The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical

Over against a Hegelian conception of the single individual as subordinate to the universal, Johannes asserts just the opposite with respect to Abraham and faith:

8 On Kantian elements in this work as well, see Green (1992: 86-91, 183-205); Knappe (2004: 12-13, 77-97).

9 Hegel (1991a: 129-40). On Hegel's ethics, see Wood (1990; 1993b).

Faith is exactly this paradox, that the single individual is higher than the universal, but in such a way, mind you, that the movement is repeated, so that after having been in the universal he now as the particular keeps to himself as higher than the universal. If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost and faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed. (FT 47)

In overstepping the ethical by relating himself as the single individual to a telos higher than the ethical, Abraham stands in an absolute relation to the absolute in the recognition of an absolute duty to God that cannot be mediated or reconciled with the ethical or universal. He thus performs what Johannes calls a 'teleological suspension of the ethical', which does not mean that the ethical is abolished but rather that it is relativized and given expression in a paradoxical or opposite manner from the way it is normally expressed in human relations (61). In being willing to sacrifice his son at divine command, Abraham does not cease to love Isaac, which is the highest ethical duty of a father to his son; on the contrary, Johannes contends that one's absolute duty to God may 'bring one to do what ethics would forbid, but it can never make the knight of faith stop loving' (65). That is the crucial difference between Abraham and a murderer, political terrorist, or religious fanatic, with whom he is often confused:11

The moment he is willing to sacrifice Isaac, the ethical expression for what he does is this: he hates Isaac. But if he really hates Isaac, he can be sure that God does not ask it of him, for Cain and Abraham are not identical. He must love Isaac with all his heart; inasmuch as God demands Isaac, Abraham must love him, if possible, even more dearly, and only then can he sacrifice him, for it is indeed this love for Isaac which by its paradoxical opposition to his love for god makes his act a sacrifice ...Only at the moment when his act is in absolute contradiction to his feeling, only then does he sacrifice Isaac, but the reality of his act is that by which he belongs to the universal, and there he is and remains a murderer. (FT 65)

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