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Self-esteem, Philautia, and the Fathers’ Solution

August 25, 2012

For many people, the barometer, that determines whether they are happy or not, has to do with their self-esteem. William James once defined self-esteem as “perceived competence in domains of importance.” So if I value writing good posts, my self esteem should go up if others tell me that such is the case and I will then feel good about myself. If a businessman values becoming a CEO, a promotion to that position will be a promotion in self-esteem that will make him feel good about himself. If young woman values being a smart dresser, comments by others to that effect will increase her self-esteem and make her feel good about herself. Now, there is nothing wrong with feeling good, but there is something amiss about self-esteem being the source of pleasant feelings.

Today, psychologists are coming to conclude that self-esteem is not all they thought it was cut out to be. First of all, self-esteem implies that in order to feel good about myself, I need to be better than average, better than my neighbor, better than my brother, but the fact of the matter is that it’s statistically impossible to always be better than others even in those things that I value. Thus being set up for a fall, when I’m not “better,” my self-esteem plummets and mood along with it. Even worst, emphasis on self-esteem encourages narcissism, which happens to be a diagnosable personality disorder that ultimately brings much unhappiness to the sufferer and those in the sufferer’s near vicinity.  For narcissists, the only thing in life that matters is receiving admiration from those around them. Unfortunately to varying degrees, we are all a bit infected with that disorder.

The fathers had another term for this malady of the human soul, which is a bit more to the point. They called it philautia, meaning really liking oneself a lot. To call it self-love is a bit off, for there is nothing related to the Christian word for love, agape, in the notion. In my book I speak about this issue as follows,

“The tragedy of human philautia is the tragedy of the seed that never becomes a towering fruit-bearing tree, “so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” Instead of growing into an ever-enlarging sphere of love that eventually encompasses all humanity even as Christ’s love embraced all mankind on the Cross, the soul distorted by philautia shrivels up into a pitiful ball of lust, greed, and isolation. All the wonderful potential with which man has been endowed is smothered and distorted by being directed to an unworthy aim, thereby leaving him trapped in the very small, the very stifling, and utterly subjective world of his own body.”

What is the opposite of philautia? A compassionate heart full of love for all creation, a heart that humbly recognizes that it is connected with all of creation, and a mind that cherishes humble thoughts, kind thoughts, and loving thoughts. And above all, a soul that feels good about herself because she knows that she was created in the image and likeness of God, and looking towards God is an infinite source of joy and delight.

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