Soren Kierkegaard’s Knights of Infinite Resignation, Knights of Faith and Tragic Heroes

soren kierkegaardIn Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explains the nature of the knights of infinite resignation through the use of an example of a young man who falls in love with a princess he can never get in “reality.”

The knights of infinite resignation allow every fiber of their being to be filled with love for the princess as this love is their sole purpose in life. These knights recognize that everything is possible in the spiritual world but that everything is not possible in the finite world. They make the impossible, possible through a spiritual expression. This spiritual expression is renouncing the impossible in the finite world. So in Kierkegaard’s analogy, the young man renounces his love for the princess in the finite world and allows the pain caused by his unsatisfied desire to                                                                                                  reconcile him spiritually.

The knights of faith require such a resignation as a precursor to the extra step they take. They go a step further and note that they can reclaim the finite by virtue of the absurd (which means that with God all things are possible). These knights are thereby able to explain the “sublime in the pedestrian.” Kierkegaard notes that knights of faith embrace the finite to such an extent that their nature resembles that of Philistines.

In order to illustrate the difference between the knights of faith and the knights of infinite resignation, Kierkegaard uses the analogy of a leaping dancer. The knights of faith symbolically leap towards the infinite (through resignation) but are able to land in the finite and continue dancing with graceful synchrony. The knights of resignation on the other hand, “vacillate” upon landing in the finite as they cannot embrace the finite after making the movement of infinite resignation.

Johannes de Silentio (the pseudonym Kierkegaard uses in Fear and Trembling) can relate to the knights of infinite resignation and notes that he would have spoiled the story of Abraham if God placed him in a similar predicament as he would not have been able to take Isaac back as Abraham did. Note that for Kierkegaard, Abraham is the knight of faith par excellence.

For the tragic heroes, on the other hand, the ethical is the divine. They forego “the certain for the still more certain.” Kierkegaard provides three examples of fathers sacrificing their children for ethical reasons. Jephtha sacrifices his daughter due to a vow he makes before Israel’s battle against the Ammonites. King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease the Goddess Artemis during the Trojan War. Junius Brutus sentences his children to death for violating Roman law. Each of these heroes can be sympathized with and understood as their actions are rooted in the ethical as illustrated by the Hegelian concept of “sittlichkeit.” Abraham on the other hand is willing to sacrifice Isaac for reasons beyond the ethical as he is a knight of faith. Therefore the characteristic feature of tragic heroes is that their actions are completely rooted in the ethical.

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