Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
What does it mean to love yourself—to practice self-love (Philautia)? It’s not uncommon to see self-love being lumped in with selfishness: we see someone who is greedy, who only cares for his own advantage, often at the expense of those close to him, and we say, “He doesn’t love anyone but himself.” In this way and others self-love is used in a derogatory manner.
Aristotle, however, thought this needn’t be the case. He argued instead that “the good man should be a lover of self.” Perhaps you find such a claim rather shocking. After all, couldn’t the world use a little more selflessness? What need have we of more people loving themselves?
Well, hold onto those questions and hear me (well… Aristotle) out.
A Dialogue on Self-Love
Aristotle: Do you agree with the view that one ought to love best one’s best friend?
Xenocrates: Why, yes.
Aristotle: And do you agree that a man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it?
Xenocrates: Why, by Zeus, I would say so.
Aristotle: Well then, is it not the case that these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined? And, furthermore, is it not the case that the proverbs support this, e.g. ‘a single soul,’ and ‘what friends have is common property,’ and ‘friendship is equality,’ and ‘charity begins at home’; for all these marks will be found most in a man’s relation to himself, will they not?
Xenocrates: That certainly seems to be the case.
Aristotle: Then, it follows that man is his own best friend, and therefore ought to love himself best.
Xenocrates: Perhaps you are right. But before I assent to your conclusion, I must ask, is it not the case that self-love is destructive of virtue? Is it not true that those lovers of self assign to themselves a greater share of wealth, honors, and bodily pleasures? Such things, you must agree, are not signs of virtue, much less things the good man ought to busy himself with!
Aristotle: I agree that such things are not signs of virtue nor things the good man ought to busy himself with, but I disagree with you on what you define as self-love. Certainly, you have described what most people desire, and wrongly consider to be the best of all things (which is why they become objects of competition). But people who grasp at such things are only gratifying their appetites and in general their feelings and the irrational element of the soul. And, since most men are like this, self-love has become an epithet of disgrace—taking its meaning from the prevailing type of self-love, which is a bad one.
Xenocrates: What then, dear Aristotle, defines the good kind of self-love? Is there such a thing?
Aristotle: Indeed, there is, and this I will explain. But first, I must respond with a question to you.
Xenocrates: Go on.
Aristotle: Would you reproach a man who was always anxious that he himself, above all things, should act justly, temperately, or in accordance with any other of the virtues, and in general was always striving to secure for himself the honorable course?
Xenocrates: Certainly not.
Aristotle: Perhaps you might even praise him?
Xenocrates: I would say so.
Aristotle: And yet, few would be willing to describe such a man as a lover of self, though he seems to me to be more a lover of self than the man you described!
Xenocrates: How so?
Aristotle: He assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself and in all things obeys this; and just as a city or any other systematic whole is most properly identified with the most authoritative element in it, so is a man; and therefore the man who loves this and gratifies it is most of all a lover of self.
Xenocrates: What is this most authoritative element you speak of?
Aristotle: Reason. A man is said to have or not to have self-control according as his reason has or has not the control, on the assumption that this is the man himself ; and the things men do from a rational principle are thought most properly their own acts and voluntary acts. That reason is the man himself, then, or is so more than anything else, is plain, and also that the good man loves this part of himself most. The lover of self you described lives as passion dictates, satisfying base desires, and therefore does not love that which is best in him, and so is not truly a lover of self; whereas he who lives according to reason—that most authoritative element in himself—desires what is noblest and best, and can truly be called a lover of self.
Xenocrates: I think I am beginning to see clearly what you mean. Though, I wonder, does anyone benefit from this self-love besides the lover of self?
Aristotle: An important question! To which I say that the good kind of self-love I have described is most beneficial for our neighbors and fellow citizens. Those who busy themselves in an exceptional degree with noble actions all men approve and praise; and if all were to strive towards what is noble and strain every nerve to do the noblest deeds, everything would be as it should be for the common weal, and every one would secure for himself the goods that are greatest, since virtue is the greatest of goods. And so when I say that the good man should be a lover of self, this is not only because he will himself profit by doing noble acts, but because will benefit others as well.
Xenocrates: A quite excellent point my dear friend. What an unfortunate state of affairs that more do not think of self-love in this way!
Becoming Your Own Friend
Now, of course, no such dialogue took place that we know of. The above arguments from Aristotle take place in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chaps. 8-9. Long story short, we’ve been under quite the misunderstanding when it comes to self-love. And this Valentine’s Day, whether you have someone to celebrate it with or not, I say we listen to Aristotle and make sure that we celebrate the love we ought to have for ourselves.
Yet, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate what Aristotle has to say about self-love if you don’t view yourself as your own friend.
“[H]e is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best.”
In one of his letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes the following:
“Meanwhile, since I owe you the daily allowance, I’ll tell you what took my fancy in the writings of Hecato [of Rhodes] today. ‘What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all.” Letter VI
We know the Stoics were familiar with Aristotle, and indeed this sentiment mirrors that of Aristotle’s above. It is not only important for your own well being to cultivate this friendship with yourself, but important for those around you. He who has done so can truly be a friend to others, since he has learned how to be a friend to himself. Similarly, he who has cultivated the good kind of self-love, in striving towards what is noble and doing the noblest deeds, contributes towards the common good.
So, let us become our own friends—let us cultivate self-love!