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We Get To Carry Each Other: U2 and Kierkegaard on Authentic Love

Mike Austin listens to Bono while reading Kierkegaard, and discovers that they have the same soul.

The death of his mother had a huge impact on him and on the substance of his writings. He became disenchanted with organized religion, harshly criticizing it while at the same time embracing a personal faith in God. In his writings, he often uses layers of irony and imagery to illustrate deep truths about life, the human condition, and the struggle between faith and doubt. He also writes to awaken, provoke, and move people to act. He explores love in its various forms – the love between parents and children, erotic love, and divine love.

Fans of U2 will recognize this brief description of the life and work of Bono, the band’s lead singer. However, this description also aptly applies to the life and work of another man.

Bono’s Gold Lamé and Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way

Søren Kierkegaard, the influential 19th century Danish philosopher (1813-1855) has other things in common with U2’s frontman. Both men have used their creative energies to explore issues of morality, faith, and love in thought-provoking ways. In the 1990s, Bono took to dressing up as the devilish character ‘Macphisto’ to illustrate what stardom can do to a rock star. Bono has created other unique personas, such as the Fly and Mirrorball Man, and has written a song – ‘Until the End of the World’ – from the perspective of Judas, the betrayer of Christ.

Kierkegaard, while avoiding the gold lamé and fake devil horns favored by Bono as Macphisto, also writes under various pseudonyms as a literary device used for illuminating the human condition from different perspectives. Both men also emphasize that love is more than mere words or feelings. Consider the following, taken from Bono’s appearance on Oprah in September of 2002:

“After LiveAid [in 1985], I went there [Africa] to work with my wife. We spent a month in Ethiopia in the middle of the famine. I saw stuff there that reorganized the way I saw the world. I didn’t know quite what to do about it. You can throw pennies at the problem, but at a certain point, I felt God is not looking for alms, God is looking for action. You can’t fix every problem, but the ones that you can, we have to… distance cannot decide who is our neighbor to love. Love thy neighbor. We can’t afford not to. The world is too close.”

Kierkegaard would echo these sentiments. For him, love of our neighbor, which essentially means all people, is love that is authentic. Authentic love, Kierkegaard claims, is not a mysterious feeling, an introspective mood of the soul, or an empty promise. Rather, authentic love is “sheer action” (see his Works of Love).

Bono’s discussion of loving one’s neighbor takes place in the specific context of helping the poor and those suffering from famine and AIDS in Africa. Kierkegaard would agree that to love those who suffer is to do something for them, to act on their behalf. He brings this understanding of love into our more intimate relationships as well, including the marriage relationship. But before examining Kierkegaard’s understanding of authentic love and what it looks like in marriage, we should look briefly at his general understanding of our moral and spiritual development.

A theme running through much of Kierkegaard’s writings is his understanding of the various stages of moral and spiritual growth we may undergo, and their relationship to our happiness. Kierkegaard presents these stages on life’s way as ‘spheres of existence’, and gives us a picture of life in each sphere.

The first stage is the aesthetic stage. The stereotypical rock star is a shining example of Kierkegaard’s aesthete. But the rock star is not an aesthete because of his artistic tastes or endeavors, as the name might suggest. Rather, the aesthete is someone who immerses himself in pleasure, avoids commitment, and lives solely for the moment, in search of yet another self-gratifying experience. Much of U2’s ‘reinvention’, beginning with Achtung Baby and continuing through Zooropa and Pop, is at one level the presentation of an artistic image of life as a rock star, in all of its legendary glitz, self-gratifying pleasure and shallowness. On The Best of 1990-2000 DVD, guitarist The Edge says

“In the beginning, the idea of wearing sunglasses in an interview seemed kind of stupid. Now we realize that in fact it’s not whether you’re wearing sunglasses that’s important, it’s what kind of sunglasses you’re wearing.”

The irony with which U2 portrayed the rock and roll lifestyle in their music and tours in the 1990s, while lost on some, was at least partially intended to call attention to the possibility of a better, deeper kind of existence.

This brings us to Kierkegaard’s second stage on life’s way, the ethical stage. The hallmark of the ethical stage is commitment. No longer is pleasure life’s highest aim, but rather a commitment to moral values that supersedes mere self-gratification. An example of the difference between the aesthetic and ethical spheres concerns erotic love. Self-gratification is the aim and purpose of erotic love for the aesthete. In the ethical sphere, erotic love does not disappear, nor is it considered bad, but rather it is transformed into something deeper in the context of the marriage relationship.

The final stage is the religious stage. Those who inhabit this sphere of existence come to see that they have an unconditional and absolute duty to do the will of God, which can override the traditional moral values those who live in the ethical sphere are committed to observing. Those who live in this sphere are not living lives of empty religious formalism, but rather have a personal faith that dwells deep in the heart and produces genuine happiness. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard examines the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to illuminate this sphere of human existence. In the story, God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice, which Abraham agrees to do. Just as Abraham picks up the knife in order to kill his son, God commands him to relent, and praises him for passing this test of faith. For Kierkegaard, this is a paradigmatic situation in which the will of God overrides what traditional morality tells us we ought to do.

With this account of human existence in mind, we’ll look at Kierkegaard’s specific thoughts on love, focusing on married love. What will become apparent is that much of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on love have also been expressed in the music of U2. Bono and Søren both have something to tell us about the nature of authentic love and its contribution to living a good and happy life.

The Problem: Poetic Love is Self-Love

In Works of Love, Kierkegaard tells us that love, including erotic love, comes from deep within us, from the heart. For Kierkegaard, erotic love includes but is not limited to sexual love. We employ the term ‘romantic love’ to capture what he has in mind. According to Kierkegaard, the poetic understanding of love, that is, the romantic love extolled in literature and song, is a counterfeit version of authentic love. First, it is a love of words that neglects action. The poetic understanding of erotic love is also based on preferences for the beloved. Poets sing the praises of erotic love as preferential love, as loving one person in distinction from all others. This understanding of erotic love focuses on the intensity of emotions, impulses, and inclinations that surround this type of love.

Kierkegaard is quite wary of the poet’s notion of erotic love. Why? If romantic love is founded only on preference, inclination, impulse and passion, a danger lurks. The danger is that such love is only a form of self-love, rather than a love centered on the well-being of the beloved.

How could this be? Kierkegaard answers this question for us:

“Now, to admire another person is certainly 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?...

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?” (WL 67.)

The danger is that instead of loving my beloved in such a way that her well-being is my ultimate concern, I instead love her expecting or even demanding something in return. I love her so that I’ll be rewarded with her love, her care, and her affection. This is a love motivated out of concern for the self, rather than for the other. According to Kierkegaard, such love is inauthentic, and so fails to produce true happiness.

Furthermore, poetic love as Kierkegaard understands it, can cause despair or even turn into hate due to changes in me or in the one I love. This type of love “loses its ardour, its joy, its desire, its originative power, its living freshness” (WL 50.) This experience is all too familiar. The initial passion and intensity of a romantic relationship dissipates over time, with no apparent explanation. Kierkegaard explains that erotic love of this sort dies out and can even turn into hate, because if my love is based on my preferences, or on traits in the one I love, and my preferences or the traits of my beloved change, my love changes. Poetic love is rooted in the temporal, and because of this it is extremely vulnerable.

Kierkegaard’s Solution: Love as a Moral Duty

In his book, Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, Steve Stockman says that “U2 inhabits that dangerous and exhilarating space that connects spiritual and physical, mortal and divine.” Kierkegaard’s solution to the problem posed by the poet’s view of love involves a similar sort of reconciliation. His solution is not to purge love of impulse, affection, or desire. Rather, his solution is to situate erotic love within something more lasting and stable than our changing preferences and desires. For him, romantic love must be made secure by basing it in divine love. Only then is it authentic, and only then does it produce a secure and lasting happiness.

To base erotic love in divine love, Kierkegaard claims that we must conceive of love as a moral duty. Specifically, loving my spouse should be seen as a unique way of fulfilling my duty to love my neighbor. Love is only secure if it is a duty, resting on a solid, unchanging foundation. It does not change when the object of love changes, nor when the one loving changes, because it transcends preference, inclination, and impulse. This type of love will not lead to despair.

For Kierkegaard love as a duty is rooted in the eternal, in God. God is unchanging, according to Kierkegaard, unlike our emotions; so God is a secure foundation for love, and so love is firmly grounded. Moreover, Kierkegaard claims that authentic love involves self-renunciation and perseverance. Husband and wife must both maintain an attitude of self-renunciation, and endure in this over time. This is often very difficult to do in real life, of course, but this is the posture of authentic love.

However, the need for self-renunciation and perseverance does not mean that preferences and inclinations have no place in the erotic aspect of love. There is still a place for the sensuous. The theme of the sensuous runs through much of U2’s music as well. Songs like ‘Desire’, ‘Hawkmoon 269’, ‘The Sweetest Thing’, and ‘Wild Honey’ deal with the sensuous aspects of romantic love. Neither U2 (unsurprisingly) nor Kierkegaard (perhaps surprisingly) downplay these sensuous aspects.

For Kierkegaard, to be authentic, erotic love must be transformed by divine love into something higher, something more praiseworthy, because it is more fulfilling when experienced in its most favorable context. Like U2, Kierkegaard combines the “spiritual and physical, mortal and divine.” He rejects a view that sees these things as opposed to one another. Like Bono, he speaks of divine love and romantic love together, as components of a good life. Via marriage, the divine has taken erotic love and made it a matter of conscience. This is not intended to abolish the impulses, passions, and inclinations of romantic love, but to make a change deep within the lovers so that they are committed to each other as a matter of conscience. They have undertaken a duty to love one another.

Kierkegaard realizes that this may sound odd. He knows that a merely human view of love contradicts an understanding of love as a duty, because human love “either declares that all this talk about a God-relationship is really a figment of the imagination, a bit of backwardness, or in talking about love it keeps silent about the God-relationship.” (WL 119.) Moreover,

“The poet and Christianity explain things in opposite ways. The poet idolizes the inclinations and is therefore quite right – since he always has only erotic love in mind – in saying that to command love is the greatest foolishness and the most preposterous kind of talk. Christianity, which constantly thinks only of Christian love, is also quite right when it dethrones inclination and sets this shall in place.” (WL 63, italics added.)

Why is the command to love ‘foolishness’ on a poetic understanding of love? One reason is that we do not have direct control over our emotions. We cannot command ourselves to have a particular feeling towards our beloved. A wife cannot immediately conjure up feelings of warm affection for her husband. Human beings just aren’t built that way. So to see love as a duty when one conceives of love as mere inclination and impulse is absurd. But for Kierkegaard, on a proper understanding of erotic love there is no absurdity in conceiving of love as a duty, because genuine love dethrones inclination and sets a moral commitment of the will to love in its place. Love is sheer action, according to Kierkegaard, and so conceiving of love as a duty is coherent.

It is important that impulse and inclination are not themselves autonomous , but rather that the duty to love is what governs our relationships. When we love in this way we still enjoy the satisfaction of our preferences and the fulfillment of our desires, but without resting the relationship on a shaky foundation. If we set our love on a moral commitment grounded in the divine, our love is no longer vulnerable to the changing tides of emotion, in Kierkegaard’s view. Moreover, because of his belief that “being related to God is the greatest blessedness” (WL 134), Kierkegaard contends that situating all love in relationship to God will yield in us the deepest happiness. This is why Kierkegaard tells us that to love another is to help each other love God. Loving God is love’s ultimate aim, and is not to be achieved by force or coercion, but rather by taking it upon ourselves to obey God in love (which can also help foster such love in the lives of our loved ones). For Kierkegaard, this is a crucial part of the recipe for true human happiness.

Bono’s Song: A Man and a Woman

In the song ‘A Man and a Woman’ from the recent album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Bono confesses that “I could never take a chance, of losing love to find romance, in the mysterious distance between a man and a woman.” In this song, there are striking parallels with a Kierkegaardian understanding of married love and its relation to the stages on life’s way.

What does it mean to “never take a chance of losing love to find romance”? It seems that Bono recognizes that the authentic love present within a strong marriage cannot be had in a mere romantic affair. This thinking is foreign to the person living in the aesthetic sphere of life, where the goal of pleasure reigns and commitment appears to be a threat to this goal. Why commit to one person, when a variety of self-gratifying pleasurable experiences can be had with many different people? Those who have moved past the aesthetic stage, into the ethical and finally the religious stage, understand that committed married love is valuable for human existence in ways the aesthete cannot experience or understand. This value is fully realized when experienced by both lovers in the religious stage of life. So we shouldn’t trade authentic love for an inferior counterfeit. We shouldn’t risk losing love to find romance. In all three stages on life’s way, the self can draw pleasure from erotic love. All can experience the lover as “honey on my tongue” in the words of Bono. However, according to Kierkegaard, only those who commit to the beloved in marriage (the ethical sphere), and ultimately to God (the religious sphere), are able to receive and offer the full range of love goods available, via a romantic relationship that has as its foundation the understanding and practice of authentic love – that is, love as a moral duty.

What’s so good about authentic love? Love as a duty is a love that is free, insofar as it does not change when the object of love changes. Because of this, Kierkegaard claims that

“You ought to preserve the love and you ought to preserve yourself and in and by preserving yourself to preserve the love. There where the merely human wants to storm forth, the command still holds; there where the merely human would lose courage, the command strengthens; there where the merely human would become tired and clever, the command flames up and gives wisdom. The command consumes and burns out what is unsound in your love, but through the command you shall be able to kindle it again when humanly considered it would cease.” (WL 57.)

The poet’s love can fail in numerous ways. On our own, we fail to persevere, we lose courage, we tire of our beloved and feel like moving on to someone else. And yet authentic love binds us together, and gives us the courage, strength, and wisdom to hold on to our beloved when love’s counterfeits would fail. True love is better than mere romance.

Conclusion:Hold on to Love

U2’s ‘Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)’ includes the following lyrics:

I love you cause I need to
Not because I need you
I love you cause I understand
That God has given me your hand
Holds me in a tiny fist
And still I need your kiss
Hold on to love
See the sunlight in her soul.

Kierkegaard shares these sentiments. In Kierkegaard’s view of authentic love, Bono doesn’t need his wife Ali just to have someone to love, but because he needs to love. Moreover, Kierkegaard believes that if a man and a woman are “stuck together with God’s glue,” then they can be free of the anxiety and despair that poetic love produces.

Kierkegaard, like Bono, still recognizes that the beloved is unique. We can see the sunlight in her soul, as the song puts it; but authentic love is not ultimately grounded in her uniqueness. Rather, it is grounded in the divine, recognizing that God is an essential part of the relationship. As Kierkegaard envisions it, love is a triangular relationship between three parties: the lover, her beloved, and God. Husband and wife help each other to be truly happy, which for Kierkegaard means that they help each other to love God. In this relationship and in this purpose, the three are one.

Ultimately, the lead singer of the world’s greatest rock band and the first existentialist both attempt to awaken us to truths about authentic love, in all its forms. As human beings, we need authentic love, and, as human beings, we need to authentically love. However, the Danish philosopher and the Irish rock star would both urge us to remember that a mere awakening is not enough. These truths must be lived. In authentic love, we get to carry each other, and we are one.

© Michael W. Austin 2007

Mike Austin is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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