Love. Throughout the ages, sages, philosophers, and religious teachers have proclaimed it as the greatest of virtues. In 1 Corinthians, we learn that faith, hope, and love are to be extolled, but love supersedes all. Surah 14 commands us to fill the hearts of man with love. In the Madhurashtakam, Lord Krishna urges us to do everything with “love, compassion, humility, and devotion” in our hearts. Countless axioms prompt us to love our fellow man; but what do they say of loving ourselves? Must we love and value ourselves to best be a servant and light to the world? Are we not called to love our neighbors, as we love ourselves? The wisdom of the ancient world tells us it is equally as important to be good to ourselves as it is to do well by others. Today, this philosophy has a name: self-love. The American Heritage Dictionary defines self-love as “the instinct or desire to promote one’s own well-being” or “regard for or one’s self.” This, of course, is simply a connotation. But what is the origin of “self-love”? Who was the first to espouse its tenants and give it a name? Has the quest for self-love always been a journey to securing our own happiness? Through etymology, one can dig deep to answer these questions and gain more insight into self-love.
One might be surprised to learn that “self-love” was originally synonymous with selfishness and vanity, as noted in the first Americanized edition of Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1965). But this idea goes back much further. Greek philosopher Plato said to avoid the “excesses of self-love”, while Roman statesman Cicero considered self-love or sui amantes sine rivali to be a great sin and a sure path to doom and folly. Francis Bacon builds on Cicero’s 1 perspective in his essay “Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self” when he says “it is the nature of extreme self-lovers, as they will set a house on fire, and it was but to roast their eggs.” With this notion, self-love could easily be viewed as a precursor to narcissism.
However, Aristotle, a student of Plato, rejected this notion. In Nicomachean Ethics, he notes that while self-love can represent selfishness, it can also be the love of ourselves in striving for “moral nobility”. That is, the best kind of self-love is that which comes from our ability to love others. This is akin to the message in Leviticus 9:17, where Moses wrote that we should “love thy neighbor as we love ourselves”. Key to this directive is loving and honoring ourselves — not in selfishness, but in seeking the greater good for man.
Today, most understand self-love to be an affirming of one’s own happiness, thanks in part to the works of German psychologist Erich Fromm. In The Art of Loving, Fromm reminds us that if an individual is able to love productively, he loves himself too; if he can love only others, he cannot love at all” (1956, 55-56). Not only does he reject the notion that self-love is selfishness, but then goes to say that they are opposites. This seems to jive with what the ancients taught — it seems as if Fromm is reminding us that it is both good and necessary to value ourselves. This is not vanity, but rather a tool of survival. Particularly in a world in which we are encouraged to meet standards of beauty and success that are far-removed from ourselves. True success is the love of self rivaling the love of others happiness; and happiness can only come from self-love. With this as our foundation, we can then go out and heal through the power of lovem — both others and ourselves.
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Aristotle (340 BC). Nicomachean Ethics (H.Rackham, Trans). Hertfordshire: Wordworths
Fromm, E. (1989). The art of loving. New York: Perennial Library.
Mayor, Joseph B. (2016). A Sketch of Ancient Philosophy: From Thales to Cicer. Cambridge
Rogetm Peter Mark (1965) , Dutch, Robert A. ed., The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of
English Words and Phrases (Americanized ed.), New York: St. Martin’s Press
Self-love. (n.d.) In American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from