Many of us know Aquinas’ definition of love as “effectively willing the good of another.” To love another person means both to care about his or her good, and to pursue that good in a way that is effective, that is, the takes stock of a practical understanding of what love entails in a particular situation. As Christians, we are asked to care not only about self, but also about others and their needs: not only parents for children and spouses for one another, but also the good of friends, members of our larger community, and strangers in need (especially those who are most marginalized and excluded from community).
What we hear less about is Aquinas’ treatment of self-love. For Aquinas, self-love is also foundational to the good life. For Aquinas, the good life is about the life of virtue, about care of the soul: the term psyche or soul is not a “part” of us that goes to heaven but more deeply a person’s self, the animating source of life and the source of all of our actions and choices. Living well means seeking to cultivate the soul or self, so that we live flourishing lives.
Aquinas distinguishes between genuine self-love and mistaken self-love (IIa IIae, q 25).* In false self-love, we pursue aims that are not really good for us: for example, wealth, fame, security, and the like, which do not necessarily benefit us in a deeper spiritual sense. Money is useful for some things, and so is security, but both can also get in the way of living more flourishing lives, or we might need to give up some of our own security or money to help others to have happy lives. True self-love, however, cultivates the care of one’s own soul. For Aquinas, the self is like another friend to whom we have a responsibility to care. In friendship, we make a promise to care for another person, to make his good our own, in a sense. But we cannot give the same energy to every person in the world: my immediate neighbor in need, who is closest to where I live and spend my time, has a greater demand on me than a stranger on the other side of the world–not because the person who is far away is less valuable, but simply because I can be a lot more effective for someone nearby (especially in Aquinas’ day, predating global travel and technology).
Self-love is the most important form of friendship, however, because no one is closer than the self. There is no one that I have better ability to love than my self because I am my most proximate friend. In fact, Aquinas takes it for granted that self-love is so natural that it does not really need too much of an argument. After all, we all naturally eat when hungry, sleep when tired, and want to be happy (even if we often make mistakes about what really creates happiness). However, he does explicitly address the case of whether we should sacrifice the good of one’s own soul for the good of another, and he argues that we should not: if we could save another person’s soul, we ought to be willing to sacrifice money, honor, and even one’s own life, but never the good of one’s own soul itself. Perhaps we could reframe what Aquinas says into contemporary language and say that bodily and material sacrifice are sometimes required, but psychological sacrifice is different: care for one’s own soul, or psychology, is a foundational good as much as “salvation.”
However, in reality, many people struggle today with self-love and weighing the good of the self in relation to the care and well being of others. We are an overworked and overstressed culture. Each year in my social justice/ service learning class, I regularly attend to self-care with the students: what are they doing to make sure that they are getting enough rest, exercise, and attending to healthy activities with friends so that they have the internal resources and energy to go out and to serve? Where is their space for solitude and, if they are religious, prayer? What about healthy fun? Self-care is essential as a foundation for love of others.
More difficult for all of us, I think, is how to weigh self-love and reconciliation. What do we do when relationships break down and are at an impasse, where a kind of love that cultivates the flourishing of oneself and another is no longer present? Reconciliation is the ideal—and we all have to tolerate some degree of imperfection in our family and friends—but what about when a family member or friend no longer returns our love, or makes demands on us that are only superficially loving or outright destructive to our well being?
Here, Christian self-love is foundational. Caring for the good of one’s own self and soul is not selfish in such circumstances, but in fact the exercise of the deepest form of friendship: friendship for oneself. In some cases, proper self-love can mean letting go of relationships that no longer give life. I know that I have sometimes chased after relationships where either another person is unresponsive and unwilling to put energy back into the friendship, or cases where another person is invested but doesn’t respect my boundaries, despite attempts to communicate them clearly. Christian reconciliation demands that we try to mutually communicate our needs to friends and family, and work something out (and not resort to “mind reading” or expecting others to know our unstated needs). However, if another person is not a willing participant in such a process of mutual communication and reconciliation, then letting go of the relationship is the only viable option. In a sense, one remains open to reconciliation, but recognizes that the other person is just not interested or capable of reconciliation at this time. In such cases, we can instead exercise healthy self-love and remain friends to ourselves.
Every person is God’s own beloved, including one’s self: “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased” are God’s words not only to Jesus, but also to each one of us.
*For more in-depth reading on Aquinas on self-love, see E Schockenhoff’s chapter on the theological virtue of charity in Stephen Pope (ed) The Ethics of Aquinas.