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St. Thomas Aquinas: You Must Love You. First.

Oct 5, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Love was of the highest importance to St. Thomas Aquinas. He identified love as “the source and summit” of the life of each person. Catholic philosopher Anthony Flood, in his masterful book The Metaphysical Foundations of Love summarizes love as “the structuring notion of Aquinas’s practical philosophy.” (p. ix). Flood’s book is a particularly helpful synthesis of Aquinas’s thought on self-love, and I rely on it heavily in this weekly reflection.

Aquinas’s three loves

Continuing in his introduction to his book, Flood writes:

He [Thomas Aquinas] characterizes much of human life in terms of three basic love relations: the love a person has for God, or simply the love of God; love of self; and love of neighbor. (p. ix).

Love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor. And the Angelic Doctor did not just pull these three central pillars out of thin air. No, these are the three loves that constitute the two great commandments from our Lord:

And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. What does this mean? Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, in their commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, give a succinct explanation:

Literally, the text says that the Torah and the Prophets “hang” on the double love commandment, as though these two precepts support the full weight of Biblical religion in all its various aspects. No other commandment of the Bible is properly observed if either one of these is transgressed or compromised, for the aim of all divine Scripture is to bring us out of ourselves to love and serve God and our fellow human beings. (p. 289).

Thus, love is absolutely central to the Gospel message, and love is essential for us as Catholics to embrace our mission to love God and to love our neighbor. But what about you loving yourself?

Should you love yourself?

In my most recent Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, episode 98, titled Self-Love: What Catholics Need to Know,” I addressed how much confusion and controversy abound among Catholics about self-love. Is self-love a terrible, evil sin? Or is self-love not only good, but absolutely essential? One can find quotes to support the entire spectrum of moral evaluations of self-love (and I did just that at the beginning of that episode).

How does St. Thomas answer that question – should you love yourself?

His answer is an emphatic, unequivocal, “YES!” Proper self-love is indispensable. Each man must love himself. Each woman must love herself. You must love you.

In fact, according to Thomas, we have no choice – you will love yourself. Whether or not you love yourself is not the question. The question is: “How will you love yourself?”

Three types of self-love according to Aquinas

As Flood notes:

The love of self proceeds from the will as the latter’s first act of self-movement. The love of self, then, structurally precedes the love founded upon union with other things. Since self-love involves the will, like everything else involving willing, we find more than one form of self-love. Aquinas distinguishes among three kinds of self-love: natural/common, good/proper/well ordered, and bad/wicked/disordered. (p. 14)

To support this assertion, Flood sites the Angelic Doctor himself, in the Summa Theologica:

Love of self is common to all, in one way, in another way it is proper to the good; and a third way, it is proper to the wicked. For it is common to all for each one to love what he thinks himself to be. Now a man is said to be a thing, in two ways: first in respect of his substance in nature, and, this way all think themselves to be what they are, that is, composed of the soul and body. In this way too, all men both good and wicked, love themselves, insofar as they love their own preservation. (ST II-II, q.25, a.7)

Common self-love arises naturally within the person. Flood describes common self-love as the “basic self-relation deriving immediately from substantial unity” and it can be developed positively or negatively. When Flood uses the word “unity” here, he is referring to the “oneness” of a person, the “undivided being” of the person.

If common self-love moves along a trajectory in a positive, ordered way, it becomes proper self-love. However, if that common self-love develops negatively, becomes focused on more worldly or temporal concerns, it will result in disordered or wicked self-love.

Let us unpack this. You cannot choose to not love yourself. You are going to love yourself. But you have a choice about how you are going to love yourself. In a wicked self-love, what you seek is that which gives you carnal pleasure, often a focus on goods that you desire for yourself alone (these are often material goods). St. Thomas maintains that disordered love of self deprives our natural self from the fullness of good things that would perfect our nature, especially union with other people and with God. Thus, disordered self-love narrows the set of goods down to those that are willed solely for one’s own benefit. In a word, wicked self-love is selfishness. Furthermore, wicked self-love is the root of all sin. Why?

St. Thomas explains: “The love of self which is the principle of sin is that which is proper to the wicked, and reaches to the contempt of God… Because the wicked so desire external goods as to despise spiritual goods.” (ST II-II, q.25, a.7, ad 1).

The disordered self-love commandeers the natural self-love, setting it on a trajectory to self-ruin.

Disordered self-love

Flood continues:

That wicked self-love is the cause of all sin is a simple inference for Aquinas. All actions, both good and sinful, proceed from the will. The basic act of the will is love, and all actions are motivated by love. Thus, sinful acts will necessarily motivated by love, must be caused by disordered love. (15-16).

For St. Thomas, all actions are motivated by love. When we are sinning, we are seeking a good for ourselves, but it may be only a perceived good, or a lesser good that deprives us of a greater good. That sinful seeking of a perceived good neglects God and is oriented toward the baser aspects of our self, not toward our highest good. This leads to a drawing of oneself inward, a separation from God and neighbor, and a damaging or destroying of relationships, which is the essence of sin.

Flood summarizes this sinful process resulting from disordered self-love:

For Aquinas, a prideful improper self-love constitutes the root of all sin. In effect, through improper self-love, a person attempts to forsake his relational identity for one of imminence. Selfishness, self-preoccupation, and self-concern become the norm through pride. However, since this goes against one’s true metaphysical identity, the net result is sorrow and self-isolation. (p. xiii)

Proper self-love

For Aquinas, there is an order of precedence in love, and self-love comes first. According to Flood, “[Love of self] is logically prior to love of neighbor, and serves as a template for the latter.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

What Flood is saying is that how we love ourselves is going to determine how we love others. In fact, Flood says “If a person loves himself rightly, he will love others rightly. On the other hand, if he relates to himself through a disordered love, he can neither relate to others rightly nor enter into a deep union with them.” (p.ix) This means that according to Aquinas, proper self-love is the gateway, it is required for you for you to able to love your neighbor in an ordered way. Proper self-love is essential.

You cannot love your neighbor more than you love yourself

Aquinas argues that it is impossible for you to love your neighbor more than yourself. That may sound very strange, but St. Thomas uses metaphysical arguments to prove it. Flood explains Aquinas’s thought in the following passage:

Perhaps surprisingly, Aquinas does not think a person should love other beings more than oneself. In fact, Aquinas does not think it even possible to love another more than self. His basic reason for this claim rests not on morality, but rather on metaphysics. Union between two persons derives from unity. Two persons seek a union between them that approximates each one’s substantial unity. Due to the separation of substances it presupposes, however, union can never reach the intensity afforded by unity itself. Moreover, the love of self, as the most basic activity arising from substantial unity, must be appropriately cultivated to allow both for a pleasant interior life and the possibility of true friendships with others.… The more a person develops the appropriate level of self, the more he will be capable of and desire to love others appropriately. (p. xi)

When Flood uses the word “unity” here, it’s a near equivalent to what I mean by “interior integration.” Unity is the “oneness” of a person — it is the opposite of being fragmented or fractured inside. The more unity you have, the more whole or complete or integrated you are, the more capacity you will then have to enter a loving union with another person. The degree of loving union between two persons is limited by the degree of unity that each of the persons possesses within himself or herself.

In addition, Flood writes: The ways in which an individual seeks to do good for himself becomes the model, a template for how he loves other persons – ‘we do unto them as we do unto ourselves’.” (p. 13)

In other words, we learn to love others by learning to love ourselves first. That is one reason why loving ourselves in an ordered way is so critically important – without proper self-love it is impossible for us to love our neighbors, and thus to carry out the second great commandment.

Loving God

In a future weekly reflection, I will address the relationship between self-love and loving God. However, for now I am just going to share that St. Thomas argues that without proper self-love, it is impossible for us to love God, and carry out the first great commandment.

Thus, Fr. Jacques Philippe stands on firm Thomistic principles when he writes in Called to Life that “Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self grow together and sustain one another as they grow. If one is absent or neglected, the others suffer. Like the legs of a tripod, all three are needed in order to stand, and each leans on the others.” (p. 69).

Interior Integration for Catholics

In my most recent Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, episode 98, titled Self-Love: What Catholics Need to Know,” I discuss the four ways to understand self-love, why we avoid self-love, five reasons it is important to cultivate proper self-love, and the limits of appropriate self-sacrifice. I also offer you two practical spiritual means for growing in proper self-love. First is the Litany of Self-Love by Micole Amalu at the Face of Mercy – a totally unique prayer, and one that is so attuned to the deficits in proper self-love that so many Catholics face. I also offer you an entirely new way of examining your conscience, a way that is based on looking at the three loves. I hope you will check that episode out.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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P.P.S. I don’t have any sponsors for these weekly reflections. When I recommend a book or a prayer or anything else, I do not receive anything in return for that – no money, no affiliate programs, no referral fees, no coupons for 10% off at the gas station, nothing. I recommend them because I think they are excellent and I want you to benefit from them. Like Anthony Flood’s book, The Metaphysical Foundations of Love. It’s not the easiest read, being philosophy (specifically metaphysics) but it is still accessible to the lay reader and it is the best discussion of Aquinas’s understanding of self-love that I have found. It has been eye-opening for me, especially as a non-philosopher.

P.P.P.S. If you found this weekly reflection really “heady” and philosophical and harder to understand, I get it. I will be bringing in a lot more examples and more explanation in future weeks, so stay with me.

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