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  • Problematic Self Love
  • Alice von Hildebrand (bio)

Le mois est haissable.


This is a modest attempt to shed some light on a topic that is bound to be controversial: self love. Some claim that every love presupposes self love; others tell us that it is the source of innumerable sins. "Le moi est haissable," (the self is detestable) wrote Pascal (Pensées, 72). Some have accused him of being a neurasthenic, a pessimist, a victim of Jansenism. That he might have seen some truth will be one of our many concerns in this article.

At first sight, love of self is an attitude that is not only "normal," but healthy and desirable. Not to love oneself, nay, even to hate oneself is "against nature," and is bound to lead to self-destruction. The Old Testament commands the Jews to love their neighbors as themselves. Love of self is clearly taken for granted, and should be the measure of our love for others. Whether this ethical command is extended to Gentiles is not explicit. In his letter to the Ephesians St. Paul writes: "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her (emphasis mine). . . . He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hates his own flesh" (5:25, 28–29). [End Page 68]

These words tell us that love implies the readiness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the loved one and also that love of self is something we can take for granted. Is love of the other a prolongation of self love? How does this square with the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of the beloved? Does not he who is willing to give up his life for the sake of the loved one prove thereby that he loves the other more than himself? In so doing, can we infer that he thereby proves that he does not love himself? Is Paul hinting at the fact that true love is self-sacrificing love, and that in offering myself for another, I simultaneously, in some paradoxical fashion, truly love myself?

On the other hand, Aquinas writes that love of self is our primary love. "But a person's love for himself is greater (emphasis mine), than his love for any other person, for he is one with himself in actual substance, whereas he is one with another person only through some similarity of form" (II 27, a. 3). Does he mean that being one with myself, I will necessarily love myself more than others? Does my "self," because it is my self, deserve more love than our love for others? Is it because in self love there is no "thou" (he is one with himself in actual substance), that it is necessarily a greater love? Can there be true love without a "thou?" Or is oneness with oneself the inevitable foundation of any other type of love? Is it true that love of self is a necessary precondition for loving others? How should the claim of such a great thinker be interpreted?

At first sight, self love can mean that we have a natural feeling of solidarity with ourselves. Our flesh matters to us; it is our inseparable partner. I am myself. When my hand comes too close to a flame, I will instinctively draw it back: being burned is painful. This is a sound instinct, implanted in our nature. Without it, we would not live long. For example, lepers, who no longer register certain sensations, often find themselves in life-threatening situations.

This sound instinct, however, does not deserve moral praise. Who would dream of giving an award to someone who ran away [End Page 69] from a burning fire? Does it deserve to be called "love?" On the other hand, to protect others from harm, even if doing so may endanger our own welfare, is called heroic and admirable. This implies an act of transcendence not found when we each protect only our own self.

We dread physical pain: we feel it and therefore shun it. This is something we share with animals; this might be the reason why Aristotle claims, mistakenly, that whereas intelligence...


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pp. 68-90
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