Knight of faith
The knight of faith is an individual who has placed complete faith in himself and in God and can act freely and independently from the world. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard vicariously discusses the knight of faith in several of his pseudonymic works, with the most in-depth and detailed critique exposited in Fear and Trembling and in Repetition.
Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, argues that the knight of faith is the paradox, is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections or pretensions. The knight of faith is the individual who is able to gracefully embrace life: Kierkegaard put it this way in Either/Or, "When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity." "The knight of faith is the only happy man, the heir to the finite while the knight of resignation is a stranger and an alien."
Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, 1843
The three stages
Kierkegaard recognized three levels of individual existence: The Aesthetic, The Ethical, and The Religious. In Fear and Trembling, Silentio refers to individuals in each stage as the personal self, the civic self, and the religious self. Each of these levels of existence envelops those below it: an ethical or religious person can still enjoy life aesthetically. Abraham learned how to keep his finite relationship with his family separate from his infinite relationship with God. He had to overcome the fear of having anxiety over losing something. Each individual experiences anxiety to a different degree and the fear of anxiety in a unique way.
Knight of faith and the knight of infinite resignation
Kierkegaard's Silentio contrasts the knight of faith with the other two, knight of infinite resignation (infinity) and the aesthetic realm's "slaves." Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world. A person who is in the aesthetic stage would abandon this love, crying out for example, "Such a love is foolishness. The rich brewer's widow is a match fully as good and respectable." A person who is in the ethical stage would not give up on this love, but would be resigned to the fact that they will never be together in this world. The knight of infinity may or may not believe that they may be together in another life or in spirit, but what's important is that the knight of infinity gives up on their being together in this world; in this life.
The knight of faith feels what the knight of infinite resignation feels, but with exception that the knight of faith believes that in this world; in this life, they will be together. The knight of faith would say "I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible." This double movement is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility.
Abraham and Isaac
Johannes de Silentio believes that Abraham is one such knight of faith. In the Book of Genesis, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham dearly loved his son, but although bemoaning this fate, Abraham obeyed this command faithfully. Just as he was about to commit the act, an angel stopped Abraham and rewarded him with his son and his steadfast faith. In the same paradoxical act of committing murder, which would humanly kill off his son, Abraham believed, through virtue of the absurd, he would still have his son alive and well. Abraham was willing to risk everything for God. He was willing to act and in his action he received the highest good, his eternal happiness. But "how" did Abraham act? He walked for 3 days step by step trusting in God. That is an example of keeping expectancy alive when any ethicist would say it should have died before he left home. What would have happened to his expectancy had he told Sarah? Or Isaac? He would have to explain himself but he couldn't. So he ventured for the truth of what he understood as the highest good. He kept his resolution intact.
To have faith in God-does that mean to think about how glorious it must be to have faith, to think about what peace and security faith can give? Not at all. Even to wish, where the interest, the subject’s interest, is far more evident, is not to have faith, is not to act. The individual’s relation to the thought-action is still continually only a possibility that he can give up. It is not denied that with regard to evil there are cases in which the transition is almost undetectable, but these cases must be explained in a special way. This is due to the fact that the individual is so in the power of habit that by frequently having made the transition from thinking to acting he has finally lost the power for it in the bondage of habit, which at his expense makes it faster and faster. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 339-340
If I, acting, am truly to venture and truly to aspire to the highest good, then there must be uncertainty and, if I may put it this way, I must have room to move. But the greatest space in which I can move, where there is space enough for the most rigorous gesture of infinite passion, is uncertainty of knowledge with regard to an eternal happiness, or that choosing it is lunacy in the finite sense-see, now there is room, now you can venture. Therefore eternal happiness, as the absolute good, has the remarkable quality that it can be defined only by the mode in which it is acquired, whereas other good, just because of the mode of acquisition is accidental or at any rate relatively dialectical, must be defined by the good itself. Money, for example, can be acquired by work and can also be obtained without work, and in turn both are different in many ways, but money still remains the same good. Knowledge, for example, is acquired differently according to talent and outward circumstances and therefore cannot be defined by the mode of acquisition. But nothing else can be said of eternal happiness than that it is the good that is attained by absolutely venturing everything. Any description of the gloriousness of this good is already an attempt, as it were, to make various modes of acquisition possible-an easier way, for example, and a harder way, which shows that the description is not describing the absolute good but only fancies doing it and essentially is talking about relative goods. Venture everything. There are no anecdotes to tell how Peter became rich by working, and Paul by playing the lottery, and Hans by inheritance, and Matthew by monetary reform, and Christopher by purchasing a piece of furniture from a secondhand dealer. But in another sense the discourse is long, indeed, the longest of all discourses, because to venture everything demands a transparency of consciousness that is acquired only very slowly. Right here is the task of the religious discourse. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 426-427
Who are knights of faith?
Silentio personally believes that only two people were ever knights of faith: The Virgin Mary, and Abraham. It is also possible that Silentio regards Jesus as a knight of faith. Silentio grants that there may be knights of faith out there that we do not know about, or that there never have been knights of faith. This is because knights of faith exist alone in isolation. Yet Kierkegaard said the following in Repetition. "The Young Man has gone through the same ordeal as Job but neither of them is a Knight of Faith." Abraham wasn't really alone and living in isolation, he was only alone for three anxious filled days, he was a married man who had a wife and children and God had promised him many more. Mary was alone with the angel for a short time but then she was a wife and later a mother.
To be sure, Mary bore the child wondrously, but she nevertheless did it “after the manner of women,” and such a time is one of anxiety, distress and paradox. The angel was indeed a ministering spirit, but he was not a meddlesome spirit who went to the other young maidens in Israel and said: Do not scorn Mary, the extraordinary is happening to her. The angel went only to Mary, and no one could understand her. Has any woman been as infringed upon, as Mary, and is it not true here also that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath? Fear and Trembling p. 65
The Knight of Faith is a man or woman of action. (See Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses for the kind of action.) Abraham became a Knight of Faith because he voluntarily lifted the knife to sacrifice Isaac. Mary was a Knight of Faith because she volunteered to have Jesus. Jesus became a Knight of Faith because he voluntarily went to the cross. Paul was a Knight of Faith because he voluntarily (resolutely) went to Jerusalem. Kierkegaard considered Diogenes a Knight of Faith also but he didn't have to do great feats or conquer the universe to become one. Kierkegaard stressed the reversal of the inner and the outer in his first book, Either/Or. He may have been thinking that Mary and Joseph, Job, Abraham, Paul, Socrates, and Jesus all acted in the "innermost being" rather than in the external temporal world at times. However, he made a sharp distinction between Mary and others in his The Book on Adler. Adler had an action in the innermost being but didn't think it was his job to do what he was told but that it was something he should tell the whole church (assembly) to do. An action in the inner-being is something completely different from an action in the outer being. How does one paint an inner action? How does one show an inner action on the stage? How does one describe it to another?
Kierkegaard says, "When the Eleatics denied motion, Diogenes, as everyone knows, came forward as an opponent. He literally did come forward, because he did not say a word but merely paced back and forth a few times, thereby assuming that he had sufficiently refuted them." He used Diogenes in the same way in Philosophical Fragments in 1844.
