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Works of Love by Soren Kierkegaard
ISBN: 0061301221
ISBN13: 978-0061301223
Author: Soren Kierkegaard
Book title: Works of Love
Other Formats: lit azw txt rtf
Pages: 384 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1st Harper Torchbook Ed edition (October 27, 1964)
Language: English
Size PDF version: 1312 kb
Size ePub version: 1907 kb
Size fb2 version: 1331 kb
Category: Religious Studies

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Some Christian reflections in the form of discourses.

Preface by Ronald Gregor Smith

Translated by Howard and Edna Hong



Books reviews
Awene
My first entire SK read. I found myself reading a paragraph again, then again, then "...just one more time." Why the rereading? Sometimes I did not get what he was saying. I think SK does this to the reader on purpose. But then I began to realize that it was because I wanted to read the text over and over again. I would wring out everything I could so as not to miss anything. (Though I know I have only scratched the surface). I reread some sections at least 6 times before moving on. To what end? Well, this book changed me. It re-wired my mind and heart in ways I could not have imagined. Soren Kierkegaard has become a friend to me. I am grateful to this man who has helped me become a different person than I was before I read this book. Some hard things are worth the effort. This is an understatement. I am now working through Fear and Trembling. Oh my.
Jeronashe
Works of Love is, perhaps, the greatest single piece of literature written in the history of humankind. Astonishingly, it has been greatly ignored by philosophers, laymen, and theologians alike. Unlike its predecessors, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, or The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love has largely remained unknown in the Western world. In an attempt to introduce my parents to this masterpiece, I discovered that the Russians had not even bothered to produce a translation to this very day! Reading recent reviews written by modern readers—a bare dozen or so—I recognized in their writings precisely how I felt about the book: mesmerized and changed. Most reviewers were both disturbed by the fact that such a life-altering book could have been given a cold shoulder, lasting a swiftly-approaching two centuries. I, too, could subjectively relate to that experience; I wanted to share my love for this work with someone—anyone—but there were none to be found. It is out of this frustration that I write; my presuppositions and inevitable biases are self-evident. I will mostly engage with the book’s profound first twelve pages (in the Hongs’ English translation). My purpose is modest: to briefly summarize Kierkegaard’s thoughts and provide some of my own unscientific remarks.

Kierkegaard begins his masterpiece by (re)introducing his reader—“that single individual”—to a well-known verse out of Luke’s Gospel: “Every tree is known by its own fruit, for figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (6:44). Immediately he launches an attack on all reductionist empirical physicalism: If “we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love.”[1] He wants nothing to do with naturalistic approaches to reality; he slams his book shut in the face of all such readers. If one is to proceed reading his book on love, one must first begin by assuming the critical[2] position that reality as we know it with our empirical senses should be doubted. This is not all there is to life as we know it. Kierkegaard clearly sees love as something that falls, in some mysterious way, out of the ordinary—it is not to be entirely reduced to physical processes which can be observed with the human eye and mind. This point must be pressed if modern readers, who are almost always grounded in scientific naturalistic approaches to anything and everything, are to understand where Kierkegaard stands on this issue—he would have atomically blasted the likes of Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love[3] out of its turbid waters, no questions asked. Kierkegaard sees those who reduce everything to atoms as incapable of robustly understanding and subjectively embracing love. For such people, love is an “eternal loss, for which there is no compensation…”[4] Those who live such lives are ultimately “deceived.”[5]

