Kierkegaard on Why We All Misunderstand the True Meaning of Love: An Animated Explanation

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed, Mon­ty Python-Style Intro­duc­tion to the Søren Kierkegaard, the First Exis­ten­tial­ist

Søren Kierkegaard: A Free Online Course on the “Father of Exis­ten­tial­ism”

Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

What is Love? BBC Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Fea­ture Sartre, Freud, Aristo­phanes, Dawkins & More

Dear Immanuel — Kant Gives Love Advice to a Heart­bro­ken Young Woman (1791)

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

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.

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