The Philosophy of Self-Love

By: Deborah Jin (Grade 12)

I will show you what self-love means, with help from Erich Fromm and Aristotle

If you were to type into your internet search bar, “how to love yourself,” an abundance of articles will likely appear, each containing a giant list of tips on “how to love yourself” and peppered with cheesy, “inspirational” quotes and proverbs. As someone who has struggled with self-love, I grew tired of trying to rely on the internet for help with this problem. Instead, I decided to delve deeper and figure out which interpretations of self-love were most popular through those how-to articles I saw online. By doing this, I hoped to at least gain insight and reassurance that I didn’t have to obey what I saw online. 

This is not a how-to article. This is an informational and perspective article, explaining contrasting concepts of self-love and my feelings towards them. Especially in these slightly drearier months, a list of tips is not enough. So, sit back, relax, and open your mind to something different. 

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The Thinker / Auguste Rodin

In his book The Art of Loving, psychologist and social philosopher Erich Fromm argued that in order to love others you must first love yourself. Self-love, according to Fromm, is necessary if one wants to live a prosperous life. In fact, the lack of self-love is the underlying cause of selfishness; this kind of person “can see nothing but himself” and judges everyone according to how useful they are to him. Furthermore, he explained how a person without self-love seems to care for himself too much, but only makes an unsuccessful attempt to “cover up and compensate for his failure to care for his real self.” 

Fromm continued by stating that this selfishness stems from a “redeeming character trait” of “unselfishness,” in which the unselfish person lives for others and is proud that he doesn’t consider himself important. Hidden beneath this façade, however, is a sense of hostility towards life, and his nature becomes clear through its effect on others. He believes that his unselfishness allows others to learn what it means to be loved, and therefore, how to love. This is not the case, as they will instead become anxious to live up to his expectations and to not disappoint him. 

Fromm’s argument was not a struggle to understand but a struggle to accept. Although he agreed that self-love is different from being arrogant or egocentric, he still claimed that someone who lacked self-love was therefore selfish and unable to love. His theory that we have to love ourselves first before loving others may seem optimistic, but many might interpret this as a negative cue to feel guilt instead of motivation. On the other hand, Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, wrote on self-love in his best-known work Nicomachean Ethics but developed different theories on what it meant. In Book 9, Chapter 8, he not only argued on the difference between the “good” man and the “wicked” man’s love for themselves, but further emphasized the love between people. 

Unlike Fromm, Aristotle believed there were two meanings in selfishness, with the first type being focused on the love for material goods. People who have this first kind of selfishness “assign to themselves the greater share of wealth, honours, and bodily pleasures,” and are known as “wicked.” The “wicked” man not only has an animal-like appetite for worldly objects, but the part of his soul that is being gratified is considered completely irrational. This material self-love should be met with reproach. The second type of selfishness, however, is focused towards practicing virtue, because that is what the “good” man finds pleasure in — “the things that are noblest and best.” By focusing his selfishness towards doing noble acts, he not only improves himself through this honourable attitude but also benefits his society. 

According to Aristotle, a person cultivates self-love through loving others. When a man loves his best friend, he is able to see himself in them from the way he chooses to love them. In fact, the “good” man who follows reason instead of irrationality would discover that he “is his own best friend” as well and should learn to love himself through discovering love in his friendships. He would do many deeds for the sake of his friends, throw away his material goods for the sake of nobility, and benefit society as a whole. The good man is therefore seen as selfish when it comes to achieving the greater share of nobility before anything else, and in turn, self-loving. 

Interestingly enough, if you compare the theories of Fromm and Aristotle, you will find that it is ironically better to be honourably selfish for committing good deeds rather than having a façade of unselfishness. In my past experience, the “rule” of loving yourself before loving others was unrealistic. Erich Fromm’s theory that is based upon this was nowhere near optimistic to me, but rather restricting. In fact, because I didn’t love myself, it made me feel unworthy of loving others. Aristotle’s theory, however, allowed me to feel accepted once more. Everyone has different experiences with self-love, but to those who felt the same way as I did — you do not have to feel guilt for not loving yourself. Self-love is something that is cultivated over time at its own pace, so one must never feel bad for still learning. We can follow the example of Aristotle’s good man, continue loving our friends and practicing noble acts for the benefit of our society. It feels nice to be nice, and in this way we are already loving and taking care of ourselves. 

 

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