the stupidest thing kierkegaard ever said: a thought on the nature of love

Søren Kierkegaard

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard by Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840.

in a recent sermon, i heard a quote by søren kierkegaard that gave me reason for pause. it concerned the eternal and irrevocable nature of love (at least in kierkegaard’s eyes). the quote is as follows:

It is regarded as praiseworthy that love abides, but as unworthy that it does not last, that it ceases, that it changes. Only the first is love; the other seems, because of the change, not to be love – and consequently not to have been love. The facts are these, one cannot cease to be loving; if one is in truth loving, one remains so; if one ceases to be loving, then one was not loving. Ceasing to love has therefore, in relation to love, a retroactive power. Moreover, I can never weary of saying this and of demonstrating it: wherever there is love, there is something infinitely profound. For instance, a man may have had money, and when he no longer has it, it still remains entirely true that he had had money. But when one ceases to be loving, he has never been loving. (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Vol II, Chap VI “Love Abideth,” (Copenhagen, 1847). See p. 245 in trans. from Danish by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson, Princeton University Press, 1946.)

now, truth be told, i am a fan of much of what kierkegaard has to say. i subscribe to many of the elemental tenents of existentialism. and i try to practice, to the best of my ability, what is good because it is good, and not because i receive some reward for it (even heaven). we are righteous because it is the right thing to do, not for fear of punishment or to earn some prize.

likewise, i completely understand kierkegaard’s proclivity for making broad, sweeping, all-or-none generalizations: indeed, that is the very predisposition of existentialism. however, the above statement by kierkegaard is perhaps the stupidest thing he ever said.

kierkegaard’s claim about the absolute nature of love is fundamentally in err. (extrapolations into areas of faith or hope are likewise in error).

first, kierkegaard errs in his assumption that love is not quantifiable. while it may be difficult to establish a quantifiable scale of the degree to which one loves, and while there may be no identifiable limit to how much love one can exhibit, it is possible to understand love on a relative scale. one can certainly be said to love lots of people, but that same one can love some more than others, and perhaps love one individual most of all. thus, love is quantifiable in a relative sense. jesus is said to have exhibited this relative sense of love when he asked peter in john 21:15, ‘simon son of john, do you love me more than these?’ the fact that jesus acknowledges that humans can love some more than others demonstrates that love is quantifiable in a relative sense. likewise, when asked in matt. 22:36, ‘teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?,’ jesus did not respond, ‘behold, thou hast asked a stupid question, for dost thou not know that one either loves or does not love, and that all love is absolute?’ rather, jesus responded in matt. 22:37-39, ‘you shall love the lord your god with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ this is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ thus, in jesus’ mind, love is indeed quantifiable, and one can and should love some things more than others.

second, kierkegaard errs in his assumption that one cannot love and hate, accept and reject. however, it is indeed within the nature of both humanity and the divine to both love and hate. individual beings can show mercy to some while judging others; one can both accept and reject. this ability is quite consistent with normal human (and divine) behavior. this paradox explains the statement in malachi 1:2-3, where god says, ‘yet i have loved jacob, but i have hated esau.’ thus, the bible demonstrates that god can be all loving while simultaneously hating and rejecting some of own. one will certainly not conclude that because god ceased loving esau and hated him, that god ‘has never been loving.’

several other biblical passages directly countermand kierkegaard’s claims. god is said to both have compassion and withhold compassion (rom 9:15). god is said to both bless and curse (gen 12:3). yet, we do not state that because god ceased to show compassion on one occasion that he is therefore not compassionate, nor has ever been compassionate. thus, it is possible to have loved and lost. that is, just because one ceases to love does not necessarily mean that one never loved. it means that the love once exhibited is now exhausted. but the fact that one has ceased to love does not nullify that one has loved or is capable of still loving.

as much as kierkegaard desired to laud and aggrandize love, and, as romantic as an eternal, never-ending love sounds, his dichotomy of absolute states of love is not a reality – not even for god. while god is described in the bible as showing tremendous love, he is also said to have withdrawn his hand for a time. he is said to have hated esau. and, if we are to believe the words of jesus, god even forsakes and betrays in a time of need, as he did when jesus hanged on a cross and questioned, ‘my god, my god, why have you betrayed me?’ (mark 15:34) and yet, few would argue that because god ceased to love for a moment, he has never loved.

of course, some might argue that god’s love is beyond our comprehension and not subject to our rules and understanding, or that one can love while still manifesting the outward appearance of rejection. but that is not what kierkegaard argued. kierkegaard argued that one who stops loving has never loved, and this is simply not the case.

likewise, one cannot make an absolute claim of god, and then, in the face of simple refutation, claim that god is beyond the limits of the very human logic that was initially used to make the fallacious claim. additionally, one cannot claim that the use of scripture to refute a claim woven together by scripture is ‘biblicizing’ or a misuse of text. if one makes an absolute claim based upon a canon of text, then the use of that very canon of text to refute the absolute claim is valid.

