True and False Self-Love

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Conversation over tea at São Bento Hermitage–Monday, January 21, 1985

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.


(People undertake great works out of God’s love or self-love. Can you tell us how to acquire the love of God and fight self-love?)

I will expound an aspect of self-love which is not dealt with a whole lot, except in great moral treatises. There is much talk about the love of God but very little about self-love, except, of course, to criticize it.

What is self-love properly so-called? What is bad about it? It literally means the love man has for himself. Should man not love himself? If we read the Summa Theologica, we will find out he should. Even more, of all creatures, the one that man should love the most is himself. Because if we must love our neighbor as ourselves, we must love him more the closer he is to us. Now, no one is closer to me than myself! Therefore, my first love must be for myself. This is found in St. Thomas and it is wise and true. So how to explain the harangue against self-love? Isn’t it a virtue?

Furthermore, so wise and holy through the ages, the Church earnestly teaches men to love one another but speaks little on how he should love himself. Imagine a preacher saying, “My children, today I will talk about the love each of us has for himself…” It would understandably cause much perplexity and many a good and likable holy-holy lady would walk right out.

How can the Church teach this is a virtue but not say how it is to be practiced? Why does She not provide man with the least incentive to love himself while at the same time insisting that he love others?

No one raises this question because what I am saying is a great sophism, a gross distortion of logic. Where is this logic flawed? Just what is self-love to elicit such disparate attitudes? For starters, it is true that we should love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God; that does not mean we should love our neighbor as much as ourselves but like ourselves. So the reality is that we must love our neighbor for the love of God and – yes, we must love ourselves, and more so than our neighbor – but also for the love of God.

There are other reasons why I must love God more than me, but an additional one is that God is more interior and even closer to me than myself. Now, if I must love myself for the love of God, the question is: what does this love consist of? By answering this we will be able to make out the self-love which is not for the love of God and draw a line which is very useful and important for us to put in order our ideas and reactions.

I love myself for the love of God when I love myself because I am a creature of God made to His image and likeness and redeemed by Him. So, aware that there is in me an image of Him that can be perfected and made entirely like Him – and that there is in me because of original sin a monstrous distortion whereby I can become the opposite of that image, my love consists in resembling God as much as possible.

The love I have for myself should lead me to try and accomplish that similarity with God for which I was created. My purpose is fulfilled by striving to accomplish that similarity. The highest love I can have for myself is to try and resemble God. The greatest act of love I can have for God is to want to resemble Him. This similarity with Him is called sanctity. So when I strive to sanctify myself I am making the most perfect act of love for God because He is Who He is. But I am also striving to make the most perfect act of love for myself, as I cannot wish for myself anything greater than resembling God.

I will give you an earthly example that was true at the time when there were real royal courts: Every man tried to resemble the king; and every lady, the queen. The king was the model of men, the queen, of ladies. And when the person attained that similarity with the king or queen he would fulfill his purpose at the court. He had contributed to make the court entirely according to the king and queen.

This can be said infinitely more so of God. We are destined by vocation to be princes at the heavenly court. So in this self-love is found the highest form, type and degree of the love of God, but also something higher: at the very moment that man loves himself he disinterestedly loves God. St. Teresa of Jesus has a beautiful expression of this love: “Even if there was no heaven I would love Thee, and even if there was no hell I would fear Thee.”

So while true self-love can be distinguished from the love of God, it is so to speak absorbed in the whirlwind of God’s love and forms only one love with it. However, due to original sin, man also has a false image of the route he must take and vehemently tends in that direction. Reason and grace show him that he must love God, but his passions, sensibilities and penchants most often lead him to love something which is the opposite of God but seems to be good for being enjoyable; because he grabs and feels it and it blows him away! Whereas we do not see, touch or feel God and therefore He does not enrapture us!

Self-love properly speaking is this furious tendency man has toward this fake good. This love has nothing to do with God but is exclusively about self. It really should be called false self-love, for deep down it is self-hatred.

Why does a person smoke marijuana? Because he enjoys it and wants to have that delight. Yet he knows that it will ruin his health and lead to a miserable death. He knows he is condemning himself to death for the sake of an immediate pleasure; yet he exposes himself to a greater evil in order to have that pleasure. The self-love that leads him to smoke pot is therefore a false love.

