Kierkegaardian Love and Resignation
It is one thing to despair from challenging circumstances, to struggle with life’s possibilities, and a completely different thing to despair from the possibilities of life itself, a life that might suddenly seem appallingly confined. In greatest danger or in our silent moments, we sometimes realise “that desire nevertheless ends some day and ends in disgust, that hardship some day ends in despair,” but for Kierkegaard, this is mere “miserable commonsensicality” that “therefore thinks that the sagacious thing to do is to take care to be neither cold nor hot” (To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience, p.198). The knowledge of life’s finitude is, after all, not the same as the immediate experience of our own looming demise.
Indeed, that “some day” is already a sign that we don’t take the thought of death seriously, that we postpone the necessary end to a distant future, as an incident that will only concern us when it arrives. But this premonition of a distant threat pales in comparison with the insight that the catastrophe might occur the very next moment. We can thrust the question of our death aside, because we view it in light of probability, for how likely is anything to happen while I’m sitting quietly in my room? But it is different when it’s the question of possibility, namely that anything can happen at any time. It is in this radical form that Kierkegaard asks us to understand Possibility — which is why I am capitalising it — namely that the most dreadful thing, our death, can indeed happen at any given moment. Just let your fantasy roam freely, accept even the most unlikely scenario, remember how many times something happened out of the blue, suppress your inner optimist who keeps telling you that everything will work out fine…
In this experience of Possibility, where death is no longer a distant horizon, but follows us like a shadow, the whole issue gains a moment of urgency: An all-embracing uncertainty reminds us that we might have to let go of it all in this very moment, so that every distraction becomes a terrible waste. We usually don’t really know how to react to that thought — and indeed, ‘live each day as if it’s your last’ makes a very poor mantra, because if you really imagine this very moment to be your last, there’s no possible action that would miraculously render it all meaningful. Everything that you’ve lived for will suddenly appear pale and senseless, life itself small and confined because there is nothing you can do to make this feeling of dread go away — except by getting distracted and once again postponing the idea of death to a distant future. In that sense, even if we manage to fulfil all our wishes, even if all our plans come to be realised, even if we reach the highest success imaginable, it will all be taken away by death, the great equaliser,
“which without envy and without preference makes everyone equal, equally poor, equally powerless, equally miserable, the one who possessed a world and the one who had nothing to lose, the one who left behind a claim upon a world and the one who was in debt for a world, the one whom thousands obeyed and the one whom no one knew except death, the one whose loveliness was the object of people’s admiration and the poor wretch who sought only a grave in order to hide from people.” (ibid, p.185)
In light of Possibility, we perceive the ridiculous triviality of even our greatest desire, for if death will come the very next moment, it will be swallowed forever in indifference; indifference, because it will not matter if we’ve attained our goals or not, or if we’ve had more or fewer experiences. Indeed, it all ends “in disgust” and “in despair.” But instead of doing what we intuitively do when confronted with this thought — trying to get rid of it as soon as possible — Kierkegaard asks us to hold on to it. It is namely in that moment of truth that we realise that the actual danger lies not in the possible failure to fulfil our wishes, in death coming too soon, but in the possibility that their fulfilment is all that we can hope for:
“the danger would be right there if a person was able to obtain something by wishing in this way, because then it would be impossible to save him; and the danger is precisely that it is supposed to be better to become great in this way, because then life would be without meaning and without truth.” (ibid, p.190)
How should we understand this paradoxically sounding sentence? Despite what many people, especially those who have attained success, believe, the materialisation of our wishes will always depend on exterior circumstances. At the same time, if our worldly activities truly manage to change us in an essential way, so that our very existence is defined and exhausted by them, then we ourselves become something exterior — objects among objects. Can our very being be fully described, for example in a eulogy or a biography? There is, in that sense, the question of dependency and of commensurability. This is what Kierkegaard calls becoming-objective, and if our only possibility “to obtain something” was by becoming-objective, then our lives would indeed become meaningless as they’d dissolve in complete exteriority where nothing could protect us from the cold grasp of death.
In his Upbringing Discourse To Gain One’s Soul In Patience, Kierkegaard discusses this aspect by exploring the logic of possession. Indeed, the desire to realise one’s dreams can be understood as the desire to possess the world, whatever goods it is in the end that one wishes to acquire. We want to possess the world, because it gives us a sense of security. As we try to control the things around us, we attempt to oppose a hostile universe; at the same time, we try to replace Possibility with probability, thereby gaining the opportunity to distract ourselves from our dreadful thoughts. But the experience of Possibility, once we acknowledge it, shows us that any such certainty is illusionary.
Yet, distracting ourselves from this experience is not only futile, it is also harmful, because we risk losing our most treasured possession — ourselves. But how do we ‘possess’ ourselves, our souls (as Kierkegaard says in the Discourses) or selves (as he says in The Sickness Unto Death)? Is it the same way we possess things? This would be fatal, because, again, the more our existence depends on exterior circumstances, the more we depend on the ‘mercy’ of the world to accommodate to them and we ourselves become indistinguishable from mere objects. And if we only become selves if our circumstances allow us to, then the self is not an existential category, something that concerns all of us, but something accidental.
The more we try to fulfil our lives by trying to possess the world, the more we become possessed by it, as our selves stop belonging to us and become completely dependent on circumstance. And of course, this is just the way we enter the world, for in our birth, we are not yet fully distinguished from our surrounding and completely dependent on it:
“What people aspire to — to possess the world — a person was closest to it in the first moment of life, because his soul was lost in it and possessed the world in itself, just as the undulation of the waves possesses in itself the restlessness of the sea and its depths and knows no other heartbeat than this, the infinite heartbeat of the sea.” (To Gain One’s Soul In Patience, p.164).
It seems that we cannot escape this vicious cycle, no matter where we direct our efforts:
“[T]he world can be possessed only by its possessing me, and this in turn is the way it possesses the person who has won the world, since one who possesses the world in any other way possesses it as the accidental, as something that can be diminished, increased, lost, won, without his possession being essentially changed. If, however, he possesses the world in such a way that the loss of it can diminish his possession, then he is possessed by the world.” (ibid, p.165, my emphasis).
This is a difficult, but central passage. Clearly, the last sentence refers to all worldly possessions, the ‘normal’ case: I possess my wealth in such a way that if I spend it, it is diminished, if I earn more, it is increased. The same counts for success, knowledge, or experience. We can see that this does not only concern materialist and superficial ways of life, it is a general condition. We shouldn’t read too quickly here and think that what Kierkegaard proposes is to renounce all these things and live a monastic life. What is at question here is not “how should I live my life,” because that would once again only concern exterior aspects, it’s the question of the self and how it is to relate to the world, to itself, and to its own mortality. The point is therefore not that a life spent, say, traveling, is worthless, but rather that if travel is all that defines a given subject, it has lost its subjectivity; and indeed, attempts to escape from oneself through travel are common enough. The consequence would be that an individual that has traveled more is ‘more’ of a self than another that was able to travel less, and this pushes us once again to categories of exteriority.
But the crucial part of the passage above lies in the expression “in any other way,” the idea of a kind of relation where the world is possessed as “the accidental” so that the external circumstances can not change the subject’s possession. This then is the possibility of escaping the vicious cycle, but what exactly does that mean? We can intuitively understand, where this is going: If dependency coincides with becoming-objective, then it is through independence that we become-subjective. The Idealist would be done here: Objectivity leads to dependency, ergo posit a subjective entity. But Kierkegaard asks, where could such an entity come into play? If it is somewhere, then how can we distinguish it from a mere object?
“[I]f a person with troubled imagination conjured up anxieties he was unable to surmount, while he still could not leave off staring at them, evoking them ever more alarmingly, pondering them ever more fearfully, then we shall not praise him, even though we praise the wonderful glory of human nature. But if he brought out the horror and detected the mortal danger, without any thought of providing people, by pointless talk, with subject matter for pointless pondering, but grasped that the danger had to do with himself — if, then, with this in mind, he won the strength of soul that horror gives, this would in truth be praiseworthy, would in truth be wondrously wonderful.” (To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience, p.183, my highlight)
This passage describes two individuals: The first person discovers death as a generality, as an aspect of life that concerns us all. They will teach others about the necessity to cherish life and to remember death. But the second person discovers their own death, a death that concerns them only, and it is through that experience, that they discover themselves as singular selves. While looking at our lives from the general perspective, in light of our worldly achievements and possessions, we see ourselves as general beings with general qualities (“All men are mortal…”). Only through the experience of Possibility, where we stare into the eyes of our very own death, we also manage to see ourselves in our singular and personal existence. The generalisation of the first individual is already an abstraction, an alteration so that the danger becomes universal and no longer seems to concern them personally. Kierkegaard makes this point even clearer in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript:
“If death is always uncertain, if I am mortal, then this uncertainty cannot be understood in general terms, unless I too am a sort of human being in general. But this, after all, is not what I am, and it is something only distracted people […] are. And even if I am that to begin with, it is after all life’s task to become subjective, and as much as I become that, correspondingly the uncertainty interpenetrates my subjectivity dialectically more and more. …
This “uncertainty” refers to Possibility that we’ve talked about above: that the most horrid thing can happen at any time. The becoming of subjectivity — “becoming” implying that we’re not dealing with an essence, but, as Sartre would later say, with existence — strictly coincides with the integration of this uncertainty into one’s life, so that only through the awareness of one’s own death does one become a subject.
