The Transgression of Preference

2004-02-29

As noted, I've been reading widely in the philosophical literature on friendship. Even old Kant had a few kind words to say about the phenomenon. But only one writer gets it precisely, passionately, perfectly wrong: Kierkegaard. His thinking on friendship is, to my mind, like Marx's thinking on the free market: both men correctly understand the phenomenon, but their evaluation is diametrically opposed to truth. Consider Kierkegaard on friendship:

One should take pains to clarify the point of contention in order calmly to admit in the defence that Christianity has thrust romantic love and friendship from the throne, the love rooted in mood and inclination, preferential love -- in order to establish spiritual love in its place, love to one's neighbor, a love which in all earnestness and truth is inwardly more tender in the union of two persons than romantic love is and more faithful in the sincerity of close relationship than the most famous friendship. One must take pains to make very clear that the praise of romantic love and friendship belongs to paganism, that the poet really belong to paganism since his task [the celebration of friendship and romantic love] belongs to it -- in order with the sure spirit of conviction to give to Christianity what belongs to Christianity: love to one's neighbor, of which love not a trace is found in paganism....

Self-love, egocentricity, is sensuality. Consequently Christianity has misgivings about romantic love and friendship because preference in passion or passionate preference is really another form of self-love....

What paganism called love, in contrast to self-love, was preference. But if passionate preference is essentially another form of self-love, one again sees the truth in the saying of the worthy father: "The virtues of paganism are glittering vices"....

Christianity has never taught that one must admire his neighbor -- it has taught that one shall love him. Consequently there must be admiration in romantic love's relationship -- and the greater, the more intense the admiration is, the better, says the poet. Now, to admire another person certainly is not self-love, but to be loved by the one and only object of admiration, must not this relationship turn back in a selfish way to the "I" which loves -- loves its "other-I"? It is this way with friendship, too. To admire another person certainly is not love, but to be the one and only friend of this rarest object of admiration, must not this relationship turn back in a doubtful way to the "I" from which it proceeded? Is it not an obvious danger for self-love to have a one and only object for its admiration when in return this one and only object of admiration makes one the one and only object of his own love or friendship? Love of one's neighbor, on the other hand, is self-renouncing love, and self-renunciation casts out all preferential love just as it casts out all self-love -- otherwise self-renunciation would also make distinctions and would nourish passion for preference....

Love to one's neighbor is eternal equality in loving, but this eternal equality is the opposite of exclusive love or preference. This needs no elaborate development. Equality is just this: not to make distinctions; and eternal equality is absolutely not to make the slightest distinction, is unqualifiedly not to make the slightest distinction. Exclusive love or preference, on the other hand, means to make distinctions, passionate distinctions, unqualifiedly to make distinctions.

Dear Kierkegaard, I could not agree with your description more, but I could not agree with your evaluation less. Yes, love and friendship are preference in passion and passionate preference. Yes, the praise of love and friendship belongs to paganism (as you call it), and could not be conceived of by a dull, desiccated wraith of churchly religion such as yourself. But the aristocratic admiration inherent in the highest forms of love and friendship are too far from "eternal equality" to register in the blinkered consciousness of your small, self-satisfied, self-renouncing soul. Truly, the virtues of paganism are glittering; but they could be called vices only by one who is unable, or unwilling, to recognize the precious gold of what the ancients called greatness of soul.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal