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Deciphering Fear and Trembling's Secret Message

  • Ronald M. Green (a1)


It has long been recognized that Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling is a cryptogram. Encoded within a series of reflections and commentaries on Genesis 22 is a deeper message directed at a reader or readers presumably capable of deciphering the hidden meaning. That this is true is suggested by the book's epigraph: ‘What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not.’



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page 95 note 1 Fear and Trembling, Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H., eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 3.

page 95 note 2 This epigraph had in fact been utilized by Hamann for his own conveyance of a secret message. See Thulstrup, Niels, ‘His Library’ in Thulstrup, Niels and Thulstrup, Marie M., eds. and trans. Kierkegaard as a Person (Copenhagen: Reitzels, 1983), pp. 95 ff.

page 95 note 3 Like many commentators, Howard and Edna Hong, in their ‘Historical Introduction’ to the new Princeton edition of Fear and Trembling and Repetition, pp. xi and xiv, regard Regine as the ‘secret reader’ of the book.

page 96 note 1 Ibid pp. 41 ff., pp. 94 ff. Additional romantic references include the tale of secret love which cannot be realized because of its damage to a family, pp. 85 ff., Aristotle's, story of a marriage prevented by auguries of impending calamity for the bridegroom, pp. 89 ff., the story of Tobias and Sarah from the Book of Tobit, , pp. 102 ff., and a brief mention of Faust, and Margaret, , p. 109 ff.

page 96 note 2 Kierkegaard introduces the first of these ideas in Problema I and II; he deals with what he terms the ‘two movements’ of resignation and faith (ibid. p. 115) throughout the volume in connection with the concept of the ‘knight of faith’.

page 96 note 3 Ibid p. 59.

page 96 note 4 Ibid p. 57.

page 97 note 1 Ibid p. 81.

page 97 note 2 In different ways, the four ‘Exordia’ that begin the book illustrate these faithless or doubting responses.

page 98 note 1 Soren Kierkegaard's journals and Papers (hereafter JP), Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H., eds. and trans. (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 19671978), V, 5, 664.

page 98 note 2 For a discussion of alternative ways in which Kierkegaard might have conceived a faithful response as possible in his own romantic circumstance, see Crocker, Sylvia Fleming, ‘Sacrifice in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling’, Harvard Theological Review LXVIII (04 1975), 125–39.

page 98 note 3 It appears that Regine saw the message of Fear and Trembling this way. Many years after the event, her friend Hanne Mourier, writing a memoir to Regine recording what the latter had told her, states that ‘Kierkegaard's motive for this parting was his conception of his religious task; he dared not bind himself to anyone on this earth, so that he might not be checked in his calling; he had to sacrifice his dearest possession in order to labour as demanded of him by God; he therefore sacrificed his love for you in favour of his literary activities.’ Quoted in Kierkegaard as a Person, p. 38.

page 98 note 4 Ibid pp. 56, 81, 120.

page 98 note 5 Ibid pp. 56, 81.

page 99 note 1 Ibid pp. xii f.

page 100 note 1 Ibid p. 62.

page 101 note 1 Ibid pp. 98 f. The initial italics here are my own.

page 101 note 2 Ibid p. 99. Interestingly, at one point in his papers of 1843–4, Kierkegaard speculates on the possibility of presenting Abraham within the context of sin: ‘One could also have Abraham's previous life be not devoid of guilt and have him secretly ruminate on the thought that this was God's punishment, perhaps even have him get the melancholy thought that he must ask God to help make the punishment as severe as possible.’JP, V, 5, 641.

page 101 note 3 Ibid p. 98.

page 101 note 4 The importance of themes of sin and redemption in Fear and Trembling has been signalled by Mackey, Louis in his insightful article ‘The view from Pisgah: a reading of Fear and Trembling’, in Thompson, Josiah, ed. Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays (Garden City, New York, Anchor Books, 1972), pp. 420 ff. (A related discussion may be found in his book Kierkegaard: a Kind of Poet (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), pp. 206–26.) But Mackey does not really develop the ways in which this theme dominates the book or serves as explanation of its structure and its deliberately hidden message.

page 102 note 1 Hegel deals very briefly with the issues of sin and repentance in the section on ‘Absolute Spirit’ in his Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Mueller, Gustav Emil, trans. (New York, Philosophical Library, 1959), p. 228. The issue of original sin is dealt with by him in his Logic (Hegel's Logic, Wallace, William, trans. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1892)), pp. 54–5 and in his early Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Speirs, E. B. and Sanderson, J. B., trans. (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1895), 1, 275–9 and u, 202–4.

page 102 note 2 The Sickness unto Death, Lowrie, Walter, trans. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1946), pp. 130 f.

page 103 note 1 See, for example, Perkins, Robert L., ‘For sanity's sake: Kant, Kierkegaard and Father Abraham’, in Perkins, Robert L., ed., Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling: Critical Appraisals (University, Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1981), pp. 4361. Also Gill, Jerry H., ‘Kantianism’, in Thulstrup, and Thulstrup, , eds., Kierkegaard and Great Traditions (Copenhagen, Reitzels, 1981), pp. 223–9.

page 103 note 2 For a listing of these references see Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, II, 611 f.

page 103 note 3 See my article ‘The limits of the ethical in Kierkegaard's, Concept of Anxiety and Kant's, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, forthcoming in International Kierkegaard Commentary: The Concept of Anxiety, Perkins, Robert L., ed. (University, Alabama, University of Alabama Press).

page 103 note 4 Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Greene, Theodore M. and Hudson, Hoyt H., trans. (New York, Harper & Row, 1960), p. 175. Kant also criticizes Abraham-like behaviour in his The Conflict of the Faculties, Gregor, Mary J., trans. (New York, Abaris Books, 1979), p. 115, note.

page 104 note 1 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Beck, Lewis White, trans. (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), pp. 21, 23. Cf. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, p. 46.

page 104 note 2 Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, pp. 16–21.

page 104 note 3 Ibid pp. 35 ff.

page 105 note 1 See my ‘The limits of the ethical in Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety and Kant's, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone’.

page 105 note 2 Religion within the Limits of Reason alone, pp. 64–9.

page 106 note 1 Ibid p. 47.

page 106 note 2 It is ironic that Kant's philosophy of religion is frequently taken to be a ‘corruption’ of his philosophical analysis by an earlier indoctrination in Pietism. If what I am suggesting is correct, it was Kant's rationalist loyalties and his tenacious adherence to the programme of Enlightenment that prevented him from fully developing the religious insights of his own ethics and philosophy of religion.

page 107 note 1 p. 115.

page 108 note 1 Swenson, David F., trans. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1944), p. 234.

page 108 note 2 For a brief treatment of the father-son relationship and a bibliography of works treating this topic see Kloeden, Wolfdietrich v., ‘Der Vater M. P. Kierkegaard’, in Thulstrup, and Thulstrup, , eds., Kierkegaard as a Person, pp. 1425.

page 108 note 3 ‘The consequence of the fact of generation’, The Concept of Dread, Lowrie, Walter, trans. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1944), pp. 5666.

page 109 note 1 JP, v, 5,664. Similarly: ‘If I had not been a penitent, if I had not had my vita ante acta, if I had not had my depression – marriage to her would have made me happier than I had ever dreamed of becoming.’ Quoted in Kierkegaard as a Person, p. 33.

page 109 note 2 JP, v, 5,640.

page 110 note 1 Kierkegaard does make two brief references to the narratives dealing with Hagar and Ishmael – Fear and Trembling, pp. 13 and 77. In the second of these he links the expulsion of Hagar to Sarah's vacillation and lack of faith but does not suggest culpability on Abraham's part. In the first he alludes to Abraham's expulsion of Ishmael. I am indebted to my student Richard Hoch for drawing my attention to this possible link between the Genesis narratives and Kierkegaard's biography.

page 110 note 2 The suggestion that this text is directed to Kierkegaard's father may be supported by the fact that Kierkegaard adds to the remark from his journals already quoted, ‘He who has explained this riddle has explained my life’, the following statement: ‘But who of my contemporaries has understood this?’ JP, v, 5,640. In an entry for 1843 apparently directed at the title page material for the book, but later deleted from the manuscript, Kierkegaard also records the following enigmatic remarks:

‘Write.’ – ‘For whom?’ – ‘Write for the dead, for those in the past whom you love.’ – ‘Will they read me?’ – ‘Yes, for they come back as posterity.’ – An old saying.

‘Write.’ – ‘For whom?’ – ‘Write for the dead, for the in the past whom you love.’ – ‘Will they read me?’ – ‘No!’ – An old saying slightly altered. JP, 11, 1,550.

page 111 note 1 Philosophical Fragments has the figure of Jesus Christ at its centre; The Concept of Dread is subtitled ‘A Simple Psychological Deliberation Oriented in the Direction of the Dogmatic Problem of Original Sin’, and The Sickness unto Death is a psychological exploration of selfhood and sin. Additionally, the first of the Two Upbuilding Discourses entitled ‘The Expectancy of Faith’, whose publication immediately preceded Fear and Trembling, deals with justification through faith; and two of the Three Upbuilding Discourses published later in 1843 have the title ‘Love Will Cover the Multiplicity of Sins’.

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Religious Studies
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