The teleological suspension of the ethical

“Faith,” writes K., “begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (p. 46).

“The ethical as such is the universal…It rests immanently in itself, has nothing outside itself that is its telos, but is itself the telos for everything outside itself…the single individual is the particular that has its telos in the universal, and it is his ethical task constantly to express himself in this, to annul his particularity in order to become the universal” (p. 46).

The last sentence is important: the ethical is what binds man to rise above the mere contingencies of his personal history, to become more than the brute forces of desire churning within him. In a given situation, one’s desire is particular; one’s formation, past, and perception, all particular; only the ethical obligation that weighs upon the individual is universal, offering the possibility of rising out of animal desire to rational willing. From the beginning, that is, we’re working with a basically Kantian framework, in which “the ethical” = duty = reason = will = the human. Is there no place in this frame for eros, for the formation of loves that provide the motive power for choosing the good?

UPDATE: C. Stephen Evans provides some helpful background in the Introduction: “For Hegel, Kant’s categorical imperative is overly formal and cannot guide human beings to act in particular situations. Rather, for Hegel the demands of reason must become embodied in the laws and customs of a people…This higher social ethic is called by Hegel Sittlichkeit, and it is Sittlichkeit that Johannes has in mind when he affirms that if Abraham is not be condemned then there must be something higher than the ethical, something higher than the customs and laws of society” (xxi).

“Faith is exactly this paradox, that the single individual is higher than the universal, but in such a way, mind you, that the movement is repeated, so that after having been in the universal he now as the particular keeps to himself as higher than the universal” (p. 47).

“Those who have faith ought to be prepared to provide some criteria by which to distinguish the paradox from the temptation” (p. 49).

“Now the story of Abraham contains such a teleological suspension of the ethical…Abraham acts by virtue of the absurd, for the absurd is precisely that he as the single individual is higher than the universal” (p. 49).

Kierkegaard reflects on Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia (Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides): “When an undertaking of concern to a whole people is impeded…when the soothsayer carries out his sad task and proclaims that the deity demands a young girl as a sacrifice — then the father heroically must bring this sacrifice” (p. 50). There is a clearly an economic function to child sacrifice in this tale: this particular girl is exchanged for divine benefit that “trickles down” to the entire people, and, tragic though we acknowledge it to be, we can recognize it’s necessity. “The tragic hero remains within the ethical. He lets an expression of the ehtical have its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; he reduces the ethical relation between father and son or daughter and father to a sentiment that has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of the ethical life” (p. 51-52).

Unlike Agamemnon, Abraham goes to sacrifice from no tragic necessity; he serves no higher cause. Abraham “does it for God’s sake, because God demands this proof; he does it for his own sake, so that he can prove it…It is a trial, a temptation…Here the temptation is the ethical itself, which would keep him from doing God’s will” (52).

“Where was the one whose soul was so confused that he was able to weep over Abraham?” (p. 53)

“During the time before the outcome, Abraham was either at every moment a murderer or we are the paradox that is higher than all mediations” (58).

This entry was posted in Abraham, Akedah, Faith, Fear and Trembling, Kant, Kierkegaard, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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