Self-Love Vs. Self-Betterment

Posted: Jan 07, 2015 12:01 AM

On Dec. 31, as 2014 began to fade into the past, New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted out some deep thoughts from his new book, "Fire In My Bones." "Daring to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do," Blow wrote regarding his acknowledgement of his own bisexuality, "because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable. But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one." He then added, "It takes more courage to be yourself than it does to do almost anything else. Being yourself, your whole self, without compromise or apology, is a revolutionary act!"

This line of thought doesn't originate with Blow, of course. Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke similarly; his concept of amour de soi suggested that self-love -- that is, love for oneself without reference to outside sources -- was the highest form of happiness, and that only amour de soi could drive good action.

This is nonsense; it always was nonsense; it always will be nonsense. No doubt self-destructive tendencies can harm both the individual and society more broadly. But conversely, self-love as the highest form of bravery undermines the notion of objective good and self-sacrifice in pursuit of that objective good. If being yourself is the highest aspiration for mankind, then anyone who stands between you and your own self-regard becomes an enemy. Society must be shifted on its ear to accommodate your perception of yourself.

And so we enter the backwards world in which individual self-perception trumps objective reality. To pick a fringe example, if a fully biological man perceives himself to be a woman, all of society must hereby acknowledge him as a woman, a nonsensical proposition. Logically speaking, a man cannot declare himself a woman without a point of internal reference; it makes no more sense to do this than to declare oneself a purple-headed space alien, given that human beings have no idea what it like to be a purple-headed space alien without being one. All of society is expected to flout reality in order to preserve the self-love of the mentally ill.

More problematic, all of society is expected to adjust to the expected returns self-love brings. If we all believe ourselves geniuses, we expect to be compensated as such. If society fails to comprehend our genius, that is society's fault. To borrow from Jim Croce, we all end up with the steadily depressing, low down, mind messing, working at the car wash blues. That is, until we call on government to recognize that we are each an undiscovered Howard Hughes.

Being comfortable with oneself is not bravery. If it means ignoring the call of a higher purpose, it is cowardice. There are millions of American students who are comfortable with their level of educational and intellectual achievement. That's why they're falling behind their compatriots in other industrialized countries. There are millions of Americans perfectly comfortable with abandoning their children, or murdering their unborn children. That does not make their action right, or public policy designed to stop such action wrong.

Self-betterment used to be the motto of Western civilization. That's because Western civilization used to be based on the premise that man is more than animal. But in freeing man from the shackles of humanity, we have achieved just what Rousseau sought. And so we may yet live like animals again, perhaps happy in the bravery of our amour de soi, but somewhat less happy in the failure of humanity's truly noble aspirations.