In the book Works of Love, Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells us that genuine love comes from deep within us, from the heart. According to Kierkegaard, the poetic understanding of love, that is, the romantic love extolled in literature and song, is a counterfeit version of authentic love.
First, it is a love of words that neglects action. The poetic understanding of love is also based on preferences for the beloved. Poets sing the praises of romantic love as preferential love, as loving one person in distinction from all others. This understanding of love focuses on the intensity of emotions, impulses, and inclinations that surround this type of love.
Kierkegaard is quite wary of the poet’s notion of love. Why? If romantic love is founded only on preference, inclination, impulse and passion, a danger lurks. The danger is that such love is only a form of self-love, rather than a love centered on the well-being of the beloved.
How could this be? Kierkegaard answers this question for us:
“Now, to admire another person is certainly not self-love, but to be loved by the one and only object of admiration, must not this relationship turn back in a selfish way to the I which loves – loves its other I?…
Is it not an obvious danger for self-love to have a one and only object for its admiration when in return this one and only object of admiration makes one the one and only object of his own love?” (Works of Love, p. 67.)
The danger is that instead of loving my beloved in such a way that her well-being is my ultimate concern, I instead love her expecting or even demanding something in return. I love her so that I’ll be rewarded with her love, her care, and her affection. This is a love motivated out of concern for the self, rather than for the other. According to Kierkegaard, such love is inauthentic, and so fails to produce true happiness.
Furthermore, poetic love as Kierkegaard understands it, can cause despair or even turn into hate due to changes in me or in the one I love. This type of love “loses its ardour, its joy, its desire, its originative power, its living freshness” (WL 50.) This experience is all too familiar. The initial passion and intensity of a romantic relationship dissipates over time, with no apparent explanation. Kierkegaard explains that love of this sort dies out and can even turn into hate, because if my love is based on my preferences, or on traits in the one I love, and my preferences or the traits of my beloved change, my love changes.
Poetic love is rooted in the temporal, and because of this it is extremely vulnerable. Christian love is rooted in God, in the eternal, and because of this it is stable and strong.
This is an excerpt of this piece I wrote on Kierkegaard and U2.