Modern readers may find this anti-physicalism to be something which inherently makes Kierkegaard’s conception of love wrong-headed. Is not science the greatest asset humanity has had, well, in a long time? But Kierkegaard is very careful with what he chooses to say and what he does not. He foresees that his approach presupposes the existence of God and that Love is to be ontologically grounded in God. “[A] human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.”[6] Love, which is in God, is the source which fuels all other so-called loves. Kierkegaard makes some further axiomatic statements: Love “connects the temporal and eternity” and is, therefore, “before everything and remains after everything is gone.”[7] Simply put: love is eternal. Why, then, cannot empirical physicalists (or, materialists, if you will) actually really love? Kierkegaard believes that because love is eternal—and since the eternal is what the physicalist disbelieves—he or she has “an enormous relief to cast off this bond of eternity.”[8] The physicalist, in his rejection of the supra-natural eternal, is, by inference, rejecting true love. Christian love, Kierkegaard argues, which is to be identified as the true form of love, has nothing to do with those aesthetic poets. Christian love is eternal and, therefore, never perishes. The poets write about a love which blossoms—if something blossoms, it must die. “What the poet sings about must have the sadness, which is the riddle of his own life, that it must blossom—and, alas, must perish.”[9] In a paradoxical way, in denying true Christian eternal love, the physicalist, who rejects eternity, is stuck recycling “blossoming love” in an ever-increasing state of “sadness”—while he rejects suffering and sorrow, he still ends up wallowing in it! (In this perfect example, one can paraphrase with Kierkegaard, “Do it or do not do it—you will regret both.”)[10] Granted, some of us may disagree with Kierkegaard, but that is all beside the point. (For atheist and theist alike can benefit from his through analyses of love.) However, Kierkegaard does consider these presuppositions important—despite what one ultimately chooses to do with them.

In several tightly-packed sentences, Kierkegaard comments, regarding the physicalist who gave up on love, “That he ‘has seized to sorrow’ we shall not deny, but of what benefit is that when it would be to his salvation to begin in earnest sorrow over himself!”[11] This sentence, if superficially skimmed over, can lead to disastrous results. Kierkegaard is clearly and concisely stating that love is equivalent to sorrow. This observation of his is not to be missed; it is one of the key marks of Christian love. Kierkegaard is here identifying for the readers what the physicalist knew all along: to love someone truly is to suffer, to have sorrow. But from whence did such an idea arise? Kierkegaard, as many already know, was a devout Christian, a reader of the Gospels. And in the Gospels, Kierkegaard saw what it cost God to love the world. He saw what it meant to lay a life down for somebody else. Somebody effectively unworthy. Kierkegaard instinctively knew the price one had to pay to really love. Love has an inverse relationship with power and control: those who have more power and control usually have less love; those who love most have the least amount of influence and power in a relationship. And where exactly does one find such a self-less love?

Kierkegaard insists that “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” He wants the readers to realize the importance of loving intentions, amplified by sound waves used to carry loving words, which result in loving actions. Herein lies the secret to Works of Love. In a similar vein, probably inspired by Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, and I will quote him at length:

“There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.”[12]

Like Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard is not entirely a Kantian deontologist, neither is he a J. S. Mill consequentialist/utilitarian; he is both. He refuses to dichotomize and pit one against the other. He refuses to call “love” that which results in evil. He refuses to call “love” that which is done out of evil, which happens to result in what appears to be a loving action. He refuses to take that step. He sees love as both being done out of a loving heart (deontological approach), spoken with loving words, resulting in loving actions (consequentialist approach). That, for him, is love par excellence. “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” Love must produce fruit; it must result in what is perceived to be a loving action. Kierkegaard, ever the skeptic, rightly delves into the subjectivity (or, inter-subjectivity) of love. What if one is deceived by someone into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? What if someone is self-deceived into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? How does one know what is love? Do not all of our subjective worldviews come into play? Kierkegaard is completely aware of such subjective elements. It happens “when a person makes the mistake of calling something love that actually is self-love, when he loudly protests that he cannot live without the beloved but does not want to hear anything about the task and requirement of love to deny oneself and to give up this self-love of erotic love.”[13] “Can love be reduced to a particular phrase or word?” Kierkegaard asks. “Words and phrases and the inventions of language may be a mark of love, but that is uncertain.”[14] He continues: “In one person’s mouth the same words can be so full of substance, so trustworthy, and in another person’s mouth they can be like vague whispering of leaves [with no fruit found on the tree].”[15] He believes in speaking loving words, but he is aware of two things: (1) the subjectivity of understanding the spoken and (2) the inability of any human to reduce love to a single word. Kierkegaard asserts that “you should not for that reason hold back your words,” for “ whoever is an object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words…”[16] Kierkegaard sees duty-based (i.e., deontological) ethics at work here. He believes that if one is so moved inwardly to love somebody else, one is bound to express verbally his or her feelings. The object of your affection already has a deontological claim upon your words. What if love results in nothing but Taylor Swift’s lyrics? What if love is nothing but a love song, a poem, a whispered verse from Shakespeare in the ear of the beloved? What if love is only a word? “[I]mmature and deceitful love is known by this, that words and platitudes are its only fruit.”[17] Kierkegaard outright rejects any so-called Taylor Swift approach towards love, which is grounded in nothing but temporal sensuality, obsession with sex, and objectification of the “other-self.” Such verbalizations and erratic gesticulations are nothing but the bastard child of the whore, self-love.

