In Fear and trembling, Johannes de Silentio puts forth a definition of sin using Hegelian terms. Sinning, however, first requires a unique movement:
As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal. Every time single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in spiritual trial […]
(p.54, emphasis mine)¹
In other words, to know what is right and do otherwise is to sin. Temptation (spiritual trial) is the desire to do otherwise. But note this clause of interest, ‘after having entered the universal’. To have knowledge of right and wrong here is to enter the universal, or ethical, that is knowledge of others and their value. The original movement is not so much choice as knowledge, although someone who returns to the aesthetic, a self-oriented worldview, may not consider themselves in ethical terms as a sinner but on their own terms. For reasons I am still discovering in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, the universal/ethical is defined by disclosure, or speaking:
The ethical as such is the universal; as the universal it is in turn the disclosed. The single individual, qualified as immediate, sensate, and psychical, is the hidden. Thus his ethical task is to work himself out of his hiddenness and to become disclosed in the universal.
I read the need for disclosure as an entering into the sphere of language which, in vulgar, pre-modern terms, represents the collective values and beliefs, etc, of humanity². Silence characterises the aesthetic because to live aesthetically is to live on your own terms, taking pleasure in the accidental rather than that which is shared essentially, universally. But Fear and trembling is written on the premise that there is a sphere higher than the universal where the individual lives not on their own or humanity’s terms but God’s. This, the religious sphere, takes place at the same site as the aesthetic, the individual. With these in mind, Abraham, the paragon of faith, cannot speak:
Abraham cannot be mediated; in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me. As soon as Abraham wants to express the universal, he must declare that his situation is a spiritual trial […], for he has no higher expression of the universal that ranks above the universal he violates.
Silentio shows that Abraham cannot be understood in universal terms. God calls him to sacrifice Isaac but ostensibly quite arbitrarily. Only Abraham himself can understand it (p.113ff), on the premise that it is right because God himself demands it. In ethical terms Abraham can only be a murderer (p.30). Even if Silentio presented a good case for an absolute duty to God (doing as God asks regardless of circumstance), this would not clear up the ambiguity, from outsider’s perspective, as to whether it really was God who called Abraham to sacrifice his son or whether it is a dark aesthetic desire. If Abraham was to attempt to explain himself in universal terms then he could only bring judgement upon himself. This is the value of not speaking. Mark Taylor puts sums it up simply:
The radical individuality of the believer’s relation to God is the basis of faithful silence. Such individuality cannot be articulated in or mediated by language.³
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I want now to extract this entering the universal from Kierkegaard’s Hegelian terminology and find a usage applicable outside of this limited context. I have a formal definition but it must be noted that Kierkegaard here acts only as a stimulus — my definition misrepresents him a little. Here it is: To enter the universal is to subject something to a set of criteria in such a way that it is necessary to make a positive or negative qualification of that something in relation to the criteria4. Before moving on from Kierkegaard it may be helpful to see this in relation to Fear and trembling. If Abraham enters the universal he is subjected to a set of criteria determining what constitutes ethical action. He must be either qualified positively, as an ethical person, or negatively, in this case as a murderer. Once Abraham enters the universal though, he can only remain there. His relation to the criteria may change if he makes a convincing argument, like Silentio’s tragic hero, which could be something like God bringing a famine upon the land if Abraham did not give him Isaac. This would be understood ethically, as it affects people throughout the land, and thus puts Abraham in a positive relation to the criteria. The criteria will never disappear though. The only circumstances under which they would disappear would be something like memory loss, the whole tragedy quietly slipping from the minds of the people, akin to the adage time heals all wounds.
Where else might entering the universal be understood? I think of the opening scene in The Godfather III where Michael Corleone is standing in a church receiving honours for his charity work. There is a flashback to the end of the previous film where Michael watches a man he has ordered to shoot his unwitting brother Fredo while out fishing. In the present the archbishop speaks to Michael, “Do you, Michael, promise to be faithful to the noble purposes of this order, to have a special care to the poor, the needy, and those who are ill?” “Yes I promise,” Michael replies. For those familiar with Michael’s ruthless and determined rise to head of the Corleone family in the previous two movies this film, set years later, presents an interesting question. Has Michael really reformed? Or, Is his promise genuine? The flashback in the present scene, along with the entirety of the previous two films, acts as a kind of disclosure. Now, based on the evidence we have available, we must make the judgement against the criterium of Michael’s genuineness. The possibility of forgoing the question completely is not allowed. Michael has entered the universal and we cannot get him out of there unless we either ignore or forget him. The distinguishing feature of entering the universal is that the criteria to which something (an action, individual/collation of actions, etc) has been subjected is more lasting and significant than the judgement which presupposes that criteria.
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What value does silence have? Is it so Abraham and the Corleone family can do dirty things behind our backs without having to face our judgement? Possibly. One of the desert fathers, Jacob the Deacon, records the legend of St Pelagia and St Nonnus, illustrating the value of silence:
As we were all listening with enjoyment to his holy teaching, suddenly there passed by in front of us the foremost actress of Antioch, the star of the local theatre. She was seated on a donkey and accompanied by a great and fanciful procession. She seemed to be clothed in nothing but gold and pearls and other precious stones. Even her feet were covered with gold and pearls. The male and female slaves accompanying her were extravagantly clothed in costly garments, and the torcs round their necks were all of gold. Some of them went before, others followed after.
The worldly crowd could not get enough of their beauty and attractiveness. As they passed by us the air was filled with the scent of musk and other most delicious perfumes, but when the bishops saw her passing by so immodestly, with her head bare, and the outlines of her body clearly visible, nothing over her shoulders as well as her head, and yet the object of such adulation, they all fell silent, groaned and sighed, and averted their eyes as if being forced to witness some grave sin.
[…]The most blessed Nonnus, however, looked at her long and hard, and even after she had passed by he looked after her for as long as she remained in sight. Not till then did he turn round and speak to the other bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
They answered nothing. He leant his head down on to his knees and shed tears into the handkerchief which he held on his lap between his holy hands. He sighed deeply and turned again to the bishops.
“Weren’t you delighted to see such beauty as hers?”
Again they answered nothing.5
In Silentio’s terms, all the bishops bar Nonnus have entered the universal. They are judging themselves against an ethical criterium of lust. If they willingly look at Pelagia then they take part in the sin of lust but if they look away then they maintain their purity. Nonnus, on the other hand, has not made the movement. He does not subject himself to the criteria and therefore has remained silent. This silence can be construed aesthetically: Nonnus wanted a brief break from priestly responsibilities so made the most of the opportune moment. But that’s probably not the point Jacob is trying to make. Nonnus’ silence allows him to act in faith, according to the religious, rather than the ethical. The religious thus sees Pelagia as beautiful regardless of the categories of sin and purity because these belong to the ethical. To ‘speak’ is to enter into those categories, whereas those categories do not exist over the individual reconciled to God.
The obvious value of silence here is not an issue of personal purity. It is that an essentially trans-ethical action has positive ethical implications. Silentio’s model of faith is very earthly. It cannot stop at otherworldly interests but wants to take the world with it. Thus Abraham sacrifices Isaac to God yet in faith receives the son whom he loves back again. Faith is a restoration of the aesthetic. The aesthetic objectifies everything for its own advantage. In the case of Pelagia, an aesthetic admirer might take a look for the sake of a stiffy. The ethical looks away for the good of Pelagia and the observer. But the religious looks to Pelagia with the aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and the ethical acknowledgement of her humanity6.
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¹Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).
²That is, 19th Century, Northern European beliefs and values. Silentio explicitly dismisses the value of attempting to step out of his own worldview: “Or if Abraham perhaps did not do at all what the story tells, if perhaps because of the local conditions of that day it was something entirely different, then let us forget him, for what is the value of going to the trouble of remembering that past which cannot become a present” (p.30).
³Mark Taylor, cited here, pp. 61-62. Seriously I can’t be bothered with a proper reference.
4This is clearly very wordy and it will probably only make sense to most with use of the supplementary explanation. If anyone has any suggestions for reform of the statement after reading the rest of the post then let me know in the comments section.
6Readers may point out that the ethical in this case was just as objectifying as the aesthetic. Taken. Maybe it’s that many intentions ethical in orientation have an unethical expression. It also depends on where you’re coming from as to what constitutes the ethical. I get caught up too easily in the categories, but the point remains that there is a higher expression in silence and the individual which allows us to see the world differently.
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