Narcissus (1597–99) by Caravaggio; source: Wikipedia
Self-Love Is Selfless Love
Self-love isn't the same thing as selfishness, but the distinction between the two has long been hazy. Since at least the Ancient Greek era, people have debated the nature and value of loving oneself. In fact, the question of whether self-love is a virtue sits at the foundation of not just moral philosophy but Western philosophy as a whole.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, a major work of the Ancient Greek canon and a key text in the Western intellectual tradition, the philosopher Aristotle argued that self-love is a necessary ingredient for a moral life. While many of his contemporaries claimed that self-love breeds greedy people, Aristotle believed the opposite was true. In his view, people who love themselves are more motivated to pursue virtuous lifestyles that benefit society as a whole.1
Aristotle felt his opponents fundamentally misunderstood the nature of self-love. Loving oneself doesn't mean putting one's needs above everyone else's. Rather, it means wanting to live a genuinely fulfilling and fruitful life. And people flourish most, according to Aristotle, when they follow the "honorable course" — that is, when they act in accordance with virtues like courage, temperance, generosity, and justice. So people who love themselves have an incentive to live virtuously.2
The School of Athens (1509) by Raphael; Source: Wikipedia
Those who love themselves are not only concerned with their own flourishing. Aristotle further argues that true self-love drives us to cultivate deep friendships. After all, walking the virtuous path includes helping other people find ways to flourish, too. Moreover, Aristotle says virtuous people find pleasure in life itself, including their own lives and the lives of their friends and loved ones. In Aristotle's view, self-love is a selfless kind of love: The more we care about our flourishing, the more motivated we are to ensure the whole world flourishes with us.3
“The more we care about our flourishing, the more motivated we are to ensure the whole world flourishes with us.”
Much like Aristotle, the 18th-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed healthy self-love to be the basis of ethical behavior. The problem, Rousseau felt, was that the European social structures of the 1700s distorted that self-love, transforming it into a cause of conflict and strife.
While most of his fellow thinkers of the time argued that modern society made human beings more civil and less animalistic, Rousseau concluded it had the opposite effect. Before the rise of modern society, people were primarily motivated by what Rousseau called "amour de soi," which translates to "love of self." This amour de soi was essentially a survival urge — a desire to have enough to eat, live in good health, and produce offspring. Because people's needs were so simple and so easily satisfied, Rousseau speculated, they had little reason to wage war or otherwise harm one another. They could best meet their needs through cooperation and harmony.4
However, with the arrival of modern society, people began to experience a different kind of self-love. Rousseau called this "amour propre," or "self-esteem." Rather than a simple survival urge, this kind of self-love motivated people to be noticed and highly regarded by others. Just living was no longer enough for people — now, they had to achieve some status in their lives.5
Rousseau didn't think amour propre was inherently bad; after all, great things can happen when people want to leave a (positive) mark on the world. But it was all too easy for this type of self-love to become an all-consuming obsession. When that happened, people became too competitive. The drive to distinguish oneself from the crowd turned into a drive to dominate and control others. People eyed one another suspiciously; everyone was little more than a potential threat to their status. Genuine connection and community were rendered impossible.6
Discourse on Inequality (1755), Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Wikipedia.
How could we harness amour propre for the good of all people? This, for Rousseau, was a political question as much as an ethical one. He argued we needed governments where every citizen feels their wills are represented, their interests are pursued, and their needs are met. Such a government would encourage people to see a connection between their well-being and the well-being of society as a whole. Rather than treating social life like a winner-take-all contest for status, people would be able to flourish alongside one another. Everyone, in short, could make their mark without erasing the marks of others.7
'The Only Answer to Being Human'
In the middle of the 20th century, the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm moved beyond the moral and political dimensions of self-love to investigate the existential side of the issue.
In Fromm's view, human beings suffer from a contradiction at the core of their being. While we are intensely social creatures who feel naturally drawn to one another, we're also fundamentally isolated, our consciousnesses contained in separate bodies. Put another way: No one knows exactly what's going on in someone else's head.8
This gap between us can be a source of great pain and societal distress — but we can bridge it through love, according to Fromm. As he wrote in his seminal book on the subject, The Sane Society, "In loving I experience 'I am you,' you — the loved person, you — the stranger, you — everything alive. In the experience of love lies the only answer to being human, lies sanity."9
What Fromm meant was this: Love is an interpersonal connection so deep that it alleviates our existential isolation. It is the ultimate form of empathy in that it brings us closer not only to the person we love but to the whole of humanity: "If I can say, 'I love you,' I say, 'I love in you all of humanity, all that is alive; I love in you also myself.'" One can see from this quote that self-love is a necessary precondition to loving others in the way Fromm espouses: To genuinely love another person, we must love all of humanity within them — including ourselves.10
“To genuinely love another person, we must love all of humanity within them — including ourselves.”
Like Aristotle and Rousseau before him, Fromm drew a direct connection between healthy self-love and the flourishing of the entire world. Loving someone, according to Fromm, means being "actively concerned with the other person's growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to their needs, to those they can express and more so to those they cannot or do not express." If we love ourselves, we can love others; and when we love others, we have a stake in ensuring they can thrive in this world with us.11
Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash
From the Inside Out
Cultivating self-love looks different for different people. Some of us need quiet time and contemplation. Others feel most fulfilled in the company of friends and loved ones. If you're unsure what your self-love ritual might look like, start by thinking about the activities that make you feel like your most authentic and fulfilled self. Then, make time for those things in your life.
But that's only the first step. As Aristotle, Rousseau, and Fromm agree, healthy self-love isn't solipsistic or self-centered. It should direct our attention as much to the world's needs as to our own needs. This notion is more than just an academic abstraction: As we covered in a 2021 article, feminist and antiracist political movements of the 20th and 21st centuries have shown us what it means to transform self-care into community care.
In addition to dedicating time to our flourishing, we can use this inner fullness to begin making time to ensure the people and planet around us are flourishing, too. Perhaps volunteering with charities, advocating for causes we believe in, showing up for our communities — these, too, are necessary acts of self-love. After all, we can't be said to love ourselves fully if we're not sharing that love with the world surrounding us.