thou shalt not kill”)? An examination of the etymology of the all-important (and not idly chosen) word “knight,”supports a reading of Silentio’s God as a commanding one. The immediate connotations of the word “knight”—defender, protector, warrior—shed little new light on the relation between the knight and God, however, etymologically, there is something interesting: “knight”comes from the old English “cniht,”meaning boy or servant. With this connotation in mind, the choice of the name “knight of faith”appears not at all accidental, but engineered toward promoting Silentio’s understanding of a relationship between the faithful man and God as one in which man is not only subordinated to God, but servile and obedient. The knight of faith is then a protector of faith, its servant, too, but also, by extension, the servant of God, ready, willing, and capable of obeying his every command, no matter its ethical ramifications or effects on their consciences. Our duty to God is absolute and as such, it trumps all else.

This is all well and good, but the pairing of “warrior”and “servant” is a dangerous one. Is not, then, Silentio’s argument justification for religious violence? If we are to do everything God tells us, even at the expense of our ethical code, and we are also to admire the “knight of faith,”a warrior, what is there to prevent any number of violent acts committed at the behest of God? Is Silentio all for a God who would command his knights of faith to carry out the crusades? I think it best to return to Silentio’s earlier description of the knight of faith as being a man possessing of “the passion to concentrate in one single point the whole of the ethical that he violates, in order that he may give himself the assurance that he actually loves Isaac with his whole soul.”Generally, Silentio maintains a natural separation between his discussion of the knight of faith as a category and the specific example of Abraham, an exemplar of that category. However, here he does not, instead mixing Isaac into a general description of the knight of faith and thereby clarifying that the case of Isaac and Abraham is not an anomalous extreme, but the model. If a man is not violating the ethical as encapsulated in a central point of equal importance to and equally loved by himself as Isaac was by Abraham, then he is not a knight of faith and his violation of the ethical is neither condoned nor justified. In this way, Silentio heads off any accusations that his God is the sort who might command and expect the carrying out of the crusades, for while God does expect to be obeyed when he issues commands, he only commands those capable of such passion and possessing of such a love. Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac (or intend to sacrifice him at least) as a means to an end. He does so out of and because of intense love: love for his God and powerful, all-of-the-ethical-encompassing love for his son. And therein lies the paradox.

However, all of this—Silentio’s argument that God demands unconditional, unquestioning obedience and faith in this God is reliant upon the paradox of proving love for God by the willingness to sacrifice something loved wholly and desperately at his request—is entirely dependent on one assumption on Silentio’s part: that Abraham loved Isaac truly and deeply. As Silentio himself points out, “if [Abraham] actually hates Isaac, he can rest assured that God does not demand [this sacrifice] of him”(31) and Silentio takes the fact that God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as proof enough. However, is this proof enough? Did Abraham love Isaac? For Silentio, it appears to be more of a given than anything else, a simple fact of the story of Abraham and Isaac and one not worth addressing. Abraham loved Isaac because Isaac was his son and a gift from God. But is it love to lead one’s son up a mountain, bind him to an altar, and allow him to think one is about to kill him? Even if Abraham had known that the moment of reprieve would come, he would still have tortured his son most cruelly with the belief that his own father was willing to and capable of killing him. Is that love? Can that be an example of the intense love that Silentio holds the sacrifice of which is worthy of a teleological suspension of the ethical? Maybe for Silentio that is what love looks like, but I am not so sure. If there is love there, it can only be the love of possession and not true love which includes Isaac as a person. And if this is not love, then Silentio’s whole case crumbles. We would not need to admire Abraham; he would, after all, be a murderer and no teleological suspension of the ethical would necessary.

The Isaac of Caravaggio’s scene certainly appears to be in torment as his father pins him down, cruelly paying no heed to his son’s obvious pain and distress. Is this a portrait of a father who loves his son? Or is it one of a would-be murderer? I think Caravaggio would agree with my reservations about Silentio’s assumption of Abraham’s love for Isaac.

Citations:

Kierkegaard, Soren. “Fear and Trembling.” 7-39. Rpt. in Basic Writings of Existentialism. Ed. Gordon Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.

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