The Søren Kierkegaard You Never Knew: Unscientific Philosophical Fragments on “Love’s Hidden Life” in Works of Love

Works of Love is, perhaps, the greatest single piece of literature written in the history of humankind. Astonishingly, it has been greatly ignored by philosophers, laymen, and theologians alike. Unlike its predecessors, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, or The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love has largely remained unknown in the Western world. In an attempt to introduce my parents to this masterpiece, I discovered that the Russians had not even bothered to produce a translation to this very day! Reading recent reviews written by modern readers—a bare dozen or so—I recognized in their writings precisely how I felt about the book: mesmerized and changed. Most reviewers were both disturbed by the fact that such a life-altering book could have been given a cold shoulder, lasting a swiftly-approaching two centuries. I, too, could subjectively relate to that experience; I wanted to share my love for this work with someone—anyone—but there were none to be found. It is out of this frustration that I write; my presuppositions and inevitable biases are self-evident. I will mostly engage with the book’s profound first twelve pages (in the Hongs’ English translation). My purpose is modest: to briefly summarize Kierkegaard’s thoughts and provide some of my own unscientific remarks.

Kierkegaard begins his masterpiece by (re)introducing his reader—“that single individual”—to a well-known verse out of Luke’s Gospel: “Every tree is known by its own fruit, for figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (6:44). Immediately he launches an attack on all reductionist empirical physicalism: If “we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love.”[1] He wants nothing to do with naturalistic approaches to reality; he slams his book shut in the face of all such readers. If one is to proceed reading his book on love, one must first begin by assuming the critical[2] position that reality as we know it with our empirical senses should be doubted. This is not all there is to life as we know it. Kierkegaard clearly sees love as something that falls, in some mysterious way, out of the ordinary—it is not to be entirely reduced to physical processes which can be observed with the human eye and mind. This point must be pressed if modern readers, who are almost always grounded in scientific naturalistic approaches to anything and everything, are to understand where Kierkegaard stands on this issue—he would have atomically blasted the likes of Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love[3] out of its turbid waters, no questions asked. Kierkegaard sees those who reduce everything to atoms as incapable of robustly understanding and subjectively embracing love. For such people, love is an “eternal loss, for which there is no compensation…”[4] Those who live such lives are ultimately “deceived.”[5]

Modern readers may find this anti-physicalism to be something which inherently makes Kierkegaard’s conception of love wrong-headed. Is not science the greatest asset humanity has had, well, in a long time? But Kierkegaard is very careful with what he chooses to say and what he does not. He foresees that his approach presupposes the existence of God and that Love is to be ontologically grounded in God. “[A] human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.”[6] Love, which is in God, is the source which fuels all other so-called loves. Kierkegaard makes some further axiomatic statements: Love “connects the temporal and eternity” and is, therefore, “before everything and remains after everything is gone.”[7] Simply put: love is eternal. Why, then, cannot empirical physicalists (or, materialists, if you will) actually really love? Kierkegaard believes that because love is eternal—and since the eternal is what the physicalist disbelieves—he or she has “an enormous relief to cast off this bond of eternity.”[8] The physicalist, in his rejection of the supra-natural eternal, is, by inference, rejecting true love. Christian love, Kierkegaard argues, which is to be identified as the true form of love, has nothing to do with those aesthetic poets. Christian love is eternal and, therefore, never perishes. The poets write about a love which blossoms—if something blossoms, it must die. “What the poet sings about must have the sadness, which is the riddle of his own life, that it must blossom—and, alas, must perish.”[9] In a paradoxical way, in denying true Christian eternal love, the physicalist, who rejects eternity, is stuck recycling “blossoming love” in an ever-increasing state of “sadness”—while he rejects suffering and sorrow, he still ends up wallowing in it! (In this perfect example, one can paraphrase with Kierkegaard, “Do it or do not do it—you will regret both.”)[10] Granted, some of us may disagree with Kierkegaard, but that is all beside the point. (For atheist and theist alike can benefit from his through analyses of love.) However, Kierkegaard does consider these presuppositions important—despite what one ultimately chooses to do with them.

In several tightly-packed sentences, Kierkegaard comments, regarding the physicalist who gave up on love, “That he ‘has seized to sorrow’ we shall not deny, but of what benefit is that when it would be to his salvation to begin in earnest sorrow over himself!”[11] This sentence, if superficially skimmed over, can lead to disastrous results. Kierkegaard is clearly and concisely stating that love is equivalent to sorrow. This observation of his is not to be missed; it is one of the key marks of Christian love. Kierkegaard is here identifying for the readers what the physicalist knew all along: to love someone truly is to suffer, to have sorrow. But from whence did such an idea arise? Kierkegaard, as many already know, was a devout Christian, a reader of the Gospels. And in the Gospels, Kierkegaard saw what it cost God to love the world. He saw what it meant to lay a life down for somebody else. Somebody effectively unworthy. Kierkegaard instinctively knew the price one had to pay to really love. Love has an inverse relationship with power and control: those who have more power and control usually have less love; those who love most have the least amount of influence and power in a relationship. And where exactly does one find such a self-less love?

