Works of Love & Why I Can’t Wear Pants When I’m Reading Kierkegaard

Let me begin by saying there is a passage in Works of Love that I feel provides an eloquent justification of the course of my life at the moment, and the focus of my Watson project that to some may seem ‘unphilosophical.’ By choosing practical action alongside my solo pursuit of philosophical edification, I am forgoing many creature comforts and, arguably, pedagogical advantages that a university offers. But Kierkegaard writes, as if to encourage me: “Whether or not I have accomplished anything I do not know. I do not know if I have done anyone any good. But I do know that I have existed for them; I know that because they have scoffed at me. And this is my consolation: that I shall not take with me into the grave the secret that I, in order to have good, undisturbed, and comfortable days in this life, had repudiated kinship with other men, with the insignificant in order to live in superior reserve, with the superior in order to live in hidden obscurity” (94). Perhaps, though, this just suggests that I am more like a Christian than a philosopher per se.

Now, getting to the serious issue of pantlessness… The first section of Part One of Works of Love left me thinking about sex. A LOT. I couldn’t pick up the book without my mind wandering off in the direction of Benedict Cumberbatch, those high collared coats (and what lies beneath!), that gorgeous head of dark hair… and I wanted to figure out why. I suppose my psychologist friends could look into this (AP? Aussie Katie? Mariko?), but I pretty much narrowed it down to the fact that my subconscious was taking extreme liberties when Kierkegaard kept talking about erotic love, and the ‘fruits of love’ (if interpreted literally, they would be strawberries, obviously); my imagination really outdoes itself on most occasions, as I suppose some of you know. (By no means do I suggest that I’ve uncovered some esoteric reading of Kierkegaard that’s been missed until now. But if there was such a reading that involved Cumberbatch and strawberries, I would be a very happy woman.)

The real message of Works of Love, though less personally *exciting* than a subtext screaming “ERIN TAKE YOUR CLOTHES OFF RIGHT NOW!” has to do with Christian love (this is when I put my pants back on, and realize that I have as good a chance at getting strawberries as dear Samwise did while carrying Frodo to Mount Doom). Christian love is loving one’s neighbor as we love ourselves, and one’s neighbor is… everyone. Kierkegaard admonishes friendly love and erotic love as selfish, and makes a strong case for the claim. Erotic love and friendly love are a kind of self-love; we love these particular people because of their relation to us. “Erotic love and marriage are really only a deeper corroboration of self-love by becoming two in self-love. For this very reason marriage becomes so satisfying, so vegetatively thriving – because pure love does not fit this way into earthly existence as self-love does. Therefore the solitary lacks the self-love which married people express thus: he is selfish – since married people proceed from the concept that marriage is love” (Papier VII A190), “…marriage is not genuine love, and that therefore the expression is used that the two become one flesh – not one spirit, inasmuch as two spirits cannot possibly become one spirit” (Papier VII A231).*

For Kierkegaard, Christianity is wrong to praise friendship and erotic love (romantic love) in addition to teaching a higher love (59). “Erotic love is based on disposition which, explained as inclination, has its highest, its unconditional, artistically unconditional, unique expression in that there is only one beloved in the whole world, and that only this one time of erotic love is genuine love, is everything and the next time nothing… To love a second time is not really to love, and to poetry this is an abomination.” But Christian love is love of all, without condition. This is a higher love; “Just as decidedly as erotic love strains in the direction of the one and only beloved, just as decidedly and powerfully does Christian love press in the opposite direction” (63). No matter how noble erotic love or friendship is, it is always directed towards “the other I.” Christian love is selfless love; it is loving “you;” it is knowing pure love (knowing God) and therefore loving purely.**

Loving one’s neighbor is not an expression of self-love, it means loving everyone indiscriminately. And we know love by its manifestations, or by its fruits. One of the most puzzling aspects of this work is Kierkegaard’s claim that in commanding love, Christ (or God) liberated it: “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair… Spontaneous love can be changed within itself; it can be changed to its opposite, to hate…. Spontaneous love can be changed within itself; by spontaneous combustion it can become jealousy; from the greatest happiness it can become the greatest torment…. In this way the “You shall” makes love free in blessed independence; such a love stands and does not fall with variations in the object of love; it stands and falls with eternity’s law, but therefore it never falls.”

