Love: Amid Angst and Sadomasochism

When one seeks the completion of oneself in another human who’s also striving to become complete, the result is vanity.

8 min readFeb 15, 2021
Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

The essential characteristic of a human being is that we all continuously in a transition of becoming who we really are. We all are born free, with no explicit instruction on how one must live, let alone the idea of what one should become at the end of this journey. This freedom and lack of knowledge then morph into anxiety; to be just as a human is unsettling. One then becomes a conscious being in search of meaning. However, having free will is only a state and not the source of one’s anxiety. It is the burden of responsibility that torment us the most.

Consequently, the main problem comes to this question: where do one look for one’s self-certainty and the meaning of life? Please bear with me as I elaborate on the wrong answer.

“If a human being were a beast or an angel, he could not be in anxiety. Because he is a synthesis, he can be in anxiety; and the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety (1980), 155

The Angst

Anxiety, Kierkegaard wrote, emerges between realizing the possibilities and the act of making a decision. It’s in the state between Adam knowing that he could eat the fruit and actually eating it. Unfortunately, just like most of us, Adam’s first decision out of his free will is to deny it and blamed Eve.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a philosopher who was known for criticizing the idea of objective truth. Kierkegaard argued that there’s no such thing as the homogenous/universal meaning of a human being. Therefore, to conform with the universality concept is to abandon the self and become the mass man: an unreflective person whose identity is tied to a group and not to him/herself.

“Surrounded by hordes of men, absorbed in all sorts of secular matters, more and more shrewd about the ways of the world — such a person forgets himself, forgets his name divinely understood, does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too hazardous to be himself and far easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a mass man.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (1980), 33-34

Consequently, the catastrophic condition of humans comes to two extremes. One is the failure to realize the freedom and ended up living a life they were told to, unable to flourish to their most immense potentials. Two is to discover all the possibilities but incapable of choosing one. Kierkegaard suggests that to avoid being trapped in any extremes, we should have the courage to decide, despite all the despair, and act upon it wholeheartedly.

“… He must assume the situation with the proud consciousness of being the author of it, for the very worst disadvantages or the worst threats which can endanger my person have meaning only in and through my project; and it is on the ground of the engagement which I am that they appear. It is therefore, senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (1943), 554

The Sadomasochist

As individuals, humans inevitably consist of the three I-s: the authentic I, the I that one reveal, and the I that is perceived by the other. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that this kind of identity triggered the main problem in relationships. Hegel describes this problem as master-slave dialectic, that is, the conflict of recognition that arises when two consciousnesses met.

Simply put, a human is psychologically driven by the needs of self-certainty and completion, a condition of genuinely understanding one’s nature as a being. But it is impossible for a being to define itself because to do so, it must be an object and a subject at the same time. And as the eye cannot see itself, we look to others for an answer.

In master-slave dialectic, both realizing that the other holds the missing piece of their being. This piece is valuable to acquire full knowledge, certainty, and the truth about themselves. But in the attempt to recover this part of their being, they could not do it by killing the other since eliminating the other will also diminish what one was seeking in the first place. Therefore, to maintain the possibility of accessing the missing part of themselves, the survival of both is necessary. The powerful one survives as an independent master, and the one who is more afraid of dying becomes a dependent slave. However, because the master needs a slave to establish self-certainty, the master realizes that he/she is not that powerful. Paradoxically, the slave becomes the more essential and holds power in the relationship.

The master-slave dialectic also indicates that a relationship is a project of possession. To possess is more than to use, because there are plenty of things used but not possessed — for example, a plate in a cafe. Instead, possession involves a desire to unite, diminishing the beloved’s subjectivity and negating their existence as a free being. It then becomes problematic because the lover wants to be loved freely, but the beloved would be no more than a puppet when the subjectivity diminished.

“If Tristan and Isolde fall madly in love because of a love potion, they are less interesting. The total enslavement of the beloved kills the love of the lover. The end is surpassed; if the beloved is transformed into an automaton, the lover finds himself alone. Thus the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing; he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess freedom as freedom.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (1943), 367

The lover does not want a relationship with a puppet, for it will terminate the possibility for self-discovery, which is essential in a relationship. Thus, when an attempt to possess fails, one turns to masochism. One lets oneself be used as an instrument to reveal how one appears as an object. So, ironically, one succeeds in and enjoys failing.

