Kierkegaard’s “Works of Love”12 min read

The “ Works of Love” is an attempt to penetrate into the heart of Christian love, which expresses itself in works. The book was completed in 1847 when the Danish philosopher was 34 years old and his great philosophical and aesthetic works had already been published. It was translated into English for the first time in 1962.

In introducing his book Kierkegaard writes :—“These are reflections on the works of love—not as if hereby all love’s works were mentioned and described—far from it, nor even as if a single one were described once and for all—God be praised, far from it! That which in its vast abundance is essentially inexhaustible is also essentially indescribable in its smallest act, simply because essentially it is everywhere present and essentially cannot be described.”

For whom is the book written? Kierkegaard says he does not know, but that he writes out of love of those, now dead, who have in the dangerous waters of love been competent to praise it, and in so doing he feels he shall meet the dearest among the living. This work of “Praising Love”, the last work of which he speaks in the book, is revealed to be the result of a long inner labour, a struggle to the death with self-love and its desire for reward and personal praise, a struggle by which man comes to self-renunciation and to God. Why, he asks, does one praise love? “No other person can decide this accurately; possibly it is from vanity, pride—in short, from evil; but it is also possible that it is from love.” The reader must bow before a noble mind that has dared to do what few minds have dared, to try to search out what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. Kierkegaard begins by reflecting on the hidden life of love. Because, he says, love cannot be seen, because its works are not for show, one must therefore believe in it; “otherwise one will never become aware that it exists.” For only, he goes on to show, by believing in it, will its fruits be recognised and only by recognising its fruits will love itself be known. “Therefore the last, the most blessed, the absolutely convincing evidence of love remains; love itself, which is known and recognised by the love in another. Like is only known by like. Only he who abides in love can recognise love and in the same way is his love to be known.”

“And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself ” (St Matthew XXII. 39).

Kierkegaard does not belong to that band of eloquent ones who have the power to draw tears from the eyes of those who love their neighbours at a distance, to those who would not wish to frighten their congregations away. Repeatedly he clears the ground by reminding those who might like to have an easy, sociable time in the world, admired and respected by others for their so-called ‘good works’, that loving one’s neighbour is a thankless task. But the reader who is a thinking man, who fears being deluded more than any other thing, who wants to track down his illusions unremittingly, can hardly fail to find the thought of Kierkegaard an aid. “I think continually,” he said, “of the reader who reads aloud”. Slowly he would have his reader read the book, following it carefully, not as if the author were to be considered, but rather as if the reader were being prompted in his own thought. For these reflections lie so deep that one feels they touch a point where they are universal.

You Shall Love

What kind of command is this? Surely, one might say, love is spontaneous, an inclination and not a duty. What a superficial view of love this latter is comes out clearly in the pages of this book. The three words ‘You shall love’ rise up from its deeps as a kingly command, an inner imperative, the fulfilment of which is the only way to live in one’s true element—the freedom of infinity. “How shall I love my neighbour?” is the question, and the answer comes: “As yourself.” “But who is my neighbour?” Derived from ‘neahgebur’ (near-dweller), the word ‘neighbour’, reflects Kierkegaard, means one who dwells nearer to you than anyone else—not in the sense of partiality, for favouritism is nothing less than self-love. No, your neighbour is as near to you as you are to yourself, and unless you love yourself in the right way, you cannot love your neighbour either. But to say to one that he ought to do what is his only desire, the impossibility of which has brought him to despair, is surely a mockery? No, says Kierkegaard, it is salvation. The command proves its divine origin, for humanly speaking it is impossible to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. Through the command, self-love gives way to the love of God which is decisive, for before God all men are one. So it is that “only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally secured against despair.”

When the ardent lover in the world imagines that he loves his beloved more than himself, he makes demands upon the other: “If you don’t love me, I will hate you.” Kierkegaard reflects that the right way to love is to make demands only upon oneself: “You shall love.” In this way one is secure from the chicaneries of men, from all comparisons, from betrayals, because whatever happens one can still say: “If you hate me, I will continue to love you.”

As we read on, we are shown that this kingly command gradually consumes all that is unsound in love, self-love, erotic love, preferential love, even poetic love which men admire so much. Poor poet! Even his love wilts before the power of Christian love; for he loves only one and only once, there is a limit to his love. In true love there can be no limit, even the enemies come in, for before God there is eternal equality, not even the slightest distinction. “When you love your friend you are not like God, because before God there is no distinction. But when you love your neighbour you are like unto God.”

Slowly and surely the main theme of the book emerges that “to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another; to be helped by another human being to love God is to be loved.” The worldly love, which considers only the relationship between man and man and leaves God out, leaves love out also, because it is based upon illusion. When however a true relationship is established, which Kierkegaard expresses as ‘man-God-man’, when God is the middle term, then man begins to learn of love through God himself, that love is the fulfilling of the law. If you think you can love the unseen and still dislike your brother, then you are mistaken in your love. “How can you love God whom you have not seen, when you do not love the brother you have seen?”

With subtle art and a gentle irony Kierkegaard exposes what he calls ‘distinguished corruption’—the stately seclusion of the well-bred man, the show of silk and ermine, the scholar who in a refined and cowardly manner avoids contact with reality’s opposition to distinctions—the superior man who dares not risk going through life in company with God, it might make a bad impression! Beware! How often Kierkegaard warns us that if we want to walk with God we shall find much to our disadvantage, for he will impel us to love our neighbour and that truly is a thankless task. For as we realise only too well, as we read on, if by loving your neighbour you try to help him to love God, he will not care very much for your love, he will prefer his follies. To love and then maybe to be hated by the object of your love, this is what true inwardness, true perseverance in love demands. Madness in the eyes of the world, blessedness to the Christian, for he is then obeying at last the divine command, the law of his own being.

“Owe no man anything, except to love one another ” (Romans XIII. 8).

In reflecting on this verse, Kierkegaard offers his reader an original thought, or at least an original interpretation, which helps to drive its meaning home. He says that in seeking to fulfil the law of love it is “our duty to be in the debt of love to each other.” Is this difficult? It is usually much easier to be in debt than to get out of it, says Kierkegaard, and so it is that, when love realises that it is in infinite debt, it comes into its true element—infinity, inexhaustibility. Suppose someone did a beautiful, noble, sacrificial deed and then said: “Now I’ve paid my debt to you!” Would not that, we are asked, be a book-keeping relationship? Suppose instead he came and said: “I am in infinite debt to you.” Would not this be a real work of love? This work is the work of love, the way, as Kierkegaard says, that “love builds up.” The beauty of this building-up process is that love is not constrained but is presupposed in the other, and marvellously unfolds itself by simply being ‘loved forth’. Thus nature works, nature which the average man takes for granted, for the Lord is hidden. He does not say: “Look, I did all this!” Neither does love boast and say that it has the power to create love in another. It merely presupposes that love exists, it believes in love and is never deceived.

Kierkegaard is led to reflect further that “love hopes all things and is never put to shame”, and that this work of love, hoping the highest for all men, is one that allows the greatest possibility for good. In contrast he gives a picture of the fearful one, the one who fears continually the possibility of evil, who imagines that even the most sincere believer can yet lose his faith. What a blessing for the world then is the one who imagines that even the most prodigal son can still be saved! But if he is not saved, is one shamed thereby? One can be shamed by hoping ill of a person and by all turning out well for him; but he who hopes all things for another will know in eternity that it is not the result that determines honour and shame, but simply the hope, which is a work of love, “for in eternity the cry of the mocker is not heard.”

So it grows clearer that “love seeks not its own,” its own being self-love. The reader holds his breath as he watches Kierkegaard turning the table of charity upside down. Look, love is a revolution! And with love comes confusion, as when two friends mix their blood, for in it there is no longer any ‘mine’ and ‘yours’. Thus takes place the transformation of the eternal: for to the one who has no ‘mine’ everything becomes his. In this revolution the lover learns how to give in such a way that the gift appears as if it were already possessed by the other. How clearly Kierkegaard conveys that the greatest benefaction is to help another stand upon his own, independent of the benefactor! Thus it is that the lover does not seek his own, but is wholly transformed into being an active power in the hands of God, and his works, which are the very works of God, are hidden and not easily recognised.

“So . . . love abides ” (Corinthians I, XIII. 13).

“Yes, God be praised, love abides.” That which can fall away, which can be broken, which cannot wait, cannot be love. The true lover, however, never falls away, he abides in love and thus makes his compact with the eternal. He who has had love along with him in any of his conscious strivings will know that whatever happens in life, even if the worst happens, nothing can take this love away. “What marvellous strength love has! The most powerful word which has been said, yes, God’s creative word, is: ‘BE’.” And herein, Kierkegaard reflects, lies the power of the lover, that he knows that he abides, that he conquers all by his abiding, his own illusions and the illusions of the unloving ones. “How shall I describe this work of love? O that I might be inexhaustible in describing what is so indescribably joyous and so up-building to reflect upon!”

There is indeed an abundance about this book, a sense of vastness as of the sea. The works of love are shown to be fathomless, beyond the mind of man to plumb. Mercifulness —what a work of love is this, even if it has nothing to give and is capable of doing nothing! How easy and how difficult to be merciful! Easy, because we are shown that even the most wretched man who has nothing to give and is capable of doing nothing can still be—merciful. Difficult, for to come to this glorious, blessed, holy state, one must abandon all ‘well-doing’ and all that one thought one had and become wholly inward and still and concentrated. The outer works, the gifts and charities, Kierkegaard calls ‘almost mercilessness’, they merely make a man dependent, they do not help him to love God. Mercifulness, however, says Kierkegaard, is the only significant aid : it causes no amazement in anybody, yet through it the victory is achieved, the victory through reconciliation in love.