The Ethics of Love in Spinoza and Kierkegaard and the Teleological Suspension of the Theological

By Strawser, Michael | Philosophy Today, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Ethics of Love in Spinoza and Kierkegaard and the Teleological Suspension of the Theological


Strawser, Michael, Philosophy Today


The analysis of love has been neglected more than almost any other subject in philosophy.

Irving Singer1

The singular epiphany of God in the face of three men wandering in the desert! One can, of course, separate out of this or isolate from it the idea of God. One can think it or know it while forgetting the circumstances. Religions and theologies thrive on this abstraction just as mystics do on this isolation. But so do wars of religion.

Emmanuel Levinas2

In a momentary reflection on the deep psychological reasons that have landed him in such hot water, Socrates, an undoubtedly shrewd thinker, remarks to his religious interlocutor thus: "Is this, Euthyphro, why I am a defendant against the indictment: that whenever someone says such things about the gods, I receive them somehow with annoyance."3 At this early point in the dialogue Euthyphro had not said anything all too alarming, so we should not judge Socrates' remark as stemming from some preposterous religious claim, but rather as a natural burst from a discerning philosophical mind that could tolerate little in the way of theological or onto-theological saying. This annoyance, however, does not lead to an undermining of ethics as many might think. On the contrary, as exemplified by the person of Socrates, the abandonment of theology promotes a heightened ethical sensitivity. Of course, given Socrates' daimonia, we all know the "abandonment" is only apparent. Could it not be better conceived as a teleological suspension of the theological in order to meet the other as tout autre?

This essay is not directly concerned with Socrates, however, and while it may reasonably lead readers to question whether we would not all be better off from forgoing discourse on God, its explicit focus is more subdued. What I wish to argue is that the theological question-the question of God-or, more specifically, questions regarding the nature and being of God, onto-theo-logical questions in Heidegger's sense,4 are, at best, irrelevant to an ethics of love and the promotion of such an ethic. At worst, they may undermine the possibility of an ethics of love. An ethics of love thus requires a teleological suspension of the theological.

Note that I am not arguing for the irrelevance of God per se. Of God per se I have nothing to say and humbly remain silent. I am suggesting instead that we begin our ethical quest with love without God, and if it happens that we then decide to affirm God, let us be sure that it is not God without love. Analogous to Husserl's epoché, which puts the question of the external world in suspense but does not thereby deny its existence, the teleological epoché of the theological brackets the existence of God in order to focus on the more pressing-the higher-concern of loving others, all others.

I shall develop my argument by considering what I take to be two profound visions of an ethics of love, both of which can clearly be seen as founding their ethical theories on God, i.e., Spinoza's Ethics and Kierkegaard's Works of Love. Of course, the God of Spinoza and the God of Kierkegaard, could not, it would appear, be more different. The former is the one and only substance, a divine immanence, equivalent to nature, lacking a will and known through reason; whereas the latter is a transcendent God of will, absolutely different from creation or nature, and absolutely beyond reason. Spinoza's conception of God is pantheistic and naturalistic, akin to more Eastern theological conceptions, and favorable to scientists, such as Albert Einstein, who said: "The God I believe in is the God of Spinoza."5 In contrast, Kierkegaard's God is personal and revelatory, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. Thus, we would appear to be justified in surmising that such different conceptions of God would yield significantly different ethical perspectives. When we explore the texts, however, we shall see, remarkably, that this could not be farther from the truth.

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