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Terence Kuch

Kierkegaard: "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself" as a Basis for Ethics

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." [Matthew 22:37-40, AV]

"When you open the door which you shut in order to pray to God, the first person you meet as you go out is your neighbour whom you shall love. Wonderful!" [Kierkegaard, p.64]

1 Introduction

This paper is a philosophical exploration of some aspects and implications of the "second great commandment", to "love thy neighbor as thyself", which Kierkegaard called the "royal command". This is often thought to be the heart of Christian ethics [Wattles, p.8].

This agape-obligation has seemed to some to pose difficulties. Macquarrie and Kierkegaard both recognize that there has been objection. Macquarrie several times notes his opposition to the belief,

"that moral laws are the heteronomous commands of a transcendent deity who demands obedience." [p.219f]

and even worse,

"imposed on creatures from whom he is 'wholly other', a command, moreover, which they have no capacity to obey except by grace alone, while this grace, in turn, seems to be also external and has to be 'infused' from outside." [p.221]

Kierkegaard wrote that,

[to the pagan,] "this command 'You shall love' will not only surprise him but will disturb him and be an offence to him. [p.41] It may perhaps offend you — well, you know it anyway, that Christianity is always accompanied by signs of offense. Nevertheless believe it .... Do not stop believing because the command almost offends you." [p.74]

The thesis of this paper is that, setting aside the question of moral offense that has disturbed commentators from Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason) to William Empson (Milton's God), agape to neighbor makes sense only under monotheistic or specifically Christian assumptions, and therefore, the old saw, "Christianity may not be factually true, but it has a sublime ethical teaching", is problematical.

A number of issues inevitably arise in any serious discussion of agape. Some of these issues are discussed in the sections below:

2.1 How is love for God like love for neighbor?
2.2 Is God's love for me like my love for neighbor?
2.3 How is love for neighbor like love of self?
2.4 Is there any real distinction, in agape, among neighbors?
2.5 How can loving be commanded?
2.6 Why love my neighbor?

2.1 How is love for God like love for neighbor?

The first "great commandment" is to love God; the second, "like unto it", is to love one's neighbor. What is the nature of "like"? God is loved as God; neighbor cannot be loved in the same way without that love's becoming idolatrous [Outka, p.53]. Therefore there are "two types of love" [Outka, p.46]. But it could be held that my love for neighbor is actually love for him as an image of God, not for the neighbor himself. I love my neighbor because I can see God in him, and I cannot see God better anywhere else. But in this view, my neighbor has no intrinsic worth for me, but only worth as God's representation (vorstellung (?)). My love is not for my neighbor himself, or for any of his unique or common qualities, but only for what he so incompletely represents to me.

How do I love God by loving my neighbor? The answer is not apparent to the 'pagan' mind, even if man is the image of God. I can love (agape) another human being without necessarily seeing him as a surrogate for God very time I express that love.

2.2 Is God's love for me like my love for neighbor?

God's love for me is supposed to be unmerited (I cannot earn it) and equal (offered to each without distinction). I can refuse God's love, but it is there for me whenever I turn to it. Divine grace, according to Nygren, is the "pattern and prototype" for human love [Outka, p.155]. For Barth, human love imitates divine love; it is similar to God's love, but not identical to it [Outka, pp. 234, 237]. I am called by God to love each neighbor equally and without regard to merit or valuation, like God's love for me.

However, God's love for me is given freely and spontaneously, and without any motivation other than the giving of love itself, at least in Nygren's account [Outka, p.155]. Unlike God's love for me, my love for my neighbor is not to be freely and spontaneously given, but given in obedience to a divine command.

God's love is value-creating. I respond by obediently bestowing love on what God values. But then the love-object can be any thing, at God's free choice, not necessarily man. And if so, my neighbor has no prior or inherent value not only to God, but also to the neighbor himself. God is the value-giver not only for Himself, but for me as well.

Again, without a pre-existing commitment to monotheism, this 'like' is not compelling.

2.3 How is love for neighbor like love of self?

The command is to "love thy neighbor as thyself". There have been many interpretations of this qualification. Some take it to mean that self-love is an obligation. Others, more psychologically, hold that self-love is a pre-condition for love of anyone else. Still others consider the qualification to be a handy measure of my love for others — it has to be (at least) as strong as my love for myself.

The neighbor must be a "second self", the same sort of entity that I am to myself; otherwise, self's loving his neighbor has no logical relevance to self's loving itself. Outka wrote that the neighbor "is held to be more than a conjunction of observable properties and not identifiable with behavour." [Outka, p161]. He also quoted Austin Farrer in saying

"The first step to regard our neighbour as ourself is to see that he is as real as oneself, and that his reality has the same sort of actual structure and quality as our own." [Outka, p161].

But this cannot be: for the self is either the subject of its world or (which for Heidegger, for instance seems to amount to much the same thing (see Zimmerman, passim)) the self is void or openness. In either case the neighbor is not, ontologically, a second self; not subject, but object. Therefore "loving one's neighbor as the self" is either impossible or, at best, arbitrary.

2.4 Is there any real distinction, inagape, among neighbors?

The royal command is often taken to mean that one must love one's neighbor regardless of any particular merit on the neighbor's part. No one can do anything so heinous as to be unworthy of my love. Especially, loving in return cannot be a precondition for my own love.

This position has a certain strength: my loving cannot be defeated by any rebuff, because it is immune to all such rebuffs; and it trusts in the ultimate merit of the neighbor, by refusing to take any misbehavior or lack of character as fatal to his meriting my love

The weakness of this view of correlative to its strength: if I cannot regard the individuality of my neighbor, then my neighbor is not valued for his own sake and becomes a love-object indiscriminately interchangeable with any other love-object. Kierkegaard wrote

"Love is not proudly independent of its object ... indifferent towards the object ... [but] loving everyone in particular but no one in partiality." [quoted by Outka, p.20.]

Pride would seem to inhere in self's opinion that it can pick and choose among neighbors (Kierkegaard's "selfishness of preferential love" [p.58], not that it should choose all neighbors. And loving all neighbors is, literally, loving in-differently.

If my neighbor cannot do anything to me to merit or lose my love, then (in some important sense) I cannot be affected by him. I cannot be vulnerable to him, or sensitive to his reflection of my self. In effect, there is only one neighbor in the world, and he/she/it is very much im-personal.

2.5 How can loving be commanded?

Is not love, by its nature, a free gift, freely given, as God Himself is said to love and gives Himself in grace, freely? How then can I be commanded to love without that love's being at least diminished, perhaps destroyed? Outka wrote, paraphrasing Hildebrand, that

"Affective responses possess a certain human richness which the will lacks; ... in which the entire personality is engaged. ... The affective responses cannot be engendered by pure effort and are therefore not under [the self's] immediate control. How then can love be commanded?" [Outka, p.126]

I am responsible for my "affective responses", and cannot turn them on and off on demand. Kierkegaard also noted the problem:

"The very mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is duty." [Kierkegaard, p.40]

God may give me grace to love my neighbor, as he gives me grace to love himself. This removes the practical problem of "How is it possible?", but does not remove the ethical problem of "How is it justifiable?"

Kierkegaard has a different answer: what at first seems like a command, when obeyed, will no longer be a command:

"The commandment is that you shall love, but when you understand life and yourself, then it is as if you should not need to be commanded, because to love human beings is still the only thing worth living for; without this life you really do not live." [Kierkegaard, p.16]

A possible solution is linguistic: not all commands are imperatives on the model of a military order; some statements that look like commands really imply "in order to achieve Y, which you have already decided you want." For example, the owner's manual statement "Turn the key in the ignition" is formally a command, but is more appropriately seen as an instruction with the hidden premise "You do, after all want to start the car, or you wouldn't be reading this part of the book." To love God, love neighbor: not a command as such, but an instruction from the author of the owner's manual.

