In the earlier “Fear and Trembling,” Kierkegaard realizes that love is necessarily transgressive. Eschewing the conventional ethical motivation of social conformity, the loving individual is instead motivated by a sense of love that they have discovered within themselves. When the demands of love conform to social norms, such an individual might appear to be obeying them; but when their love conflicts with what their society dictates, the veil lifts, and their alternative ethical motivation is revealed. As Friedrich Nietzsche would write a few decades later, “Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.” To those whose actions remain governed by an adherence to social norms, the very existence of love poses an existential threat.
To much of 1960s America, white moderates certainly appeared to be acting ethically. But in Dr. King’s view, they were betraying their fellow human beings by choosing obedience to social norms above a higher form of justice, informed by love. If only these moderates could find the love that would authentically bind them to their fellow human beings, it would reveal to them “the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.” And with their moral universe so enlarged, rather than defending the status quo, these now former moderates would recognize the necessity of “lovingly” breaking “unjust laws.”
Kierkegaard, too, faced with the transgressive nature of love, wanted his readers to realize that we have a choice. On the one hand, our fear of transgression might lead us to hold ever tighter onto the status quo, finding the comfort that conformity provides. But on the other hand, we might find the courage to withhold judgment, because reality is not always as it appears. And if we find this courage, we might also find a way to expand our moral imagination so that we see the deep bonds of love that often unite those who fight for social, political and economic justice.
In order for this to happen, we have to leap beyond the narrow confines of our world in the vague hope that something else lies beyond. And while we can call this leap by many names, for Kierkegaard, its truest name was faith.
Jamie Aroosi is a senior research fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College and the author of “The Dialectical Self: Kierkegaard, Marx, and the Making of the Modern Subject.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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