In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard discusses the difference between what he calls the “tragic hero” and the “knight of faith”. His examples of the two are Agammemon or Brutus for the former (tragic hero) and Abraham for the latter (knight of faith). I find what he says here interesting. According to Kierkegaard, the tragic hero is like the knight of infinite resignation. Here’s how:
Picture Agammemnon. He is called upon by Poseidon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to get the wind to start up, thus allowing Agammemnon to set sail with the Greek navy towards Troy. So essentially Agammemon is in a dilemma. If he refuses to kill his daughter, then he fails as a King; if he kills his daughter than he fails as a father. So he’s in the perverbial “tragic dilemma” from which he cannot emerge unharmed. So Agammemnon, so the story goes, kills his daughter. So he’s a murderer,[i] but[/i] the deed can be understood within the ethical itself — he is [i]also[/i] bound by his higher duty to his citizens as the King.
Herein lies our sympathy for Agammemnon. We picture him resigned to the fact that, as being bound to the ethical, he must kill his daughter, and never get her back again. He has moral virtue because he subjects himself to the demands “of the universal” (ethics) and his actions, no matter how heinous, find their meaning there. [Note here, and this is my reading, that Agammemnon is a knight of infinite resignation because he loses his daughter in the service of “the infinite”, and in this case the infinite is his sense of himself as a will in contrast to the world of the immediate. In willing to be a part of the universal he is acknowledging that he must take responsibility for who he is, but in doing so he must lose part of the world, in this case his daughter]. So it is tragic, but Agammemnon has moral virtue. Moreover, his situation can be understood by others.
But what of Abraham? When he decided to kill his son, how do we understand his deed? Surely not by finding some other ethical duty that Abraham has here, one in which the murder can make sense — there are no other such duties. There’s no further level of the ethical for Abraham to resort to. He’s[i] not[/i] a tragic hero. He’s just a murderer. And there’s no way that any of us can understand him, because we are not linked to Abraham in any way with respect to the situation he is in (note this is not the case for Agammemnon — we are all linked to him via our joint participation in the universal, that’s why we sympathize with him, we understand his plight).
As a result of the fact that Abraham’s situation is a personal one, Kierkegaard thinks that Abraham has personal, as opposed to moral, virtue. He has found that “what he is” (as a single individual human being) is higher than the ethical. His final level of “individuality” is in a relationship to the Deity, not a relationship to the ethical (one that is shared by others). So Abraham is alone — no one can understand him, he cannot turn to anyone for counsel. His situation is absurd.
This is all very interesting, but it gets better.
What is interesting here is that Abraham must see that he himself — as well as God — are above the ethical. In a way, Abraham has to see that if God is ‘good’, then he’s not “good” in the way that we typically define this. God could have let him kill Isaac. That would have been fine, as God was not under any ethical compulsion not to have him do this (contrast this to those who would argue “God would never let him go through with it” and thus rob the story of the part that has to do with infinite resignation, according to K). Truly, for Abraham to not want to kill his son reveals that the ethical can be [i]the very temptation itself[/i], the very way that one sins. The temptation of the ethical can be a form of despair. Typically, of course, we think of “sin” or “wrong” as what rejects ethics. Here sin is to conform to ethics. In a sense — and this points ahead to Nietzsche — Abraham must recognize that the individual lives in a world that is [i]beyond good and evil[/i].
This means that Abraham must not only see himself — what his meaning is — very differently, but in seeing his dependency on God he must also think of God in a very, very different way.
For some, this “different way” is not comforting, whereas for others it is.