When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets. When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like all the rest, and rolled his tub lest he should be the only idler among so many industrious citizens. Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art of making money. It is certainly not open to misunderstanding; it is quite inconceivable that Diogenes should have been hailed as the saviour and benefactor of the city. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments , p. 5 (Kierkegaard was probably quoting Lucian of Samosata from The Way to Write History)
Kierkegaard kept to the same theme in his earlier and later works. "The great heroic feats are the stuff of history but they are not the stuff of life. Each single individual can do the great things of life. Each of us is born with the power to become what we become. "[Faith] can be grasped and held fast by the simplest of people, it is only the more difficult for the cultured to attain. What a wondrous, inspiring, Christian humanity: the highest is common for all human beings." He wrote,
he then possesses himself as a task in such a way that it is chiefly to order, shape, temper, inflame, control-in short, to produce an evenness in the soul, a harmony, which is the fruit of the personal virtues. ... Someone can conquer kingdoms and countries without being a hero; someone else can prove himself a hero by controlling his temper. Someone can display courage by doing the out-of-the-ordinary, another by doing the ordinary. The question is-how does he do it? .... When the originality in earnestness is acquired and preserved, then there is succession and repetition, but as soon as originality is lacking in repetition, there is habit.The earnest person is earnest precisely through the originality from which he returns in repetition. It is said that a living and inward feeling preserves this originality, but the inwardness of the feeling is a fire that may cool as soon as earnestness no longer attends to it. Søren Kierkegaard Either/Or Part II, Hong, p. 262, 298, Repetition p. 149
Then he discovered that life was beautiful, that it was a new gloriousness of faith that no human being can give it to another, that every human being has what is highest, noblest, and most sacred in humankind. It is original in him, and every human being has it if he wants to have it-it is precisely the gloriousness of faith that it can be had only on this condition. Therefore, it is the only unfailing good, because it can be had only by constantly being acquired and can be acquired by continually being generated. ... The original natural power of endurance can be different in different individuals, but as soon as the fulfillment fails to come for such a long time that his original power is consumed and exhausted, then and only then will it become manifest whether a person has new oil in readiness, only then will his patience in expectancy become manifest. ... With a smile or with tears, one confesses that expectancy is in the soul originally. Only the true expectancy, which requires patience, also teaches patience. But true expectancy is such that it pertains to a person essentially and does not leave it up to his own power to bring about the fulfillment. Therefore every truly expectant person is in a relationship with God. ... everyone has an original supply of oil with which to sustain expectancy. .... If it is really so that there is something in life that has or can have such power over a person that it little by little makes him forget everything that is noble and sacred and makes him a slave in the service of the world, of the moment; if it is really so that time has or can gain such power over a person that while it adds days to his life it also every passing day measures the greater distance of his life from the divine, until he, trapped in everydayness and habit, becomes alienated from the eternal and the original. Resolution is a wakening up to the eternal. ... The 'individual’ is the category of spirit, of spiritual awakening. Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (1843-1844) p. 14, 213-214, 220-221, 348 Søren Kierkegaard, Point of View p. 133 Lowrie
when in dealing with the concept of faith the historical is made so one-sidedly significant that the primitive originality of faith in the individual is overlooked, faith becomes a finite pettiness instead of a free infinitude. ... Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward. ... The transition from possibility to actuality is, as Aristotle rightly teaches, a movement. This cannot be said in the language of abstraction at all or understood therein, because abstraction can give movement neither time nor space, which presuppose it or which it presupposes. There is a halt, a leap. The Concept of Anxiety, Nichol p. 62-63 Repetition p. 131-132, Concluding Postscript p. 341-342
Kierkegaard always points the individual forward just as he did with Abraham. He's always expectant of the good instead of dreading the evil. He trusted God. It's the same with the single individual who has to make a resolution to give some finite thing up and has found that the finite has become of infinite importance.
Abraham had faith, and had faith for this life. In fact, if his faith had been only for the life to come, he certainly would have more readily discarded everything in order to rush out of a world to which he did not belong. Fear and Trembling p. 20
Kierkegaard uses this extreme example of the paradox of faith to help people who are afraid to give something up or to take a risk without any certainty of reward. Abraham was willing to risk everything to follow God and Christ was willing to risk everything to teach humanity how to love. Neither of them knew what would come of it. Abraham learned how to love God but did he learn how to love his neighbor and himself?
