For most of my life I have been motivated by the question, “How can I be better?” While I may have had some good motivation behind this question at times, in general I think it has generally done more harm than good in my life. So recently, I have learned to ask myself a much better question: “How can I love myself better?” But before I explore this question more in depth, I would I would like to explain why I don’t think the question, “How can I be better?” is a very good question.
On a daily basis we receive a lot of pressure from different sources to “be better”. But what exactly is “better”? If we listen carefully to these messages, “better” often refers to being more successful or wealthy or more physically attractive according to some arbitrary standard. But it is not clear that any of these conditions is actually better. Someone who is more successful or more physically attractive can still be miserable and full of internal disharmony.
That someone can be “better” by all sorts of external standards but still be inwardly miserable suggests that if we want to be better in a way that creates a beautiful and happy condition overall, we must start with our internal life. A good life starts from the inside, not the outside. And this is why I think “How can I love myself better?”is the more important question. When we love ourselves, we recognize our own dignity as unique and irreplaceable human beings. We nurture every aspect of our person in a way that allows ourselves to flourish in this unique individuality.
In doing so we allow others around us to flourish as well because they are also unique and irreplaceable human beings. When we love ourselves better in this way, we create an inner environment that allows all other good things to flow, and those good things spill into our external lives. This does indeed make our life better, but it does so in a way that is deep, authentic, permanent, and that flows from who we are personally, rather than flowing from an arbitrary standard someone else sets. So if we want to make our lives truly better, love is the place we must start and, specifically, we must begin with self-love: love of ourselves.
One of the first times I began thinking seriously about the topic of self-love was when I was reading a passage by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. In book nine, section eight of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks whether someone should love himself the most or his friend the most. Aristotle points out that while most people speak reproachfully of people who love themselves, it is actually right for a person to love himself the best, if self-love is properly understood. Aristotle suggests that someone who truly loves his friend wants the best gifts for his friend for the friends’ sake.
Aristotle further points out that the best gifts in life are virtuous and noble things. Therefore, someone who truly loves his friend wants, above all else, virtuous and noble things for his friend. Now let’s relate this to self-love. Someone who loves himself best wants what is best for himself, and these best gifts are virtuous and noble things. By pursuing these virtuous and noble things first for himself, Aristotle argues, the person who loves himself best actually becomes a better friend to all those around him.
At the beginning of this blog post, I mentioned that for much of my life, I was motivated by the question, “How can I be better?”, but then I realized that a much better question is “How can I love myself better?” Although Aristotle discusses the idea of self-love a little differently than I am doing here, I think his ideas about self-love suggest the value of this second question. When we focus on loving ourselves first, and we give ourselves good and noble gifts, we are not only the best possible friend to ourselves, we also naturally become better, both internally and externally, in our relationships with each other and the world.
Of course the question now is what exactly these good and noble gifts are which constitute proper self-love. Aristotle certainly has a very specific view of what good and noble things are, and he discusses this at length in Nicomachean Ethics and other places. My goal here is not to outline everything that Aristotle believes is characteristic of proper self-love. (Aristotle thought quite a bit differently than we do today about people in general and human psychology.)
Rather, my goal is to use Aristotle’s notion of self-love as a springboard to share some of the good and noble things that I believe constitute self-love. In my next post, I want to discuss the gift of treating ourselves as people, rather than as objects. This is one of the most important gifts we can give ourselves, and I also think it is a gift we do not understand very well. I think that focusing on self-love is especially important because it suggests to us that whatever we wish to be better in ourselves and the world begins with an inner state grounded in proper self-friendship and self-love. Self-love is a gift not only to ourselves but to the world in general. It is the place we must start.
 Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. W.D. Ross, trans. The University of Adelaide Library. 2015. Online.