It is supremely ironic that the two philosophers credited with being the founders of existentialism could not be further apart from each other in their thoughts about love and virtue.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite theme is power, the Will to Power. Soren Kierkegaard’s favorite theme is love.
Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a staunch critic of Christian virtues which he thought weakened people, blocking their Will to Power. Consistent with his thinking, we have phrases such as “meekness Is weakness,” “chastity is it own punishment,” “faith is foolish,” and “hope is for losers.” He personifies the notion that virtue can hurt you.
Yet Nietzsche did not live up to his image of the “super man.” At age 45 he suffered the complete loss of his mental faculties with paralysis. He spent his remaining years in the care of his mother until she died in 1897, and then his sister Elisabeth. The man who sought to free himself of Christian virtues was, in the end, the daily recipient of them.
For Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Christian and firm believer in God (Nietzsche famously declared that God is dead), nothing was more important to a human being than to love. “This is all I have known for certain,” he wrote, “that God is love. Even if I have been mistaken on this or that point: God is nevertheless love.” Our ability to love is the result of God’s love flowing into us. In a rather beautiful passage, he states that “As the quiet lake is fed by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being’s love is grounded in God’s love. If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, there would be neither a lake nor human love.”
Now, there is a limitation inherent in love. Although God can send His love directly into us, we cannot do the same with respect to our neighbors. Merely telling people you love them is not enough. We need a connective or conduit that allows us to transfer our love in a practical way to the persons we love. A fireman cannot extinguish a fire, even though he has access to an immense amount of water, without the use of a hose. So too, in order to direct love to where it is needed, a conduit is required, and that conduit is virtue.
Just as a person has many needs, there must be many virtues that can be administered to each of these needs. Patience transmits love to a person who is fretful, hope to one who is discouraged, and compassion to one who is suffering. Love expresses itself to anyone through courtesy, justice, and kindness. Piety expresses love to our ancestors, mirthfulness to those who are sad, and reverence to all things holy.
Courage is the virtue that gives us the strength to help others at a time when we place ourselves in danger. Chastity respects the sexual integrity of the other, which sincerity manifests our honesty and openness to them. Gratitude is our thanks for being loved. Generosity is our love for being loved.
The more virtues we have the better we are enabled to help our neighbor. And our set of virtues defines our character. Virtue is love’s ambassador that produces salutary effects wherever it is assigned. An automobile mechanic is not prepared to go into business unless he has a wide variety of tools for the simple reason that a car may have any number of problems.
Having an abundance of virtues is equivalent to an archer having a goodly amount of arrows. Separating virtues from vices can be challenging. As G. K. Chesterton has remarked, “A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice”. A reliable way of distinguishing virtues from vices, however, is to recognize that the heart of all virtues is love.
Vice carries us in the opposite direction of love. It is ruinous of our character and exacts a fearful price. We may alter the title of this brief essay so that it is more in line with reality: vice has a price, but virtue will never desert you.
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