a thought for valentine's eve -- 2/13/18

Today's selection -- from Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard. A thought for Valentine's Eve. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is considered the founder of modern existentialism. He wrote extensively on Christianity and the issues of morality and ethics that surround religion. One of his most influential books is Works of Love. In it, he notes that Jesus said, in a variation of the Golden Rule, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" and asks if Jesus is therefore commanding self-love. In the Roman Catholic tradition, self-love is affirmed as necessary for true love of God. In the Protestant tradition, self-love is perceived as a barrier to genuine love of neighbor. Which is right? Kierkegaard argues that great subtlety is required. There is indeed a self-love that is deeply unhealthy and destroys our humanity. Yet there is a "proper" self-love that alone makes us whole persons. What is that love? Kierkegaard suggests it is when a person learns that love for that neighbor and love for oneself are the same thing; that indeed a person cannot become a self apart from their relationship to others. Elsewhere Kierkegaard calls this love forgiveness; and he suggests that only when I forgive my neighbor can I truly forgive myself -- and forgive I must:

"When it is said: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself,' therein is contained what is presupposed, that every man loves himself. ... Is it possible for anyone to misunderstand this, as if it were the intention of Christianity to proclaim self-love as a prescriptive right? On the contrary, it is its purpose to wrest self-love away from us human beings. This implies loving one's self; but if one must love his neighbour as himself, then the command, like a pick, wrenches open the lock of self-love and thereby wrests it away from a man. ...

Soren Aabye Kierkegaard

"This as yourself does not waver in its aim, and with the firmness of the eternal it critically penetrates to the innermost hiding place where a man loves himself; it does not leave self-love the slightest excuse or the tiniest escape-hatch. ... As Jacob limped after having struggled with God, so shall self-love be broken if it has struggled with this phrase, which nevertheless does not seek to teach a man not to love himself but in fact rather seeks to teach him proper self-love. ...

"Therefore -- as yourself. Suppose the most cunning deceiver who has ever ... in order, if possible, to have the opportunity of using many words and becoming loquacious (for then the deceiver would quickly conquer), were temptingly to question the royal law year in and year out, 'How shall I love my neighbour?' then the terse command, unchanged, will continue to repeat the short phrase, 'as yourself.' And if any deceiver has -- deceived himself throughout his whole life by all sorts of verbosity concerning this subject, the eternal will only hold him to the terse word of the law, as yourself. No one, to be sure, will be able to escape this command. If its as yourself comes as close to the life of self-love as is possible, then one's neighbour is again a qualification as fatally close to self-love as possible. Self-love itself perceives that it is an impossibility to shirk this. The only escape is the one which the Pharisees in their time also tried in order to justify themselves: to let it be doubtful who one's neighbour is -- in order to get him out of one's life."

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Soren Kierkegaard


Works of Love




Copyright HarperCollins, 2009


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February 13
As has been the case more often than not in the past, your insights on religious--or rather, theological-- topics are compromised by imprecision. As a person trained in church history, I was surprised to "learn" from you in today's column that Protestantism is antithetical to the notion of self-love. That conclusion could be drawn only from a fairly narrow--and a misrepresented, at that--reading of Protestant theologians.


February 13
A comment on this page's formatting - The headline "A thought for Valentine's Eve" is cut in half lengthwise - the top 1/2 covered by the Home-Archives etc menu bar. It's cut off approximately at the middle bar of "E." -- I'm sure this displays differently on different devices. I'm looking at a computer monitor, W7.

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