Significance of Kierkegaard’s Pseudonym Johannes de Silentio

Soren Kierkegaard first published Fear and Trembling with the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. It is fair to assume that Kierkegaard had an unstated reason for choosing this name. This essay will explore three possible reasons why Kierkegaard used the name Johannes de Silentio—the name literally means John of Silence. The reasons are: (1) faith can’t be understood verbally, (2) the person with faith exiles himself from society and must remain silent, and (3) it is an allusion to a Grimm’s fairytale titled The Faithful Servant. The third reason is most likely why Kierkegaard used the name Johannes de Silentio.

The first reason is that faith is the central topic of Fear and Trembling, and faith is subjective and unexplainable. Thus, a person with faith must remain silent on with regard to his or her faith. Using the example of Abraham and Isaac, Johannes explains that there is nothing that Abraham can say to him that would convince him that sacrificing Isaac is was the correct thing to do. The reason that Abraham can’t tell Sarah and Isaac that God commanded him to sacrifice his son is because Abraham is a knight of faith opposed to a knight of infinite resignation.

The knight of infinite resignation concentrates on one thing and then resigns that he or she will never have it. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, if Abraham was a knight of infinite resignation he would understand that it is impossible for him to have his son after he sacrifices him. Infinite resignation is prior to faith and is essential to faith; the difference is that a knight of faith goes one step further. Johannes explains this step, “he admits the impossibility and at the same time believes the absurd” (i). Abraham admits that it is impossible to live with his son again, but he still believes that it will happen. This move of faith can’t be rationally explained, because Abraham has no reason to believe that Isaac will live again with him, but yet he hopes that it will happen. The absurdity of the apparent paradox of Abraham (he believes that he will have a great lineage through his son, and at the same time believes his son will be killed) is what can’t be explained. Because the move of faith can’t be explained Abraham must remain silent, because how can you express something that is absurd and not understandable? Johannes writes this about the step of faith: “the next step dumbfounds me, my brain reels,” “all I can learn from him is to be amazed,” and “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (i). The faith of Abraham isn’t understandable to anyone else except Abraham, and can’t be shared through any form of communication.

Because Abraham can’t explain his faith to anyone, this alienates him from society, and this alienation from society is another reason why Kierkegaard might have used the name Johannes de Silentio. If my best friend came up to me and told me that God told him to sacrifice his son, I would think that he was crazy. And if I thought he was serious about it, I would feel morally obligated to stop him from performing this atrocity. By sacrificing his son he is going against the laws of the land, and by being willing to do this he alienates himself from society.

The third reason is that the name Johannes de Silentio is an allusion to the Grimm’s fairytale The Faithful Servant. E. Hirsch first considered this allusion in “Teologik Tidsskrift for den danske Folkekirke” and it makes sense when we consider the events of the story. The faithful servant—Johannes--was turned to stone because he warned the king of three dangers. The king then felt terrible about what happened to Johannes and vowed he would do anything to return him back to normal. Afterwards the king had two sons, and Johannes—as a stone figure--told the king that if he would cut off the heads of his sons, and sprinkle their blood on the stone, then Johannes would return back to normal. The king does this. After Johannes becomes normal, he then brings the king’s sons back to life. The story ends with the queen exclaiming, “God be praised, he is delivered, and we have our little sons again also.” (ii)

Both Abraham and the king face a similar dilemma. They both give up what they value most in their lives--their children--and do so, hoping that they will have their sons again. Again, this is the theme of absurdity. Although they know that it is impossible for them to have their sons after their deaths, they still hope that they will spend the rest of their lives with them. The tale speaks about how the king was terrified about having to kill his sons. This is also a notion that is discussed in Fear and Trembling. The reason the king is terrified is that he is going to do something that appears to be unethical, and he is tempted to do what he considers unethical. The ethical or universal thing to do in the context of the king and Abraham is to not kill their sons. The religious thing to do is to obey God’s command and kill their sons hoping that they will be brought back to life.

Kierkegaard most likely used the name Johannes de Silentio as an allusion to the fairytale. Kierkegaard might have had all three reasons in mind when he used the pseudonym. However, the similarities between the two stories are so great that other two reasons should only be considered as secondary. Kierkegaard most likely was aware of the Brothers Grimm’s story. The story was first published in German in 1812 as a collection of fairytales and was extremely popular. Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in 1813, and knew German. Furthermore, the parallels between Abraham and the story The Faithful Servant are too close for it just to be a coincidence that Kierkegaard just happened to use the name Johannes de Silentio—the main character of the story.
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(i) Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. London: Penguin Books, 2003
(ii) Grimm, Jacob Ludwig Karl and Wilhelm Karl. “Faithful John”
< http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/g/grimm/g86h/chapter6.html>

1 comments:

Cassie Watters said...

Your insights are superb, but there are classmates of mine in our religion and philosophy classes (other juniors, then seniors respectively) who write at a higher academic level than yourself. Consider taking composition classes.

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