… It thus becomes increasingly important for me to think it into every moment of my life, for since its uncertainty is there at every moment, it can only be overcome by my overcoming it at every moment. If, on the other hand, the uncertainty of death is just a something in general, then my own dying is itself only a something in general. Perhaps dying is also a something in general for systematicians, for distracted people. […] But for me, my dying is not at all a something in general; maybe for others my dying is a something in general. Neither, for myself, am I such a something in general; maybe for others I’m a something in general. But if the task is to become subjective, then every subject will for himself become the very opposite of such a something in general.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 140)
This is why Kierkegaard asks us to hold onto the thought of Possibility, to hold on the idea that our lives could end in any moment. Because it is through this experience that we experience that it is our lives that we’re talking about, something that concerns nobody but ourselves. In that sense, subjectivity is not, as the Idealist would posit, a general entity, but a singular one, it is existential. But where are we to go from here? After all, even in its positive aspect of letting us discover our own selves, the experience of Possibility is dreadful and leaves us in “fear and trembling.” Kierkegaard is very clear about this, it is a question of love.
Immediate and Possessive Love
When asking the question of love, of course we will first turn towards the poets, for who knows more about love than them?
“The poet’s task […] is single, because the contradiction comes from outside. By itself, unhappy love is bound to become happy — this is the poet’s certainty, but the trouble is that there is a power outside that wants to prevent it. In poetry, therefore, love does not relate to itself but it relates to the world, and this relationship determines whether it becomes unhappy. […] Take the obstacles away, and those unhappy people are the happiest of lovers.” (Stages on Life’s Way, p.379)
In most love stories, the main interest lies not in the lovers’ love itself, which is simply a given (they fall in love), but in the intrigue and circumstances that keep the lovers apart. After all, if the goal is for the lovers to come together, while the love is there right from the start, it is the obstacles that they have to overcome that will be the main interest of the story.
Why suddenly turn to love, which is such a cheerful topic, in contrast to all the dread and trembling of death? Love is a kind of relation, and if it’s the question of the subject’s relation to the world, then of course we should ask if love can offer us an alternative to the exterior (possessive) relation that we’ve talked about above. Love, we will accept unquestionably, is an inner relation to another being. Still, there are very different kinds of love and not all of them are immaterial; it can take different qualities and concern very different relations (relationships, friendships, community, spirituality). By analysing different kinds of love, Kierkegaard can therefore experiment with different kinds of relation to the world (which amount to three stages of life) and seek for the possibility of an inner relation to the world which would change the experience of death — for love and death are more intimately connected than we think. After all, they are both experiences in which we desire to overcome finitude — in love’s promise of eternity, that it will last forever; in life’s aspiration to surpass death. They both push us towards the eternal and spiritual.
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Let us therefore listen to what Kierkegaard will tell us about love. Of the three stages of life, the aesthetic, the ethic, and the religious, the poets of course belong to the first one. There’s not enough space here to really elaborate on Kierkegaard’s conception of the three stages of life and the different kinds of love that come along with them, and it’s not what’s important here. Just bear with me here.
In the quote above, which talks about the poets’ conception of love, i.e. aesthetic (erotic) love, we can identify two important aspects: On the one hand, the lovers’ love itself remains unquestioned, it is merely there, it is immediate. On the other hand, it remains dependent on circumstance, and it is only a happy love story if the lovers end up together. Let us first focus on immediacy.
“All falling in love is a wonder — marvel not, then, that the understanding stands still while the lovers kneel in adoration before the wonder’s sacred symbol. […] If that phrase “to choose” is used to mean wanting to set someone up as the beloved, instead of wanting to accept the beloved, then a deluded reflection promptly has something to hold to. The young man then dissolves love into loving the lovable — after all, he must choose. …
In other words: We don’t choose the ones we love. All attempts to explain, why we fell in love with someone, are attempts to explain why the loved one is lovable, which qualities they possess that made us fall in love. And vice versa: If the feeling of love is not there, there is no way to explain why it is so, and there are no ways to convince someone to fall in love with us, to convince them that we are lovable. This would lead to the attempt to describe love through certain external qualities, something that will completely undo the inner relation that lovers experience.
… Poor fellow, that is an impossibility; and not only that, who would still dare to choose if it is supposed to be understood in this way; who would dare to be so doting on his own manliness that he would not grasp that he who proposes must first be proposed to by the god himself, and any other proposing is a foolish having it all one’s own way. I decline to choose in this way; instead I thank the god for the gift — he chooses better — and to thank is more blessed. I do not wish to become a laughingstock by starting a silly, critical lecture on the beloved, that I love her for this reason and for that reason and finally for this reason — because I love her. If done right, a lecture of this sort to the lovers themselves can be very amusing by quite humorously placing the whole substance of erotic love in relation to a triviality, as if the husband were to tell his wife that he really loved her because she had blond hair.” (ibid, p.116f.)
Immediate love cannot be explained, it is there or it is not there. Attempts to rationalise it by associating it with external qualities will only render it ridiculous. The lovers know that they are in love, nothing is more certain to them, and if they are in love, they will promise that it is forever. Be it indeed, as Kierkegaard suggests, through God’s gift, or through an unexplainable inner connection, immediate love remains a miracle that cannot be explained by external factors (like neurons or laws of attraction). This inexplicability and singularity, where neither of the lovers could be replaced by another subject with the same qualities, because he loves her and she loves him, mirrors the isolation of the experience of one’s own irreplaceable death: In both, we discover ourselves as subjects. But without death, love will become delusional, as it will firmly believe that it never has to end…
And yet, immediate love fades as quickly as it sparks. And here, we arrive at the second aspect of poetic love besides immediacy, namely conditionality. In writing their intrigues, the poets, who sing about love’s heavenly qualities, inadvertently make a distinction that strictly opposes love’s immediacy: the distinction between a happy and an unhappy love. Otherwise, the readers would simply be indifferent if the lovers come together or not, because if they love each other either way, their love won’t be harmed by a negative outcome. But an unhappy love, this is, aesthetically speaking, tragic. An unhappy love is essentially not a love at all, because the lovers aren’t able to love each other — due to circumstances, which means that they once again succumb to exteriority. Indeed, love fades when we let it grow old, which means: let it deteriorate into exteriority (we’ll talk about keeping love young a bit later). The more our love becomes dependent on circumstances, the less we can be certain about it. For the immediate lovers, in their passionate experience of love, it cannot be questioned because it is a purely inner relation. The more love therefore is lost in finitude, the more doubtful its promise of eternity. And the more we doubt our love, the more we seek for external factors that will guarantee it to us.
Insecure people famously seek for such guarantees that bind their lovers to them; but it is clear that what they actually doubt is their own love. We have a name for this kind of love, it is possessive love. We can see this described in second-rate love stories, where the goal is not for the lovers to overcome all obstacles and come together, but for the lover (usually the man) to get the beloved one (usually the girl). The nurturing of love becomes the process of convincing the other that one is a suitable partner, which one does, once again, by showing lovable qualities. Love has turned into a completely exterior relation, just as the possessive relation to the world that we’ve sketched out above. The parallel is clear: I only love you if you love me in return; I only love the world if it rewards me with health, success etc. But if my loving my lover depends entirely on them loving me back, then my love no longer belongs to me, but to my lover (and vice versa). In possessive love, the lovers completely extinguish each other, just as the possession of the world necessarily means being possessed by the world. Does that mean that all love will fail? That we should renounce it, become cold and turn away from our corporeality? Follow the spiritual way?
“[P]ure intellectuality is a prodigious abstraction, and on the other side of abstraction there is nothing, nothing, not even the remotest hint of a religious idea. The exception [i.e. the one who attempts to live that way] is an emigrant, but of a peculiar kind, for he does not emigrate to America or to another continent on the other side of the ocean, or on the other side of the grave — no, he vanishes.” (ibid, p.162)
Immediate love, which is essentially worldly, despite being an inner relation to another human being, is not to be surpassed or overcome. We have to hold on to it. But if the poetic love naturally tends towards exteriority, we may have to reconsider the way we react to immediate love (which is still a given). Instead of making it depend on circumstance (happy/unhappy love), we have to turn it into a love that is truly unconditional and cannot be diminished by external factors, a love that cannot fade.
When talking about unconditional love, you will either hear those who don’t believe in it, or those who claim that it’s the easiest thing in the world. The mistake that they both make is that they remain in the aesthetic stage: Either love is always about lovable qualities and therefore always conditional, or love is always the immediate feeling of two subjects for each other, and is therefore always unconditional. But the former is not love, and the latter falls through due to the possibility of its fading. We therefore have to leave the aesthetic stage, which will only give us a contradictory conception of love, and enter the ethic one.
To become unconditional, love cannot remain in the immediate, which is too fragile, nor can it become an external relation. What is needed, is something completely different, namely infinite resignation. We are once again confronted with a very difficult thought, but thankfully Kierkegaard illustrates this aspect beautifully by telling the story of the knight of resignation in Fear and Trembling. Let us listen to his tale:
“A young lad falls in love with a princess, and this love is the entire substance of his life, and yet the relation is such that it cannot possibly be realized, cannot possibly be translated from ideality into reality. Of course, the slaves of the finite, the frogs in the swamp of life, scream: That kind of love is foolishness; the rich brewer’s widow is just as good and solid a match. Let them go on croaking in the swamp. The knight of infinite resignation does not do any such thing; he does not give up the love, not for all the glories of the world. He is no fool. First of all, he assures himself that it actually is the substance of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to waste the least of it in an intoxication. […] He feels a blissful delight in letting love palpitate in every nerve, and yet his soul is as solemn as the soul of one who has drunk the poisoned cup and feels the juice penetrate every drop of blood — for this is the moment of crisis. …
This moment of crisis is to be read in light of the poetic distinction between a happy and an unhappy love, for as we can see, the knight’s love cannot become, poetically speaking, happy. The great task of poetic love was to overcome all circumstances for the lovers to come together, but what about a situation where the obstacles are insurmountable? Indeed, holding on to such a love is “foolishness,” but if immediate love is a truly inner relation, then it cannot be tainted by the impossibility of becoming real. Or, rather, its reality has nothing to do with circumstantial realisation (becoming a couple, living together…). This is therefore the issue here: If the knight truly loves the princess, he can neither realise the love nor can he give it up (because that would mean that his love was not true). But he also cannot give up on trying to realise it, because love wants to be lived:
… Having totally absorbed this love and immersed himself in it, he does not lack the courage to attempt and to risk everything. He examines the conditions of his life, he convenes the swift thoughts that obey his every hint, like well-trained doves, he flourishes his staff, and they scatter in all directions. But now when they all come back, all of them like messengers of grief, and explain that it is an impossibility, he becomes very quiet, he dismisses them, he becomes solitary, and then he undertakes the movement. […] In the first place, the knight will then have the power to concentrate the whole substance of his life and the meaning of actuality into one single desire. […] In the next place, the knight will have the power to concentrate the conclusion of all his thinking into one act of consciousness.” (Fear and Trembling, p.41–43)
The knight therefore exits immediacy in this act of concentration and the decision that he takes: Namely to hold on to the love for the princess. Pure immediacy is not enough to keep the love alive, as everyone knows who has been frustrated in love. Nothing lets love wither as quickly as its being unrequited (or impossible for other reasons), and we can see how enormous the knight’s decision is to hold on to the princess.
“The desire that would lead him out into actuality but has been stranded on impossibility is now turned inward, but it is not therefore lost, nor is it forgotten. Sometimes it is the vague emotions of desire in him that awaken recollection; sometimes he awakens it himself, for he is too proud to be willing to let the whole substance of his life turn out to have been an affair of the fleeting moment. He keeps this love young, and it grows along with him in years and in beauty. But he needs no finite occasion for its growth. From the moment he has made the movement, the princess is lost. He does not need the erotic titillation of seeing the beloved etc., nor does he in the finite sense continually need to be bidding her farewell, because in the eternal sense he recollects her, and he knows very well that the lovers who are so bent on seeing each other for the last time in order to say farewell once again are justified in their eagerness, justified in thinking it to be the last time, for they forget each other very quickly. He has grasped the deep secret that even in loving another person one ought to be sufficient to oneself. He is no longer finitely concerned about what the princess does, and precisely this proves that he has made the movement infinitely” (ibid, p.44).
This is the movement of infinite resignation, which does not resign love, but resigns the possession of the loved one, which resigns the withering of love so as to keep it young forever. Only then is the promise of eternity really honestly made, only then can it be said that love is indeed unconditional. Unlike the poets’ happy ending, this love needs no circumstantial factors that render it possible, it is a truly inner relation between the knight and the princess:
“If […] the princess is similarly disposed, something beautiful will emerge. She will then introduce herself into the order of knighthood into which one is not taken by election but of which everyone is a member who has the courage to enroll oneself, the order of knighthood that proves its immortality by making no distinction between male and female. She, too, will keep her love young and sound; she, too, will have overcome her agony, even though she does not, as the ballad says, lie by her lord’s side every night. These two will in all eternity be compatible, with such a rhythmical harmonia praestabilita that if the moment ever came — a moment, however, that does not concern them finitely, for then they would grow old — if the moment ever came that allowed them to give love its expression in time, they would be capable of beginning right where they would have begun if they had been united in the beginning.” (ibid, p.45)
Just to be clear: If the knight and the princess, after resigning each other, still somehow manage to come together, this does not mean that they have stopped resigning. After all, not only can’t unconditional love change if the conditions are not met, neither can it change if they are. In the laconic words of the married man in the Stages: “[A]s far as my wife is concerned, I am not sure to this day whether she is slim” (Stages, p. 120).
The point of the figure of the knight can obviously not be that we are all to fall in love with someone that we cannot get together with. Not only is love, again, a wonder, so that we don’t choose who we fall in love with anyway, but that would once again make love conditional: We’d only be able to reach unconditional love on the condition that the circumstances hinder our love from becoming reality. We have to remind ourselves: The question is about different kinds of relations, not about specific ways of life. Let us therefore try to see, what kind of relation the knight enters.
Let us start by stating the obvious: Indeed every love is impossible, or at least its full realisation, namely due to death. Death is that which necessarily makes the promise of eternity untenable. As living beings, the princess and the knight will die, and so will their love. But by resigning the princess as a worldly being in flesh and blood, he intensifies the inner relation he has with her; it is a love not between bodies, but between souls. But the soul is, as we’ve seen, something ungeneralisable (incommensurable), singular, and personal. A direct bond between souls is therefore impossible, as my soul is strictly mine. In complete opposition to possession, resigning each other means nothing less than acknowledging each other’s independence:
“The most a human being manages in respect of resignation is to acknowledge the given independence in every human being and, as best one can, do everything truly to help someone to retain it.” (Unscientific Postscript, p.218)
Paradoxically, then, an inner connection does not bind the lovers in co-dependence, but gives them the highest autonomy possible, which, at the same time, is the closest that the lovers can become. This is why the knight’s “desire” is “now turned inward”: It is no longer a relation to an ‘object’ (the princess), but a self-relation and it is for that reason that he becomes self-sufficient. The princess is no longer an ‘object’ to possess but an idea to relate to, an idea that is in the knight, the princess is “lost.” But being in the knight’s thoughts, she is always present in him, and this presence cannot be taken away by circumstances. Her soul is strictly hers, but at the same time, she couldn’t be closer. In that sense, independence excludes solitude.
To say that the knight loves the princess as an idea doesn’t mean that he loves her as an ideal. He will never love another princess, which means that his resignation wasn’t an abstraction and he doesn’t imagine her the way he wants her to be; it is rather that the passion that he was willing to give to her is now interiorised and becomes a passion for his own self through the idea that he has erected in himself of the princess. He holds on to the way she made him feel and the strength that immediate love gave him. His self-sufficiency is obviously a complete inversion to the possessive love, where both lovers become fully dependent on each other. This means, on the one hand, that no matter what the princess does, he keeps loving her with the same intensity, and, on the other hand, that he stays the way he is. Can such a self-sufficiency also be conceptualised in our relation to the world? Here, we can return to the Upbringing Discourses, as they discuss what it might mean to become-subjective instead of objectivity.
To hold on to his love in light of the world’s adversities, the knight had to resign the realisation of his love and erect the idea of the princess in his own self — let us not overlook, how much of an effort this is! He thereby reaches a self-relation in which the passion of immediate love is conserved. If the discussed Upbringing Discourses therefore asked about the relation of the subject to the world, then the answer to the question of how we are to escape the vicious cycle of possessiveness, is resignation. Just as the knight resigned the realisation of his love to the princess, we have to resign the idea that we might realise ourselves in the world. As in the case of the knight, we are thereby attaining a self-relation in which the world is in us as an idea. Just as the knight’s love is no longer altered by exterior factors, so are we able to perceive our souls in their full independence. In short, there is something which death cannot touch and we discover our immortality.
Resignation, after all, is nothing if not taking the moment of death into our lives, of anticipating the necessary resignation that death is by already resigning the world during life. We thereby give up on the possession of the world, just as the knight gave up on the possession of the princess — but if we manage to hold on to the love, we gain infinitely more that we gave up. Possibility loses all its power, because it no longer threatens us to take anything away from us, because what we have, we already are, independently from exterior factors: Our souls, our selves.
This is why gaining one’s soul (or self) is very different from gaining an external object. While in gaining an external object, something is added to our riches, in gaining our soul “it may become what it is and be confident of becoming what it is” (To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience, p.189), and the subject can “be what God has intended him to be, neither more nor less” (ibid, p.190). By gaining ourselves, we therefore only gain — ourselves. But just like the knight’s love made him self-sufficient, in the self-relation that we attain by resigning the world, thereby erecting the idea of the world in ourselves, our self changes too and becomes deeper: we are becoming-subjective. The unconditionality of love needs to be paralleled with the ‘unconditionality’ of the soul, i.e. its immortality. So is resignation equal to faith? Is it the highest form of love?
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The third, the religious stage, is another big chapter and we won’t be able to fully discuss it here. Allow me to quickly sketch it out.
After the knight of resignation comes the knight of faith. The knight of faith has also resigned the princess, but he makes one step more: He not only resigns her, but he keeps believing that they will come together after all, despite the impossibility of it. His love doesn’t depend on that (it’s not a condition), it’s a leap of faith. In that sense, he does not love the princess as an idea, but as she truly is, in her unique being. The parallel in the subject’s relation to the world is this: The true Christian has resigned the world, but he keeps believing that he will get it back in the afterlife, just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac and still believed that God would give him back (ref. Fear and Trembling). Most Christians don’t do the resigning part and skip right to immortality, thereby omitting the suffering that comes with the realisation of one’s own death; they can renounce the flesh because they don’t believe in it. To hold on to both, death and immortality, to love live and yet be willing to give it up, to give up on the world and to still believe that one will get it back, is what Kierkegaard calls the absurd, or the paradox. To catch a glimpse of how such an existence might look like, let us finish with Kierkegaard’s wonderful depiction of the religious husband:
“In the afternoon, he takes a walk to the woods. He enjoys everything he sees, the swarms of people, the new omnibuses, the Sound. Encountering him on Strandveien, one would take him for a mercantile soul enjoying himself. He finds pleasure in this way, for he is not a poet […]. Toward evening, he goes home, and his gait is as steady as a postman’s. On the way, he thinks that his wife surely will have a special hot meal for him when he comes home — for example, roast lamb’s head with vegetables. If he meets a kindred soul, he would go on talking all the way to Østerport about this delicacy with a passion befitting a restaurant operator. It so happens that he does not have four shillings to his name, and yet he firmly believes that his wife has this delectable meal waiting for him. If she has, to see him eat would be the envy of the elite and an inspiration to the common man, for his appetite is keener than Esau’s. His wife does not have it — curiously enough, he is just the same.” (Fear and Trembling, p.39f.)
Kierkegaard, Søren: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Kierkegaard, Søren: Fear and Trembling, Princeton University Press, 1983.
Kierkegaard, Søren: Stages on Life’s Way, Princeton University Press, 1988.
Kierkegaard, Søren: “To Gain One’s Soul In Patience,” in: Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 159–175.
Kierkegaard, Søren: “To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience,” in: Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 181–203.