In 1843, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard published his classic work entitled “Fear and Trembling“. This book appears to have simultaneously been designed as an expression of Christian faith, as a polemic assault on the dominant philosophy of the time (the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his followers), and as a tortured explanation of the author’s romantic inhibitions. In this essay I will champion the book’s principle of the “teleological suspension of the ethical” by supporting the ideas of Kierkegaard with those put forth by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1968 book “Towards a Psychology of Being”.
One facet of Hegel’s philosophy, as Kierkegaard presented it, was a Kantian equation of social duty with humanity’s highest calling; the Hegelian “System” claimed that its “universal” ethic was an absolutely realized morality that could not be superseded without being in a state of immoral “temptation”. Kierkegaard’s brilliant wit, however, savaged the pat complacency of the Hegelians and their allies in the Danish Church for their consequent privileging of reason as “beyond” faith and their classification of the mores of society as one’s sole obligation to God. Existence is more complicated than this, warned the Dane, as demonstrated by the story of the ancient Biblical hero Abraham.
The book of Genesis, chapter twenty-two, explains that God commanded his loyal subject Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. After much soul searching, Abraham decided to comply with this horrible order, trusting in his faith alone. After he bound Isaac to an altar, and prepared to drop a knife, an angel of God stopped Abraham at the last minute, saying, “Now I know that you fear God.” This story is generally understood as God testing Abraham to see if he would do something atrocious and illogical, as a test of his true faith and loyalty.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard felt that many Danish Lutheran ministers were giving insincere and unreflected sermons concerning this story. The philosopher felt that these homilies failed to include the raw suffering and passion of the test that God put Abraham through, and without understanding the extent to which the lessons of that test still pertained millennial later. Even more misunderstood was how Abraham’s actions in the test had violated the Hegelian ethical; few acknowledged that “the ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he was willing to murder Isaac” [Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Trans. Alastair Hannay (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 60].
“The religious expression,” however, “is that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac” [p. 60]. Kierkegaard believed that Abraham “overstepped the ethical altogether, and had a higher telos outside it” [p. 88], that of religious faith. His highest obligation, one which an overly rational Hegelian mind could not grasp, was to “teleologically suspend the ethical” and not to give in to the mere “temptation” of relationship to the societal universal; whatever the consequences in conventional terms, his task was to consummate his absolute relationship to the absolute, and to pass the horrible test put forth to him by the Divine.
Kierkegaard claimed that Abraham passed this test as almost none other would be able. The Biblical father did this by first making the movement of “infinite resignation”, through his total preparation for the slaughter of his beloved son and his consequent release of the entire temporal realm in exchange for the eternal. But what made Abraham not merely great but instead a guiding star for all eternity [p. 54] was that he simultaneously made the movement of what Kierkegaard called the “Knight of Faith“, absurdly believing that the impossible would occur, and Isaac would be returned to him in this life, and that he could enjoy the temporal despite his complete release of it.
It is this paradoxical and difficult final movement that Kierkegaard felt was left unlept by Johannes de Silento – Kierkegaard’s cowardly alter-ego and his pseudonym in writing “Fear and Trembling”. More importantly, the leap of faith is what is left unlept by all “knights of resignation” and other such tragic heroes. The latter, an example being Agamemnon in his sacrifice of his daughter Iphegenia [Euripides, Iphegenia in Aulis], are unlike Abraham even though their actions may seem superficially similar. They do not make leaps of religious faith, because they are resigned to the loss of their progeny and have no absurd faith in the Divine’s willingness to do the impossible and restore their losses in this life. Their actions do not constitute suspensions of the ethical, either, because the murder done by tragic heroes always serves an ethical “universal” telos (like victory at war), rather than the unseen telos of pure, unmediated devotion to God.
One can see this difference through examining social reception to the child-murders in question. Agamemnon was showered by his entire state with understanding, envy, sympathy, forgiveness, and admiration, all in recognition of the dreadful sacrifice that he had made in the ethical service of the greater societal good. Conversely, Abraham’s act of faith was a paradox that none could understand but him, a silently private trial for which he alone was responsible, with no “higher good of society” to appeal to. His act benefited no one as far as any mortal observer could discern, and was therefore far outside of the Hegelian sense of ethical conduct.
There is a mistrust of human nature that is explicit in some works, like those of Schopenhauer, Freud, Augustine, and Hobbes, and implicit in others, such as those of Hegel and his followers, including Marx. Here, the pursuit of the desires of the “single-individual” is a “form of evil,” a sin and a temptation [Kierkegaard, p. 83]. Under this view, one needs the ethical standards of society in order to avoid the total chaos which would result from the pursuit of selfish desire taken by those such as Johannes the Seducer, the demonic character from Kierkegaard’s book “Either/Or”. If one mistrusts individual intentions, even the desire of the great and holy people such as Abraham are suspect. Many, Kierkegaard claimed, do not acknowledge the real truth of what Abraham did, perhaps for fear “that someone will go off the rails and do likewise” [p. 60]. For the most part, they would perhaps assign Abraham’s greatness only to the safe end-results of his adventure [p. 91-2] rather than the asocial daring of his risk.
Psychologist Maslow (a past president of the American Psychological Association and “one of the most articulate proponents of humanistic psychology” [Karen Colimore and Robert Shaw, “Humanistic Psychology as Ideology,” Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 28(3) Summer 1988, p. 51] in his day but perhaps more of a philosopher than a scientist pointed out that many modern psychologists exhort their fellow human
to be true to his own nature, to trust himself, to be authentic, spontaneous, honestly expressive, to look for the source of his actions in his own deep inner nature … but, of course, this is ideal counsel. They do not sufficiently warn that most adults don’t know how to [listen to their deep inner nature successfully] and that, if they ‘express’ themselves, they may bring catastrophe … what answer must be given to the rapist or sadist who asks, ‘Why should I too not trust and answer myself?’ [Abraham Maslow, Towards A Psychology Of Being (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1968), p. 161-2]
Kierkegaard asked, “How does the individual assure himself that he is justified?” [Kierkegaard, p. 90-1] when “the individual can easily take … [the] paradox [of faith] for temptation” [p. 85]. The Danish philosopher repeatedly acknowledged that his interpretation of Abraham is a dangerous one, as any Hegelian would be quick to agree. Does Kierkegaard’s suspension of the ethical leave one with moral nihilism? The ethical is by definition societal-wide [p. 82], and, clearly, any genuine suspension at all implicitly negates its claims to universal validity. This, taken to its logical conclusion, may leaving society open to a nihilistic amorality, to the whims of serial killers and pedophiles.
A first consideration here is that, practically, as long as there is society, the ethical will probably still remain vital. Kierkegaard never argues for complete dismissal of the “universal” level of ethics, but instead held respect for it almost all instances. He further suggested that Abraham’s action would have been simple murder had he not fulfilled his ethical duty fully by deeply loving his son as much as is possible [p. 64-5]. Further, although the teleological suspension of universal ethical imperatives existed for Kierkegaard, he did not see it as child’s play. One cannot begin to comprehend it without great labor [p. 57-8], he stated, and one should not undertake to try anything nearly as heroic as Abraham’s act without tremendous self-questioning and a deep understanding of life’s horror [p. 79, p. 80-1]. The subjective that Kierkegaard ascribed to Abraham is not the self-indulgence of a child that Hegelians may assume it to be, but instead “a new [deeper] interiority [which] must not be overlooked” [p. 97].
A second consideration on the question of Nihilism is that, as Kierkegaard and Maslow both argued, humans (and their spiritual urgings) are not as untrustworthy and in need of “ethical” coercion as Hegelians assume. “I am convinced that God is love” [p. 63], exclaimed the Dane. He also explained how life, given by the Divine, has a purpose and is not random, hopeless, or unguided [p. 49]. He seems to imply that the whole point of his concept of faith was that humans are supposed to exist, that, if one can float properly in the movement, one can give up on life through renunciation but joyously receives it back again through faith.
Maslow stated a more forceful confidence in intrinsic human nature. He summarized his impression of almost a century of psychological experimentation by saying that
we have, each of us, an essential biologically based inner nature, which is, to some degree, ‘natural,’ intrinsic, given, and, in a certain limited sense, unchangeable … [evidence seems to show that this nature is] either neutral, pre-moral, or positively ‘good’. Destructivity, sadism, cruelty, malice, etc., seem so far to be not intrinsic but rather they seem to be violent reactions against frustration of our intrinsic [inner nature] [Maslow, p. 3].
Maslow further rebukes the notions of universal ethical rules in stating that we are, on a certain level, always motivated to do the good act, without any need for societal coercion, because our subconscious keeps score of our moral choices and constantly pressures us to be moral [p. 5]. He stated,
We can now reject the almost universal mistake that the interests of the individual and society are of necessity mutually exclusive and antagonistic, or that civilization is primarily a mechanism for controlling and policing human instinctoid impulses. All these age-old axioms are swept away by the new possibility of defining the main function of a healthy culture as the fostering of universal self- actualization [p. 159].
One assumption needed to tie the thought of Kierkegaard and Maslow together, is that Kierkegaard’s “God” speaks to the individual through Maslow’s deep good inner core. This idea has already roughly been put forward by Christian psychiatrist M. Scott Peck [M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978)], and it explains why Kierkegaard saw Abraham’s faithful willingness to sacrifice Isaac as being “for God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own” [Kierkegaard, p. 83], why Abraham had a “private relationship with God” [p. 88-9].
A third consideration on the question of Nihilism is that Kierkegaard explained that his point was not to urge the citizens of Copenhagen to massacre their children [p. 61], or to act on any other fleeting impulse, but instead perhaps to make dramatic moves towards the passion of real faith. Why preach about Abraham if it is nothing but empty rhetoric, he asked [p. 60-1, p. 81]? He reiterated, again and again, that the issue of Abraham is a complex and confusing one, but one that is fruitfully explored if one is to deepen one’s faith and true goodness [p. 60, p. 85]; he perhaps believed that examining the true scathing extreme of the Biblical hero’s trial can wake the dogmatic slumber of Hegelian universal ethics.
One would hate to think what would have happened had Socrates, Galileo, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn, and many others, not to mention Kierkegaard and Maslow themselves, not pressed on in their individual quests of faith, despite the social, “ethical” pressures arrayed against them. As Maslow further pointed out, Germans at Dachau in 1943 could be unmistakably seen to be in need of a teleological suspension of the universal ethical societal rules, a suspension originating in their “good” inner depth/the Divine [Maslow, p. 7].
And yet, again, one has the question of Johannes the Seducer, or Charles Manson. How does one reconcile a need for the universal set of ethics for such people, with a need for its relaxation for those people like those listed above, who are perhaps beyond it? Maslow’s answer to this nineteenth century debate was that
in healthy people only is there a good correlation between subjective delight in the experience, impulse to the experience, or wish for it, and “basic need” for the experience (it’s good for him [and society] in the long run) … only such people uniformly yearn for what is good for them and others … this unity, this network of positive intercorrelation … falls apart … as the person gets psychologically sick. Then what he wants to do may be bad for him … His impulses, desires, and enjoyments then become a poor guide to living … So far as philosophical theory is concerned, many historical dilemmas and contradictions are resolved by this finding. Hedonistic theory does work for healthy people; it does not work for sick people … I think that this is the main reef on which most hedonistic value theories and ethical theories have foundered. Pathologically motivated pleasures cannot be averaged with healthily motivated pleasures [p. 150-9].
In other words, for a Knight of Faith, the subjectivity of a teleological suspension of the ethical is acceptable, because her deep inner longings will lead her in a better direction than will society’s rules. For most people, however, the ethical is preferable to the impulsive aesthetic. Acceptance of this idea helps explain why Kierkegaard states that “anyone who doesn’t see [the subjective justification for Abraham’s action] can always be quite certain he is no Knight of Faith” [Kierkegaard, p. 105]. In other words, Maslow and Kierkegaard seem to suggest, if a person mistrusts the deep subjective, they say something about themselves. I suspect that this may have been true of Hegel, as it was of Augustine, Schopenhauer, and Freud.
A few major questions remain to this line of reasoning, including apparent elitism of allowing some to follow their inner impulses and who is not, the difficulty in deciding who is able to suspend and who should not, and reconciliation of the suffering of Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” with the ecstatic peace of Maslow’s “self-actualized person”. I will leave these questions, however, and will instead let Kierkegaard summarize this essay by saying,
faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher, exactly because it presupposes resignation: it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence [p. 76].