Works of Love Introduction 1944

Works of Love by Soren Kierkegaard 1847 translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson with an introduction by Douglas V. Steere, Princeton University Press 1946


steere swensonSome great writers are more articulate than others about what they believe to have been the mission of their career as an author. Soren Kierkegaard, with a power of introspection and self-analysis that has been rarely matched in history, was singularly specific about his objective as a writer. He sought to point out how a man might become a Christian when he already was one. Not that this restoration was an easy task. Kierkegaard once went so far as to say, “It is easier to become a Christian when I am not a Christian than to become a Christian when I am one.” (CUP 1941 p. 327) Kierkegaard never tired of pointing out that there is a certain immunity to the full implications of Christian commitment built up by imbibing it in diluted form from birth. He felt himself, therefore, called to the “role of the missionary within Christendom itself, aiming to introduce Christianity into Christendom.” (POV 1939 p. 138)

Writing in Denmark a century ago to reach a church well established in a broad pattern of bourgeois security, to a people who rendered lip service to this church but who in personal, social, and political decisions took little account of their obedience to God and His revelation, to a generation that had not yet openly rebelled against Christianity but who were quietly burying it under a deceptive funeral coverlet of the roses and ferns of surface observance. Kierkegaard presented by means of a whole religious literature the costly claim of what it meant to be a Christian. “In all eternity,” he wrote, “it is impossible for me to compel a person to accept an opinion, a conviction, a belief. But one thing I can do: I can compel him to take notice.” (POV p. 35) And his presentation of the Christian claim on the life of the individual was so ruthlessly searching that again and again during the past century German, Russian, French, Italian, and Spanish, and now English and American thinkers have turned to him and have felt his rapier draw blood from them and sting them into a fresh reckoning with the Christian witness.

It is this kind of task that he is about in his greatest single work on Christian ethics, his Works of Love. It was finished, so he tells us in his Journals, on August 2, 1847, and actually published the following year. Europe was on the verge of another of those social earth tremors that was to carry the late eighteenth century revolutions into nearly every capital of Europe and seek to compel further recognition of the principles involved. But these events in no way influenced the content of the Works of Love nor would they have done so even if Kierkegaard had been writing after they had occurred. For Kierkegaard sought to enunciate these Christian moral principles from the very nature of the Christian message itself, and left it to others to make the appropriate personal application of them to the contemporary scene. “But the maximum of attainment is simultaneously to sustain absolute relationship to the absolute end, and a relative relationship to relative ends.” (CUP p. 371) The absolute end is always set forth as an inward unconditional obedience to God, and in his Works of Love Kierkegaard explores what is involved in that unconditional obedience if we are to follow Jesus’ formulation of the great commandment: “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” and to carry out what is involved in Paul’s conception of love, found in the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians. vii-viii

In his Journals, Kierkegaard whimsically remarks that “most people really believe that the Christian commandments [e.g. to love one’s neighbor as oneself] are intentionally a little too severe-like setting the clock ahead half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning.” (CUP p. 371) His Works of Love is a presentation of the inward ethical demand of neighbor-love as having been given without a shade of oriental hyperbole. (Christ did not permit a cheaper edition  of what it was to be a follower), and is laid upon us in such a way that we can, by living under it, recognize what an absolute ethical demand really means and what it calls for in regard to our whole live orientation.

The Christian ethic of neighbor-love as depicted by Kierkegaard is not kin to Shaftesbury’s emotion of the beauty of love or to Hume’s loving feeling of sympathy for all. It more closely approaches the sterner character of the Kantian categorical imperative. Its objectivity and universality are not made to rest upon the intermittent character of fickle human feelings, or upon emotions that may be even more variable than the weather, but instead are laid upon the will. Nor is the universality of its application made subject to the political or social constellation of the moment that decrees whether it is good form to love a Samaritan or a Russian or a Finn or a German or an Oriental or a Negro or a proletarian or the President of the Chamber of Commerce. Jesus, in gathering up the Old Testament witness at its highest, declares, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” and in the Thou shalt, issuing from the very nature of God Himself, the will has an authoritative directive given to it which lifts the love of neighbor, the unlimited liability for the neighbor, out of the realm of the optional. Now it is no longer a matter of private inclinations, of private aptitude, or of following the current pattern of the racial, national or social group to which I belong. Now neighbor-love has been grounded in the deep earnestness that comes from having God, the unchanging Once, lay this command upon us, a command that acknowledges no off-season, no exception, no moratorium, and judges our right to self-concern in terms of whether we have already shown equal concern for our neighbor. viii-ix

This universality is further applied by making the neighbor, just as in Tolstoy’s famous story of The Three Questions, whomever I am in touch with, whoever is in need. “If you do not see him so close at hand that before God you see him unconditionally in every man, then you do not see him at all.” this makes him now my well beloved and most obviously pleasant neighbor, but my neighbor irrespective of his faults, his unpleasant manners, his failings. My neighbor thus may be my enemy, and I am still bound by God’s holy authority to be liable for him, to love him as myself. I may even be brought to know how much I love God by how much I love that neighbor to whom by natural inclination I am least drawn.

