preface to Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
preface to Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
Not only in the realm of commerce but also in the world of ideas as well, our age is organizing a regular clearance sale. Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question whether there is finally anyone who will make a bid. Every speculative price-fixer who conscientiously directs attention to the march of modern philosophy, every assistant professor, tutor, and student, every rural outsider and tenant incumbent in philosophy is not content with doubting everything but goes further. Perhaps it would be premature and untimely to ask them where they really are going, but in all politeness and modesty it can probably be taken for granted that they have doubted everything, since otherwise it certainly would be odd to speak of their having gone further. They have all made this preliminary movement and presumably so easily that they find it unnecessary to say a word about how, for not even the person who in apprehension and concern sought a little enlightenment found any, not one suggestive hint or one little dietetic prescription with respect to how a person is to act in carrying out this enormous task. “But did not Descartes do it?” Descartes, a venerable, humble, honest thinker, whose writings no one can read without being profoundly affected—he did what he said and said what he did. Alas, alack, that is a great rarity in our day! As Descartes himself so frequently said, he did not doubt with respect to faith. He did not shout “Fire! Fire!” and make it obligatory for everyone to doubt, for Descartes was a quiet and solitary thinker, not a bellowing night-watchman; he modestly let it be known that his method had significance only for him and was justified in part by the bungled knowledge of his earlier years.
What those ancient Greeks, who after all did know a little about philosophy, assumed to be a task for a whole lifetime, because proficiency in doubting is not acquired in days and weeks, what the old veteran disputant attained, he who had maintained the equilibrium of doubt throughout all the specious arguments, who had intrepidly denied the certainty of the senses and the certainty of thought, who, uncompromising, had defied the anxiety of self-love and the insinuations of fellow feeling—with that everyone begins in our age.
In our age, everyone is unwilling to stop with faith but goes further. It perhaps would be rash to ask where they are going, whereas it is a sign of urbanity and culture for me to assume that everyone has faith, since otherwise it certainly would be odd to speak of going further. It was different in those ancient days. Faith was then a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that proficiency in believing is not acquired either in days or in weeks. When the tried and tested oldster approached his end, had fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten the anxiety and trembling that disciplined the youth, that the adult learned to control, but that no man outgrows—except to the extent that he succeeds in going further as early as possible. The point attained by those venerable personages is in our age the point where everyone begins in order to go further.
The present writer is by no means a philosopher. He has not understood the system, whether there is one, whether it is completed; it is already enough for his weak head to ponder what a prodigious head everyone must have these days when everyone has such a prodigious idea. Even if someone were able to transpose the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it does not follow that he has comprehended faith, comprehended how he entered into it or how it entered into him. The present writer is by no means a philosopher. He is poetice et eleganter, an amateur writer who neither writes the system nor gives promises of the system, who neither exhausts himself on the system nor binds himself to the system. He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes. He easily envisions his fate in an age that has crossed out passion in order to serve science, in an age when an author who desires readers must be careful to write in such a way that his book can be conveniently skimmed during the after-dinner nap, must be careful to look and act like that polite gardener’s handyman in the advertisement sheet who with hat in hand and good references from his most recent employer recommends himself to the esteemed public. He foresees his fate of being totally ignored; he has a terrible foreboding that the zealous critic will call him on the carpet many times. He dreads the even more terrible fate that some enterprising abstracter, a gobbler of paragraphs (who, in order to save science, is always willing to do to the writing of others what Trop magnanimously did with [his] The Destruction of the Human Race in order to “save good taste”), will cut him up into paragraphs and do so with the same inflexibility as the man who, in order to serve the science of punctuation, divided his discourse by counting out the words, fifty words to a period and thirty-five to a semicolon.
I prostrate myself with the profoundest deference before every systematic ransacker, protesting, “This is not the system; it has not the least thing to do with the system. I invoke everything good for the system and for the Danish shareholders in this omnibus, for it will hardly become a tower. I wish them all, each and every one, success and good fortune.”
Johannes de Silentio*
*All of Kierkegaard’s major philosophical works are written pseudonymously, with authorial personas such as “Vigilius Haufniensus,” “Johannes Climacus,” and “Constantin Constantius.” Fear and Trembling is the only book authored by Johannes de Silentio, which literally means “John of Silence.”