Kierkegaard wanted his gravestone to feature the simple inscription: That Individual. It wasn’t engraved on his headstone but yet it seems it was engraved on the critical imagination because, while his works on an individual’s dignity, psychology, choices, anxieties and self-denying conformities have long been celebrated, his works on sociality have been unwisely neglected.
Kierkegaard anticipated the jibes of critics who would accuse him of overlooking sociality. Such critics would be “fools” because they ignored his “maieutic carefulness” and the thorough procession of thought that first established the basis for understanding before proceeding to any new subject. Still, he conceded that his method had caused confusion: “I owe it to myself to confess before God that in a certain sense there is some truth in it, only not as men understand it, namely that always when I have presented one aspect sharply, then I affirm the validity of the other even more strongly.”
So, after six years writing about the individual, in 1847 he wrote Works of Love, his masterpiece on sociality. Kierkegaard had prepared the ground well; it is firmly based on all that came before it in his oeuvre. There is a consistent emphasis on the need for the individual to relate to himself in relation with God, and thus the mistakes made by those who focus only on the temporal and external, the requirement to accept being misunderstood and therefore be a cause of offence, and, with all this, the possibility of being left somewhat solitary but still committed to persist in works of love.
It’s the examination of equality in society that makes Works of Love especially valuable. The edition I own is over 370 pages. Given the complexity of human psychology and affairs, it needs to be long because it needs to be a wide-ranging reflection. It can’t be reduced to a tweet, a meme, a sound-bite, or a cardboard sign on a stick. Unfortunately, the demand for equality is often reduced to unreflective slogans. “Equality!” is a clarion call that causes the old warhorses of socialism and the young warhorses of activism to prick up their ears and get excited, ready to charge, often trampling innocent people underfoot, often in a self-contradictory direction, nearly always with much self-satisfaction. In Kierkegaard’s day, the French Revolution, still in living memory, had put equality at the forefront of politics, and the new drug of communism had recently entered the intelligentsia’s bloodstream and had gone straight to the brain, adding recklessness to a violent strength that was ready to sunder close relationships, as ice does to addicts today. It is in this context that Works of Love was germane in 1847. However, its relevance is timeless because it is based on the inward, the spiritual and the eternal rather than the social conditions of nineteenth-century Denmark.
This essay appears in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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Kierkegaard lamented that politics in his day was only about the temporal, because it was only in the mystical that social equality had any real justification: every person has the equal dignity of being an individual before God, who does not deal with abstractions such as species or class or group but with the specific, “unmitigated individual”. Once this exalting relationship with the Eternal has been enacted and pursued, a person has all they essentially need and outward distinctions become matters of much less concern. In Works of Love Kierkegaard says:
… kinship of all men is secured by every individual’s equal kinship with and relationship to God in Christ, because the Christian doctrine addresses itself equally to every individual and teaches him that God has created him and Christ has redeemed him because the Christian doctrine calls every man aside and says to him, “Shut your door and pray to God and you have the utmost a human being can have; love your Saviour, and you have everything, both in life and death; then pay no attention to the differences, for they make no difference.”
This is an invisible, inward equality; an equality of being divinely loved irrespective of externalities such as wealth, status or vocation. Nearly a century later, G.K. Chesterton made the same point:
Religion is the only possible root of this idea of an invisible sanctity or dignity, belonging equally to all the different sorts of men. It is obvious that men have not got a mental or a material equality. If they have got a moral equality, it can only be a mystical equality.
Chesterton lamented that, “In Bolshevism and similar things we are watching a crazy contradiction, in which the ideal of equality is extended more and more extravagantly, while the only reason for equality is being flung away.” The result was, and still is, that equality is not achieved in any unalloyed way—equality for one group usually means harsh discrimination towards another group—and society becomes “all one wild divorce court”.
The fact that an extravagant equality results in serious injustice should not cause surprise because the demand for social and political equality is based on an abstraction that has no basis in reality. It posits that there is a pure, ideal form of humanity that must be contrived to exist in equality in reality: a pure fairy tale inspiring a flawed project. On the other hand, Kierkegaard points out:
Just as the Christian does not and cannot live without the body, so he cannot live without the distinctions of earthly life which belong to each individual, whether by virtue of birth, position, circumstances, education, etc.—no one of us is pure or essential man. Christianity is too earnest to present fables about pure man—it wants only to make man pure. Christianity is no fairy tale—even if the eternal happiness which it promises is more glorious than what any fairy tale offers.
The common vision of equality, based only on externalities, is false to human realities in another way, too, because it ignores the crucial inward equality that is affirmed by the call of God to every person—irrespective of anyone’s station in life—to love one’s neighbour. Indifferent to this equal calling, the activist, for example, or the well-meaning NGO head, lobbies for equality but naively assumes that those who have power and privilege are guilty of arrogance yet those who are poor and under-privileged cannot be guilty of envy. In a similar way, many activists concerned about domestic violence present a narrative that assumes men are quick to anger and abuse, but women are somehow incapable of nastiness, imprudent partnerships or violence themselves.
Kierkegaard understood that all people, rich or poor, powerful or weak, are tempted to follies that damage the soul by diminishing its reverent attitude and by inducing envy rather than love for one’s neighbour:
Far be it from us to strengthen anyone in the presumptuous delusion that only the mighty and the famous are the guilty ones, for if the poor and weak merely aspire defiantly for the superiority denied them in earthly existence instead of humbly aspiring for Christianity’s blessed equality, this also damages the soul. Christianity is not blind, nor is it one-sided; with the quietness of the eternal it looks equably on all the distinctions of earthly life, but it does not contentiously take sides with any single one. It sees—and with real distress—that earthly busy-ness and the false prophets of secularism will in the name of Christianity conjure up the illusion of perfect equality, as if only the high and mighty make much of the distinctions of earthly existence, as if the poor were entitled to do everything in order attain equality—only not by way of becoming Christians in earnestness and truth. I wonder if one can come closer to Christianity in earnestness and equality that way?
The secular vision of equality seeks to level the external differences between men, but it will always be frustrated, and always therefore agitated and agitating, because the realm of the temporal is defined by the passing of time which is “the very medium of differentiation”. Attempts to impose equality by force of law, for example, are vain attempts to arrest time and establish a timeless, ideal condition of equality. Trying to impose a simple stillness on differentiating and complex reality creates chaos; it invites contentions and schisms, it legislates what turn out to be grosser inequities, and it engenders polarities—the very opposite to the social harmony it seeks to establish. This is obvious today when the secular insistence on an equalising plurality in philosophy, culture and religion is, in fact, one of the factors that are splintering society and unearthing tensions and resentments that may otherwise have remained dormant.
This is bad enough, but legislated equality, because it is only concerned with externalities, creates and then extends another problem in its neglect of inward human realities. It is concerned only with the outward act—this is all law can ever be concerned with—so it doesn’t honour either the essential or the existential primacy of the heart, soul and conscience of the individual. Legislated equality is a field of scattered bones that won’t come together to form a whole, vibrant community until the spirit—the inward—is honoured. This is because law only indirectly touches a person’s character. In The Priority of Prudence (1996), Daniel M. Nelson highlights the relevance of this point and therefore champions the unique value of training in virtue:
Moral precepts concern commanded and prohibited acts, but they only indirectly concern the characters of those who do the acts. A virtue ethics, on the other hand, is concerned with an individual’s obligation to be a certain kind of person as well as with the acts appropriate to a certain kind of character. As [Catholic theologian Karl] Rahner recognized, an ethics of law does not provide a vocabulary for describing or guiding the process of moral development. An ethics of virtue, on the other hand, does, and by focusing on character does so precisely.
Nelson then quotes Stanley Hauerwas:
To emphasize the idea of character is to recognize that our actions are also acts of self-determination; in them we not only reaffirm what we have been but also determine what we will be in the future. By our actions we not only shape a particular situation, we also form ourselves to meet future situations in a particular way. Thus the concept of character implies that moral goodness is primarily a production of persons and not acts, and that this goodness of persons is not automatic but must be acquired and cultivated.
Inward virtue, especially the individual’s decision to develop their character in love towards their neighbour—that random person they happen to be near—is the true measure of a society’s maturity and health, and not GDP, the number of universities, or the readiness to ratify United Nations treaties. When many people, of their own will, cheerfully act in “Obedience of the Unenforceable” then constant increases in law, regulation and policing are not required. But where there are relatively few individuals with this self-governing commitment to love, then legislation and regulation must increase because the non-self-governing individuals must be directed and then externally forced by threat of punishment to do what is required in every contingency. In contrast, the individual who has incorporated into his life the two great commandments—to love God and to love one’s neighbour—has within him enduring directives that guide, develop character and bring joy—a great bonus!—because he is acting in accord with his own essential being: we are made to love.
There is an economy to such inwardly-oriented, spiritually-developed reverence and neighbourly love: less externally-imposed governance is required because those individuals who have made this commitment to love tend to govern themselves in good ways that build sociality without creating polarities. As the apostle Paul said, and Kierkegaard enlarges on this precise idea in Works of Love: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Blaise Pascal also saw the effectiveness of reverent-based love and observed: “Two laws are enough to govern the whole Christian republic better than all political laws.”
A further economy pertains because these two commandments are so simple to understand that they can be put into practice by anyone of any ability, status or age, however little they know about jurisprudence, sociology, psychology, philosophy or politics. Secularism always struggles to attain external equality among men. “Christianity, on the other hand, aided by the short-cut of the Eternal, is immediately at the goal; it allows all distinctions to stand, but it teaches the equality of the eternal.” And only two short commandments are needed as the foundation of this equal, immense dignity freely given to all people. Again, Pascal saw the wonder and beauty of this. He said: “This religion taught its children what men had managed to know only at their most enlightened.”
Kierkegaard considered that to insist on equality in externalities was unwise because it was irreverent. He saw that seeking to level external circumstances among men was to rebel against the wise dispensations of God who created the external differences and then commanded love for one’s neighbour to make these differences a source of mutual compassion and comfort in a world that was rich with potentialities and therefore necessarily differentiated in complicated ways. Thus, a poor maid could demonstrate mercy to a self-centred rich man:
Be merciful, be merciful toward the rich. Remember that you have this within your power, although he has the money! … If the rich man is stingy and tight, or even if he is tight not only with money but also reserved and stingy with words: then you be rich in mercy!
To take another example given by Kierkegaard: because of the primacy of the inward, the reverent sacrifice of a poor widow—the gift of her two small copper coins—can be more celebrated than the many large gifts of the prosperous. In the eyes of the world which would rather deal with large, impressive amounts, this “must appear the most tedious kind of reckoning”, but not when the internal spiritual qualities of sacrifice and mercy are given their proper place.
It is common for the activists for equality to externalise problems: it is always someone else, others, who are the problem, and a campaign to change other people’s attitudes, through force of law if necessary, is their best answer to perceived inequalities. T.S. Eliot, in an appendix to his 1938 essay The Idea of a Christian Society, highlighted the appeal, the faults and the antidote to this type of self-exonerating attitude:
But one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people—a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth—never in oneself. There are individual exceptions: but so far as a man sees the need for converting himself as well as the World, he is approximating to the religious point of view. But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that goes so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself … For only in humility, charity and purity—and most of all perhaps humility—can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain.
However, the grace of an inwardly-developed reverence leads to a slow, invisible process that builds sociality one individual at a time. Activists will seek faster methods, and agitate for the more appealing strategy of enacting ever more laws because it is based on externalities that are immediate and gratifyingly obvious. But this is the policy of the imprudent who are proud of the chains that bind them because they made the chains themselves. “Look how strong and binding they are on us all! How well-wrought and encumbering! And they’re our own work!”
Kierkegaard realised that an inward, spiritual ethic would not appeal to most people because of its hidden nature and the intense level of self-restraint that is required:
The world just can’t get it into its head (and therefore it cannot be) that a Christian should not have the same inclinations and passions the world has. But if he has them, it can even less get it into its head why, out of fear of the invisible, he wants in this silly way to constrain these inclinations, innocent and permissible according to the world’s view, even a “duty to fulfil”, why he wants to constrain self-love, which the world not only calls innocent but praiseworthy, why he wants to constrain anger, which the world not only regards as natural but as the mark of a man and a man’s honour, why he wants to make himself doubly unhappy: first by not satisfying his inclinations and, second, by reaping as reward the world’s ridicule.
Throughout Works of Love, love is the constant theme:
From the beginning to the end the discourse is on love, for the simple reason that love’s most characteristic qualification is to build up. Love is the ground; love is the building; love builds up. To build up is to build up love, and it is love which love builds up.
The American conservative thinker Russell Kirk sought to remind his philosophical fellow travellers that the expression of love—and not wealth, economy or democracy, or anything else—was the ultimate goal of their efforts:
The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition, or success, or enjoyment, or longevity, or power, or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can reign in this world of sorrows, and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt.
This exalted place of love encompassing and defining everything is a radical and largely unacceptable view of the universe, including sociality or politics. Never mind, says Kierkegaard; pursue inwardness, quietness and love even if you meet with misunderstanding or mocking. “The world at best has a very remote holiday conception of the God-relationship, not to mention that it should daily qualify a man’s life—therefore it must judge as it does.”
The last chapter of Works of Love removes any sense that this love is sentimental; rather it is consistent and tough in its even-handedness. Kierkegaard elaborates on this as he affirms with absolute seriousness that a man who has not shown mercy to another person cannot expect that mercy will be shown to him; the woman who will not forgive, will not be forgiven herself. Love requires, therefore, the utmost strenuousness and rectitude. Love also requires humility because the proper response to the gift of individuated love is to seek to govern one’s own soul in reverence (that is challenge enough) and not to seek to govern other people. This may seem like too little to people who want to change the world—in other words change external conditions—but governing oneself in love does change the world, albeit in silence and obscurity. Kierkegaard saw how effective this reverent humility could be:
Christianity’s divine meaning is to say in confidence to every man, “Do not busy yourself with changing the shape of the world or your conditions in life, as if you … instead of being a poor scrub-woman, perhaps could manage to be called Madam. No, make Christianity your own, and it will show you a point outside of the world by the help of which you shall move heaven and earth so quietly, so easily, that no one notices it.”
Gary Furnell, a frequent contributor, lives in rural New South Wales.