Fear and Trembling: Ethics of Marriage

Further thoughts while teaching Kierkegaard.

Marriage and Ethics
What is the topic of Fear and Trembling? Is it the story of Abraham and Isaac? Yes, but we should not be distracted from the other topic. This is the topic defined in the ‘Diapslamata’ of Either/Or I, in the first sentence of the section on ‘Either/Or: An Ecstatic Discourse’

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way (Princeton University Press, edited and translated by Hong and Hong: 38)

Either/Or I deals with the aesthetic stage in which marriage is to long term in a perspective dominated by the interest of the immediate. Most of Either/Or II deals with the ethical stage, and that is defined by marriage. The ethical stage is presented by Judge William, the aesthetic stage in the fragments of an anonymous young man.

Marriage and the Daemonic
Fear and Trembling deals with the drama of Abraham and Isaac, but in large part it deals with relations between men and women and the possibility of marriage. There is more to be said about Fear and Trembling but will concentrate on the marriage theme which is deeply embedded. It was published in the same year as Either/Or, so we would expect some common themes. Kierkegaard deals with various ways in which the possibility of marriage, and barriers to such a possibility, are presented. In comedies, Kierkegaard gives Danish examples which seem to correspond with Hollywood Romantic Comedies in structure. A barrier to love and marriage is overcome through happy accident. In the more sombre examples, marriage is related to terrible danger. Sarah and Tobit in the Old Testament/Torah book of Tobit, are married despite the deaths of seven previous husbands of Sarah. Faust avoids marriage with Gretchen in Goethe’s poem to protect her from his daemonic side. In a very Danish touch, Kierkegaard refers to the story of Agnes and the Merman in Hans Christian Anderson, the story is non-Danish in origin but given that it was published by Anderson and that it fits with various reference Kierkegaard makes to Nordic myths and monsters, we can see it as belonging to the Danish-Nordic element Kierkegaard regularly introduces. Kierkegaard thinks of various possible alternative versions of the story of the girl seduced by a merman. They all deal with the daemonic in the merman.

Kierkegaard discusses various fictional and scriptural examples of the daemonic in the individual coming into conflict with the desire to marry, in a way which relates to Abraham’s choice between ethics and obeying God. Abraham’s solution is the paradox in which he obeys both, Kierkegaard recommends the same solution for the marriage dilemma. The ethical relation of marriage is threatened by the daemonic within the individual, the daemonic element within makes marriage apparently unethical for that person because it threatens the destruction of the loved person

Ethics and the Absolute Self
Kierkegaard recommends faith that ethics will not be contradicted in marriage, just as Abraham is a hero because he had faith that God’s command could be obeyed while remaining within ethics. Ethics must be suspended in order to preserve it. Ethics rests on the absolute, the absolute self, the absolute capacity of the individual for a decision. Ethics is always suspended in relation to that absolute, the necessity of the judging self.

Hegel
By any standards, marriage can be defined as an ethical relation because it requires two people to think of at least one other person, and because it provides a basic structure for the existence of a society based on ethical principles. This is particularly clear if we think of the way Hegel thinks of marriage, it is the first step of the ethical. For Hegel, the ethical is a social form, a form of life as opposed to nature and as opposed to purely individual morality.

In the very first page of ‘Problema 1’ in Fear and Trembling, Hegel is referred to with regard to individual conscience as evil. In the section on morality and conscience in Philosophy of Right, Hegel refers to individual conscience as evil in its results, because it is purely individual. Opposing the individual to universality can only be evil. Hegel describes a move from morality to ethical life (Sittlichkeit, which is something like the being of ethos/mores), in which individuals are part of universality through marriage, family, civil society, and the state.

Absolute Individual and Marriage
The project announced in Fear and Trembling is that of showing that the individual is higher than the universal but is not evil. That should encourage us to read the Abraham/Isaac story as referring to individuality rather than God. This is very clear with the accounts of marriage dilemmas which in their most serious refer to the daemonic within an individual.

Fear and Trembling deals with the aesthetic individual who is beneath marriage and the absolute individual who is above marriage. The individual as individual is beneath and above the ethical relation or marriage. There is no complete distinction between the aesthetic individual and the absolute individual. The absolute emerges from the aesthetic through the melancholy of mere immediacy.

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