Wednesday, 16 March 2022

self love

A peculiar ambiguity is built into the English language regarding self-love. On the one hand: take pride in your work! On the other: pride is the mother of all sins. On the one hand: love your neighbour as yourself! On the other: self-love is an abomination. On the one hand: it's good to work and relate in such ways as lead to one feeling satisfied with oneself. On the other: self-satisfaction is morally ugly. We find psychoanalysis wrestling with this too, asking itself if it needs a concept of 'healthy narcissism' to complement the pathological sort. 

This seems an extraordinary carelessness on the part of our language. 'Self-love' almost appears antonymic (cp 'cleave', 'sanction', 'fast'). So: what's going on?

The clue I'd like to pick up concerns how the word 'self' works in the English language. I think there's grounds to consider it an example of what Ryle rather misleadingly styled systematically misleading expressions. We are primed, by virtue of some inbuilt semantic stupidity, to think meaning inexorably a function merely of reference. And so we imagine that the contribution of 'self' to the phrase 'self love' is simply to supply that love's object. That, however, is not how 'self' often works in the language. 

Take 'self-consciousness'. Rather than being simply a matter of being conscious of oneself, the ordinary concept typically has to do with an excessive awareness of how others see us. Or take the concept of 'selfishness'. If 'self' simply specified the object of an attitude, then we might think it perfectly alright to sometimes be selfish. After all, we are in our own needs and desires as deserving, ceteris paribus, as anyone else - and in fact, being best placed to meet our own needs, we do well to try to meet and realise them. But no, selfishness doesn't just have to do with our attempting to meet our own needs or realising our own desires. It instead has to do with doing those things at the expense of others, or with not considering others' needs.

'Self', then, makes an important contribution to the English language which it is easy at first to overlook. Now: how about 'self love'? The suggestion I make here is that toxic self-love and pride concern not simply an esteem which has oneself as the object. Rather, they essentially involve self-in-relation-to-others, and they involve us in making a comparative, 'better than', judgement. Taking a healthy pride in one's work, by contrast, doesn't involve placing it in relation to the work of others. It involves valuing doing work with great care, and acting according to that value.

And loving oneself? The implicit divine injunction clearly doesn't have to do with a longing to be with ourselves (whatever that might mean). It instead has to do with wanting the best for oneself. That we want this it takes for granted. (We might not do so these days in the West. Sharon Salzburg has a great story about asking the Dalai Lama '“Your Holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?”... He looked at me seeming somewhat confused and asked in response: “What’s that?” ... When I explained to him what I meant by the term — talking about the cycle of self-judgment, guilt, unproductive thought patterns — he asked me, “How could you think of yourself that way?” and explained that we all have “Buddha nature”.') This isn't a matter of 'wanting better for oneself than for others'. Life is not, or at least is not always, a zero sum game. No, it's a matter of wanting to flourish, to be healthy and happy, simpliciter. 

Contrast self-love or narcissism of the noxious sort, which aims at personal gain at the expense of the fulfilment of duties to others.

Why are people primed to conflate the forms of pride? Yes, the language is confusing, but that's surely not the end of the matter. So I'm imagining, now, the kind of person who thinks all pride is an evil. Why might they think that? Well, here's one possibility. Perhaps it's because their sense of self is so insecure, so weak, that they can't imagine one being pleased for oneself unless that be parsed through relationships with others. For this person, so lost in dependent or counterdepeindent forms of identity, any pride will necessarily involve a positioning of the self in relation to other. Rather than grow into a mature independent self, this poor person is left having to constantly manage himself. Keeping a suspicious eye on his self-satisfaction will be a central part of this.

For those interested, I recommend John Lippitt's Kierkegaard and the Problem of Self-Love for a non-linguistic, deeper, exploration of these issues.