in the above case, kierkegaard’s argument is not valid. it is a logical fallacy. of course, once defiled, something pure cannot be said to have never been defiled. purity is an absolute state. but love is not. one can love, cease to love, and love again. likewise, one who has ceased to love can still be said to have loved, and can still be capable of loving.

thus, despite kierkegaard’s occasional brilliance, the above quote is one of the stupidest things he ever said. -bc


(p.s. imho, kierkegaard was a jilted lover. he and regine olson professed love for one another, but she married another. one can understand why kierkegaard might want to describe love as an eternal absolute state: ‘you said you loved me, but you’re marrying him. therefore, you never really loved me, did you…’)

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10 Responses

  1. Translation: “Regine, the wedding’s off”

  2. The oldest line in the book from any rejected lover: you no longer love ME, therefore you
    a) must never have loved me at all and lied when you said you did,
    b) must not be capable of love and a liar when you say you love another in the future,
    c) actually DO still love me, despite your profession stating otherwise, so I will just wait for you to realize that you do, or attempt to force my love upon you because it suits me to do so.

    All of this is, of course, only until said jilted lover does, in fact, genuinely find and love someone else and then when that relationship has run its course, the rejected becomes the rejector and suddenly it is all perfectly in bounds to say ‘I truly loved, but that has ceased, and yet I am capable of loving again.’ It is a terribly immature understanding of love, and one hopes that poor soren (like most of us who have at some point been on both sides of his logic) figured that out at some point.

  3. Well yeah I mean, if you take that quote out of context then sure he does sound like a prick, but if you read further Kierkegaard actually means it as a corrective; his point is that a fundamental quality of love is forgiveness, as God forgives, if one cannot forgive, then one does not love.

  4. This may be the stupidest thing he’s ever said, but the stupidest thing he ever did was to try to transcend ethics (see E. Levinas’ criticism of Kierkegaard’s treatment of the Akedah in Fear and Trembling).

    I’m a Kierkegaard hater mainly because Levinas is my homeboy. Well, he and Lawrence Lessig…. but that’s neither here nor there.

  5. i heart lawrence lessig. i even think i posted about him a while back. good to hear from you nate. -bc

  6. archer,

    yes, context is key, but absolute statements, such as the one kierlegaard made above, render context moot. statements of ‘always’ and ‘never’ are intended to supercede specific context and apply universally to all contexts. and as I have demonstrated above, kierkegaard’s statement does not. thus, it remains a fallacious statement. -bc

  7. it’s fascinating, how none of you all have understood even a pinch of good ol’ Kirk’s thought. and, it seems, you are not even trying. think again

  8. A very late response:
    I disagree. When Kierkegaard says the word ‘love’ there is much more meaning than when you say that a person can love one person more than another. Kierkegaard is talking about an infinite passion, and a person has one at most. If in the future the person no longer feels this passion, then they were not truly in love, the love was not an infinite passion.
    When you say that Jesus was forsaken by God, you ignore that Jesus (in some sense, depending on the particular sect of Christianity that we’re talking about) is God. Yet Jesus is human, and I think that a misunderstanding of God is something ubiquitously human.

  9. What? Your apology is attempting to redefine what Kierkegaard said to something he did not for the purpose of attempting to transform it into something that makes sense.

    “Infinite passion, and a person has one at most”?
    If it is infinite, how does it end? And if it is infinite, how does that equal one? It would be numberless, as it is infinite.

    Your apology for Kierkegaard, while noble, is semantic. He DIDN’T say ‘infinite passion’, he said love. And it is possible to love, cease loving, and love again. And ceasing to love does not negate the love one had prior to cessation.

    You could argue theologically (where one can make things up as they go along) and say that God’s love is infinite, but Kierkegaard wasn’t talking about “God’s love”, he was talking about love. (As if we could ever display or possess “God’s love.” We are human. We love. And we love not. And ceasing to love does not mean that the prior love was disingenuous. God loved. And then he hated. Think Esau. He loved and approved. Then he removed his spirit. Think Saul. It does not suddenly mean that God never loved or approved of Esau or Saul. It means that he did, and then he didn’t. Even God displays this.

    But to attempt to alter what Kierkegaard was saying so that it makes some sort of sense betrays the absurdity of what he said. That it needs to be transformed to “infinite passion” in order to have even a shred of feasibility demonstrates that it indeed was the dumbest thing he ever said.

    After all, he’s human. And we all make mistakes. We all say dumb things. And this was but one of his.

  10. btw, I didn’t say Jesus was forsaken by God, Jesus did. Again, semantics are nice, but words are still words. And what was said is what was said (or at least what was recorded). Besides, if Jesus WASN’T forsaken and betrayed by God, then you create a whole mess of OTHER theological problems that the church has already determined to be more problematic than God turning his back on Jesus at the cross.

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