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The Duty to Love

Thoughts from Soren Kierkegaard on authentic love.

Key points

  • Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard challenged people to think of love as a duty rather than as simply an emotion.
  • Thinking of love as a duty can help it endure change, making it stronger.
  • The modern perspective of only "loving as one is loved" deserves to be challenged.
Photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash
Source: Photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

"You shall love."

This short statement from the 19th-century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaaard, provides much food for thought. Kierkegaard writes from within a Christian framework, as a fierce critic of the church. But one need not share his religious views to benefit greatly from some of his thoughts on the nature of love. In fact, Kierkegaard himself asks his reader to

forget Christianity for a moment and think of what you ordinarily know as love; call to mind what you read in the poets, what you yourself can find out, and then say whether it ever occurred to you to think this: You shall love?

In our day, the poets still meditate and muse upon love. But others do so as well, functioning as poets in many ways. Think of all the love songs, the romantic comedies, your favorite love stories on screen or in a book. As the poets of our day, they reflect and reinforce a view of love as something that is experienced, rather than something that is chosen. Most often, the love that is celebrated focuses on the passions of the lovers, on how they make one another feel. And this is good, to be sure! But there is more to love than this, according to Kierkegaard. Much more.

Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.

Why is this?

It is because we change, our beloved changes, our feelings fluctuate, and in many ways the love of the poets is vulnerable to all of these variables. But for Kierkegaard, if we have committed to love another, and taken it upon ourselves as a solemn duty, love will be secure regardless of these and other variables. When love is a duty, it does not merely love as it is loved. Rather, it simply loves. The commitment cements the love, not the other way around.

People change, for better and for worse. If love is only based on emotion, and how another makes me feel, it is vulnerable. No human love is truly indomitable. But we can strengthen our love for others by freely choosing to take it upon ourselves the duty, the obligation, to love them, to care for them, and work for their good.

Whether you ultimately agree with Kierkegaard or not, his thoughts on love are worth considering because they challenge much of our status quo thinking about love, a status quo that should be challenged.


Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 17-35.

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