Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Authentic Love, Kierkegaard, and U2

Losing love to find romance?

In his book Works of Love, the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard claims that love, including erotic love, comes from deep within our being, from the heart. We use the term "romantic love" to capture what he has in mind by the term "erotic love".  According to Kierkegaard, the poetic understanding of love, that is, the love extolled in literature and song, is a counterfeit version of authentic love.  It is a love of words that neglects action. Poets sing the praises of erotic love as preferential love, as loving one person in distinction from all others.  This understanding of erotic 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 erotic love.

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Why be wary of this kind of love?  If erotic love is founded only on our preferences, inclinations, impulses, and passions, a danger lurks.  The danger is that such love is only a form of self-love, rather than a love centered on the welfare of the one we love.  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? (WL 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.  Such love is inauthentic, according to Kierkegaard, and so fails to produce true happiness. For Kierkegaard, for erotic love to be authentic it must be transformed by divine love, so that our love for our spouse is not just a feeling, but an obligation that we willingly take on and seek to fulfill, even when we don't feel like doing so.

U2 express a similar understanding of love in much of their music. Both U2 and Kierkegaard speak of divine love and erotic love together, as components of a good life.  Via marriage, the divine has taken erotic love and made it a matter of conscience.  This is not intended to abolish the impulses, passions, and inclinations that are a part of erotic love, but to make a change deep within the lovers so that they are committed to each other as a matter of conscience.  They have undertaken a duty to love one another.

In the song "A Man and a Woman" from the album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono confesses that "I could never take a chance, of losing love to find romance, in the mysterious distance, between a man and a woman."  In this song, there are striking parallels with a Kierkegaardian understanding of married love.

What does it mean to "never take a chance of losing love to find romance"? Bono is recognizing that the authentic love present within a strong marriage relationship cannot be had in a mere romantic affair.  Such thinking may be foreign to the person whose highest goal in life is personal pleasure. Why commit to one person, when a variety of self-gratifying pleasurable experiences can be had with many different people?  Those who have truly integrated erotic love and divine love understand that committed married love is valuable for human existence in ways that the person who merely seeks personal pleasure cannot experience or understand.  But this kind of love is deeply satisfying and fulfilling, and offers pleasure as well. So we shouldn't trade authentic love for an inferior counterfeit; we shouldn't risk losing love to find romance.

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The above is drawn from my piece "We Get to Carry Each Other: U2 and Kierkegaard on Authentic Love," Philosophy Now 64 (November/December 2007): 14-17.

© Michael W. Austin

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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