This is what happens when someone commits a mortal sin. He knows he can die from one moment to the next and be cast into hell for all eternity. So is that sin an act of self-love? Immediately speaking, yes. But in fact, no, it is an act of hatred! He is procuring for himself the greatest of evils: being stuck in hell forever.

Man tends with an extraordinary drive to this more immediate and false self-love. He wants everything now and forever. He knows this “everything” is not everything; he knows this “now” is a liar that will devour him, and this “forever” is hell. Yet he wants it! Therefore, this self-love should be mentioned between quotes, because it is neither love nor “of self.” It is a voluptuous way of procuring eternal doom for oneself; and therefore it is madness, irrationality.

If you look at any man, he apparently tends toward a number of things. He is ambitious and likes to show off and to be admired by others, but at the same time he is lazy. And when he realizes that he needs to make a serious effort to acquire some quality and be well-regarded by others, he fails to do it because of laziness. So for his own enjoyment, in the miserable contradiction of this erroneous self-love, man wants things that oppose one another.

But St. Thomas teaches that in spite of all this chaos in man’s desires, which pull him apart toward all sides, there is a certain unum. At this low and egoistic level there is a certain earthly, contingent and fleeting good which man desires more than all other goods. And essentially, he will build his life to ultimately attain that good.

When you look and analyze at the life of a man who does all kinds of things, you see that deep down he followed a direction; he either obtained what he wanted and was frustrated or failed to attain it and was disappointed after spending his whole life running after that.

So what you must do above all – if you who are so young do not want to have a completely failed life – is to love your similarity with God and gladly sacrifice any fleeting goods just as long as you resemble God. This is your purpose. You know that if you do not do this, sooner or later you will fall into the trapdoor – an erroneous unum you will pursue throughout your lives, which will lead you to do all kinds of crazy things.

These crazy things are related mostly to pride and sensuality. As I explained in RCR, carnal sensuality—the instinct of procreation enjoyed to the ultimate degree, which turns into all the sources of disorder that you know.

Now for the difference between pride and sensuality. In the latter, man does not bother with the exterior world: all he wants is his own delight. Laziness is part of this psychology. The lazy person cares little what others think about him as long as he leads a sweet and pleasant life without work. With pride, the opposite happens: man is extraordinarily worried about others and wants their affection and even more, admiration; and as a proof of admiration, their submission. This desire to command makes him work like mad, running after all the goods he believes will make him stand out above the others.

So you see that some men run like mad after riches. Is it to enjoy life? At times, yes. Some want to become rich and then sit back and relax. But in most cases, they want to make money to become important; and they want to become important in order to be admired. And with admiration, to finagle the right to command others: He who is admired, commands!

Others pursue an intellectual career and study like crazy. They can boast they are historians who know all about history or a specific personage, for example, King Frederick II of Prussia, considered one of the most famous men in history. In order to know everything ever published all over the world about Frederick II you need to work like mad, have a huge library, and try to find new books about him in small universities even in places as faraway as Chad or Nigeria. But he wants to impress the readers of his book: “What a colossus! He went even to Nigeria to find out about Frederick II!” He ruins his health, spends a fortune and lives his whole life amid dust to publish a famous book about Frederick II that receives an award from the Berlin Academy of History, for example. And that’s the end of it. Out of a desire of showing off and being more than others.

So the option is between pride, that demands work and struggle, and sensuality, which calls for sitting back and taking it easy. Here I mean sensuality in its broadest sense, including the violation of the 6th and 9th Commandments but also every form of softness and concessions to self.

If I could stop someone on the street and say: ‘look, you need to choose between this and that,’ he would feel uncomfortable because it is a hard choice. Most people do not like to make this choice because they have the illusion of being able to procure a good slice of both. And thus to enjoy sensuality and work out some way of enjoying a little pride as well. They do not like to make a choice because, first of all, it requires thinking and they do not like to think. They need to make an act of the will: “I want such thing!” And these defined acts of the will require a certain effort that the individual does not want to make.

So most people decide not to choose but to make a little effort instead; to concede a little bit to sensuality in life and, in order to get ahead, learn how to bluff. Bluffing is the way the vain and sensual employ to satisfy their…. Let us say an individual frequents a certain circle and knows that by doing or saying certain things he will stand out and be admired. So he decides to learn how to say and do these things, but he does those that are easiest and tries to fool others into believing he knows more than he does.

