The mental state of a subject inextricably links hope and despair as aspects of the human condition. Where hope reigns, the subject bears an unexplainable amount of faith in their ability to accomplish or overcome a particular task or hurdle. Interestingly enough, despair is the same, but in reverse, the lack of faith in ability renders the subject incapable of facing the task or obstacle ahead of them. In the four renditions of the story on Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac, Soren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling explains faith as a matter beyond human experience and instead belonging to the realm of the metaphysical. Ethics and hope are separated in Kierkegaard’s mind because where ethics reigns, one requires substantial evidence as proof of the morality of their action, while the hopeful, like Abraham, only require faith to act due to their belief in an omnipotent authority (Kierkegaard, 2012, p. 19). On the other hand, Friedrich Nietzsche, in On the Genealogy of Morality, frames the subject of ethics within the scope of faith in the individual rather than an unsubstantiated belief in a supreme authority (Nietzsche, 1998, p. 161). A comparison of the two foundations of faith reveals that while faith in a supreme being is powerful, faith in the self is more secure because hope extinguishes when faith in the supreme fails.
Anxiety and Despair
Of all the human conditions man faces, mortality is the most sinister and evil of states that man faces. It is not the mortality that comes from a terminal illness or facing the death sentence. Instead, it is the inevitable finality that faces all beings from the moment of birth. It is the entropy of the worst kind because regardless of whatever efforts one commits to, they are guaranteed that someday, they will meet their end.
Mortality’s greatest effect is that it renders meaningless everything that the person did or would ever do. The feeling that a person’s achievements will someday leave them behind is depressing. One day you celebrate a great personage, laud their efforts, expound on their contributions to society. Next, you lament their death for the things they will never get to accomplish or experience because their time was up. Death is the saddest part of the ‘happily ever after’ tale because whatever great love the couple transcend in their lifetime, time will end-all.
Kierkegaard on Hope and Despair
Kierkegaard, writing on the issue of faith and ethics, notes that sometimes belief in an infallible concept is better than the lack of belief or the failure of belief. In the first problemata that Kierkegaard poses, Abraham tells Isaac that the series of actions he had perceived stemmed from Abraham himself, rather than as a directive from God (Kierkegaard, p. 2). He writes, “When the child must be weaned, the mother blackens her breast, it would indeed be a shame that the breast should look delicious when the child must not have it. So the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother is the same, her glance as loving and tender as ever (Kierkegaard, p. 2).” Kierkegaard’s inference in the above quotation is that the foundation of faith is essential and nothing must be allowed to pose threats to them. The child needs to know that their belief in their mother is untainted by uncertainty and that their relations remain the same.
For Kierkegaard, the problem of mortality can thus be framed within the context of hope or faith in an absolute or ordained future as opposed to an uncertain one. He writes, “for the act of resignation faith is not required, for what I gain by resignation is my eternal consciousness, and this is a purely philosophical (Kierkegaard, p. 22).” Kierkegaard posits that sometimes faith does not require a foundation in evidence but rather one in belief. He notes that philosophy would require that faith be demonstrated through proofs while theology manipulates the faithful into doctrinal practices (Kierkegaard, p. 22). That said, the core elements of belief in faith remain that the person renounces all other beliefs to retain a core concept that can be used as their life principle. In this regard, the anxiety one holds over the question of death and the beyond resolves through belief in a life after death. “A purely human courage is required to renounce the whole of the temporal to gain the eternal (Kierkegaard, p. 22).” The problem of death, to put the question into perspective resonating with Kierkegaard’s writing, is that it is a physical or temporal matter. It cannot be overcome through human activity; thus, people must look beyond the physical into the metaphysical. In this way, Kierkegaard observes, can hope be preserved and made to work for the human condition.
Nietzsche on the Proper Foundation of Faith
An interesting point that defines Kierkegaard’s writing on the value of faith presents a conflicting viewpoint to Nietzsche’s essay on the question of hope. Kierkegaard writes, “what every man has a right not to do, is to make others believe that faith is something lowly, or that it is an easy thing, whereas it is the greatest and the hardest (Kierkegaard, p. 24).” Kierkegaard’s meaning was that the absolutism with which faith establishes itself as hope is a precious and sacred thing. However, he already notes that faith is easy to circumscribe. Abraham preserved Isaac’s faith in God by lying about the origins of his actions. Kierkegaard inferences how religious bodies and persons “would sell out faith at a bargain price (Kierkegaard, p. 22),” making it clear that faith in a supreme authority might itself prove dangerous to the person. So the question that comes to mind is whether a different path may exist that is not only subject to manipulation, but can withstand the test of time.
As Kierkegaard mentions, faith is the “greatest and hardest” thing to accomplish (Kierkegaard, p. 24). What matter is greater than faith in the self when faced with the prospect of having everything one ever achieved – or hoped to achieve – be destroyed by the single act of death? Nietzsche writes, “Those who from the outset are failed, downcast, broken—they are the ones, the weakest are the ones who most undermine life among humans, who most dangerously poison and call into question our confidence in life, in man, in ourselves (Nietzsche, 2012, p. 161).” The strong individual does not depend on the false faith of an eternal realm where everything becomes resolved to one’s satisfaction. Indeed, the very concept of an afterlife that resolves all conflict is prone to idiosyncratic fallacies. For instance, it assumes that all disputes are binary and have solutions. What happens when two modes of human thought, irredeemably unresolvable, meet in that eternal realm that Kierkegaard imagines to be the reservoir of all peace?
Faith in the Self
Nietzsche avers that slave morality stands at the root of improper foundations of faith such as the hope in a supreme being that stands at the core of Kierkegaard’s writing. Nietzsche writes, “slave-morality always needs an opposite and external world; it needs, psychologically speaking, external stimuli to be able to act at all, – its action is, from the ground up, reaction (Nietzsche, p. 76).” The meaning is that those who found their beliefs in a concept such as a supreme being or God may be harboring problems too deeply-seated to recognize internally. Their model of the universe looks inwards rather than outwards; thus, rather than solving the problems that they encounter, they push the issues outwards to be resolved by others. What does this mean for us with our problem of mortality?
Nietzsche’s Solution to the Problem of Mortality
In as far as we can ascertain, death is final; it is the absolute end of life. We may hold on to the hope that an afterlife exists but, with this regard, faith becomes a deception. It is not to say that deception lacks strength; as Nietzsche observes in Beyond Good and Evil, “Happiness and virtue are not arguments…unhapp[iness]and evil are not counter-arguments either. Something could be true even if it is harmful and dangerous to the highest degree (Nietzsche, 2002, p. 39).” The idea behind faith, as Kierkegaard imagines, is that it acts as a counter to the apathy and despair that the absence of faith presents. The problem here is that the idea of hope such as established through faith is that it creates a false dichotomy between death and an afterlife. We can approach Nietzsche’s inference to mean that perhaps death does not have the opposite. Instead, it is part of life thus must be embraced as part of the human condition.
The problem of faith is that it might present a false hope. Worse, its foundations are not provable and instead require a suspension of belief to proceed. Why self-deception may work in pushing the individual into performing beyond their capacity, it ultimately fails them as people because it limits the human potential. Here, as Nietzsche observes, the individual must be honest with themselves so that they may discover their limits. Once done, they may then exceeding them rather than placing self-imposed caps on their abilities. Consequently, death should be approached as part of the human condition. Consequently, if death cannot be overcome, then it becomes crucial that we seek ways to accept death as part of life and find ways to make life meaningful.
Nietzsche, F. (2002). Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2012). On The Genealogy of Morality. (M. Clark, & A. J. Swensen, Trans.) Indianapolis: HAckett Publishing Co., Inc.
Silentio, J. (. (2012). Fear and Trembling. (D. Nikolic, Ed., & W. Lowrie, Trans.) New York: Lulu.com.
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