In his classic work on ethics, Aristotle addresses an important Socratic question: what is the best way to live? The influence of this work spreads from Aristotle's own time into the present day, playing a significant role in the foundational humanist philosophy of the Middle Ages and Renaissance where these philosophical ideas mixed with Christian theology. In this selection, the author explores the conflict between self-love and external praise. At the heart of the matter is whether or not "self-love" is a positive or negative attribute of one's identity.
A question is also raised as to whether it is right to love one’s Self best, or some one else: because men find fault with those who love themselves best, and call them in a disparaging way lovers of Self; and the bad man is thought to do everything he does for his own sake merely, and the more so the more depraved he is; accordingly men reproach him with never doing anything unselfish: whereas the good man acts from a sense of honour (and the more so the better man he is), and for his friend’s sake, and is careless of his own interest.
But with these theories facts are at variance, and not unnaturally: for it is commonly said also that a man is to love most him who is most his friend, and he is most a friend who wishes good to him to whom he wishes it for that man’s sake even though no one knows. Now these conditions, and in fact all the rest by which a friend is characterised, belong specially to each individual in respect of his Self: for we have said before that all the friendly feelings are derived to others from those which have Self primarily for their object. And all the current proverbs support this view; for instance, “one soul,” “the goods of friends are common,” “equality is a tie of Friendship,” “the knee is nearer than the shin.” For all these things exist specially with reference to a man’s own Self: he is specially a friend to himself and so he is bound to love himself the most.
It is with good reason questioned which of the two parties one should follow, both having plausibility on their side. Perhaps then, in respect of theories of this kind, the proper course is to distinguish and define how far each is true, and in what way. If we could ascertain the sense in which each uses the term “Self-loving,” this point might be cleared up.
Well now, they who use it disparagingly give the name to those who, in respect of wealth, and honours, and pleasures of the body, give to themselves the larger share: because the mass of mankind grasp after these and are earnest about them as being the best things; which is the reason why they are matters of contention. They who are covetous in regard to these gratify their lusts and passions in general, that is to say the irrational part of their soul: now the mass of mankind are so disposed, for which reason the appellation has taken its rise from that mass which is low and bad. Of course they are justly reproached who are Self-loving in this sense.
And that the generality of men are accustomed to apply the term to denominate those who do give such things to themselves is quite plain: suppose, for instance, that a man were anxious to do, more than other men, acts of justice, or self-mastery, or any other virtuous acts, and, in general, were to secure to himself that which is abstractedly noble and honourable, no one would call him Self-loving, nor blame him.
Yet might such an one be judged to be more truly Self-loving: certainly he gives to himself the things which are most noble and most good, and gratifies that Principle of his nature which is most rightfully authoritative, and obeys it in everything: and just as that which possesses the highest authority is thought to constitute a Community or any other system, so also in the case of Man: and so he is most truly Self-loving who loves and gratifies this Principle.
Again, men are said to have, or to fail of having, self-control, according as the Intellect controls or not, it being plainly implied thereby that this Principle constitutes each individual; and people are thought to have done of themselves, and voluntarily, those things specially which are done with Reason.
It is plain, therefore, that this Principle does, either entirely or specially constitute the individual man, and that the good man specially loves this. For this reason then he must be specially Self-loving, in a kind other than that which is reproached, and as far superior to it as living in accordance with Reason is to living at the beck and call of passion, and aiming at the truly noble to aiming at apparent advantage.
Now all approve and commend those who are eminently earnest about honourable actions, and if all would vie with one another in respect of the καλὸν, and be intent upon doing what is most truly noble and honourable, society at large would have all that is proper while each individual in particular would have the greatest of goods, Virtue being assumed to be such.
And so the good man ought to be Self-loving: because by doing what is noble he will have advantage himself and will do good to others: but the bad man ought not to be, because he will harm himself and his neighbours by following low and evil passions. In the case of the bad man, what he ought to do and what he does are at variance, but the good man does what he ought to do, because all Intellect chooses what is best for itself and the good man puts himself under the direction of Intellect.
Of the good man it is true likewise that he does many things for the sake of his friends and his country, even to the extent of dying for them, if need be: for money and honours, and, in short, all the good things which others fight for, he will throw away while eager to secure to himself the καλὸν: he will prefer a brief and great joy to a tame and enduring one, and to live nobly for one year rather than ordinarily for many, and one great and noble action to many trifling ones. And this is perhaps that which befalls men who die for their country and friends; they choose great glory for themselves: and they will lavish their own money that their friends may receive more, for hereby the friend gets the money but the man himself the καλὸν; so, in fact he gives to himself the greater good. It is the same with honours and offices; all these things he will give up to his friend, because this reflects honour and praise on himself: and so with good reason is he esteemed a fine character since he chooses the honourable before all things else. It is possible also to give up the opportunities of action to a friend; and to have caused a friend’s doing a thing may be more noble than having done it one’s self.
In short, in all praiseworthy things the good man does plainly give to himself a larger share of the honourable. In this sense it is right to be Self-loving, in the vulgar acceptation of the term it is not.
- How does Aristotle define self-love?
- In what ways does Aristotle identify self-love to be positive? Negative?
- What are the dangers of relying on external factors to determine if self-love is positive or negative?
- What are the conditions in which self-love is praiseworthy?