Soren Kierkegaard’s “Works of Love” 4 (Self-love: part 1)

works of love

In 1847 the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard publish his “Christian reflections” on “the works of love.” I have come to believe that Kierkegaard has been largely misunderstood, misrepresented, and therefore ignored by many Christians, to their own detriment. So for these reasons, and due to my own interest in what he has to teach about the “works of love,” I will be presenting a series of meditations as I read through this book.

In the opening section Kierkegaard discusses the fact that the “life ” of love is hidden and is only recognized “by it’s fruits” (works). He opens the second section with the following words from Jesus Christ.

 “And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39

 “Christianity presupposes that men love themselves and adds to this the phrase about neighbors as yourself. And yet there is the difference of the eternal between the first and the last.” (35)

Kierkegaard is saying that,

  • The New Testament presupposes a form of self-love. (Throughout this post I will call this our “fallen self-love.”)
  • Jesus commands that we should love our neighbors as we love ourself.
  • Obedience to the command to love our neighbor as our self transforms fallen self-love.
  • The difference between un-natural self-love and true neighbor-love (which in practice co-exists with transformed fallen self-love) is infinite (“eternal”).

Here I will attempt to demonstrate how obedience to the command to “love neighbor as self” redeems fallen self-love in the process.

1) Natural self-love, and how it became fallen self-love

Kierkegaard says that Christianity presupposes self-love. He does not take pains to support the supposition, perhaps because it is a truth that is self-evident. No one argued the point with Jesus. Self-love in humankind is a basic necessity for self-preservation and the lack of self-love in this regard would be considered as a form of mental or physical illness. But God’s command also presupposes that all is not right in humankind, since we do not truly love others also. This diagnoses a universal problem with self-love that could best be called selfishness or self-centeredness.

So natural self-love is at essence good, being a necessary correlate of life. But this essential self-love has gone awry somewhere and is now subservient to self-centeredness. I probably don’t need to tease out the evidence for the universal fact of human self-centeredness, because it is the leaven “hidden” in the human heart that has “risen” in the whole loaf of human history.

Adam and Eve were created with pure self-love, but subsequently chose self-centered love through disobedience to God. This was then made manifest when Cain killed “his neighbor,” Abel expressing his fallen, self-centered self-love. etc, etc…

Kierkegaard explains that the word “neighbor”

“…is clearly derived from neahgebur (near-dweller); consequently your neighbor is he who dwells nearer than anyone else.” (37)

So the original, creational, natural self-love, has become corrupted so that it now exists within, but in the main is subservient to, fallen self love.

2) How the commandment challenges fallen self-love

Kierkegaard is quick to prevent a common reaction to the presupposition of “self-love.” That reaction is to think that the pre-supposition of self-love endorses our fallen self love. It is the wholehearted belief that we must simply and thoroughly love our self, all the time being ignorant of how our self-love is corrupted and malignant. To guard against this, Kierkegaard says the commandment is not a proclamation “of self-love as a prescriptive right.” He continues,

“On the contrary, it is its (Christianity’s) purpose to wrest self-love away from us human beings. This implies loving one’s self; but if one must love his neighbor as himself, then the command, like a pick, wrenches open the lock of self-love and thereby wrests it away from a man.” (34)

In short, the Christian presupposition of “self-love” does not mean that God is endorsing or prescribing fallen self-love as the way to fulfill God’s requirement of love. Rather, the now fallen self-love must be transformed in order to fulfill what real love is.

3) Why fallen self-love must be transformed to fulfill neighbor-love.

The answer is implied in the commandment to love our neighbor. The summary of “all the commandments” as taught by Christ, was a twofold obedience,  – to love God, and to love our neighbor. So we must remember the self-love Jesus presupposes is only redemptively considered in the context of the larger commandment to “love our neighbor.” Kierkegaard says,

“There could be lengthy and discerning addresses on how a man ought to love his neighbor; and when the addresses were over, self-love would still be able to hit upon excuses and find a way out, because the subject had not been entirely exhausted, all circumstances had not been taken into account, because continually something had been forgotten, or something had not been accurately or bindingly enough expressed and described. But this as yourself – yes, no wrestler can wrap himself around this opponent as this command wraps itself about self-love, which cannot move from the spot. As Jacob limped after having struggled with God, so shall self-love be broken if it has struggled with the phrase, which nevertheless does not teach a man not to love himself but in fact rather seeks to teach him proper self-love. How remarkable! What struggle is so protracted, so terrifying, so involved as self-loves war to defend itself, and yet Christianity decides it all with a single blow…Christianity presupposes that men love themselves and adds to this the phrase about neighbors as yourself. And yet there is the difference of the eternal between the first and the last.” (35)

What Kierkegaard is getting at is the genius that is evident, in the method of Jesus. If Jesus merely commanded us to love our neighbors, we, as persons drowned in self-love, generally and easily find ways to avoid doing so. The command would fall on deaf ears because we have no real heart to obey. But Jesus inclusion of the phrase to love neighbor “as self” does several things. It diagnoses the problem of fallen self-love in the unfailing relentless practice of self-love in fallen self-love. We rarely, if ever fail to love our self! We don’t make excuses to prevent us from loving our self. But Jesus is saying that we need to have the same unfailing relentless practice of loving others. Jesus masterfully diagnoses that our fallen self-love prevents our fulfilling neighbor love. At the same time he reveals that if we are to practice neighbor love, fallen self-love will need to be redeemed. This is because there is an inherent conflict that invades the person “drowned in self-love” when he is confronted with the command to love others in the same way.  In other-words, how can we remain self-centered when we are commanded to become radically un-self-centered? The answer is that we cannot remain as we are if we are to fulfill neighbor-love. Loving neighbor as self is impossible to do apart from the transformation of our fallen self-love.

4) How fallen self-love is transformed to a proper self-love

Kierkegaard explains,

The command reads thus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but if the command is properly understood, it also says the opposite: “You shall love yourself in the right way.” If anyone, therefore refuses to learn from Christianity how to love himself in the right way, he cannot love his neighbor either. He can perhaps cling to one or more men “through thick and thin.” as it is called, but this is, by no means, loving one’s neighbor… (Note: Kierkegaard considers the “clinging…through thick and thin” he describes as being merely a “preferential love” – more on this to come.)

…When the law’s as yourself has wrested from you the self-love which Christianity sadly enough must presuppose to be in every man, then and then only have you learned how to love yourself. The law is, therefore: you shall love yourself in the same way as you love your neighbor when you love him as yourself. (39)

Kierkegaard often presents us with mind puzzles, so I will try to summarize what is implied in his last statement:

  • The law commands us to love ourself in the same way that we love our neighbor.
  • The law commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourself with proper self-love.
  • Therefore the law commands us to love ourself properly.
  • (I hope this sequence is logical, as I am not a logician.)

In this process, the discerning reader may also have noted that neighbor-love is also “made proper” in the implications of the commandment. Neighbor-love is not somehow fulfilled by the practice of fallen self-love. Neighbor-love is fulfilled by loving the neighbor as we love ourself with proper self-love. Again, the genius of Jesus is seen, as fallen self-love is not the basis for proper self-love or for neighbor-love, and that both become transformed through the commandment.

In the next post we will look more at the subject of proper self-love. At this point, I believe the post following the next one will consider what has perhaps puzzled or even bothered the reader, namely why God commands love as a duty. Does that not lessen love?

Comments, questions, critiques are always welcome!


Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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