Should we love ourselves unconditionally?
There is a common idea, pervasive in our culture, that human beings are wicked and corrupt at their core. If that is true, it seems dangerous and foolhardy to love our self unconditionally.
But is it true?
Are We Wicked by Nature?
In Hobbes’ Leviathan, he describes the condition of humanity before they enter into society with rulers and contracts and laws. This is the state of nature, and the state of nature isn’t pretty. Hobbes argues it is “nasty, brutish, and short”. It is the war of all against all. Human beings are equal in their abilities to kill each other, in their desire for more, and in their arrogance that they deserve what they want.
This is how I tend to picture people in Hobbes’ state of nature.
Hobbes Wasn’t the Only One Who Thought This
Hobbes was not the only one who had this pessimistic view of humanity. John Calvin, a theologian contemporary with Hobbes (more or less), argued that Adam and Eve’s original sin so thoroughly corrupted humanity that their nature was entirely depraved. Human beings are rotten through and through.
These ideas are still very common in some political and religious circles today.
So, we internalize such messages of total wickedness and corruption. And we believe that unless we control our self stringently through discipline and punishment, we will just be more wicked and corrupt.
This can make it difficult, if not almost impossible, to believe that we are worthy of love.
Why Loving Our Self is So Hard
We know our bad habits, addictions, and serious character flaws. And we see all the things that are wrong with us. It seems like unconditional love merely excuses our bad behavior and permits it to grow worse.
So, instead of loving our self unconditionally, we scrutinize, criticize, discipline and punish ourselves. This mindset pervades our culture.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that we have developed a society that is pervasive with bureaucracies of discipline and control. As a result, we live in a metaphorical panopticon. We feel that someone is always observing, judging, and critiquing our behavior. And we think people constantly notice our failure to meet societal standards of worthiness.
We have internalized Foucault’s panopticon. So, we walk around with an internal voice continually criticizing our motives and behavior. As such, we continually question our worth as human beings. I will call this way of being in the world, Alienation Mode.
When we live in this mode, we feel alienated from ourselves and do not realize that there is another way to exist.
Are We Good By Nature?
The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi thought there was. He argues that human nature is inherently good:
“There is that in our nature which is spontaneously part of us and can become good. The fact that we can become bad is not a defect in our natural endowment. All men possess a sense of commiseration; [and] all men possess a sense of shame; all men possess a sense of respect; all men possess a sense of right and wrong. The sense of commiseration is the seed of humanity; [and]the sense of shame is the seed of righteousness; the sense of respect is the seed of ritual; the sense of right and wrong is the seed of wisdom.”
Seeds of Goodness
Mengzi points out here that human beings have natural capacities for goodness. These natural capacities are like seeds, and they need to be nurtured to grow. Given the right conditions, these seeds of humanity flourish, much like tree seeds flourish and grow into trees if given the right soil.
Mengzi’s arguments for the seeds of goodness in human nature appeal to intuitions we already possess. We know that human beings tend to do much better when society gives them basic rights and access to education, meaningful relationships, and dignified work. This is the soil that allows the seeds of goodness present in human beings to flourish the best.
What Destroys the Seeds of Goodness?
By contrast, when human beings are deprived of these things, the more likely they are to engage in self-destructive, violent, and socially harmful behavior. This suggests that when we do evil, it is not an expression of our natural state. Rather a defect or deviation from our natural state. (If evilness was our natural state, it seems that most of us would do evil just as much, no matter what circumstances were were in. But we actually tend to thrive and express goodness, generally speaking, the more we are surrounded by kindness, compassion, and respect.)
Mengzi argues this idea with a water metaphor in 6A.2 when he writes, “The good disposition of human nature is like water’s tendency to flow down. There are no men who are not innately good, just as there is no water that does not flow down. Now, by splashing you can make water leap up higher than your forehead, and by churning you can make it flow uphill, but how could this be the nature of water? It is merely the result of force. The fact that men can be made to act badly merely shows that human nature is like this as well.”
How Do We Combat Evil?
This philosophy would suggest that one of the primary ways to combat evil in our self is to nurture our seeds of goodness. We can think of our hearts or spirit or nature as a plant we lovingly tend. (Mengzi’s primary argument is that rulers must nurture the seeds of good in their people. However, in this post I focus on the personal implications, rather than the social implications, of his philosophy.)
Augustine argues similar ideas from a religious (specifically Christian) perspective.
He argues that all of reality, including ourselves, is created by God and therefore good. This original goodness is what is most real about us and can never be lost. But although we are good, like our Creator, we are not perfect (because we are finite and limited). Therefore, we can fall into error and evilness. We can also recover from this error and evilness and return to good. 
Augustine argues that error and evil is not a thing in itself but only a lack (or privation of the good). In fact, he argues, mistakes and evil could actually not exist unless there was an underlying goodness. And of course, for Augustine, this goodness in us is God’s goodness. It is what is most real in us. I think it is helpful to think of this goodness as God’s light in us.
More Thoughts from Augustine
“When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. [And] where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good. As long, then, as a thing is being corrupted, there is good in it of which it is being deprived.”
Augustine argues that in order for us to rediscover or grow this original goodness, we especially need to focus on practicing faith, hope, and love.
That is because faith helps us believe that our original goodness and worth (God’s light in us) is there. And it is there, even when we can’t feel or see it. And hope helps us believe that we can return to that goodness. Lastly, love allows us to cherish the goodness and worth in us.
Love especially is an important virtue to Augustine, and he writes in his love sermon, “To have love and be a bad person is impossible. Love is the unique gift, the fountain that is yours alone. The Spirit of God exhorts you to drink from it, and in so doing to drink from himself…Love and do what you will.”
And this brings us back to the idea of loving ourselves unconditionally.
Is it dangerous to love ourselves unconditionally?
Well, if we are completely wicked and corrupt by nature, it likely is dangerous to love ourselves unconditionally.
But, if Mengzi and Augustine are right, then unconditional love for ourselves is one of the best ideas anyone has ever had.
There are at least two reasons it is a really good idea:
Unconditional love does not excuse bad behavior but rather affirms what is most real and good in us.
It creates the perfect conditions for us overcoming our bad behavior, shortcomings.