Monday, February 13, 2012

Guest Review: Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard

Guest Review by Rachel Hunt Steenblik. Rachel is a philosopher, librarian, and reader. She is currently getting her PhD at Claremont Graduate University. She also blogs at

 Søren Kierkegaard via
Title: Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard

Published: 1995. First published 1845.
It's about: Works of love, nor merely love. Kierkegaard tells us that this is the case because the book is full of Christian deliberations. What this means for us is that Kierkegaard is not giving us a theory of love. He is not giving us love as sentimentality, or passion, or feeling. Neither is he teaching us exactly what we need to do to be loving. For instance, he never says, "do this and this and this, and turn around three times, and then you are loving." Instead, he is taking a topic, love, that most people think they know something about, and he is telling them that it is both easier and harder than they think. He wants there to be an earnestness, and he wants there to be a difficulty.

More than anything, it is asking people to truly believe in love, and then to live it by practicing, and practicing again. It takes self-denial and it takes self-looking at. It also takes looking at God, and understanding the way God looks at us and those around us. We come to learn that everyone is the neighbor because everyone has the same relation before God. In the world, there is a ladder, with some people higher and some people lower. We admire some, we may not admire others. There are kings and there are poor people. There are beautiful people and there are ugly people. There are lovers and there are friends who share preferential relationships. For God and for Kierkegaard there are only neighbors. It is this neighbor love, this God love, this eternal, true love, that Works of Love is interested in.

The book itself is divided into two parts. (Fascinating fact: Kierkegaard thought he would die before he turned 34. He finished the first part, assuming that that would be all. He celebrated his birthday, and was still alive. He went to the registers to see if his birthday could possibly have been a different day. It couldn't be, so he wrote part II.) These two parts contain deliberations, or discourses on love. Each deliberation is inspired by a single verse from the New Testament. For example, one deliberation is on love's ability to believe all things from Paul's famous treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13, but goes further and asserts that it is never deceived. Another is on love's ability to hope all things, but goes further and asserts that it is never put to shame. Still other deliberations focus on true love's ability to abide, to build up, and to cover a multitude of sins.

Kierkegaard was writing at a time when many things in his world were becoming easier. In one sense everyone was Christian because everyone belonged to the state church, but in another sense, this made it so very few people were actually Christian. Kierkegaard fought against this, and wanted to make it harder to be a Christian, so some people actually could be. He was concerned with helping people become individuals and selves, as he believed they were not born that way, but became that way by proper relations and choices. One way he did this was by writing indirectly and often pseudonymously. While Works of Love does bear Kierkegaard's own name, it does not make his task any different.

I thought: This book is beautiful, and inspiring, and challenging, and almost every deliberation called me out on things that I need to do better if I want to be a loving person, or a more loving person. It is not enough simply to love our friends or families or beloveds (though we must keep loving them too). No, 'even the pagans do the same.' Even those outside of Christianity do the same. Christian love does more: it loves the neighbor (who is everyone), and it keeps loving the neighbor, even when it is hard. Perhaps, especially when it is hard. It also loves the self and God in the right way, which requires being faced to God and the self appropriately. For Kierkegaard this means that we help the neighbor love God, and that we love ourselves as we love the neighbor, which is to help ourselves love God, and then we love God by loving the neighbor and ourselves properly.

I appreciate the way that Kierkegaard wrote this book. His writing is clear, and each deliberation is perfectly introduced, defended, and concluded. I also appreciate that he takes stories as evidence for his assertions. Some of these stories come from the Bible and concern Christ, Peter, and others. Just as many come from life, even his life, but he never labels them as such. These stories are like his pseudonymous writing, where we are presented with different options, and can find the broader message for ourselves. We also have the option of applying that broader message to ourself or not. Kierkegaard has a similarly good emphasis on language. One example is found at the beginning of his deliberation "Love Builds Up." When we talk about building up in terms of a building, we are always talking about a height dimension. Building horizontally is 'building on.' Building up, on the other hand, also requires building up from the ground up, from the foundation. He goes on to translate this building talk to talk about love. We must assume that there already exists a foundation of love. Thus, upbuilding love is to assume that there is love in the other person. Assuming that this love is present allows us to build up that person rather than tear down. It also allows us to see love everywhere. The last thing I appreciate about this book is that it can be read either simply, merely as devotionals, or philosophically with intricate arguments. Both ways of reading are valid.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. The text itself is sometimes dense, but as far as both philosophy and Kierkegaard goes, it is rather accessible. Some deliberations are also slower than others, but it is worth pushing through, because there are enough beautiful and uplifting gems. It is a book I have purchased and stuck on my own shelf two separate times. I don't regret it in the least, as it is one of those books I keep coming back to, and feel the necessity of coming back.

Reading Recommendations: Kierkegaard himself suggests that readers read it slowly and carefully. That is probably a good rule. You don't have to be a philosopher to get something out of it, or even a Christian. It is simply one of the best pieces of writing on love and loving.

Warnings: No warnings.

Favorite excerpts: "What is it, namely, that connects the temporal and eternity, what else but love, which for that very reason is before everything and remains after everything is gone."

"Your friend, your beloved, your child, or whoever is an object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words if it actually moves you inwardly. The emotion is not your possession but belongs to the other; the expression is your debt to him, since in the emotion you indeed belong to him who moves you and you become aware that you belong to him... You should let the mouth speak out of the abundance of the heart; you should not be ashamed of your feelings and even less of honestly giving each one his due."

"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... There is no work, not one single one, not even the best, about which we unconditionally dare to say: The one who does this unconditionally demonstrates love by it. It depends on how the work is done."

"The commandment is that you shall love, but ah, if you will understand yourself and life, then it seems that it should not need to be commanded, because to love people is the only thing worth living for, and without this love you are not really living. "

What I'm reading next: A Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.