This universality is made still more binding by Kierkegaard’s emphasis upon the “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This command is not to mankind in general, as a wise course of conduct to take. There is no option in it and it is addressed personally to me. If I live in earnestness before God, then I, apart from all evasive comparison with what others might be inclined to do in a similar situation, apart from all attempts at extenuating circumstances that might excuse me from this time, quite apart from my capacities or resources which may apparently be quite insufficient materially to assist my neighbor by my love, hence apart from all assurances of results, I must nevertheless love him. “If someone has cut my hands off, I cannot play the zither, and if someone has cut my leg off, then I cannot dance…. and if I myself lie with a broken leg, then I cannot rush into the flames to save another’s life”: (II, 7), Kierkegaard wrote, but went on to add, “but I can be compassionate everywhere.” A compassionate glance or an inward prayer, when more cannot be given, may in God’s sight be the most complete fulfillment of this command. “As for ‘accomplishing’ anything, a man has nothing to do with it, it is God’s affair, God’s bestowal upon the individual.” (Training in Christianity 1941 p. 182)

This makes it possible for the command to be carried out by all. “Love is not an art like poetry, possible only to the few endowed for it, it is open and accessible to all.” (II, 10). For by placing the fulfillment of the command of neighbor-love in the intention of the actor and not in the physical means of fulfillment it becomes binding on all who accept God’s authority, no matter what their or condition or wealth or station may be.

Yet, after calling attention to the Kantian formalistic character of this Christian ethic of neighbor-love in contrast to an ethic based on ix

feeling, it is important to note the genuine difference in the frame in which the two ethical systems of Kant and Kierkegaard are set, a difference which profoundly affects the whole tone of the two positions.


For Kierkegaard in both his Either/Or and his Stages on Life’s Way has depicted the strictly ethical category and has done it almost wholly in Kantian terms. But like the aesthetic category which is also depicted there, he has then shown its basic instability and shown how it may collapse and compel the individual to seek a deeper existence sphere (the religious) in which to live. The critical point in the ethical category Kierkegaard insists is its inability to get over the hiatus or chasm between recognized duty and its performance, when performance involves pain to our pride or our inclination or the defiance of the momentary way of the crowd. This failure to follow duty in old-fashioned terms is called sin, and Kierkegaard has shown the ethical category shattering on that rock of sin, and no ethical appeal to reason or duty or ultimate pleasure is sufficient to stay the condition where “I do those things which I ought not to do and leave undone those things which I ought to do, and there is no health in me.” X

It is in this way that Kierkegaard depicts the ethical category as dethroned from ever providing a permanently satisfying, self-sufficient existence-sphere for men. On the other hand, one has entered the deepest religious sphere of existence, both the aesthetical and the ethical are restored again, but now restored as dependent phases of existence, drawing their central strength and directive from the object of the religious commitment into which the man has entered. Thus the Christian ethic, according to Kierkegaard, involves the Grace of God and involves a life in active response to that Grace, a life therefore that is lived in inward earnestness. This “earnestness is a man’s God-relationship. Everywhere where the thought of God is present in what a man does, thinks, and says, there is earnestness” (II, 8). This is no remote relationship to a noumenal order which is postulated from the solid experience of Kantian duty. It is an ethic whose formal character is derivative from an intensely personal center.

Kierkegaard’s opening prayer in the Works of Love sets the note of God’s Grace to which a Christian’s love must always be in debt and be a lesser response, when he writes, “Thou who didst hold nothing back, but didst give everything in love.” This indebtedness on our part is a central theme of the book and the command “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is made to those who have become aware of that debt. “As the peaceful lake is grounded darkly in the deep spring, so is human love mysteriously grounded in God’s love.”

In the chasm, the hiatus between my interest and my neighbor’s interest, that neither egoistic nor universalistic hedonism, nor a feeling of XI the beauty of the act, nor an instinct of benevolence, nor even a stern voice of rationally discernible duty can regularly bridge, Kierkegaard places not alone a new factor but a new ground. He places a third party, a third person: the loving God to whom we are hopelessly indebted. In this intensely personal relationship as we love back to Him, he places our neighbor before us. God is made the middle term who lifts this relationship with neighbor up out of all partiality, out of all the vagaries of human feelings, and has us love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and do it always in the light and power of our love for Him. “For ultimately love to God is the decisive thing; from it stems love to the neighbor…. In earthly love and friendship partiality is the middle term. In love to the neighbor God is the middle term; if you love God above all else, then you also love your neighbor and in your neighbor every man. Only by loving God above all else can one love his neighbor and in the neighbor every man” (I, 2 B).

However, this middle term of all true love is not alone to bridge the chasm with an impetus and an authority that raises man above his momentary whims and impulses. It is also to purge the relationship with my neighbor of all partiality-for before God all souls are of equal worth. “Your neighbor is your equal… for with your neighbor you have human equality before God … but every man unconditionally has this equality, and has it unconditionally.” This lifts the relationship from being qualified by its object, as earthly love and friendship outside the Christian pale are qualified. Now it is made a relationship that embraces everyone, and yet everyone individually.

It is this radical Christian leveling of the barriers of rank between persons, even if it is only done inwardly, that Nietzsche so bitterly opposed in his Will to Power, and Nietzsche even came to regard it as his life mission to seek to restore the order of rank and caste and station which he saw Christianity undermining. And it has been this very force of equality before God that many have regarded as the revolutionary power in Christianity, that dwarfs the programs of all secular revolutionary movements into puny insignificance, compared to its continually exercised power.

Yet Kierkegaard is cautious in the conclusions which he accepts from the middle term’s drawing us into an impartial love for each neighbor which cuts through every worldly difference. His central position of inwardness is strictly adhered to here, and this issue of equality lays bare the position and presents it both in all of its fascinating power and in all of its scandalous vulnerability to abuse. The vulnerability to abuse stands out as Kierkegaard acknowledges the “differences” as inevitably present so long as the world exists: “As little as the Christian lives or can live without a physical body, just as little can he live outside the differences XII of earthly life to which every individual by birth, by condition, by circumstances, by education, etc., belongs. … These differences must continue as long as the temporal existence continues and must continue to tempt every man who comes into the world” (I, 2 C). “Externally it [Christianity] does not wish to bring about any change at all in the external; it wishes to understand the external, purify it, consecrate it, and so make everything new, while everything remains old” (I, 3 B). Taken by itself, this position could amply justify the most intransigent social conservatism, which all evidence goes to show was the political and economic position which Kierkegaard personally espoused in the Denmark of his day. And his pleas to the poor to find in their lot an inward devotion to God which accepted it without bitterness or protest, could also be construed in the tradition of a completely other-worldly religion which administered an opiate upon all demands for improvement of the conditions of this life.

Yet the impressive power of his doctrine of a religious ethic of inwardness becomes apparent as he explains how he would have the Christian inwardly overcome these differences by the aid of the middle term. “Christianity has not wished to storm forth to abolish the differences, neither those of distinction nor of humbleness, nor has it wished in a worldly sense to effect a worldly agreement between differences; but it wants the differences to hang loosely on the individual, loosely like the cape the king casts off to reveal himself; loosely like the ragged cloak in which a supernatural being has concealed itself. When the differences hangs thus loosely, then that other essential self is always glimpsed in every individual, that common to all, that eternal resemblance, the equality. … This expectant solemnity which, without halting the course of life, renews itself every day through the eternal and through the equality of eternity, every day saves its soul from the differences in which it still continues: this would be the reflection of eternity” (I, 2 C). Or he expresses it again: “Christianity has not wished to tumble governments from the throne in order to set itself upon the throne; it has never in an external sense striven for a place in the world of which it is not a part, and yet it has infinitely changed everything which it permitted and which permits it to continue. As the blood throbs through every nerve, so Christianity in the conscience-relation wishes to penetrate everything. … This is the miracle of Christianity, more wonderful than that one of changing water into wine; this miracle in all stillness, without any change of rulers, moreover without a hand being moved, of making every man, divinely understood, into a king. … And there within, where the Christian dwells in the conscience-relation, there is everything changed. … Thus Christianity transforms every relationship between man and man into a conscience-relationship” (I 2 C).


As the Christian’s supreme task, this hidden inward revolution is in keeping with his portrait of the true knight of faith in Fear and Trembling, who outwardly appears like everyone else, has an excellent appetite, works hard as a common occupation, sleeps without a dream, and yet at every instant is yielding his life utterly to God. and it contains within it a transforming power by which God may reshape the world, i.e., by the consciences of individual knights of faith who are devoted to Him, and who, without any identifiable uniform of the common pattern or plan in their role and station of life, serve the good.