If I am anxious about a past misfortune, then this is not because it is in the past but because it may be repeated, i.e., become future. If I am anxious because of a past offense, it is because I have not placed it in an essential relation to myself as past and have in some deceitful way prevented it from being past. If indeed it is actually past, then I cannot be anxious but only repentant. If I do not repent, I have allowed myself to make my relation to the offense dialectical, and by this the offense itself has become a possibility, and not something past. If I am anxious about the punishment, it is only because this has been placed in a dialectical relation to the offense (otherwise I suffer my punishment), and then I am anxious for the possible for the future. Thus we have returned to where we were in Chapter I. Anxiety is the psychological state that precedes sin. It approaches sin as closely as possible, as anxiously as possible, but without explaining sin, which breaks forth only in the qualitative leap. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, Nichol p. 91-92
Maurice Stanley Friedman compared Kierkegaard and Kafka in his 1963 book Problematic rebel, an image of modern man (p. 386)
K. is at times lacking in courage and at other times brazenly impudent, and he is far from "observing every rule of propriety with a glad and confident enthusiasm," like Kierkegaard's "knight of faith." But he does not exalt the Castle "meanly" and, unlike the villagers he dares "to enter those palaces where not merely the memory of the elect abides but . . . the elect themselves." He knows the Angst of Kierkegaard's "knight of faith" who is "born outside the universal" and walks "a solitary path, narrow and steep . . . without meeting a single traveller." Passage after passage in The Castle, indeed, shows K. as essentially a Single One, who has the courage to meet the officials face to face and who is willing to dispense with all the universal patterns and official procedures if he can do so.
Jacques Maritain wrote in 1964, “Soren Kierkegaard was a contemporary of Marx. But it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that his name began to become famous and his influence to be felt. Neither a philosopher in the strict sense of the word-although nourished in philosophy-and yet a philosopher in the sense of being a lay thinker; nor a theologian nor a prophet (obsessed by his feeling for the requirements of the Gospel and by his own unworthiness, he hardly dared to profess himself a Christian), and yet a kind of prophet and a knight of faith, and, at the end of his life, “a witness to the truth” in his passionate revolt against the established church, this poet of the religious, as he called himself, is a figure complex and ambiguous enough to occupy generations of interpreters and to justify their disagreements.” He also claimed that Theodor Haecker was a knight of faith.
Kierkegaard used his book Fear and Trembling to make the claim that Abraham, Mary and a tax collector were also knights of faith. These were just common people so faith isn't just for the "chosen few", he says, "Moses struck the rock, but he did not have faith. … Abraham was God’s chosen one, and it was the Lord who imposed the ordeal.” He says "artists go forward by going backward" by writing about Abraham's faith, Job's faith, Paul's faith and even Christ's faith and by creating imaginary constructions about "heroes" of faith they make Christianity difficult for the simple individual who wants to be a Christian. Yet at the same time churches often make Christianity "a matter of course". Faith just grows by itself, it needs no testing by the individual who wants to have faith, it ends up explained by external functions rather than the internal acknowledgement by the single individual who wants to be a Christian. Artistically faith becomes something impossible to reproduce in actual life. Only the person who is existing can reproduce faith, expectancy, patience, love and the resolution to hold fast to the expectation no matter what happens in his or her own life to the best of their ability. A person can become a Knight of Faith by acting without certainty. This is what Abraham did in Fear and Trembling and The Young Man failed to do in Repetition. One says, I'll do it because everything within me says I should and the other says I'll do it if everything outside of me says I should. Kierkegaard described the difference well in Either/Or.
If one wishes to strip people of their illusions in order to lead them to something more true, here as always you [the esthete] are “at your service in every way.” On the whole you are tireless in tracking down illusions in order to smash them to pieces. You talk so sensibly, with such experience, that anyone who does not know you better must believe that you are a steady man. But you have by no means arrived at what is true. You stopped with destroying the illusion, and since you did it in every conceivable direction, you actually have worked your way into a new illusion-that one can stop with this. Yes, my friend, you are living in an illusion, and you are achieving nothing. Here I have spoken the word that has always had such a strange effect on you. Achieve-“So who is achieving something? That is precisely one of the most dangerous illusions. I do not busy myself in the world at all; I amuse myself the best I can, and I am particularly amused by those people who believe that they are achieving, and is it not indescribably funny that a person believes that? I refuse to burden my life with such grandiose pretensions.” Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or Part II, Hong, p. 78-79
Kierkegaard was raised by parents who were at opposite poles of the spectrum of faith. His father read philosophy and studied with the leaders of the Church of Denmark while his mother couldn't even read. He had learned the terror of belief at an early age. He stood far to the right of the two extremes of the consciousness of sin: those who believe that they sin because Adam sins, so there is no use trying to stop sinning; and those who believe that every sin is like crucifying Christ and possibly commit suicide because they despise themselves so much. One is in danger of being too light-minded about sin, and the other is in danger of being halted or stopped at every moment in fear and trembling. His father taught him the terror of Christianity but his mother showed him the lighter side of the faith. He sought his own balance between the two and he thought his contribution to the discussion about beauty, truth and faith was worth reading. This is how he explained it to himself in Two Upbuilding Discourses, 1843, and in his Journals (1849). He died not knowing if he had achieved anything at all but he still had faith.
If you had loved people then the earnestness of life might have taught you not to be strident but to become silent, and when you were in distress at sea and did not see land, then at least not to involve others in it; it might have taught you to smile at least as long as you believed anyone sought in your face an explanation, a witness. We do not judge you for doubting, because doubt is a crafty passion, and it can certainly be difficult to tear oneself out of its snares. What we require of the doubter that he be silent. What doubt did not make him happy-why then confide to others what will make them just as unhappy. Doubt is a deep and crafty passion. But he whose soul is not gripped by it so inwardly that he becomes speechless is only shamming this passion, therefore what he says is not only false in itself but above all on his lips. The expectancy of faith, then, is victory. The doubt that comes from the outside does not disturb it, since it disgraces itself by speaking. Yet doubt is guileful, on secret paths it sneaks around a person, and when faith is expecting victory, doubt whispers that this expectancy is a deception. An expectancy that without a specified time and place is nothing but a deception; In that way one may always go on waiting; such an expectancy is a circle into which the soul is bewitched and from which it does not escape. In the expectancy of faith, the soul is indeed prevented from falling out of itself, as it were, into multiplicity; it remains in itself, but it would be the worst evil that could befall a person if it escaped from this cycle.
- Søren Kierkegaard, Two Upbuilding Discourses, May 16, 1843
When I began as an author of Either/Or, I no doubt had a far more profound impression of the terror of Christianity than any clergyman in the country. I had a fear and trembling such as perhaps no one else had. Not that I therefore wanted to relinquish Christianity. No, I had another interpretation of it. For one thing I had in fact learned very early that there are men who seem to be selected for suffering, and, for another thing, I was conscious of having sinned much and therefore supposed that Christianity had to appear to me in the form of this terror. But how cruel and false of you, I thought, if you use it to terrify others, perhaps upset every so many happy, loving lives that may very well be truly Christian. It was as alien as it could possibly be to my nature to want to terrify others, and therefore I both sadly and perhaps also a bit proudly found my joy in comforting others and in being gentleness itself to them-hiding the terror in my own interior being. So my idea was to give my contemporaries (whether or not they themselves would want to understand) a hint in humorous form (in order to achieve a lighter tone) that a much greater pressure was needed-but then no more; I aimed to keep my heavy burden to myself, as my cross. I have often taken exception to anyone who was a sinner in the strictest sense and then promptly got busy terrifying others. Here is where Concluding Postscript comes in. …
Søren Kierkegaard, Journal and Papers, VI 6444 (Pap. X1 A541) (1849) (Either/Or Part II, Hong p. 451-452)
- Either/Or part II p. 177
- Fear and Trembling, Hong p. 50
- Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition p. 209-210
- Fear and Trembling, p. 52
- See Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 259-260
- Søren Kierkegaard, Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 397ff
- Repetition, Hong p. 132
- Søren Kierkegaard, Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 293-294
- Fear and Trembling p. 70
- Moral Philosophy, Jacques Maritain, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964, pp. 353-354; see pages 353-370 (Person and Liberty for more)
- see Haeker’s book Journal in the Night https://archive.org/stream/journalinthenigh009030mbp#page/n7/mode/2up
- Fear and Trembling, Hong p. 19,
- Kierkegaard Journals and papers 1A 86 September 29, 1835