Kierkegaard Talks about Love

Imagine two artists:

One travels the world over, searching for a human subject worthy of his skill as a painter of portraits. But so exacting are his standards and so fastidious his judgment that he has yet to discover a single person worthy of his efforts. Every potential subject is marred by some disqualifying flaw.

The second artist, on the other hand, has no special admiration for his own skill. Consequently, he never things to look beyond his immediate circle of neighbors for his subjects. Nevertheless, he has yet to find a face without something beautiful in it, something eminently worthy to be portrayed.

Wouldn’t this indicate that the second painter is the real artist? Yes–because this second one “brings a certain something” that enables him or her to find in others that which is worthy to paint. The other painter could not find anything worthy to paint anywhere in the world because he or she did not bring this “certain something.” 

So it is with love, says Kierkegaard. Those who think they can love only the people they prefer do not love at all. Love discovers truths about individuals–any individuals–that others cannot see (see Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love [New York: Harper and Row, 1962], 156-157).

[The above four paragraphs are slightly adapted from C. Terry Warner, Bonds That Make Us Free pages 306-307. C. Terry Warner also founded The Arbinger Institute, which wrote Leadership and Self Deception, The Anatomy of Peace, and The Outward Mindset.]

I found this image on https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/43/Wang_Ximeng_-_A_Thousand_Li_of_River_%28Bridge%29.jpg/1280px-Wang_Ximeng_-_A_Thousand_Li_of_River_%28Bridge%29.jpg

Plato’s Phaedrus: A Brief Summary

Socrates meets Phaedrus outside the city gates—an anomaly for Socrates, who’s often found inside the city. But this dialogue is full of the unusual.

Phaedrus tells Socrates he was just listening to one of Lysias’ speeches, and Socrates asks him to recite it. They find a shady chaste-tree, in full bloom and filled with fragrance, and lie down, resting their heads on the cool grass. Phaedrus then reads a speech which, when it is finished, Socrates criticizes and says he can make a better one. So he invokes the muses and gives what seems almost like a parody of overblown speech. And while his speech to some degree alludes to what will come in a minute, Socrates cuts himself off in medias res saying that his divine sign, his daimon, requires him to give a different speech, one that gives respect and reverence to Love.

So Socrates begins again, saying that the best things we have come from divine madness. Madness which is possession by the gods awakens the soul to songs and poetry which both glorify past achievements and teaches them to future generations (245a).1 Living beings have in them the mortal and the immortal, and every soul is immortal. The soul is like a charioteer with 2 horses: one horse is beautiful and good, and the other is the opposite. Souls with wings fly high to where the gods dwell. Souls who fly high enough are nourished by Beauty, Wisdom, and Goodness, which let them fly even higher, but “foulness and ugliness make the wings shrink and disappear” (Woodruff 32, 246e). 

The gods dwell in heaven, where they have a view of Justice, Self-control, Knowledge, and Truth—things as they really are. Souls want to catch sight of these things, but only get a tiny glimpse because they are distracted by the horses. When a soul loses its wings, it is born into a certain kind of human being, which kind is determined by how much Reality and Truth the soul saw before it shed its wings. If the soul lives rightly, it eventually grows its wings again. Philosophers, as lovers of truth, grow their wings back faster than others. Love is a type of madness because when a charioteer sees the beautiful face of the beloved, he is reminded of that Beauty of which he caught a glimpse in a previous life before mortality. Love must be coupled with self-control.

When Phaedrus admits Socrates’ speech was better than Lysias’, Socrates asks what the difference is between good writing and bad (258e), thus getting Phaedrus to philosophize with him—the whole point in Socrates’ speech: hence rhetoric is a way of directing the soul by means of speech, in the law courts, in public, and in private. The good speaker must know all of the different types of souls, as well as the nature of the world as a whole—a difficult task, Phaedrus remarks. But there is beauty, Socrates responds, in attempting to do the beautiful, so one should not despair at the challenging task. Writing can be more problematic than speech because writing only says one thing forever and can’t respond to direct questions. Those who come upon it can read it, but they don’t know for whom it was written or why it exists. It can’t defend itself. But there is another kind of writing: a living, breathing person, who can respond to questions and can speak for some and remain silent for others.

Ultimately, to speak or to write well, one must know the truth of everything, define each thing in itself, and then divide it until it is indivisible. One must understand the nature of the soul and determine what kind of speech is appropriate to what kind of soul. That is truly artful speech. It is real techne. And, naturally, it would be spoken by a lover of truth—a Philosopher.

