In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard draws an interesting contrast between Abraham and Agamemnon: both men are called upon to sacrifice a child: but Agamemnon is a tragic hero and Abraham is an example of faith. What then is the true distinction between the two?
The tragic hero is compelled to his end by an ethical demand. To fulfill his oath, Agamemnon must lead the force into war. The demand to sacrifice is daughter is tragic and painful, but it is compelled by the demand of his oath. His act is meaningful and ethical to the community.
But it is not so with Abraham. There is no ethical duty which is recognizable to anyone who watched Abraham. The soldiers who saw Agamemnon move to give up his daughter, would have a basis to understand and even sympathize with Agamemnon. But if one were to watch Abraham: his actions would make no ethical sense. There is no apparent duty.
A second and related comparison comes with the matter of disclosing his conduct.
In this section Kierkegaard first makes an observation about concealment and revelation. In the older Greek tragedies, the concealment was brought about by fate. Oedipus kills his father, but it is concealed to him. It is revealed afterward.
In the modern age, the act of concealment is brought about the character’s decision. He compares two types here. There is the esthetic concealment, where two lovers conceal to bring about their desired end. And to have the happy ending we enjoy such action.
Esthetics permits these actions, even if unethical:
But esthetics is a civil and sentimental discipline that knows more ways out than any pawnshop manager. What it do then? It does everything possible for the lovers. (75)
But ethics requires revelation: The concealment is a deception, and even if pleasing aesthetically it is repugnant to ethics. Ethics requires an explanation, a justification for the conduct. There must be a public rationale.
Abraham differs, because he cannot explain. What is there to say? He is seeking something absurd. Abraham is not merely doing something which seems outside of all ethics; he is doing something he knows cannot be true. He will kill Isaac and Isaac is the child of promise and God will fulfill his promise. This is not merely improbable; it is paradoxical.
There is no public rationale, because the wisdom of God is greater than man.
We go wildly astray if we think Kierkegaard says that faith is believing things which are untrue or improbable. That is what is often miscredited to him. Faith is not believing stupid or false things. Faith is believing that God is above human categories:
1 Corinthians 1:20–29 (ESV)
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.