Book 9: Friendship or Love—Continued.

Chapter 8: In what sense it is right to love one’s self.

Another question which is raised is, whether we ought most to love ourselves or others.

We blame, it is said, those who love themselves most, and apply the term self-loving to them as a term of reproach: and, again, he who is not good is thought to have regard to himself in everything that he does, and the more so the worse he is; and so we accuse him of doing nothing disinterestedly. The good man on the other hand, it is thought, takes what is noble as his motive, and the better he is the more is he guided by this motive, and by regard for his friend, neglecting his own interest.

But this theory disagrees with facts, nor is it surprising that it should. For it is allowed that we ought to love him most who is most truly a friend, and that he is most truly a friend who, in wishing well to another, wishes well to him for his (the other’s) sake, and even though no one should ever know. But all these characteristics, and all the others which go to make up the definition of a friend, are found in the highest degree in a man’s relations to himself; for we have already seen how it is from our relations to ourselves that all our friendly relations to others are derived. Moreover, all the proverbs point to the same conclusion—such as “Friends have one soul,” “Friends have all things in common,” “Equality makes friendship,” “The knee is nearer than the shin.” All these characteristics are found in the highest degree in a man’s relations to himself; for he is his own best friend: and so he must love himself better than any one else.

People not unnaturally are puzzled to know which of these two statements to adopt, since both appeal to them. Perhaps the best method of dealing with conflicting statements of this kind is first to make out the difference between them, and then to determine how far and in what sense each is right. So here, if we first ascertain what self-loving means in each statement, the difficulty will perhaps be cleared up.

Those who use self-loving as a term of reproach apply the name to those who take more than their due of money, and honour, and bodily pleasures; for the generality of men desire these things, and set their hearts upon them as the best things in the world, so that they are keenly competed for. Those, then, who grasp at more than their share of these things indulge their animal appetites and their passions generally—in a word, the irrational part of their nature. But this is the character of the generality of men; and hence the term self-loving has come to be used in this bad sense from the fact that the greater part of mankind are not good. It is with justice, then, that we reproach those who are self-loving in this sense.

That it really is to those who take more than their due of these things that the term is usually applied by the generality of men, may easily be shown; for if what a man always set his heart upon were that he, rather than another, should do what is just or temperate, or in any other way virtuous—if, in a word, he were always claiming the noble course of conduct, no one would call him self-loving and no one would reproach him.

And yet such a man would seem to be more truly self-loving. At least, he takes for himself that which is noblest and most truly good, and gratifies the ruling power in himself, and in all things obeys it. But just as the ruling part in a state or in any other system seems, more than any other part, to be the state or the system, so also the ruling part of a man seems to be most truly the man’s self. He therefore who loves and gratifies this part of himself is most truly self-loving.

Again, we call a man continent or incontinent, according as his reason has or has not the mastery, implying that his reason is his self; and when a man has acted under the guidance of his reason he is thought, in the fullest sense, to have done the deed himself, and of his own will.

It is plain, then, that this part of us is our self, or is most truly our self, and that the good man more than any other loves this part of himself. He, then, more than any other, will be self-loving, in another sense than the man whom we reproach as self-loving, differing from him by all the difference that exists between living according to reason and living according to passion, between desiring what is noble and desiring what appears to be profitable.

Those who beyond other men set their hearts on noble deeds are welcomed and praised by all; but if all men were vieing with each other in the pursuit of what is noble, and were straining every nerve to act in the noblest possible manner, the result would be that both the wants of the community would be perfectly satisfied, and at the same time each individually would win the greatest of all good things—for virtue is that.

The good man, therefore, ought to be self-loving; for by doing what is noble he will at once benefit himself and assist others: but the bad man ought not; for he will injure both himself and his neighbours by following passions that are not good.

Thus, with the bad man there is a discrepancy between what he ought to do and what he does: but with the good man what he ought to do is what he does; for reason always chooses that which is best for itself; and the good man obeys the voice of reason.

Again, it is quite true to say of the good man that he does many things for the sake of his friends and of his country, and will, if need be, even die for them. He will throw away money and honour, and, in a word, all the good things for which men compete, claiming for himself that which is noble; for he will prefer a brief period of intense pleasure to a long period of mild pleasure, one year of noble life to many years of ordinary life, one great and noble action to many little ones. This, we may perhaps say, is what he gets who gives his life for others: and so he chooses for himself something that is noble on a grand scale.

Such a man will surrender wealth to enrich his friend: for while his friend gets the money, he gets what is noble; so he takes the greater good for himself.

His conduct will be the same with regard to honours and offices: he will give up all to his friend; for this he deems noble and praiseworthy.

Such a man, then, is not unreasonably considered good, as he chooses what is noble in preference to everything else.

But, again, it is possible to give up to your friend an opportunity for action, and it may be nobler to cause your friend to do a deed than to do it yourself.

It is plain, then, that in all cases in which he is praised the good man takes for himself a larger share of what is noble. And in this sense, as we have said, a man ought to be self-loving, but not in the sense in which the generality of men are self-loving.


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