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THE TELEOLOGICAL SUSPENSION OF THE ETHICAL APHILOSOPHER'S prediction about the future success of his book is always interesting; sometimes, however, it can also be misleading. Kierkegaard once said of his book, Fear and Trembling, that it alone would suffice to gain him immortality. This prophecy has been vindicated in that the book is now generally regarded as an important one, but neither its success nor Kierkegaard's forecast is evidence that it is the surest way to get at Kiergaard's own thought. In what follows we will first assess its general argument and then go on to say something about its place in the Kierkegaardian literature; the latter will indicate the danger of attributing its thought to Kierkegaard himself. Fear and Trembling considers in a detailed fashion the famous " teleological suspension of the ethical absolute " and, generally speaking, the role of the book is to bring out the inadequacy of ethics. :For purposes of clarity, it should be pointed out at the beginning that Kierkegaard is not here concerned with the inadequacy of moral science. Men did not require revelation in order to see the limitations of ethics. Aristotle observes that ethics, even when it proceeds at a level of great generality, is inexact and lacking in conclusiveness.1 In this, moral theology does not differ greatly from moral philosophy. Moral science must always be inexact and dissatisfying , indeed of little or no value, when it is a question of 1 " We must he content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly a!1d in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions which are no better." Nicomachean Ethics, I, 3, l094b20. Cf. ibid., II, 2, 1104al-6. 295 296 RALPH MCINERNY using it to be as one ought to be.2 But, although revelation has not altered the fact that knowledge is not virtue, it would appear that there are great differences between moral philosophy and moral theology. However, as should become evident, Kierkegaard is rather interested in the difference between the actions of those who have faith and those who do not. Kierkegaard raises the problem of the suspension of the ethical in Fear and Trembling, and he exemplifies what he exemplifies what he means by recalling the temptation of Abraham . God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. How can this killing of an innocent boy be justified? Kierkegaard's answer is that we must recognize here a teleological suspension of the ethical absolute. In what follows, I would like to discuss the notion of " suspension," compare it with St. Thomas' inter~ pretation of the biblical incident, and finally to point out the role the suspension plays in Kierkegaard's existential dialectic. L Abraham, Ethics and the Absurd In a prelude to Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard (through Johannes de silentio, the pseudonym to whom the work is attributed) gives us four lyrical, imaginative depictions of the anguish that must have been Abraham's fulfilling God's command . It is precisely the dread of Abraham that Kierkegaa:rd wants to stress, for he sees in this situation a radical confiid of the demands of the ethical and the religious. " The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread." 3 What defines the willingness of Abraham is the notion of absurdity. Isaac is the son for whom 2 This is the opinion of St. Thomas. " Qua quidem scientia existente, in particulari actu contingit indicium rationis intercipi, ut non recte diiudicet; et propter hoc dicitur parum valere ad virtutem, quia ea existente contingit hominem contra virtutem peccare." De Virtut. in Comm., a. 6, ad 1. • Fear and Trembling, trans. W. Lowrie (Doubleday Anchor Books: Garden City, New York, 1954); p. 41. THE TELEOLOGICAL SUSPENSION OF THE ETHICAL 297 Abraham and Sarah had waited into their extreme old age; he embodies a promise of God with regard to...


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pp. 295-310
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