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Self love is a cunning tyrant; Self denial is insipid

A short reflection on the line that divides self love and self denial

The highest modern virtue

Self love is a modern virtue. Arguably the highest modern virtue, especially if your medium for moral reflection is social media. Instagram may be the greatest offender – worshiping body positivity, any personal truth, and cooking safe, popular opinions with a spice of rebellion (a spice that is gluten-free, sugar-free, salt-free, and 100% artificial, of course – the modern revolutionary is quite a comfortable billet, it seems). This is today’s virtue, sans substance.

This virtue is further emboldened by a me-culture. And a world where everyone gets a trophy for achievement without the requirement of achievement; where everyone gets a college degree for education without the requirement of being educated.

But the problem with all this is that despite a world that is increasingly oriented to the self, awards without effort, and diplomas without education, we are clever and perceptive. We know that this is all fake. They don’t sustain us (it’s why we need to say them many times – to have a chorus of hashtags and likes flow our way, almost intravenously).

The roots are self love – self love is (can be?) cleverer than we are. Its principle enemy is deep reflection and honesty.

La Rochefoucauld said that “self love is more cunning than the most cunning man in the world” and “self-love is the greatest of flatterers.”

And Plato said that “the first and greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.”

I believe they were talking about the same subject. Self love, when made a virtue, becomes a conqueror – of you. But this is the first (and greatest) thing for you to conquer. It is where self-development begins.

Neither peace nor war

Don’t go to war with yourself (who will win?), but do engage in a meaningful conflict. Here’s what I mean.

Self love is cunning. It is powerful. It has the potentiality for tyranny over you. This is a permanent condition of your life. It is true of you, regardless of what demographic you come from (and by extension, who you are supposed to vote for), from birth to earth.

Philosophy and education (as well as religion, ethics), offers us an instruction away from this. We can build a wall between the virtuous/ethical/wise self, and our self love, or ego.

Think of the greatest ideas from philosophy. Socrates, for instance: all I know is that I know nothing. This is fairly described as the essence of philosophy. What a wonderful aspiration! To know nothing. We are presented with a displeasing binary choice – that of self love and wrongful absolute confidence in knowledge, ability, and so on; or philosophy, to know nothing.

Think of the greatest ideas from religion. Christ, for instance: Love God and the neighbor. This is, quite literally, the essence of Christianity. In other religious traditions we have Self Enlightenment. These are similar, in that they require a strict degree of self-denial and suppression of the ego. We are, once again, presented with a displeasing binary choice – to find God or Enlightenment, you must deny yourself (perhaps be not unlike a child? Not be wealthy? Not have material possession? Not seek pleasure?)

But this requires constant war with yourself (between the forces of self love and self denial), or an eventual peace (a pyrrhic peace?) through surrender to either your self love or your self denial.

Develop thyself

It’s New Years Eve. We all make resolutions. They all usually read as “love myself more” or “deny myself more.”

They undoubtedly fail.

But remember, we are actually quite clever and perceptive. We all know (and resist) the tyranny of self love (that of lies, deception, avoidance), and self denial (a flavorless life).

Seek neither peace nor war.

Don’t be seduced by the safe, popular herd of self love. It fashions itself as rebellion but is the sporting past-time of every nation. This is where body-positivity and xenophobia are united in epistemology. Not unlike Dante’s 2nd circle (“why do you horde!” “why do you waste!”), it is rare for enemies in public to not also be twins.

Likewise, don’t be seduced by the marginally less safe and marginally less popular (note: still very safe and popular) herd of self denial. You, and the world, are not merely a superstition. The most popular world-denying and self-denying ideology today is that of skepticism/atheism. To be truly skeptical about the knowledge we can attain of the world and of our hearts and minds is a wonderful way to maintain a little knowledge – only a little. By way of analogy (and as a very practical consideration), if you don’t believe in yourself and what you are doing, who else possibly could? God, perhaps… but faith without works…

Natural ferocity makes fewer people cruel than self-love

François de La Rochefoucauld

Your permanent propensity to self love will work to your benefit if you love your future self more than your current self.

If you want to read more… The first removed maxim

La Rochefoucauld wrote many maxims and reflections. Many are on the topic of Self love. The below paragraph, in full, is the first maxim La Rochefoucauld removed from his final publication (luckily, we have a record of it). I am sharing it because it was the text that I considered and reflected upon (principally) when writing the above.

Self-love is the love of self, and of all things for self. It makes men self-worshippers, and if fortune permits them, causes them to tyrannize over others; it is never quiet when out of itself, and only rests upon other subjects as a bee upon flowers, to extract from them its proper food. Nothing is so headstrong as its desires, nothing so well concealed as its designs, nothing so skilful as its management; its suppleness is beyond description; its changes surpass those of the metamorphoses, its refinements those of chemistry. We can neither plumb the depths nor pierce the shades of its recesses. Therein it is hidden from the most far-seeing eyes, therein it takes a thousand imperceptible folds. There it is often to itself invisible; it there conceives, there nourishes and rears, without being aware of it, numberless loves and hatreds, some so monstrous that when they are brought to light it disowns them, and cannot resolve to avow them. In the night which covers it are born the ridiculous persuasions it has of itself, thence come its errors, its ignorance, its silly mistakes; thence it is led to believe that its passions which sleep are dead, and to think that it has lost all appetite for that of which it is sated. But this thick darkness which conceals it from itself does not hinder it from seeing that perfectly which is out of itself; and in this it resembles our eyes which behold all, and yet cannot set their own forms. In fact, in great concerns and important matters when the violence of its desires summons all its attention, it sees, feels, hears, imagines, suspects, penetrates, divines all: so that we might think that each of its passions had a magic power proper to it. Nothing is so close and strong as its attachments, which, in sight of the extreme misfortunes which threaten it, it vainly attempts to break. Yet sometimes it effects that without trouble and quickly, which it failed to do with its whole power and in the course of years, whence we may fairly conclude that it is by itself that its desires are inflamed, rather than by the beauty and merit of its objects, that its own taste embellishes and heightens them; that it is itself the game it pursues, and that it follows eagerly when it runs after that upon which itself is eager. It is made up of contraries. It is imperious and obedient, sincere and false, piteous and cruel, timid and bold. It has different desires according to the diversity of temperaments, which turn and fix it sometimes upon riches, sometimes on pleasures. It changes according to our age, our fortunes, and our hopes; it is quite indifferent whether it has many or one, because it can split itself into many portions, and unite in one as it pleases. It is inconstant, and besides the changes which arise from strange causes it has an infinity born of itself, and of its own substance. It is inconstant through inconstancy, of lightness, love, novelty, lassitude and distaste. It is capricious, and one sees it sometimes work with intense eagerness and with incredible labour to obtain things of little use to it which are even hurtful, but which it pursues because it wishes for them. It is silly, and often throws its whole application on the utmost frivolities. It finds all its pleasure in the dullest matters, and places its pride in the most contemptible. It is seen in all states of life, and in all conditions; it lives everywhere and upon everything; it subsists on nothing; it accommodates itself either to things or to the want of them; it goes over to those who are at war with it, enters into their designs, and, this is wonderful, it, with them, hates even itself; it conspires for its own loss, it works towards its own ruin—in fact, caring only to exist, and providing that it may be, it will be its own enemy! We must therefore not be surprised if it is sometimes united to the rudest austerity, and if it enters so boldly into partnership to destroy her, because when it is rooted out in one place it re-establishes itself in another. When it fancies that it abandons its pleasure it merely changes or suspends its enjoyment. When even it is conquered in its full flight, we find that it triumphs in its own defeat. Here then is the picture of self-love whereof the whole of our life is but one long agitation. The sea is its living image; and in the flux and reflux of its continuous waves there is a faithful expression of the stormy succession of its thoughts and of its eternal motion.

François de La Rochefoucauld
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