Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Augustine on Love
Western political ethics has recently been enlivened by a re-appropriation of the North African patristic author St. Augustine (354-430), who provides contemporary ethicists a realistic assessment of human political possibilities that is resistant to a variety of baleful utopianisms. The group of authors most associated with this re-appropriation are known as Augustinian liberals; this label includes figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Jeffrey Stout, and Eric Gregory. In this chapter, I offer a critique of Augustinian liberals through an engagement with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. I argue that Kierkegaard also appropriates Augustine, though in a quite different manner. Furthermore, this appropriation reveals possibilities of Augustinianism that have been repressed by the reformist commitments of Augustinian liberals. In particular, I highlight Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom as a case in which an Augustinian doctrine of love is pressed into advocating the dissolution of a modern liberal society, rather than simply its reform. In order to draw this connection between Kierkegaard and contemporary Augustinian liberals, I also engage the work of G. W. F. Hegel, arguing that a basic commitment to material flourishing lies at the heart of his social ethics. Kierkegaard’s Augustinian doctrine of love, in contrast to Hegel, makes the rightness of cultivating material goods dependent on whether or not such goods have a relation to spiritual benefit. If it is spiritually beneficial for a society to be less materially comfortable, then that is what Kierkegaard—following Augustine—will advocate. It is this Augustinian doctrine of love, therefore, that enables Kierkegaard to attack Denmark’s Christendom in a way that neither Hegel nor the Augustinian liberals, with their reformist principles, could logically support.