Similar to Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard stresses the importance of the individual. This holds in his discussion of God’s relationship to man: “I wonder if a person looking from a mountain peak at the clouds below is disturbed by the sight; I wonder if he is disturbed by the thunderstorm which rages below in the low regions of the earth? Just so high has Christianity set every man, absolutely every human being—because before Christ just as in the sight of God there is no aggregate, no mass; the innumerable are for him numbered—they are unmitigated individuals…. Christianity is too earnest to present fables about pure man—it wants only to make men pure.” This focus on the individual might seem paradoxical; Christian love removes differentiation and loves without condition; so how do we explain the focus on the unique single person? One thing to remember is that Kierkegaard urges us to consider others subjectively but to consider ourselves objectively (the opposite of what we normally do). K’s “self” looks outward, it is not egoistic: as we ought to remember from Fear and Trembling, focusing on the individual self is only the penultimate step; from there one must transcend through the one to the eternal. Indeed, God doesn’t see the world as a mass, but as made up of many individuals. We should also strive to see the world in this way.

Moreover, affairs of the heart, love, are a matter of conscience for the individual. He refers to St. Paul in the Corinthians: “Love is a matter of conscience and thus is not a matter of impulse and inclination or a matter of feeling or a matter of intellectual calculation. According to the secular or purely human point of view many different kinds of love are discernible…. With Christianity the opposite is the case. It recognizes only one kind of love, spiritual love, and does not busy itself very much in elaborating on the different ways in which this essentially common love can reveal itself.” We can see how Kierkegaard is reacting to the growing popularity of understanding the world through science and empirical observation; these tell us nothing about the world of spirituality.

Given my obsession with Spinoza, it should probably come as no surprise that (after banishing the dirty thoughts) some of my first questions were about the ontological status of God for Kierkegaard.*** My reading of Spinoza’s God is, at its core, Deus sive Natura; God is infinite, eternal; all things, that is, all modes, are instantiations of it. Kierkegaard asserts, obscurely, that God is love. In fact, my metaphysical queries in this case are probably misguided; Kierkegaard doesn’t seem particularly keen for us to spend a lot of time contemplating the abstract philosophical or speculative conceptions of God. He was posthumously labeled an existentialist and we see an expression of what that categorization is getting at in his rejection of the importance of abstract speculation on the ontology of God; God should be understood in relation to each single individual, in a meaningful spiritual relationship. God is personal and purposive. However, there is clearly a strong argument for situating Kierkegaard’s understanding of God near the heart of the Christian tradition, though perhaps more in literary-ish descriptors than metaphysical attributes: God is gracious, God is the source of love, God guides us with intentionality, God will never cease to be loving.

One area that Kierkegaard and Spinoza can be put in discussion with each on a metaphysical level is the matter of existence and essence. Kierkegaard provides support for a claim he will make later on, and that is crucial to existentialism: existence precedes essence. The eternal does not exist because of its essence, it exists alongside its essence. In contrast, for Spinoza, the eternal’s, i.e. the substance’s, essence is existence. I have a (perhaps) contentious reading of essences in Spinoza, which is that the essence of a thing participates in the eternal (formal essence) and in the affective nexus of temporal modes (actual essence). The eternal’s essence is existence, which is a proof of the substance (God). If I’m understanding him, for Kierkegaard, the eternal exists and distinct from its existence, has characteristics which are its essence. I would have to look into more of his texts to understand the rigor and force of this metaphysical claim; as I read it here, and probably misunderstand it in all honesty, it does not seem to hold up.

Kierkegaard writes that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” i.e. love is the fulfilling of Christian law, and Christian love is sheer action (106). Christ was the destruction and fulfilling of the law because he consummated what it demanded, “for when the demand is fulfilled, the demand exists only in its fulfillment.” And Jesus’ love was pure action. This seems to be the ethical nature of love: we have a duty to love those we see (our neighbors) and in doing so we refrain from judgment and holding men to normative standards; “Alas, but we men talk about finding the perfect person in order to love him. Christianity speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees.” Instead, through Christian love, one will focus on fulfilling the task of loving (inevitably through action).