He has never expressed his own conviction on this matter more sharply than in a little treatise called, “My Positon as a Religious Writer in Christendom and my Tactics,” which he concludes by saying: “With regard to the established order, I have always done the opposite of attacking it; I have never been in or with the ‘opposition’ which wants to get rid of government , nor have I been allied with it; but I have furnished what may be called a ‘corrective,’ the intent of which was: For God’s sake let us continue to be ruled by those who are appointed and called to this task, and that they should stand fast in the fear of God willing only one thing, the ‘Good.’ … Never has the race and every individual in it discovered so deeply that it and every individual within it needs and craves that which the loving Godhead in love discovered, namely, the unconditional. … Require the navigator to sail without a ballast-he capsizes. Let the race, the individual, make the experiment of doing without the unconditional-it is a whirlpool and remains such. … Hence “the individual’ himself must relate himself to the unconditional. … This is what I in proportion to the talents granted to me, with the utmost expenditure of effort and with many sacrifices, have consistently fought for, fighting against every tyranny, including that of the numerical. This effort of mine has been interpreted as hatred, as monstrous pride, and arrogance-I believed and still believe that this is Christianity and love for one’s ‘neighbor.’ (My Work as an author,” POV pp. 162-164)

But having shaken the secular world out of its lethargy and God-defiance, there is a further stage which is omitted by Kierkegaard. Whether it was left as a detail for men to apply as they were given wisdom by God, or whether it was in that vein of indifference to the social and political order in the outer world which is so strong in both Jesus and Paul, it is not easy to tell. Certainly for the Old Testament prophets, they were drawn not only to denounce individual wickedness but to call upon a whole people to reform. They were concerned with public wickedness and did not hesitate to announce the “tumbling of governments,” if those kingdoms sat astride God’s purpose in the world and blocked it. Nor does Kierkegaard’s position reckon with the corporate aspects of the Xiv

charismatic Christian community that may show a genuinely positive corporate response to God’s calling. For Kierkegaard, the group, the world, is always evil, always attacking neighbor-love. This aspect of Kierkegaard’s doctrine of inwardness goes beyond indifference to the social order. It not only despairs of its improvement but regards the world as inevitably God-defiant. “Alas, the world seldom or never thinks of God; that is the reason why it completely misunderstands every life whose most essential and steadfast thought is precisely the thought of God” (I, 5). And as a result the Kingdom, for Kierkegaard, must always remain hidden from this world. No longer can that favorite text of Rendall Harris’s taken from the Apocryphal II Clement =, 12 “… When the two shall be one, and that which is without is that which is within,” be an aspiration that faint outward evidences and deep inward confirmations sustain.

Yet, in conclusion, it is important to disengage the accidental from the essential, and it must be made clear that these criticisms are leveled primarily against Kierkegaard’s own personal reluctance to apply the implications of his ethic to the social situation. The ethic itself is not subject to any such attack. Even Kierkegaard in an unguarded moment credits the leveling power of this Christian ethic with having removed the “master-thrall” relationship in society. And in Kierkegaard’s own conception of a society in which real earnestness reigns, these differences are to be robbed of all corrupting possessiveness and worn like loose garments. In his effort to recover for a secularized world the unconditional, and to relate each individual to the unconditional, and through the unconditional back unconditionally to his neighbor, he has rendered the field of ethics an inestimable service. For he has placed ethical decisions in a frame that transcends morality’s inherent tendency toward legalism and toward pride, and has subjected the ethical agent who lives in earnestness to a continual purging of his accomplishments in the humbling fire of a recognition of the poverty of all that he has done in the light of the love he owed.

Douglas V. Steere

Haverford College
Haverford, Pennsylvania
August, 1944

sk on wonder and doubt





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

J. Glenn Friesen

Christian Nondualism


Drips and Drops of Everyday Life

Philosophy of Religion blog

Does God Exist? Is belief in God reasonable?

Kierkegaard and Christianity

Søren Kierkegaard, Soren, Age of Enlightenment, Denmark, Christianity, Philosophy, Theology, Existentialism,

Søren Kierkegaard: A Christian Layman

Søren Kierkegaard was a Christian author who was against applying the ideas of the Scientific Enlightenment to Christianity. He lived in Denmark from 1813 to 1855. His works were written to the single individual who might be interested in reading them.

Policy of Truth

The website and group blog of Irfan Khawaja

Eye Will Not Cry

"Eye Fly High"

The Black Ponderer

Philosophy for the Modern Age

the de-scribe

now write what you have seen

Fragments of a Journey: A Kierkegaard Blog

A chronicle of one man's personal voyage through the life and works of Søren Kierkegaard

The Kierkegaarden

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard 1813-1855

Piety on Kierkegaard

This site news relating to Kierkegaard scholarship

All Hail Honeybees

An insight on eating and enjoying it.

The Blog

The latest news on and the WordPress community.

%d bloggers like this: