Aquinas and Kierkegaard


Sacrifice of Isaac, Rembrant, 1635

From Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

One of the most valuable aspects of Mulder’s book is the reflection it promotes on the possible conversation between Kierkegaard and St. Thomas Aquinas. In chapter 2, for example, in a discussion of Fear and Trembling, Mulder argues that the focus Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio places on Abraham’s faith as being for this life downplays models of Christian martyrdom in which the martyrs’ projects can only be fulfilled ‘outside their earthly lives’ (p. 54). And he argues that Aquinas’ natural law ethics does a better job of representing what Johannes wants to prize in Abraham than does the pseudonym’s own discussion.

Where the comparison between Aquinas and Kierkegaard pays the highest dividends, for me, is in chapter 3, on the ‘order of love’. Part of the issue at stake here is whether the specific obligations we have to our families and friends are such that we have an obligation to prioritise them over the ‘neighbour’ who is a stranger. To use Mulder’s example, if I can only afford one winter coat for my child, and yet see another child equally in need, should my own child take priority? Mulder notes that the Catholic tradition has typically claimed that our families have a greater claim on our resources than strangers, and that it has sometimes also been claimed that we should love them more than strangers (p. 68). Kierkegaard has often been thought to be excessively suspicious about such ‘preferential’ loves. Much work has been done to defend Kierkegaard against his harshest critics — such as Theodor Adorno — on this point. Yet an uncomfortable suspicion remains that in such defences, troubling elements of Kierkegaard’s account are glossed over.

What is most interesting about Mulder’s treatment of this topic is his claim that the real issue at stake is not preference but nature (p. 96); not between preferential and non-preferential loves so much as how deeply defective (or otherwise) is ‘natural’ love. Hence, in a brief discussion of Aristotle on friendship and self-love, Mulder argues that for Kierkegaard, given his Lutheran heritage, even an Aristotelian ‘perfect’ friendship would count as sinful and not ‘real’ love (pp. 74, 85). This is the position, Mulder thinks, which needs Aquinas and the Thomist tradition as a corrective. Drawing on the idea that grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, Mulder sides with Aquinas in arguing that ‘the natural affection we have for those who are closest to us by way of blood-relationships or other such ties is reasonable and is not nullified by Christian charity’ (p. 81). Yet the two figures are not poles apart. Kierkegaard agrees with Aquinas that we ought to love God more than ourselves. Both seem to hold some version of the view that all love is rooted in love of God (p. 80). And both, Mulder argues, view love of neighbour as arising out of this love for God (p. 95).

I find much to admire in this analysis. If Mulder is right, then this lends support to John Henry Newman’s idea that it is in the arena of the love of friends and family that we develop the patience, kindness and inspiration from which a more all-encompassing charity and love of neighbour can grow. I do think that Kierkegaard’s worries about preferential loves and the more egregious aspects of taking charity to ‘begin at home’ sometimes blind him to this possibility, and that there is much to be said for the greater trust Aquinas seems to have in our natural affinities. A similar point applies to self-love. Mulder clearly states that for Kierkegaard, as for Aquinas, the second love commandment does not oblige us to love the neighbour more than oneself. So Kierkegaard’s position is not the radical asymmetry between self and other of, say, Levinas. But this element is sometimes drowned out by Kierkegaard’s focus on self-denial — ‘Christianity’s essential form’, as he puts it in Works of Love — and related terms.

Kierkegaard and the Catholic Tradition: Conflict and Dialogue, reviewed by John Lippitt, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews