These particular Christian reflections concern the works of love. They are about the works of love rather than love itself, because it is part of Kierkegaard's thesis that love as such is inexhaustible and hidden. Love is known only through its fruits, which are its mature works. This is true even of the lover's knowledge of his own love; the major reason it is important to think about the works of love is not so that we can stand in judgment over whether other people love, but so that we can consider our own case, not because love exists in order to be known, but because a love that is true does in fact make itself known. It is easy to deceive oneself about whether one truly loves; the test of true love is whether it bears the fruits of love. Not every effect or sign of love is a work of love, however. You can know the tree from its leaves, as well, but the fruit more fully captures what the tree is. The leaves of love are things like words and techniques of speech. They do say something about the love, but a love that had no expression but words would be a barren love, not love in its true and proper sense.
Kierkegaard begins his discussion of the works of love with the royal law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. He begins by noting that, while the world will often laud the importance of love, this command at the heart of Christianity provides three basic elements that require a conception of love very different from what the world regards as such. First, it gives as yourself as the standard for love. Second, it insists on love neighbor rather than talking about love of friend or beloved. Third, it commands love, and therefore imposes it as a duty.
(1) In terms of worldly poetry, it is very tempting to say that we should love our neighbor more than ourselves. The royal law directly opposes this way of framing the standard of love:
There is only one whom a man can with the truth of the eternal love above himself--that is God. Therefore it is not said: "Thous shalt love God as thyself," but rather, "Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all they heart, with all they soul, and all thy mind." A man should love God in unconditional obedience and love him in adoration. It would be ungodliness if any man dared love himself in this way, or dared love another person in this way, or dared to let another person love him in this way. (p. 36)
To try to love someone more than oneself is to try to love them as more than human; but while this putting-people-on-super-high-pedestals sounds good in poetry, in practice it does neither yourself nor them good. Indeed, it generally means either that you are not treating yourself as human or that you are not doing for them what they require as human beings. To talk about loving another human being more than oneself puts one, in addition, into a very vague realm; loving God more than oneself is constrained by the fact that God is at the limit, the highest of the high, and gets some definiteness of content from that, but to love a human being more than oneself does not have this assistance. To love them as yourself, however, provides constraints on what can count. Indeed, the constraints it provides are especially useful against hypocrisy, since precisely what the hypocrite is most likely to do is to try to evade treating others as himself, under whatever excuse he can manage (and that you are somehow doing more and better for others is the handiest excuse).
(2) The only other way for the hypocrite to evade the force of the law is to fudge about who is to be loved as himself. But in requiring love of the neighbor, we find yet another opposition to hypocrisy in love. When we ordinarily think of loving others, we think of loving them as friends, or loving them as lovers; but the royal law tells us plainly we are to love our neighbor, that is, the person in some way near us. This neighbor is, as we learned in (1), not nearer than ourselves; but loving one's neighbor as oneself requires taking them as being, morally speaking, as near as ourselves:
The concept of neighbour really means a duplicating of one's own self. Neighbour is what philosophers would call the other, that by which the selfishness in self-love is to be tested. (p. 37)
Putting the standard as yourself together with the neighbor opposes selfishness, because, as Kierkegaard says (p. 38) "what selfishness absolutely cannot endure is duplication"; selfishness requires thinking of yourself as the self alone, the self that matters. What is more, the duplication of self, the treating of others as other selves is indefinite. If there is only one other person, that person is your neighbor; if there are a million people, they are each your neighbor.
Precisely the question, "Who is my neighbor?" was asked of Christ, of course, and Christ's answer, the parable of the Good Samaritan, is curious. As Kierkegaard notes, the parable of the Good Samaritan does not actually give a criterion for determining who your neighbor is; rather, it forces one to change the way in which one asks the question in the first place:
Christ does not speak about recognising one's neighbour, but about being a neighbour oneself, about proving oneself to be a neighbour, something the Samaritan showed by his compassion. By this he did not prove the the assaulted man was his neighbour but that he was a neighbour of the one assaulted. The Levite and the priest were in a stricter sense neighbours of the assaulted man, but they wished to ignore it. On the other hand, the Samaritan, who because of prejudice was predestined to misunderstanding, nevertheless understood rightly that he was a neighbour of the assaulted man. Choosing a lover, finding a friend, yes, that is a long, hard job, but one's neighbour is easy to recognise, easy to find--if one himself will only recognise his duty. (pp. 38-39)
Loving the neighbor also gives special force to loving as oneself, because it forces us to consider the latter in the light of the former: "The law is, therefore: you shall love yourself in the same way as you love your neighbour when you love him as yourself" (p. 39). To love one's neighbor rightly corresponds exactly to loving oneself rightly. Loving yourself rightly requires loving yourself in such a way that you can coherently love your neighbor as yourself, and vice versa.
(3) People are tempted to speak of the spontaneity of love, or about the compulsion to love, but the royal law unequivocally lays love on us as a duty. This a significant difference, even if poetic words drawing on it have taken away some of the surprising character of it:
Take a pagan who is not spoiled by having learned thoughtlessly to patter out Christianity by rote or is not spoiled by imagining himself to be a Christian--and this command "You shall love" will not only surprise him but will disturb him and be an offence to him. For this very reason that which is the mark of Christianity--"All things are made new"--also fits this command of love. The command is not something new in an accidental sense, nor a novelty in the sense of something curious, nor some new something in the temporal sense. Love had also existed in paganism; but this obligation to love is an alteration by the eternal--and all things are made new. (p. 41)
Erotic love, ordinary love of friendship, all the kinds of love that are not obligatory, are subject to change. But if love is a duty, it is raised above change, dependence, and circumstance: the command is simply, you shall love. It takes a priority over other things, the things that are subject to change and limitation. In matters of erotic love, people attempt to capture this by swearing fidelity, and poets are right that love only becomes something truly worthwhile when it has something of 'forever' to it, but this swearing is hollow if it is not backed up by something higher than the love itself. In general, people who swear that their love is eternal swear it by the love itself, or even some component of it; but truly to do it, one would have to swear by the eternal itself, which is found in our lives in its demand on us -- that is, in duty, which rises above changeable circumstances on which other goods depend. Only insofar as love is a duty can it be good as such, rather than merely good in dependence on such circumstances. By making love a duty, the royal law describes a love that is necessarily (1) unchanging, (2) independent, and (3) secured against despair. (Despair enters in because it is a giving up of good as not eternal.)
On this general basis, Kierkegaard will examine additional facets of the royal law, the command to love one's neighbor as oneself, particularly insofar as it is concerned with the neighbor and involves a demand.
All quotations from Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, Howard and Edna Hong, trs. Harper (New York: 1962).