Few concepts in modern times take up as much semantic space as The Self. Ours is an age of hyphenated virtues, in which self-care and self-esteem populate treatises on self-help and talk of human flourishing has given way to talk of self-fulfillment.
What one thinks of these constructions will depend largely on one’s ideological priors. Progressives tend to like self-talk because it circumvents the external and the unchosen, promoting an anthropology that is very much congenial to the practices and policies of today’s left. Conservatives tend to dislike it for, well, pretty much the same reason. My own view, which I elaborated in a previous column, is that the modern fixation with self-acceptance often ends up closing off paths to self-improvement. I argued there that despite what the Me generation would have you believe, some identities, some selves, might be worth changing if given the opportunity.
But while self-talk has its fair share of detractors, few critics, myself included, ever stop to question this idiom’s basic coherence. It’s assumed that we already know what self-care and self-fulfillment mean — that our disagreement about such abstractions is substantive rather than terminological, and thus can only be resolved by answering bigger, scarier questions: What does it mean to live a good life? What is the nature of human happiness? What do we owe to one another?
In some cases, that assumption is accurate. But other times, it obscures the way in which a simple hyphen can change the character of the terms it links, how attaching the “self” to this or that concept can change and shrink and mutilate its content beyond recognition, rigging the debate in one side’s favor.
This is pretty much what has happened with “self-love.”
A New Age neologism if ever there was one, self-love can easily sound self-contradictory. Whereas ancient Greek distinguishes between eros and philia, or romantic and filial love, English uses the same four-letter designation to refer to each. That probably has something to do with the fact that for all their profound differences, romantic and filial love share something in common: a passionate, borderline irrational drive to self-sacrifice. You can’t really say you love your girlfriend, or your parents, or your god, unless you would be willing to give up quite a bit on their behalf — maybe not your life, maybe not your freedom, but something pretty significant nonetheless. It’s no accident that great romances usually involve great sacrifices. What sets love apart from other, less intense cognates is a certain kind of self-denial, an inclination to forfeit your own well-being for the sake of that special, irreplaceable someone you deem worth it.
This means self-love faces a peculiar conceptual hurdle, for if love necessarily entails a willingness to sacrifice for our beloved, it’s not clear how we are supposed to “love” ourselves at all. A sacrifice on one’s own behalf is not a sacrifice: Assuming I am better off for having made it, it’s better understood as an act of strategic asceticism, in which forgoing something now promises greater deliverables in the future. Otherwise it would be a pointless flagellation, the very sort of abstaining seppuku against which self-love advocates tirelessly warn.
Which suggests that when the Oprah Winfreys of the world tell their congregants to “love themselves,” what they really have in mind is more like self-acceptance or self-respect, neither of which is bad in moderation.
But it’s still telling that we’ve begun preaching “self-love” in addition to those things, because it reflects a substantial downsizing of our deepest and most fundamental concepts. Love becomes little more than a pro-attitude, without any essential connection to sacrifice or personal undertaking, while the self loses some of its former power, no longer capable of demanding real loss or immolation from those in close emotional proximity to it.
Self-love, then, obtains coherence at the price of importance. But you haven’t really begun to appreciate this loss until you look beyond personal relationships, beyond intimate attachments and familial connections, and turn your gaze toward grander horizons.
It used to be the case, not so long ago, that love of country and community meant a readiness to give up something — to make a sacrifice — for the body politic that reared you. In our present epoch of self-love, however, that’s less and less true. The ease with which this strange, apocryphal phrase rolls off the tongue signals a move away from responsibilities big and small, a reduction in our collective obligations to one another. If love does not imply forbearance — if it can be slapped like an afterthought in front of the omniscient, Ozymandian self — then patriotism and noblesse oblige and all the rest will have lost one of their most potent forms of support.
And if solidarity is allowed to fade into stoicism, we’ll have bigger fish to fry than self-doubt.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .