Lately I’ve been doing an exam question on the topic of love of self (amor sui) in the thought of Augustine of Hippo. Over the past few years, I have begun thinking about the legitimacy and importance of love of self as a specific ethical task, obviously as distinguished and distanced from selfishness and/or narcissism, and obviously as connected to love of God and love of neighbor. Even more strongly, in a way such that it chastens and promotes authentic community. Anyway, to be more accurate, this is probably something I have wondered about my entire life, for various personal reasons. This topic actually doesn’t stem only from my reflections about myself, but rather, from witnessing people whom I know and love throughout my entire life struggling against self-hatred and searching for a sense of self-worth. (Okay, I’m just trying to prevent the from-the-hip accusation that I’m laboring, clandestinely, to get selfishness and modern, autonomous, individualistic self-determinism in through the back door. I’m not.)
Moving on. When I first decided to study Augustine on this topic, I thought he wouldn’t offer much, because my impression from a narrow selection of his writing was that he conflated self-love and superbia, the prideful lording over-against, such that there was no room to discuss self-love in any kind of positive terms. This is not the case, actually. Well, that’s not all he’s doing. What I found when I looked into Augustine’s work (De Moribus Ecclesiae, parts of The City of God, parts of The Confessions, certain tractates on the gospel of John, certain homilies on the First Epistle of John, assorted sermons, excerpts from De Trinitate, excerpts from De Doctrina Christiana, and his commentaries on Genesis) is that he’s much more complex — sometimes compelling, sometimes disappointing.
Augustine discusses love of self in a few distinct ways, and I’ll mention three and then go on to problematize what he’s doing. First, it’s true that he does discuss love of self in the pejorative sense that I had thought. It’s a slightly later development in his thought, as he begins to work out a doctrine of the fall and perhaps becomes more pessimistic about the human capacity for goodness. In this context, self-love and pride are closely associated, if not elided: “For man [sic] can relate only destructively to himself when he holds God’s will in contempt, and so it is that he learns to tell the difference between clinging to the Good common to all and taking pleasure in his own good. For in loving himself man is given over to himself” (The City of God XIV.13.1). In this sense, self-love is read as desire to gain and exercise power over the other, especially over God. It is this kind of sinful self-love that creates the earthly city that is opposed to God’s city. This sense should be pretty familiar to you if you’ve studied Christian views of sinfulness, particularly the doctrine of original sin. I should clarify that I’m all for this sense of sin–Lord knows we have ample evidence of sinful domination of others all around the world, and if I’m being honest, I myself can be pretty motivated by a sinful desire for status and for “being right” that fuels a lot of my interactions in the academy. So often I’m not actually trying to speak the truth in humility. I think Augustine saw deeply into the darkness of the human heart. So there’s that.
Second, Augustine discusses love of self in naturalistic terms; in this sense, it’s more about self-preservation, tending to your own basic bodily good, that he thinks can be taken for granted. This sense is there early on in his corpus. In De Doctrina, he writes, “So now, as there are four kinds of things to be loved: one which is above us [i.e., God], the second which we are ourselves [mostly he means our souls], the third which is on a level with us [i.e., the neighbor], the fourth which is beneath us [i.e., our bodies], about the second and the fourth there was no need to give any commandments. However far, after all, people may fall away from the truth, there remains in them love of self and love of one’s own body” (I.23, 22). Augustine sort of flits back and forth between these two senses of love of self throughout his career, depending on his concerns–sometimes he discusses love of self in the condemnatory sense, for example, to get his congregation to stop being selfish and divisive; sometimes he talks about it more in the naturalistic sense in order to package Christianity as ultimately compatible with very natural and understandable desires for security, safety, etc. (Although he does laud radical self-denial for the good of the neighbor and the example of the martyrs, so even that point is complicated.) Regarding the naturalistic sense of self-love, I understand what Augustine is saying, and I even buy it for the most part, but I don’t think we should take it for granted that everybody tends to her self-preservation in this life. This fact is troubling. For example, given the large swath of various kinds of depression and depressive behaviors displayed by an uncomfortably large percentage of the population, I think it’s unfortunately blithe to assume that everybody has a will to live in the way that Augustine assumes. But in fairness, I don’t think this concern was even really on his radar, and I think some of that has to do with the way that, in a sometimes explicitly Neo-Platonic way, he weights everything toward eternal life with God and sometimes seems confused about how to talk about the significance of this life, given that it seems to function as a holding ground until we can finally get the hell out and go be with God. I will try to return to this point.
Lastly, he discusses love of self in a positive way. Basically, when you love God, who is your summum bonum, you’re willing the good for yourself, and that’s true love of self. So love of God and love of self, positively construed, should share a simultaneity, as long as love of God of course has priority and determines the contours of love of self. In Tractate 123 on the Gospel of John, he writes, “For in some inexplicable way, I know not what, every one that loveth himself, and not God, loveth not himself; and whoever loveth God, and not himself, he it is that loveth himself” (#5). I suppose, actually, that in this quote you can see two different kinds of love of self at work–there’s the pernicious self-love that alienates you from God, but then there’s the kind of positive love of self that really gains its meaning from a whole-hearted cleaving to God.
(NB: I know I’m side-stepping love of neighbor in this post, but suffice it to say for the time being that it’s decently important to Augustine–he says you can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and that love of God should allow you to love your neighbor in the fullest, most life-giving way possible (cf. Tractate 65 on the Gospel of John). However, he still construes our ultimate eschatological good in terms less communitarian than I would wish–only God is our final good, and it’ll be great, incidentally, when we can enjoys our fellow humans “in God.” So I think he could do a better job articulating the final good more fully, in a way that makes more space for love of neighbor.)
So I guess this is all semantically complicated, but I’ve tried to clear a conceptual space so that we have a framework in mind. After I figured out these different senses of love of self in Augustine, I had many questions, about love of self in particular and about love in general. Here’s one of the major ones: eschatology bracketed for just one second, what does love of self (and love of neighbor) look like in this earthly life? In terms of neighbor love, Augustine does talk about alleviating the sufferings of the neighbor, and doing the neighbor’s body good. So at least neighbor-love wasn’t entirely spiritualized. But beyond that, things are kind of murky, and it’s a well-conceded point that Augustine’s ecclesiology remained an unfinished project. [And to return to my first concern, the content of love of self is a little unclear to me. I will have to return to this in another post.]
There’s a lot of debate about these very points, actually, and if you’re interested, one place I would look is at Gerald W. Schlabach’s fantastic book For the Joy Set Before Us: Augustine and Self-Denying Love (2001). That text was generated out of his dissertation here at Notre Dame, under our very own Jean Porter. When he wrote it, he was a Mennonite struggling to appropriate Augustine’s insights about love into a pacifist framework. Anyway, I’m pressing the earthly love dimension (I suppose for the neighbor, right now) because without it, Augustine’s theology of love, when applied horizontally to the neighbor, risks falling into coercive paternalism (and it did, ultimately); he justified coercive sanctions against the rival Donatist Church in northern Africa in order to get them to join the Catholic Church, all under the aegis of “loving” them, i.e., wishing their eternal good in God. [These sanctions included exile, confiscation of Donatist property, and fines, but apparently not torture and capital punishment. Did you hear that, everybody? AUGUSTINE was not for capital punishment and torture (so argues Schlabach), and yet there are still people today, ostensibly Christian, who are. Interesting, isn’t it?] So, I’m definitely wary of waxing poetic about Augustine’s theology of love in general. And if there are these dangers re: love of neighbor, there are probably many kinks to work out re: love of self. In short, there are a lot of questions that remain about the earthly shape of Augustinian love, and whether his insights make sense together with feminist commitments. But I think there’s a lot to work with.
More on this later. I have other things to do now.