I have been in love with Søren Kierkegaard since I was seventeen years old. I read The Sickness Unto Death, and then Fear and Trembling and The Book on Adler, and I was hooked. Never before had I read anything which had chimed so perfectly with who I am.
I revisit Kierkegaard frequently, and my favourite book of his remains Fear and Trembling. However, I didn’t read Works of Love for the first time until about five years ago. I re-read it this week, and it reminded me just how much I love Kierkegaard’s writing.
It’s not like I agree with Kierkegaard on absolutely everything. For one thing, he was a Christian theologian and I am an atheist witch. However, as I plan to argue in a paper that will one day be published somewhere, plenty of his concepts can be applied to non-Christian paths.
Kierkegaard wasn’t afraid to call out the bad behaviours of the authorities around him. He railed against the emptiness of the Church of his time: against the way people professed to be Christian but then judged others, showed a lack of love for their neighbours.
In Works of Love, he argues for a radical level of neighbour-love. For Kierkegaard, preferential love is not ideal: we should love everybody equally whether they are our enemies, friends, neighbours or sexual partners.
He preached a kind of extreme individualism coupled with deep universal love, showing his obsession with paradox. For him, we are often caught between extremes and having to straddle both at the same time – it’s not about straightforwardness, because the world isn’t that simple.
Nonetheless in the midst of all this confusion and despair (Kierkegaard looooved to talk about despair), we must remember that the greatest thing of all is love. For ourselves; for our neighbours; and above all, for God. Or, in today’s parlance, for whatever we find transcendent.
But even while we are loving other people, Kierkegaard warns against loving for selfish reasons:
“What the world honours and loves under the name of love is group-selfishness.”
What he means by this isn’t that we shouldn’t love the people we want to love. He means we should love everyone equally, whether we find them lovable or not. And, for Kierkegaard, we shouldn’t love our friends preferentially: we should love them like we love everyone else.
In the strictest sense, I am not a Kierkegaardian. Not (just) because I’m not Christian, but also because I do love some people more than I love others. My friends, for example. And, if I’m honest, I don’t plan to change that and become non-preferential in my love of people.
What I do get from reading Works of Love, however, is a reminder that approaching situations from a position of giving the other person the benefit of the doubt is often beneficial all round. Treating people like people, not like objects; remembering that they are individuals.
“In the busy, teeming crowd, which as community is both too much and too little, man becomes weary of society,” says Kierkegaard. I know this happens to me: I easily get tired of humans. There are loads of them, and they’re everywhere, and I want to go to bed.
But whilst acknowledging this exhaustion (particularly living in a city like London, which is constantly full of people peopling at you all the time), it is important to remember that humanity isn’t just a teeming mass. It’s an accumulation of individuals, each of whom needs love.
It is all too easy to come across people and immediately judge them. I do it all the time. But it can be a useful exercise to try to notice what it is we’re judging about someone – particularly in terms of their externally visible characteristics – and to think twice.
“Only superficious, impetuous, passionate men judge straight off, men who do not know themselves and consequently do not know that they do not know others,” warns Kierkegaard – and while I think *everyone* judges people, it’s still an important reminder to try not to.
If you’re looking for a way in to Kierkegaard’s writing, Works of Love would probably be a good choice. The first couple of chapters in particular, plus the one about hope later on in the book, are especially beautiful.