2.6 Why love my neighbor?

I may choose to follow God's command without knowing why the command was given. But there are several possible purposes for loving the neighbor, which can be grouped into three general areas:

(a) For the neighbor's sake: because it contributes to his welfare, happiness, or salvation; or

(b) For my sake: because it contributes to my welfare happiness, or salvation; or

(c) For God's sake.

(a) Claims that loving the neighbor is for the purpose of benefiting him are remarkably scarce in the literature, perhaps pointing up the difference between philanthropy in the literal sense and philanthropy in the ordinary sense. Utilitarianism is not God's teaching.

(b) Quite commonly, the purpose of loving the neighbor is taken to be a contribution to my own salvation: how can I love God, whom I have never seen, if I cannot love my neighbor, whom I have seen?

"Love forms the heart." [Kierkegaard, p.29].

"Only by loving one's neighbour can a man achieve the highest, for the highest is the capability of being an instrument in the hand of Governance." [Kierkegaard, p.94].

Less noble motives do, however, intrude. To Kierkegaard, ordinary human love is never safe from change and failure: only agape is secure. I love my neighbor to gain security:

"Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secure. The security of the eternal casts out all anxiety and makes the love perfect, perfectly secure. For in that love which has only existence, however confident it may be, there is still an anxiety, anxiety over the possibility of change [Kierkegaard, p.47]. ... Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally and happily secured against despair." [Kierkegaard, p.54]

Agape seems even to be therapeutic:

"Only one human being recognized as one's neighbour is necessary in order to cure a man of self-love — if in this human being he loves his neighbour." [Kierkegaard, p.69]

(c) Loving my neighbor for God's sake is less often claimed as a purpose. Even those who hold that God needs my love would seldom claim that God needs me to love my neighbor. Nygren, however, apparently held that self does love its neighbor for God's sake [Outka, p.51].

3 Some candidate resolutions

We can now summarize the nature of the objections to the royal command that the 'pagan' (in Kierkegaard's phrase) could offer:

It offers no justification but the demands of arbitrary power.

It demands self-service to God in the way that God wants, not in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to self.

It demands actions that are self-demeaning, even self-defeating.

It demands love of all neighbors, some of whom may actively refuse a gift of love.

It demands love of all neighbors equally, in spite of self's preference for the ones it either chooses freely in love or those to whom it has the 'pagan' obligation of marriage, kin, and nation.

Where, then, are we? A command to love my neighbor which is "like" loving God, and a command to love him "as thyself" — problematical, paradoxical statements. It almost follows that I should love God as I love myself, which is clearly not the intention of the 'great commandments'. Only through revelation does the royal command make moral or intellectual sense. The command cannot be derived from natural religion or common civic morality — as Barth clearly saw.

4 Conclusion

Some of the proffered resolutions are unconvincing; others respond to some aspects of man's experience of life, but ignore other aspects. Can there be a satisfactory account of the love-command? Yes, but only under assumptions which are monotheistic, or specifically Christian. Given these assumptions, agape as a command becomes a sublime mystery. Without them, as Paul noted (and after him, Kierkegaard), Christian teaching gives offense.


(Kierkegaard) Kierkegaard, S¿ren. Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, translated by Howard and Edna Hong. Harper & Row, 1962.

(Macquarrie) Macquarrie, John. In Search of Deity: An Essay in Dialectical Theism. Crossroad, 1985.

(Nygren) Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros, translated by Philip S. Watson. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

(Outka) Outka, Gene. Agape: An Ethical Analysis. Yale University Press, 1972.

(Wattles) Wattles, Jeffrey. The Golden Rule. Oxford University Press, 1996.

(Zimmerman) Zimmerman, Michael E. Eclipse of the Self: The Development of Heidegger's Concept of Authenticity. Ohio University Press, 1981.