He becomes delighted when admired and opens up his feathers in the middle of others like a peacock. The vain person delights with the slightest expression of admiration he can get. If he is walking the street and someone says, ‘what a strong young man!’ he will remember that even as he goes to bed at night.

Conversely, any adverse comment, however minute, will bother and disturb him. He becomes hyper sensitive to everything done or said in his regard and delights in any drop of admiration he is able to eke out with his shenanigans. He can care less if the admiration is deserved or not; he just wants to suck it in. It does not matter if the admiration is the fruit of a lie; it is what he wants. He lives in perpetual fear that they will call his bluff. Nothing can annoy him more than the perception that he is being observed and that someone has figured out the caustic word that needs to be uttered to destroy him completely in the eyes of others… that is a real enemy!

There are people who spend hours, days and years looking for such things. What is the end result of this attitude? First, it dulls the individual and turns him into a brute. He begins to overrate any form of admiration and to content himself with the lowest and most trivial accolades he can get. And he loses any sense of developing himself according to higher standards for the love of God. Thus, he begins to grow downward rather than upward.

A 19th century English novelist, unable to make himself admired enough in Europe, joined a semi savage tribe in South Africa and managed to make them worship him. When white people got there and figured it out, he panicked and chased them away so they would not blow his cover and destroy his myth. He remained a ‘divinity’ for a while. When he was dying, his worshippers could not understand the words he kept saying: ‘what a horror, what a horror…’ When dying, many people who did similar things realize it and also say, “what a horror…!”

Have no illusion: today, no one wins the great battles of life alone. People get help and know that without it they will be down and out. How do they pay for that help? I say it is more authentic for a man to grow less but on his own without becoming hooked in, rather than being lifted as a tower of smoke and mirrors in the eyes of others. That is where self-love leads.

Conversely, no self-immolation or action unites one to God as much as obedience; imitating Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who St. Paul says made Himself obedient even unto death on the Cross in order to do the will of the Eternal Father. A person who makes a vow of obedience sincerely renounces being admired, applauded or becoming a great man; he never looks to himself but only to his ideal, which is to imitate God; he becomes a hero. Heroism in virtue has a name: sanctity.

Yet, at a certain point a monk can begin to miss the “onions of Egypt” [like the exiled Israelites] and want to appear important. When that happens he becomes a cross to his superior rather than a support. If not given what he wants, he revolts. He spends his whole life rooting that they order him to do what he wants. And when that finally happens his conscience is heavy for he knows he is not obeying: he has become a crucifier of his superior.

Moreover, God does not accept what man does out of self-love, but only out of His love. A man can do something colossal out of self-love but his work will convert no one; the alms he obtains are stolen because he uses them to show off; his whole apostolate is sterile because of the curse of self-love he carries within. He is a master of novices: they come out like blocks of ice by his fault. When he dies, he looks at his life and sees he was a clown.

He will spent 30 years teaching at a school and his self-love will contaminate and deform other teachers and make the school sterile. Parents send their children there to become Catholics and they leave as pagans. He was an enemy of the Church and stabbed her for 30 years while dressing and posing as a churchman.

How does he get to that point? Through small concessions. He tells a little joke and delights in the popularity it brings. The next time he has a greater penchant to do it, and the fifth time it becomes irresistible: Self-love is like marijuana.

Small spats and quarrels are infallible signs of self-love. No one quarrels for the love of God. A man without self-love gives way when he is right and lets the other do what he wants and to think as he wishes. Why? To make a sacrifice and do good to the soul of the one being unjust to him. Obey and bend yourself! Look for him in order to be scorned! Absorb his scorn like nectar and your soul will give off the aroma of nectar to those he must lead to heaven. This can also help correct a defect of his, of someone else’s, or ultimately benefit my own soul. And then I will be a man capable of expanding the Kingdom of Christ and the Reign of Mary.

Finally, if a person begins to make concessions, impurity emerges; his temperament becomes agitated and unbridled and purity becomes more and more difficult when temptation knocks. And the person is tempted against the Faith. He was led to that by pride and sensuality.