But from the perspective of the sadist, one also fails. One might immerse the moment of humiliation as if the masochist’s consciousness is revealed through the body. But at that moment, the masochist is exercising his/her freedom. The masochist freely chooses when to surrender, and the sadist cannot control the masochist’s gaze or thinking.

Therefore such a relationship is inherently problematic. An attempt to possess, to merge, to become the whole world of the beloved is vanity in itself, for the great abyss between humans is unconquerable.

Spheres of Love

In his works, Kierkegaard describes the three spheres of life that one can expect to experience in his/her existential journey: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. In short, an aesthetic life is characterized by its adventurous nature. The aesthete is guided by sensualism, immediate gratification, and individual hedonistic value. As in ethical life, a person acts according to social rules and considers his/her action’s impact. But according to Kierkegaard, the aesthetic and the ethical life will, in time, bring us back to the angst; boredom, anxiety, and despair. Therefore he proposes a leap into the third sphere, religious life. If in the aesthetic life, one is ruled by passion. In ethical life, one is ruled by societal regulations. In religious life, one is ruled by total faith in God.

In Either/Or, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym portrays the aesthetic lover, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He is a womanizer who sleeps with different women every night for the sake of excitement and pleasure — kind of similar to Jacob Palmer, the character played by Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love. This aesthetic lover refuses to settle in one serious relationship, for it will diminish his/her freedom. For that reason, they’ll always be in transition from one lover to another.

Another character portrays in Either/Or is Johannes the Seducer. If Don Giovanni loves for a night or two, Johannes is more stable and covets his lover for six months. Johannes considers himself an artist of love. He loves beauty, but not in how many, but in how he gets it. This lover characterizes by his/her reflective nature in building a relationship. They consider every detail on how they seduce the potential lover, and in strategizing it, they get the excitement. One can say that this type of lover loves the state of loving; they prefer the journey rather than the destination, seduction rather than sex.

But no matter how fascinating it is, inevitably, as it drives by lust and temporary dopamine rush, that kind of love wears off fast. When the adventurous love acts no longer ignite the aesthete’s eagerness, they will, again, trapped in despair for the realization of how meaningless their life is. This anxiety and the longing for meaning, for the exhausted aesthetic, become motives for his transitioning to the calmer spheres, the ethical life.
In the ethical life, one no longer indulge in the experimentation of love and begin to seek a stable future, which means turning away from the temporary attachment of aesthetic, and consciously choose to be in marriage despite the possibilities of another despair and boredom.

The love in marriage also overcome the conditional love, which we can expect from such commitment. The notion of “I will always love you, as long as you love me.” should not exist in marriage. Yes. To love a human without having a certainty of reciprocity is not easy. However, to love unconditionally is a leap of faith, and when lovers decide to acquire it, they move to the sphere of religious life. This leap is a tremendous existential decision; it is to say that “Even when you make me unhappy, I will, with the total awareness of all the possibilities, choose to stay with you and work it all out.” And by doing that, commitment frees us in the same way that law grants us freedom.

The Love

The main problem in master-slave dialectic is not the attempt to possess the other but in the nature of the idea itself, which comes from the lack of self-fulfillment and insecurity.

When one seeks the completion of oneself in another human who’s also striving to become complete, the result is vanity, and such love and relationship are doomed to fail. Therefore, a leap of faith is the antidote for this constant terror of angst, not just in acquiring self-certainty but also in shaping one’s meaning of life.

By utilizing love as the narrative’s forces, Kierkegaard has resolved the center of human angst; regardless of romantic love or anything else, it’ll still be relevant for the core of this continuous transition is nothing but love.

Great Western thinkers like Solomon (or whoever wrote Ecclesiastes), Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pascal and Kierkegaard see the same thing and structure their philosophy around the search for our ultimate end, the satisfaction of our deepest desire. They pass in review essentially the same three lesser answers as Hinduism does and conclude, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and (therefore) our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Peter Kreeft. Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing. 1989. 49