Kierkegaard insists that “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” He wants the readers to realize the importance of loving intentions, amplified by sound waves used to carry loving words, which result in loving actions. Herein lies the secret to Works of Love. In a similar vein, probably inspired by Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, and I will quote him at length:

“There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.”[12]

Like Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard is not entirely a Kantian deontologist, neither is he a J. S. Mill consequentialist/utilitarian; he is both. He refuses to dichotomize and pit one against the other. He refuses to call “love” that which results in evil. He refuses to call “love” that which is done out of evil, which happens to result in what appears to be a loving action. He refuses to take that step. He sees love as both being done out of a loving heart (deontological approach), spoken with loving words, resulting in loving actions (consequentialist approach). That, for him, is love par excellence. “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” Love must produce fruit; it must result in what is perceived to be a loving action. Kierkegaard, ever the skeptic, rightly delves into the subjectivity (or, inter-subjectivity) of love. What if one is deceived by someone into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? What if someone is self-deceived into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? How does one know what is love? Do not all of our subjective worldviews come into play? Kierkegaard is completely aware of such subjective elements. It happens “when a person makes the mistake of calling something love that actually is self-love, when he loudly protests that he cannot live without the beloved but does not want to hear anything about the task and requirement of love to deny oneself and to give up this self-love of erotic love.”[13] “Can love be reduced to a particular phrase or word?” Kierkegaard asks. “Words and phrases and the inventions of language may be a mark of love, but that is uncertain.”[14] He continues: “In one person’s mouth the same words can be so full of substance, so trustworthy, and in another person’s mouth they can be like vague whispering of leaves [with no fruit found on the tree].”[15] He believes in speaking loving words, but he is aware of two things: (1) the subjectivity of understanding the spoken and (2) the inability of any human to reduce love to a single word. Kierkegaard asserts that “you should not for that reason hold back your words,” for “ whoever is an object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words…”[16] Kierkegaard sees duty-based (i.e., deontological) ethics at work here. He believes that if one is so moved inwardly to love somebody else, one is bound to express verbally his or her feelings. The object of your affection already has a deontological claim upon your words. What if love results in nothing but Taylor Swift’s lyrics? What if love is nothing but a love song, a poem, a whispered verse from Shakespeare in the ear of the beloved? What if love is only a word? “[I]mmature and deceitful love is known by this, that words and platitudes are its only fruit.”[17] Kierkegaard outright rejects any so-called Taylor Swift approach towards love, which is grounded in nothing but temporal sensuality, obsession with sex, and objectification of the “other-self.” Such verbalizations and erratic gesticulations are nothing but the bastard child of the whore, self-love.

“There is no word in human language, not one single one, not the most sacred one, about which we are able to say: If a person uses this word, it is unconditionally demonstrated that there is love in that person. On the contrary, it is even true that a word from one person can convince us that there is love in him, and the opposite word from another can convince us that there is love in him also.”[18]

Earlier, Kierkegaard remarked that love is “invisible” and that it must simply be “believed” in.[19] Precisely because of its “invisibility,” love cannot be reduced to a particular word or even action. When dealing with the question of reducing love to a particular work, Kierkegaard states that everything “depends on how the work is done.”[20] He rejects the idea that love can be reduced to one, single work.

“[E]ven in charity, visiting the widow, and clothing the naked do not truly demonstrate or make known a person’s love, inasmuch as one can do works of love in an unloving, yes, even in a self-loving way, and if this is so the work of love is no work of love at all.”[21]

Here, precisely, those who ignorantly accuse Kierkegaard of a pietistic works-righteousness approach fail miserably. For Kierkegaard does not believe that works in and of themselves are “good”; they must be done with right intentions, gracefully reflecting the “Initial Love,” which flows eternally from God Himself. Moreover, those who want to accuse Kierkegaard of strict consequentialism or Utilitarianism also fail miserably: no such thing is present in any absolute form here. No, what is of utmost importance is: “How, then, the word is said and above all how it is meant, how, then, the work is done—this is decisive in determining and in recognizing love by its fruits.”[22]

The question then arises: What if somebody’s love is not recognized as such? What if, in loving somebody else, that certain somebody misunderstands me and my actions, and takes them to mean something other than love? Kierkegaard believes that such a person must not “work so that love will be known by the fruits but to work so that it could be known by the fruits.”[23] He is not saying that your love, as such, will be recognized; he is saying that it could be recognized. This is not an imperative to make love known to the other; this is, rather, a statement in the subjunctive: works of love must be done in such a way that they might bring about works which are interpreted to have been done in love. There is no guarantee that such works will be labeled “love.” There is uncertainty here.

What if somebody reads the Gospels and then starts judging how much others love, is that appropriate? Kierkegaard responds with a resounding “No!” For “the one who is busily occupied tracking down hypocrites, whether he succeeds or not, had better see to it that this is not also a hypocrisy, inasmuch as such discoveries are hardly the fruits of love.”[24] In judging others, we are judging ourselves. The Gospel is not a weapon to be used against others; rather, it is a mirror in which one examines oneself.

We are, finally, back to where we initially started. “The first point developed in this discourse was that we must believe in love—otherwise we simply will not notice that it exists…”[25] Here, Kierkegaard insists that only the believers see love; only those seeing love believe.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the unconditionally convincing mark of love remains—love itself, the love that becomes known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like; only someone who abides in love can know love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”[26]

Kierkegaard is insisting that love requires the acceptance of this axiomatic statement: believe that love exists. For only in believing that it exists will it actually spring into existence.

To conclude this somewhat lengthy look at only a few pages of the text, I would like to briefly reflect on the overall impression this particular chapter made on me. I am thoroughly convinced that Kierkegaard is right in arguing immediately that love is subjective. That does not mean that love is not absolute. It is absolute, and has its grounding in an objective God. However, love is subjective in the sense that we can all be hearing the same thing from a particular person and only one of us may react in a loving reciprocal manner. That is, only one may actually subjectively feel love being conveyed. Romeo may objectively be verbalizing feelings of love—feelings which none of us could subjectively relate to. An objective event may be taking place (in fact, it is) but not all of us have subjective access to that objective reality. We all know that Romeo directed his loving words, carried on sound waves, to one person and one person only: Juliet. While those sound waves could have been recorded and examined objectively by a team of empirical scientists, love would never be conveyed in their thorough analysis. Not a single scientist would fall in love with Romeo. Not a single scientist would intuitively and subjectively know and experience the love contained in those words. In this sense—in this thoroughly Kierkegaardian approach—the love which is ejected from the innermost part of a human being is specifically directed, like a beam of light, at a particular person in a particular moment. Apart from all of these tautological statements (e.g., statements such as “loving is believing, believing is loving”), at least that is how some may view them, Kierkegaard correctly observes that, paradoxically, love begins with belief. One begins by believing in love—one presupposes that love exists in the other human being. Once love is presupposed in the other, then love is experienced by the one presupposing. “Like is known only by like.” If you want to see love in another human being, first believe that he or she is loving. If you want to receive love from another human being, first believe that he or she is capable of loving you. In such a way, love is an act of faith. If there is one thing Kierkegaard wants you to walk away with from reading the first chapter, it is this: believe in love. Apart from belief, there is nothing but poetic “sadness.” If you want to remain stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-love and a refusal to really love, then you can feed on the “blossoms” of temporal “love.” As for me and my household, we are taking a leap of faith.

Works of Love goes on to develop other ideas about love. Kierkegaard deals with self-love and its inherent problems, the categorical imperative and the “You shall love” command, the problem with preferential love (such as erotic love and friendship), the importance in distinguishing between true “others” and the “other-self,” etc. He does all of this in merely the first few chapters of the work. If you enjoyed this paper, please go out, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy. Read it.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Bibliography

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6. Trans. by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses. Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI. Trans. and Ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Trans. by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Trans. by Edward Quinn. Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses, Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 5.

[2] Hans Küng correctly observed that naturalistic approaches, which deny any other reality other than that which could be perceived by the senses empirically, are essentially not critical enough. In an ironic manner, they deceptively believe and accept all that which the senses receive. On the other hand, the theist, generally speaking, believes in the possibility of another reality; this implies that the theist is more critical and, therefore, more doubtful—he is more willing to criticize and scrutinize the empirical data (something which the uncritical naturalist simply cannot a priori allow himself to do [for all we have is the natural world, he thinks]). “Belief in God as radical basic trust can therefore point also to the condition of the possibility of uncertain reality. In this sense it displays a radical rationality—which is not the same thing as rationalism” (Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn [Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976], 76. Italics original.

[3] Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] This quote does not occur in Kierkegaard verbatim, contrary to those who repeatedly cite it. It is found in Either/Or in the following form: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both…” [trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971)], 37.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 51. Italics original.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid., 11-12. Words in brackets are my own added for contextualization purposes.

[16] Ibid., 12. Italics mine.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics original.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Ibid. Italics mine.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 16.

[26] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “The Søren Kierkegaard You Never Knew: Unscientific Philosophical Fragments on “Love’s Hidden Life” in Works of Love

  1. the first paragraph had me hooked, then there was the second paragraph If “we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love.”[1] , then the third “[A] human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.”[6] sounds like 1 John 4! But then ‘to love someone truly is to suffer, to have sorrow.’ Yo God is the originator of love and is love, he loved before the creation of the world, would that mean that God suffered before creation cue the rest of the implications? Explain. I like this quote “[E]ven in charity, visiting the widow, and clothing the naked do not truly demonstrate or make known a person’s love, inasmuch as one can do works of love in an unloving, yes, even in a self-loving way, and if this is so the work of love is no work of love at all.”[21] The thing is, what if there are plural motives? It is interesting that the command reads “love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe there doesn’t need to be a fine line. I plan to do myself the favor when I have the money! 😉 or maybe there’s a free kindle version

    • Yes, God suffered, I would say. Jesus suffered — if that says anything about God. Suffering, however, is contingent upon sin and the possibility of sin. So, with humans and love, we suffer BECAUSE in loving another human being who is in a state of sin, we are allowing ourselves to be hurt (i.e., suffer). Wherever there is love, there is freedom; wherever there is freedom, there is the freedom to sin.

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