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Kierkegaard on Love

One of the most provocative analyses of love ever produced is to be found in the writings of the Danish Existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In a book entitled Works of Love, published in Copenhagen in 1847, Kierkegaard — then thirty-four years old — proposed a theory which deliberately upset every leading idea that his own age  (in this respect very similar to our own) liked to entertain about this hallowed concept.

First and most importantly, Kierkegaard insisted that most of us have no idea what love is — even though we refer to the term incessantly. The first half of the nineteenth century in Europe saw the triumph of what we today call ‘Romantic love’, involving a veneration and worship of one very special person with whose soul and body we hope to unite our own. 

Kierkegaard insisted that through concentrating on Romantic love, we develop a narrow and impoverished sense of what love can actually be. 

Love is not, Kierkegaard insisted, the special excitement we feel when in the presence of someone unusually beautiful, pure, clever or accomplished. He proposed that we return instead to an exacting version of Christian love, which commands us to love everyone, starting — most arduously — with all those who we by instinct consider to be unworthy of love.

He made a distinction between what in Danish is termed kaerlighed — true love, the kind Christians are commanded to give, and elskov — erotic love.

For Kierkegaard, we should learn to love all the many people it would be so tempting to curse and to hate; those whom we believe are mistaken, ugly, irritating, venal, wrong-headed or ridiculous; those who may have made some truly serious mistakes and offended our moral codes. To learn to love such people, to practise kaerlighed,  this is the real accomplishment — and the summit of our humanity. 

It is love when we can look at someone who appears misguided, lazy, entitled, angry or proud and instead of labelling them despicable, can wonder with imagination and sympathy how they might have come to be this way; when we can perceive the lost, vulnerable or hurt child that must lie somewhere within the perplexing or dispiriting adult.

Love means making the effort to extend our compassion beyond the bounds of attraction so that we may look generously on all those we might at first glance have deemed beyond the pale or ‘undeserving’. 

Kierkegaard tells us that if we understood love properly, when we said we loved a person, we wouldn’t mean that we admired them but that we had a handle on all the many difficulties that underpinned their troubling and objectionable sides. 

Kierkegaard was especially aggrieved by how his contemporaries had replaced the Christian-inspired emphasis on forgiveness with the pursuit of something that feels a great deal more objective, hard-edged and rational: justice.

The pursuers of justice want to give everyone what they actually deserve. This sounds extremely reasonable — until one comes face to face with an uncomfortable fact: that if we all actually ended up with what we truly ‘deserved’, the world would at once be rendered entirely unlivable. The attempt to pursue justice at all costs, and the belief that doing so is theoretically possible, gives rise to appalling intolerance, for if one really believes that one can be a flawless instrument of righteousness, then there is logically no limit to the degree of rage or the sternness of punishments that can be brought to bear upon ‘wrong doers’.

For Kierkegaard, our goal should not be to create a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve; it is to try to ensure that as many of us as possible get the kindness we need

Applied to children, concepts of justice quickly reveal their absurdities, Kierkegaard could see. If parents were to give their children exactly what they ‘deserved’, most small people would at a stroke be put out on hillsides to die. The pursuit of justice may spring from the noblest of motives but it is a quick route to an unloving hell.

Kierkegaard proposed that there is a ladder of love, from the most undemanding to the true. On the first rung of the ladder, we love those who love us; then we love those who do not love us, then we love those who persecute us and finally, and triumphantly, we should love everyone without exception. 

Kierkegaard mocks those who say they believe in love but add that they haven’t found someone they can love. There are millions of people around. If we say that they are not worthy of love, we haven’t understood love. We need to love those we can actually see, not ‘invisible beings.’ A Kierkegaardian dating site would force us to love utterly random candidates, not based on admiration or virtue, but on the basis of our shared humanity. He bemoaned ‘the selfishness of preferential love.’ ‘Christianity has never taught that one must admire his neighbour,’ he wrote, ‘one shall simply love him.’

Kierkegaard detects an appalling snobbishness in Romantic love. People who otherwise pride themselves on their lack of prejudice will apply terrifyingly strict criteria to their choice of partner: they want someone with just a certain sort of face or income or sense of humour. They think of themselves as kind and tolerant but when it comes to love, they have all the broad-mindedness of a believer in ‘a caste system whereby men are inhumanly separated through the distinctions of earthly life.’ Kierkegaard adds: ‘Christians don’t only love the poor; they love everyone. The rich, the corrupt, the powerful: “He who in truth loves his neighbour loves also his enemy…” Love is the fulfilment of a law…’

Kierkegaard talks about Christ’s love for his disciple Peter, who repeatedly lets him down: ‘Christ did not say: “Peter must change first and become another man before I can love him again.” No, just the opposite, he said: “Peter is Peter, and I love him; love if anything will help him to become another man.”’ 

So, in imitation of Christ, we should love people especially if they are hateful: doing something hateful does not disqualify anyone from love, in fact it makes them all the more deserving of it. ‘We speak continually about perfection and the perfect person. But Christianity […] speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees […] with all his imperfections and weaknesses.’

Ultimately, Kierkegaard wants us to do something that sounds both utterly odd and yet entirely kind: ‘To be a Christian means to be the imitator of Christ […] and to be an imitator means that your life has as much similarity to his as it is possible to human life to have.’

Danish readers of the 1840s who came across Kierkegaard’s writings on love must have been as surprised as we are on what this philosopher had to say on the subject — because his perspective is so different from that we ordinarily operate with. But however arduous his message to us may be, we can see how relevant it remains. We too so often get stuck on the idea that we have not found ‘the one’ and on that basis refuse to love anyone; we too judge and moralise rather than forgive and lend sympathy. We may still be at the dawn of understanding what true love really offers, and requires of, us.

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