To Love Yourself Love Your Character
Self-love and love for others are inseparable
Posted February 4, 2015
One of the earliest and best discussions of self-love is found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (384-322 BCE). Aristotle’s guiding question in that set of lectures is “What is the good for humans?” By “good,” Aristotle means highest purpose; what’s the target at which we should aim our actions? Aristotle’s answer is happiness or flourishing. The right sort of self-love is necessary for the best possible life. But what is the right sort of self-love?
I need to back up a bit first. Aristotle defines happiness or flourishing as rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. That’s not a definition that will resonate with most people. Human beings have rational capacity and we also have emotions. Reason has dominion over the emotions, directing them in the right directions to the right degrees. Moral virtues are the products of reason and deliberation guiding our emotions that result in actions. Our character is the combination of our virtues and reason that becomes firm and stable as we mature. We become trustworthy and reliable people by consistently and habitually acting in trustworthy and reliable ways. Actions build character and character authorizes actions. Character is always a work in progress; it can always improve and it can deteriorate depending on how we act.
Your character is who you are. To understand yourself is to know your character. To love yourself is to love your character.
So, who has the right sort of self-love? Aristotle’s answer is that the virtuous person has the right sort of care and concern for his moral character. The virtuous person with the right sort of self-love loves his virtues and character. He loves generosity, benevolence, bravery, loyalty, and trustworthiness. He acts in ways that spread these. He doesn’t love them as possessions; one cannot hoard virtues. He doesn’t love them because they get him things like having others in his debt or the esteem of others. Virtues are not a means to any end other than virtues.
The virtuous man cherishes his character and does what he can to become an even more virtuous person. This may sound self-absorbed, but for Aristotle it is quite the opposite. Many moral virtues are other-regarding. That is to say, they are concerned with how each of us treats others. Benevolence, sympathy, generosity, loyalty are primarily concerned with our actions and attitudes towards others. But here Aristotle makes two connected provocative claims: self-love is the model for how or what we love about our friends and each of us has to be his or her own best friend.
Aristotle claims that in a friendship that is based on virtue and not merely on pleasure or usefulness, each person loves the virtues of the other. We love our friend’s generosity, loyalty, bravery, compassion etc. We love the acts and attitudes that make him the person he is. That is to say, we love his virtuous character. We don’t love our friends for what they can give or get us. We love them for the kind of person he is. This explains why Aristotle claims the right sort of self-love is a model for the love of our friends. We love our own virtuous character and we love the virtuous character of our friends.
The right sort of virtue friend plays an important—necessary—role in one’s happiness. Friendships provide us plenty of opportunities to do good virtuous acts with and for our friends. By spending time with friends, we can act in generous ways. We can be compassionate and trustworthy. We can come to embody virtues that we didn’t have before. We can also learn from our friends; they may possess virtues that we do not. We can emulate them. Our friends also play a crucial role in questioning or even challenging us when we act in certain ways that may harm us or others. Our friends are moral mirrors; they reflect us back to ourselves. And the context of the friendship provides the space for our being able to see clearly.
To be your own best friend, then, is to have a proactive engagement with your own character. This is self-love. Loving yourself is to regularly assess how your actions fit with who you are and who you want to be. Being your own best friend means giving yourself a good shake when you become a little too comfortable or even lazy with yourself. Being your own best friend means recognizing the signs and symptoms when any of the various forms of self-deception come creeping in. Being your own best friend also means trusting those others whom you know to have your best interests at heart when you can’t see yourself clearly enough.
All of this—caring character, being your own best friend, and having the right sorts of friends—is how one leads the best possible life of flourishing. Aristotle really got this right.