Kierkegaard does not hesitate to criticize Christianity and even goes so far as to urge leaving the Church before abandoning Christianity itself: “If what is needed is to be done, we should not hesitate, aware of the highest responsibility, to preach in Christian sermons – yes, precisely in Christian sermons – against Christianity.” He seems to mean that it is better to be no Christian at all than a Christian under false pretenses of what Christianity really is. (Did you hear that, GOP?) Like Spinoza, who can be seen as reacting to the interference of theologians and religious leaders in the business of the State, so Kierkegaard can be seen as reacting, to some extent, to the Church of Denmark, and more generally to the use of Christianity as a state religion: “…but now the world imagines that it is Christian, that it has made Christianity its own without detecting anything of the possibility of offense – and then is offended by the real Christian…”

In his discussion of the Danish word opbygge, he also indicates that language, in particular, his writing, can be understood in one way by the average person, but interpreted in quite another by those striving for spiritual erudition (I use ‘erudition’ with a hint of irony, since the Kierkegaardian conception of faith is quite distinct from intellectual exertion). I’m not sure if he means to suggest that a philosophical reader, though one of atheistic or anti-spiritual tendencies, would not be able to interpret K’s writings as would a man with (true) Christian inclinations.

I will conclude here, although I realize the haphazardness of this post. I’ve just remarked in a note-like fashion on some of the most (personally) interesting parts, and the focus is largely on Part One. There is much, much more here – it’s a 300 page book – but I think these notes are sufficient for my purposes. I know that I have not absorbed this work properly, and will have to come back and read it again when I can be more diligent and focused in trying to understand Kierkegaard’s message.

*Despite what he says here and the fact that he broke off his engagement with Regine Olsen and remained celibate the rest of his life, Kierkegaard writes in his Journals of his love for Regine: “You, sovereign queen of my heart, Regina, hidden in the deepest secrecy of my breast, in the fullness of my life-idea, there where it is just as far to heaven as to hell—unknown divinity! O, can I really believe the poets when they say that the first time one sees the beloved object he thinks he has seen her long before, that love like all knowledge is recollection, that love in the single individual also has its prophecies, its types, its myths, its Old Testament. Everywhere, in the face of every girl, I see features of your beauty, but I think I would have to possess the beauty of all the girls in the world to extract your beauty, that I would have to sail around the world to find the portion of the world I want and toward which the deepest secret of my self polarically points—and in the next moment you are so close to me, so present, so overwhelmingly filling my spirit that I am transfigured to myself and feel that here it is good to be. You blind god of erotic love! You who see in secret, will you disclose it to me? Will I find what I am seeking here in this world, will I experience the conclusion of all my life’s eccentric premises, will I fold you in my arms, or: Do the Orders say: March on? Have you gone on ahead, you, my longing, transfigured do you beckon to me from another world? O, I will throw everything away in order to become light enough to follow you.”

**Kierkegaard doesn’t do away with erotic love altogether – at least in theory. In his own life, he certainly abandoned such love; in any case, he writes: “No, love your beloved faithfully and tenderly, but let love to your neighbour be the sanctifier in your covenant of union with God; love your friend honestly and devotedly but let love to your neighbour be what you learn from each other in the intimacy of friendship with God!” (74).

***An…interesting…article on K’s conception of God that appears to be openly accessible can be found here.

And, totally unrelated, here is a picture of a cow per Lucian’s request.


2 thoughts on “Works of Love & Why I Can’t Wear Pants When I’m Reading Kierkegaard

  1. I feel like there is some Buddhist-esque “ERMAHGERD ERVERYTHERNG ERS ERMPERMANERNT” stuff in K’s criticism of romantic love especially, as you explain it here (as well as agape), which has always made my eyes roll. Fucking get over it, dude. Part of being a rational adult is getting past it, sucking it up, acknowledging impermanence and then going ahead and forming attachments, loving people — investing oneself in the world, in general, in spite of it.

  2. That might be my fault in the portrayal. In embracing the individual one HAS to acknowledge temporality and if you look at the ** you can see he doesn’t do away with forming attachments and loving people… it’s just not advice he followed regarding his engagement to Regine Olsen. Anyway he’s at least in some way an existentialist – his knight of faith doesn’t shun the world, he just lives more faithfully in it, in that he is fully in the temporal while seeing the eternal in everything. He discusses this more fully (and the embracing of this paradox) in Fear and Trembling.

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