“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. On the contrary, it is even true that a word from one person can convince us that there is love in him, and the opposite word from another can convince us that there is love in him also.”[18]

Earlier, Kierkegaard remarked that love is “invisible” and that it must simply be “believed” in.[19] Precisely because of its “invisibility,” love cannot be reduced to a particular word or even action. When dealing with the question of reducing love to a particular work, Kierkegaard states that everything “depends on how the work is done.”[20] He rejects the idea that love can be reduced to one, single work.

“[E]ven in charity, visiting the widow, and clothing the naked do not truly demonstrate or make known a person’s love, inasmuch as one can do works of love in an unloving, yes, even in a self-loving way, and if this is so the work of love is no work of love at all.”[21]

Here, precisely, those who ignorantly accuse Kierkegaard of a pietistic works-righteousness approach fail miserably. For Kierkegaard does not believe that works in and of themselves are “good”; they must be done with right intentions, gracefully reflecting the “Initial Love,” which flows eternally from God Himself. Moreover, those who want to accuse Kierkegaard of strict consequentialism or Utilitarianism also fail miserably: no such thing is present in any absolute form here. No, what is of utmost importance is: “How, then, the word is said and above all how it is meant, how, then, the work is done—this is decisive in determining and in recognizing love by its fruits.”[22]

The question then arises: What if somebody’s love is not recognized as such? What if, in loving somebody else, that certain somebody misunderstands me and my actions, and takes them to mean something other than love? Kierkegaard believes that such a person must not “work so that love will be known by the fruits but to work so that it could be known by the fruits.”[23] He is not saying that your love, as such, will be recognized; he is saying that it could be recognized. This is not an imperative to make love known to the other; this is, rather, a statement in the subjunctive: works of love must be done in such a way that they might bring about works which are interpreted to have been done in love. There is no guarantee that such works will be labeled “love.” There is uncertainty here.

What if somebody reads the Gospels and then starts judging how much others love, is that appropriate? Kierkegaard responds with a resounding “No!” For “the one who is busily occupied tracking down hypocrites, whether he succeeds or not, had better see to it that this is not also a hypocrisy, inasmuch as such discoveries are hardly the fruits of love.”[24] In judging others, we are judging ourselves. The Gospel is not a weapon to be used against others; rather, it is a mirror in which one examines oneself.

We are, finally, back to where we initially started. “The first point developed in this discourse was that we must believe in love—otherwise we simply will not notice that it exists…”[25] Here, Kierkegaard insists that only the believers see love; only those seeing love believe.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the unconditionally convincing mark of love remains—love itself, the love that becomes known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like; only someone who abides in love can know love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”[26]

Kierkegaard is insisting that love requires the acceptance of this axiomatic statement: believe that love exists. For only in believing that it exists will it actually spring into existence.

To conclude this somewhat lengthy look at only a few pages of the text, I would like to briefly reflect on the overall impression this particular chapter made on me. I am thoroughly convinced that Kierkegaard is right in arguing immediately that love is subjective. That does not mean that love is not absolute. It is absolute, and has its grounding in an objective God. However, love is subjective in the sense that we can all be hearing the same thing from a particular person and only one of us may react in a loving reciprocal manner. That is, only one may actually subjectively feel love being conveyed. Romeo may objectively be verbalizing feelings of love—feelings which none of us could subjectively relate to. An objective event may be taking place (in fact, it is) but not all of us have subjective access to that objective reality. We all know that Romeo directed his loving words, carried on sound waves, to one person and one person only: Juliet. While those sound waves could have been recorded and examined objectively by a team of empirical scientists, love would never be conveyed in their thorough analysis. Not a single scientist would fall in love with Romeo. Not a single scientist would intuitively and subjectively know and experience the love contained in those words. In this sense—in this thoroughly Kierkegaardian approach—the love which is ejected from the innermost part of a human being is specifically directed, like a beam of light, at a particular person in a particular moment. Apart from all of these tautological statements (e.g., statements such as “loving is believing, believing is loving”), at least that is how some may view them, Kierkegaard correctly observes that, paradoxically, love begins with belief. One begins by believing in love—one presupposes that love exists in the other human being. Once love is presupposed in the other, then love is experienced by the one presupposing. “Like is known only by like.” If you want to see love in another human being, first believe that he or she is loving. If you want to receive love from another human being, first believe that he or she is capable of loving you. In such a way, love is an act of faith. If there is one thing Kierkegaard wants you to walk away with from reading the first chapter, it is this: believe in love. Apart from belief, there is nothing but poetic “sadness.” If you want to remain stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-love and a refusal to really love, then you can feed on the “blossoms” of temporal “love.” As for me and my household, we are taking a leap of faith.

Works of Love goes on to develop other ideas about love. Kierkegaard deals with self-love and its inherent problems, the categorical imperative and the “You shall love” command, the problem with preferential love (such as erotic love and friendship), the importance in distinguishing between true “others” and the “other-self,” etc. He does all of this in merely the first few chapters of the work. If you enjoyed this paper, please go out, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy. Read it.
Dagdarad
My favorite book of all time. From a philosophical standpoint it's an amazing and thorough picture of applications of Christian existentialism. From a spiritual standpoint it's a very personal account of Kierkegaard's relationship with religion. From a cognitive standpoint, it's a wonderful new challenge to rethink the way you process the dichotomy of logic and faith.
Ueledavi
Note for anyone wondering about the translation: this is the Howard and Edna Hong translation, with a forward by George Pattison. Info from the book's title page.

Note to anyone suffering from heartbreak: now might be the time to read Works of Love. Not later, when you think you can handle it, but now, while you're in turmoil and still breaking. I know, I know...it's Kierkegaard, and he has a tough rep sometimes, but I was surprised by how much it both comforted and corrected me. It helped rebuild my heart and mind better than I could have imagined.
saafari
Here it is. How to apply the love of God, as taught to us by Jesus, in the reality of daily life. No fancy formulas here, no clever platitudes, just the truth. A tremendous reconcilitation of the supposed contradiction between works and faith as the basis of salvation, Kierkegaard shows that in fact the letter to the Galatians explains that the essence of Christianity's message is faith, working through love. Hence, "Works of Love". This is Kierkegaards' magnum opus. Not for the faint of heart nor anyone looking for an easy answer, yet amazingly simple and honest. Completely vindicates Soren Kierkegaard from the charge by narrow traditionalists ( most of whom have never read anything he wrote ) that he was not a genuine Christian, perhaps not even a Christian at all. If you wish to follow Christ, follow Kierkegaard. He is a trustworthy guide.
Malalrajas
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and love others. Kierkegaard profoundly expands upon this command. I know of no other book like it. Since God is love, and love is central to the Gospel, then it makes sense to study and think about love as deeply as we can. How do we truly love others? Kierkegaard helps provide an answer.
Nakora
Very thought-provoking writing. Give yourself time to read slowly. Kierkegaard is hard to "skim." I am only partway through and have already been blown away by some very deep thoughts and memorable prose.
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