Søren Kierkegaard died in 1855, but if he’d glimpsed our modern-day landscape of dating apps, he probably would’ve understood it. “People who otherwise pride themselves on their lack of prejudice will apply terrifyingly strict criteria to their choice of partner,” says Alain de Botton in the animated School of Life video above. “They want someone with just a certain sort of face or income or sense of humor. They think of themselves as kind and tolerant, but when it comes to love, they have all the broad-mindedness of a believer in ‘a caste system whereby men are inhumanly separated through the distinctions of earthly life.’ ”
Kierkegaard noticed these human tendencies even in his day, and to his mind, they had nothing at all to do with love — true Christian love, that is, which he spent a good bit of his philosophical career trying to elucidate. He insisted, de Botton explains, “that most of us have no idea what love is, even though we refer to the term incessantly.”
Whether in Europe of the nineteenth century or most anywhere in the world today, we believe in romantic love, which involves “the veneration and worship of one very special person with whose soul and body we hope to unite our own.” But this, Kierkegaard argued, results in “a narrow and impoverished sense of love should actually be.”
The version of Christian love for which Kierkegaard advocated “commands us to love everyone, starting, most arduously, with all those who we by instinct consider to be unworthy of love.” In this conception, those we believe are “mistaken, ugly, irritating, venal, wrong-headed, or ridiculous” are exactly the people to whom we should “extend our compassion,” identifying and understanding the difficulties that made them what they are and offering our kindness and forgiveness accordingly. The ultimate goal, according to Kierkegaard, is to “love everyone without exception,” which may well sound like an unreasonable demand. But how much less reasonable is it than the checklists with which so many of us screen our potential matches?
To delve deeper, read Kierkegaard’s book, Works of Love.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.