Just as the people of Ireland have a variety of adjectives to describe the island’s famous rain, philosophy has a plethora of definitions to describe love.
What could be more appropriate to pull from the philosopher’s backpack in February than a discussion about love? And, who better to moderate our conversation than Søren Kierkegaard, a man who knew of the triumphs and sorrows of love gained and lost.
It is easy to forget there is a deeper component to the debate of what constitutes love while we still recover from last week’s inundation of plastic expressions of commercialized love — overpriced flowers, excessive displays of fleeting affection, or, as the silly clock in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” suggests, “promises you don’t intend to keep.”
Entrancing conversations about romantic love too often exclude terms like longevity, transcendence and duty. Not that there isn’t a place for romantic love, but there is a terrible omission in the philosophical conversation about love if the blood, sweat and tears of the true, messy, complicated and, yes, sometimes terrifyingly vulnerable love of and for another human being is not addressed.
Kierkegaard argues in his “Either/Or,” published in 1843, that to youthful ears, conjugal or married love may have a certain dusty irrelevance associated with it. Conjugal love can sound old, boring and tedious. There is no excitement or mystery with conjugal love, at least not for those who view time as an entity to be conquered.
“Naïve eternity of first or romantic love cancels itself out, in one way or another,” the Danish philosopher explains. “... [Y]ou try to retain love in this immediate form, try to make yourself believe that true freedom consists in being outside oneself, intoxicated by dreams, therefore you fear the metamorphosis ....” This is a love of lashing rain, the immediate soaking of the physical. This is a love of epic, flooding proportion. He contrasts this idea of uncommitted, thrilling romance to the concept of dedicated, steady, married love. If romantic love is a downpour, ending with a dramatic cleansing of the landscape, conjugal love is the steady, comforting, repetitive, soft beat of fine drops.
He tells us that conjugal love, “[a]lready ... has duty in it, and when this appears before it, it is not as a stranger, a shameless intruder, who nevertheless has such authority that one dare not by virtue of the mysteriousness of love show him the door.”
The married love Kierkegaard champions is the stuff that real fairy tale stories are made of: the commitment that lasts through deployments, sickness and tragedy. The marriage that remains unbroken even though the odds are stacked against it. Committed love is a love that binds one generation to the next, undaunted by its obstacles — a love that refuses to accept defeat.
Of course, this type of duty-based love isn’t limited to a marriage relationship, but rather the metaphor of marriage. It is the same love that keeps parents up at night caring for sick children or walking the hallways of hospitals. It is this commitment that motivates integrity and trust in a platoon of soldiers. This is the love that is the driving force behind caring for those who cannot care for themselves, the protective love that demands justice. This is the love that offers an opportunity to embrace the possibility of metamorphosis.
Kierkegaard’s deontological, or duty based, love is one of resilience and profound honor, transcending time, culture and intolerance. This love is the misty rain that softens the edges, that forgives, that nurtures, that contributes to the waters of the ancient rivers.
However, do not underestimate or misunderstand this love as weak, passive or sedate. Though gentle it may be, it flows with powerful currents and it is incessant in its permeating fluidity. Committed love is not an apathetic love.
“Love drives out fear,” Kierkegaard reminds us. “[Y]et when love is for a moment fearful for itself, fearful of its own salvation, duty is the nutriment of all others love stands in need of; for it says, ‘Fear not, you shall conquer,’ speaking not futuristically, for that only suggests hope, but imperatively, and in this lies an assurance which nothing can shake.”
The duty with which we fill our committed love changes the way in which we hear the impending rain. As Kierkegaard says, the “married man, being a true conqueror, has not killed time but has saved it and preserved it in eternity ... He solves the great riddle of living in eternity and yet hearing the hall clock strike, and hearing it in such a way that the stroke of the hour does not shorten but prolong his eternity ....”
Instead of fearing the passing of time, worrying that the rains that brought the epic flood of love will dry up or become restless, the person who understands love filled with duty hears the cadence of the rain, the passage of time, and is comforted by its consistency. Those who live with the nutriment of duty know that storms will come, waters will rage, droughts will ravage, dew will form. But amidst it all, love will prevail.
Drop by persevering drop, a love of this type will conquer.
Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .