A term that designates a disordered love of self, having as its object, therefore, one's own personal or private good without that good's being put, according to right reason, in subordination to the divine good. A somewhat equivalent term is egoism, which puts into relief the tendency to be habitually wrapped up in oneself and on that account to seek one's own advantage.
St. Augustine used strong language in describing the effect of man's penchant to love himself in this way: amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei facit civitatem Babylonis (Civ. 24.28). It is obvious, moreover, that in a general sense this dichotomy is always verified: man will be operating either for his own advantage (out of self-love, ultimately) or for the glory of God. Therefore, although spiritual writers have designated various remedies for it, such as mortification, humility, and obedience, the most direct antidote is charity itself, which effectively causes man to leave himself and, through Jesus, to be in God.
Gospel references to "loving one's own life" and the Pauline statement about charity's "not seeking its own advantage" are the basis for the spiritual tradition on this matter. Among the early ecclesiastical writers, however, self-love was most often treated with the monastic life in mind. For example, St. Basil wrote of self-love (filautàa) as an intention to be autonomous and independent of authority, an attitude directly opposed to the cenobitic life he advocated. In the same vein, St. John Climacus viewed obedience as the instrument whereby self-love is most effectively destroyed. St. Maximus the Confessor seems to have been the first writer to introduce the idea that self-love involves inordinate love for one's own body. In his mind, therefore, it is opposed to both charity and continence.
Among medieval writers, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was in the Basilian tradition and viewed self-love as the fruit of the drive to be autonomous [see Serm. in temp. Resurrection n. 3 (ML 183, 289)]. St. Thomas Aquinas appears to have been aware of the complexity of the tradition since he observed: "[S]elf-love, insofar as it designates the appetite for all things as ordered to oneself, is the common principle of all sins. Insofar, however, as a person in a peculiar fashion desires for himself carnal pleasures, self-love is said to be a daughter of lust" (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 153.5 ad 3; 1a2ae, 77.4; 84.2 ad 3;109.3; In II Sent. 42.2.1). Medieval mystics such as St. Catherine of Siena saw clearly that self-love prevents perfect union with God.
Among the spiritual writers of modern times a distinction can be made between those in whom a trace of optimism is manifest (e.g., St. Francis de Sales) and those whose view of the matter is quite dismal. The bishop of Geneva pointed out that there exists a legitimate love of self, which, however, tends quite con-naturally (i.e., according to man's present condition) to get out of hand. St. Vincent de Paul also expressed himself in this way. Among the writers of the Bérullian school of spirituality, however, such observations are not to be found; and the absolute opposition between love of God and love of self (obviously in the pejorative sense) is emphasized almost exclusively. Writers of the Ignatian school, moreover, make much of the practice of abandonment to divine providence; and one may view this as a sort of first sketch of St. Thérèse of Lisieux's resolution of the problem of self-love in the present age. For her the solution consisted in a moment-by-moment lending of one's will to God as an instrument of His mercy.
Finally, it must be observed that the problem of self-love entered into the controversies surrounding the errors of the Jansenists and the quietists. The Jansenists tended to be altogether despairing of the possibility of man's overcoming self-love in any effective way, while the quietists looked upon the pure love of God as something quite normal, without the exercise of that cooperation with the grace of God demanded by St. Thérèse.
Bibliography: r. daeschler, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed., m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 1:533–544. c. antoine, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 4.2:2224–30.
[m. b. schepers]