(Socrates has done with Phaedrus, just as Plato has just done in this dialogue with us, exactly what he says ought to be done.)

So the heat has died down. Socrates prays to the god, asking to be beautiful on the inside and to have only enough money that a moderate man would carry and use. Then both Socrates and Phaedrus depart.


The Codex Clarkianus 39, a manuscript of the Phaedrus in the Bodleian Library. From Wikipedia Commons.



End Notes
1.   I wonder if Emily Dickinson was alluding to this section of Plato’s Phaedrus when she wrote,

Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – and you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –


                        (620)

A Story about Two Small Boys, and a Small Accident,” by David A. Bednar

“One evening,” David A. Bednar writes, “Susan and I stood near a window in our home and watched two of our little boys playing outside. During the course of their adventures, the younger of the two boys was injured slightly in a small accident. We quickly recognized that he was not seriously hurt, and we decided not to provide immediate assistance. We wanted to observe and see if any of our family discussions about brotherly kindness had sunk in. What happened next was both interesting and instructive.

“The older brother consoled and carefully helped the younger brother back into the house. Susan and I had positioned ourselves near the kitchen so we could see what next took place, and we were prepared to intervene immediately if additional bodily harm seemed likely or a serious accident was imminent.
“The older brother dragged a chair to the kitchen sink. He climbed up on the chair, assisted his brother onto the chair, turned on the water, and proceeded to pour a large quantity of dishwashing soap onto the scratched arm of his little brother. He did his best to gently wash away the dirt. The reaction of the little brother to this procedure can only be described accurately using language from the holy scriptures: “And they shall have cause to howl, and weep, and wail, and gnash their teeth” (Mosiah 16:2). And did that little boy howl!

“After the scrubbing was finished, the arm was carefully dried with a towel. Eventually the screaming stopped. The older brother next climbed up onto the kitchen counter, opened a cabinet, and found a new tube of medicated ointment. Though the scratches on his little brother were not large or extensive, the older brother applied almost all of the ointment in the tube to the entire injured arm. The screaming did not resume, as the little brother clearly liked the soothing effect of the ointment much more than he appreciated the cleansing effect of the dishwashing soap.

“The older brother returned again to the cabinet in which he had found the ointment and located a new box of sterile bandages. He then unwrapped and put bandages all up and down his brother’s arm—from the wrist to the elbow. With the emergency resolved, and with soap bubbles, ointment, and wrappers all over the kitchen, the two little boys hopped down from the chair with bright smiles and happy faces.
“What happened next is most important. The injured brother gathered up the remaining bandages and the almost empty tube of ointment, and he went back outside. He quickly sought out his friends and began to put ointment and bandages on their arms. Susan and I both were struck by the sincerity, enthusiasm, and rapidity of his response.
“Why did that little boy do what he did? Please note that he immediately and intuitively wanted to give to his friends the very thing that had helped him when he was hurt. That little boy did not have to be urged, challenged, prompted, or goaded to act. His desire to share was the natural consequence of a most helpful and beneficial personal experience.”

From “Come and See,” Ensign, November 2014, 108.

Response to Dawkins’ “Don’t Force Your Religious Opinions on Your Children”

Certainly we need to remember that no person should force anything on anybody else. But we should at least recognize Dawkins’ own perspective, a perspective which includes a negative view of religion.

And yet, I personally believe that Dawkins isn’t really arguing against religion as much as he thinks he is. What he is really arguing against is forms of human totalitarianism–whether on the large scale or the small scale. After all, no person should force anything onto anybody else.

But what his article doesn’t take into account is that any religion that is good and that is true actually doesn’t force its way onto anybody. I do admit here that there are many modern-day pharisees (for lack of a better term, though they are found in many religions) who have used the language of religion to negatively influence others–to force them, so to speak. I myself have witnessed firsthand many sad accounts. But that isn’t an argument against religion. It’s an argument against those people who try to force things on others by subtly manipulating language to get people to believe the same things they do. People who do evil in the name of good are the worst kinds of people. They are the ones which we must denounce.

But that doesn’t mean we can equivocate “forcing someone to do another’s will” with “teaching someone to do that which is good.” In other words, we must at least acknowledge that there are merits to teaching one another the basic principles that any good person believes, the same principles that any good religion teaches: principles like kindness towards others, respect and love for those who differ from you, selfless service towards one’s neighbor and in one’s community. Genuine honesty. Sincere gratitude. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Don’t hurt others. Don’t shed innocent blood. Be kind. Be respectful. Values like these are the values of any good society, and they are values on which I believe all good people–no matter how we were raised or where we come from–can agree.

Two Stories about Forgiveness

I like stories about forgiveness. I like them because I believe that forgiveness is a manifestation of love, and love is something for which each of us have the faculty to feel. Indeed, I believe that we all, deep down, have a desire to love and be loved. But that is because, recognizing my own bias, I believe that all human beings are the literal offspring of Heavenly Parents, who themselves have bodies of flesh and bone, and who endow us with the capacity to love one another. The same love that They have for us, we can have for one another. That love, in more practical terms, has the power and potential to transcend all boundaries of nation, creed, color, and class. Here are two stories that that illustrate forgiveness that I would like to share with you.


This first one comes from October, 2005. 

“How would you feel toward a teenager who decided to toss a 20-pound frozen turkey from a speeding car headlong into the windshield of the car you were driving? How would you feel after enduring six hours of surgery using metal plates and other hardware to piece your face together, and after learning you still face years of therapy before returning to normal—and that you ought to feel lucky you didn’t die or suffer permanent brain damage?

“And how would you feel after learning that your assailant and his buddies had the turkey in the first place because they had stolen a credit card and gone on a senseless shopping spree, just for kicks? . . .

“This is the kind of hideous crime that propels politicians to office on promises of getting tough on crime. It’s the kind of thing that prompts legislators to climb all over each other in a struggle to be the first to introduce a bill that would add enhanced penalties for the use of frozen fowl in the commission of a crime.

“The New York Times quoted the district attorney as saying this is the sort of crime for which victims feel no punishment is harsh enough. ‘Death doesn’t even satisfy them,’ he said.

“Which is what makes what really happened so unusual. The victim, Victoria Ruvolo, a 44-year-old former manager of a collections agency, was more interested in salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant, Ryan Cushing, than in exacting any sort of revenge. She pestered prosecutors for information about him, his life, how he was raised, etc. Then she insisted on offering him a plea deal. Cushing could serve six months in the county jail and be on probation for 5 years if he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.

“Had he been convicted of first-degree assault—the charge most fitting for the crime—he could have served 25 years in prison, finally thrown back into society as a middle-aged man with no skills or prospects.

“But this is only half the story. The rest of it, what happened the day this all played out in court, is the truly remarkable part.

“According to an account in the New York Post, Cushing carefully and tentatively made his way to where Ruvolo sat in the courtroom and tearfully whispered an apology. ‘I’m so sorry for what I did to you.’

“Ruvolo then stood, and the victim and her assailant embraced, weeping. She stroked his head and patted his back as he sobbed, and witnesses, including a Times reporter, heard her say, ‘It’s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.’ According to accounts, hardened prosecutors, and even reporters, were choking back tears” (“Forgiveness Has Power to Change Future,” Deseret Morning News, Aug. 21, 2005, p. AA3.). 

I found that story in a talk by Gordon B. Hinckley. The talk was given at a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 2005. The talk is called “Forgiveness.” Hinckley was president of said church from 1995 to 2008. 

Here is the next story. This one also comes from a general conference, but this time is from James E. Faust, one of Hinckley’s counselors:

In the beautiful hills of Pennsylvania, a devout group of Christian people live a simple life without automobiles, electricity, or modern machinery. They work hard and live quiet, peaceful lives separate from the world. Most of their food comes from their own farms. The women sew and knit and weave their clothing, which is modest and plain. They are known as the Amish people. 

A 32-year-old milk truck driver lived with his family in their Nickel Mines community. He was not Amish, but his pickup route took him to many Amish dairy farms, where he became known as the quiet milkman. Last October he suddenly lost all reason and control. In his tormented mind he blamed God for the death of his first child and some unsubstantiated memories. He stormed into the Amish school without any provocation, released the boys and adults, and tied up the 10 girls. He shot the girls, killing five and wounding five. Then he took his own life.

This shocking violence caused great anguish among the Amish but no anger. There was hurt but no hate. Their forgiveness was immediate. Collectively they began to reach out to the milkman’s suffering family. As the milkman’s family gathered in his home the day after the shootings, an Amish neighbor came over, wrapped his arms around the father of the dead gunman, and said, “We will forgive you.” Amish leaders visited the milkman’s wife and children to extend their sympathy, their forgiveness, their help, and their love. About half of the mourners at the milkman’s funeral were Amish. In turn, the Amish invited the milkman’s family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed. A remarkable peace settled on the Amish as their faith sustained them during this crisis.

One local resident very eloquently summed up the aftermath of this tragedy when he said, “We were all speaking the same language, and not just English, but a language of caring, a language of community, [and] a language of service. And, yes, a language of forgiveness.” It was an amazing outpouring of their complete faith in the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.”

The family of the milkman who killed the five girls released the following statement to the public:

“To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community:

“Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you’ve extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.

“Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.”

. . .

Hearing of this tragedy, many people sent money to the Amish to pay for the health care of the five surviving girls and for the burial expenses of the five who were killed. As a further demonstration of their discipleship, the Amish decided to share some of the money with the widow of the milkman and her three children because they too were victims of this terrible tragedy. (Faust, April 2007 Conference, “The Healing Power of Forgiveness.”)

There you have it. Two stories about forgiveness. I like them because I think that while maybe it is so easy to get angry and become spiteful or hateful, and maybe it is so easy to resort to violence, but I believe that forgiveness can do much to heal our relationships, both with others and with ourselves.

“I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” by Jeff Moses

Anyone remember this? It’s a song written by Jeff Moses for an episode of Sesame Street. Here are the lyrics:

Well, I’d like to visit the moon,
On a rocket ship high in the air.

Yes, I’d like to visit the moon,
But I don’t think I’d like to live there.

Though I’d like to look down at the earth from above,
I would miss all the places and people I love,
So although I might like it for one afternoon,
I don’t want to live on the moon. 

I’d like to travel under the sea.
I could meet all the fish everywhere.
Yes, I’d travel under the sea,
But I don’t think I’d like to live there.
I might stay for a day there if I had my wish,
But there’s not much to do when your friends are all fish,
And an oyster and clam aren’t real family,
So I don’t want to live under the sea. 

I’d like to visit the jungle, hear the lion’s roar,
Go back in time, and meet a dinosaur.
There’s so many strange places I’d like to be,
But none of them permanently.

So if I should visit the moon,
Well, I’ll dance on a moonbeam, and then
I will make a wish on a star,
And I’ll wish I was home once again.
Though I’d like to look down at the earth from above,
I would miss all the places and people I love.
So although I may go, I’ll be coming home soon,
‘Cause I don’t want to live on the moon.
No, I don’t want to live on the moon. 

One of the things I think is interesting about this little song (or poem) is the underlying difference between the way the words visit and live are used. The speaker acknowledges that it would be fun to visit many strange places, but he doesn’t want to live in any of them because he would miss his friends and family–the people he loves. Visiting places is fun. But it’s in the places where our loved ones are that we do the real living.

Communicating without Words?

Last week, two of my favorite people were married to one another. Here’s what the 3 of us looked like at one point:

About halfway through the reception, Ryan and Ju left for a minute. They returned, having changed into traditional Korean wedding robes. Awesome.

Two chairs were then brought in, and Grandpa and Grandma sat down. Ryan stood in front of Grandpa and Ju in front of Grandma. And then, in unison, Ryan and Ju knelt down in front of Grandpa and Grandma and bowed to them three times. The four of them then stood and embraced one another.

Then Mom and Dad sat in the chairs.

Again, Ryan and Ju knelt down and bowed their heads to the floor. They stood, and so did Mom and Dad. Then all four embraced.

Finally, Ju’s mother sat in a chair and her uncle sat in the other chair (on this occasion, her uncle took the place of her father). Again, Ju and Ryan knelt and then bowed. And at the same time Ryan and Ju were bowing, Ju’s mother and uncle bowed their heads. All 4 bowed in unison. Then all arose and embraced.

Ryan then presented Ju’s mother with a gift bag. In Korea, if the mother of the bride receives a wooden goose from the groom’s family it means that her daughter will be well-taken care of. Well, Ryan handed Ju’s mother a gift bag, and she opened it. Inside was a wooden goose that our mother had painted.

I can’t describe the expression on Ju’s mom’s face. It was one of gratitude, surprise, and joy, and when she saw it she let out an audible gasp. She began to weep, and Mom ran over and embraced her.

Several people that were watching were a bit confused because they didn’t understand the symbolism of the gift. But all who watched understood that there was something being communicated between two families that did not speak the same languages.

Human beings can only communicate insofar as a margin of overlap exists between person A’s experiences and person B’s experiences. But that margin of overlap always exists, even if we do not speak the same language, because we are all human beings. We are all embodied spirits. It seems to me that, no matter where a person is from, tears are universal. Love is universal.

We’re all human beings here. And we don’t have to completely understand one another in order to treat one another with kindness, respect, and love. Our traditions, though they are different, are good. And human beings have an innate capacity for love and kindness.