Self-love and Selfishness

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

from Emile,

or On Education


In Emile, or on Education, Rousseau discusses his educational principles by applying them to an imaginary pupil, Emile, from his birth to his marriage. In the following selection, taken from Book IV of the Emile, Rousseau describes the development of the passions during adolescence, and reflects on the passions more generally.

Our passions are the chief means of our self-preservation. To try to destroy them is therefore as absurd as it is useless. This would be to control nature, to reshape the work of God. If God were to tell human beings to annihilate the passions He gives them, God would will, and not will. He would contradict Himself. He has never given such a senseless commandment. There is nothing like it written in the human heart. And what God will have a man do, He does not leave to the words of another man. He speaks Himself; His words are written in the depths of the heart.

Now I consider those who would prevent the birth of the passions almost as foolish as those who would destroy them, and those who think this has been my object up to now are greatly mistaken.

But should we reason correctly if from the fact that passions are natural to humanity, we inferred that all the passions we feel in ourselves and see in others are natural? Their source, indeed, is natural; but they have been swollen by a thousand alien streams; they are a great river which is constantly growing, one in which we can scarcely find a single drop of the original stream. Our natural passions are very limited; they are the means to our freedom, they tend to preserve us. All those which enslave and destroy us have another source; nature does not give them to us; we appropriate on them to her detriment.

The origin of our passions, the root and spring of all the rest, the only one which is born with man, which never leaves him as long as he lives, is self-love (amour de soi); this passion is primitive, innate, and precedes all the rest, which are in a sense only modifications of it. In this sense, if you like, they are all natural. But most of these modifications are the result of external causes, without which they would never occur, and such modifications, far from being advantageous to us, are harmful. They change the original purpose and are at odds with their own principle. Then it is that the human being finds himself outside nature and at strife with himself.

Self-love is always good, always in accordance with the order of nature. The preservation of our own life is specially entrusted to each one of us, and our first care is, and must be, to watch over our own life. But how can we continually watch over it, if we do not take the greatest interest in it?

Self-preservation requires, therefore, that we shall love ourselves. And it follows directly from this that we love what contributes to our preservation. Every child becomes fond of his nurse; Romulus must have loved the she-wolf that suckled him. At first this attachment is quite mechanical; the individual is attracted to that which contributes to his welfare and repelled by that which is harmful; this is merely blind instinct. What transforms this instinct into feeling, the attachment into love, the aversion into hatred, is the evident intention of helping or hurting us. We do not become passionately attached to objects that are without feeling, that only follow the impulsion given them, but to those from which we expect benefit or injury from their internal disposition, from their will, to those whom we see acting freely for or against us, and who inspire us with like feelings to those they exhibit towards us. Something does us good, we seek after it; but we love the person who does us good. Something harms us and we shrink from it, but we hate the person who tries to hurt us.

The child's first sentiment is self-love, his second, which is derived from it, is love of those about him; for in his present state of weakness he is only aware of people through the help and attention received from them. At first his affection for his nurse and his governess is mere habit. He seeks them because he needs them and because he is happy when they are there; it is recognition rather than benevolence. It takes a long time to discover not merely that they are useful to him, but that they desire to be useful to him, and then it is that he begins to love them.

So a child is naturally disposed to benevolence because he sees that every one about him is inclined to help him, and from this experience he gets the habit of benevolence towards his species. With the expansion of his relations, his needs, his dependence, however, the consciousness of his relations to others is awakened, and leads to the sense of duties and preferences. Then the child becomes masterful, jealous, deceitful, and vindictive. When he does not see the usefulness of what he is told to do, he attributes it to caprice, to an intention of tormenting him, and he rebels. If people give in to him, as soon as anything opposes him he regards it as rebellion, as a determination to resist him; he beats the chair or table for disobeying him. Self-love (amour de soi), which concerns itself only with ourselves, is content to satisfy our true needs; but selfishness (amour-propre), which is always comparing self with others, is never satisfied and never can be; for this feeling, which prefers ourselves to others, requires that they should prefer us to themselves, which is impossible. Thus the tender and gentle passions spring from self-love, while the hateful and angry passions spring from selfishness. So it is the fewness of his needs, the narrow limits within which he can compare himself with others, that makes a man really good; what makes him really bad is a multiplicity of needs and dependence on the opinions of others. It is easy to see how we can apply this principle and guide every passion of children and men towards good or evil. True, human beings cannot always live alone, and it will be hard for them therefore to remain good; and this difficulty will increase of necessity as our relations with others are extended. For this reason, above all, the dangers of social life make art and care all the more necessary for guarding the human heart against the depravity which springs from new needs.

The proper study of a human being is that of his relations. So long as he knows only himself in his physical being, he should study himself in relation to things; this is the business of childhood. When he begins to be aware of his moral nature, he should study himself in relation to his fellows. This is the business of his whole life, and we have now reached the time when that study should begin.

As soon as one needs a companion he is no longer an isolated creature, his heart is no longer alone. All his relations with his species, all the affections of his heart, come into being along with this. His first passion soon arouses the rest.

The direction of the instinct is indeterminate. One sex is attracted by the other; that is the impulse of nature. Choice, preferences, individual likings, are the work of reason, prejudice, and habit; time and knowledge are required to make us capable of love; we do not love without reasoning or prefer without comparison. These judgments are none the less real, although they are formed unconsciously. True love, whatever you may say, will always be held in honor by humanity; for although its transports lead us astray, although it does not exclude certain detestable qualities, although it even gives rise to these, yet it always presupposes certain worthy characteristics, without which we should be incapable of love. This choice, which is supposed to be contrary to reason, really springs from reason. We say Love is blind because his eyes are better than ours, and he perceives relations which we cannot discern. All women would be alike to a man who had no idea of virtue or beauty, and the first comer would always be the most lovable. Love does not spring from nature, far from it; it is the curb and law of her desires; it is love that makes one sex indifferent to the other, the loved one alone excepted.

We wish to obtain the preference we grant; love must be reciprocal. To be loved we must be worthy of love; to be preferred we must make ourselves lovable. To be preferred we must be more worthy than the rest, at least in the eyes of our beloved. Hence we begin to look around among our fellows; we begin to compare ourselves with them, and there is emulation, rivalry, and jealousy. A heart full to overflowing likes to open itself. From the need of a mistress there soon springs the need of a friend. He who feels how sweet it is to be loved, desires to be loved by everybody; hence there could be no preferences without there being many malcontents. With love and friendship there begin dissensions, enmity, and hatred. I behold deference to other people's opinions enthroned among all these diverse passions, and foolish mortals, enslaved by her power, base their very existence merely on what other people think.

Extend these ideas and you will see where our selfishness (amour-propre) gets the form we think natural to it, and how self-love (amour de soi) ceases to be a simple feeling and becomes pride in great souls, vanity in little ones, and in both feeds continually at our neighbor's cost. Passions of this kind, not having any germ in the child's heart, cannot spring up in it of themselves. It is we who sow the seeds, and they never take root unless by our fault. This is no longer the case with the young man. Whatever we do, these passions will be born in spite of us. . . .

Human weakness makes us sociable. Our common sufferings draw our hearts to our fellow-creatures; we should have no duties to humanity if we were not human beings. Every affection is a sign of insufficiency; if each of us had no need of others, we should hardly think of associating with them. So our frail happiness has its roots in our weakness. A really happy being is a solitary being. God only enjoys absolute happiness, but which of us has any idea what that means? If any imperfect creature were self-sufficing, what would he have to enjoy? To our thinking he would be wretched and alone. I do not understand how one who has need of nothing could love anything, nor do I understand how he who loves nothing can be happy.

Hence it follows that we are drawn towards our fellow-creatures less by our feeling for their joys than for their sorrows; for in them we discern more plainly a nature like our own, and a pledge of their affection for us. If our common needs create a bond of interest, our common sufferings create a bond of affection. The sight of a happy person arouses in others envy rather than love. We are ready to accuse him of usurping a right which is not his in giving himself an exclusive happiness, and our selfishness suffers an additional pang in the thought that this person has no need of us. But who does not pity the unhappy person when he beholds his sufferings? Who would not deliver him from his woes if a wish could do it? Imagination puts us more readily in the place of the miserable man than of the happy one. We feel that the one condition touches us more nearly than the other. Pity is sweet, because, when we put ourselves in the place of one who suffers, we are aware, nevertheless, of the pleasure of not suffering like him. Envy is bitter, because the sight of a happy person, far from putting the envious in his place, inspires him with regret that he is not there. The one seems to exempt us from the pains he suffers, the other seems to deprive us of the good things he enjoys.

Do you desire to stimulate and nourish the first stirrings of awakening sensibility in the heart of a young man, do you desire to incline his disposition towards benevolence and goodness? Do not cause the seeds of pride, vanity, and envy to spring up in him through the deceptive image of the happiness of humanity; do not show him to begin with the pomp of courts, the splendor of palaces, the appeal of the theater; do not take him into high society and into brilliant assemblies; do not show him the exterior of society until you have made him capable of estimating it at its true worth. To show him the world before he is acquainted with humanity, is not to train him, but to corrupt him; not to teach, but to deceive.

By nature human beings are neither kings, nobles, courtiers, nor millionaires. All are born poor and naked, all are liable to the sorrows of life, its disappointments, its ills, its needs, its suffering of every kind; and all are condemned to die. This is what it really means to be a human being, this is what no mortal can escape. Begin then with the study of what is inseparable from human nature, that which really characterizes humanity.

At sixteen the adolescent knows what it is to suffer, for he himself has suffered; but he scarcely realizes that others suffer too. To see it without feeling is not to know it. And as I have said again and again the child who does not imagine the feelings of others knows no ills but his own; but when his imagination is kindled by the first beginnings of growing sensibility, he begins to perceive himself in his fellow-creatures, to be touched by their cries, to suffer in their sufferings. It is at this time that the sorrowful picture of suffering humanity should stir his heart with the first tenderness he has ever experienced.. . .

So pity is born, the first relative sentiment which touches the human heart according to the order of nature. To become sensitive and pitying, the child must know that he has fellow-creatures who suffer as he has suffered, who feel the pains he has felt, and others which he can form some idea of, as capable of feeling them too. Indeed, how can we let ourselves be stirred by pity unless we go beyond ourselves, and identify ourselves with the suffering animal, by leaving, so to speak, our own being and taking his. We only suffer so far as we suppose he suffers; the suffering is not ours but his. So no one becomes sensitive until his imagination is aroused and begins to carry him outside himself.

What should we do to excite and nourish this growing sensibility, to direct it, and to follow its natural bent? Should we not present to the young man objects on which the expansive force of his heart may take effect, objects which swell his heart, which extend it to other creatures, which make him find it everywhere outside itself? should we not carefully remove everything that narrows, concentrates, and strengthens the power of the human self? that is to say, in other words, we should arouse in him kindness, goodness, pity, and beneficence, all the gentle and attractive passions which are naturally pleasing to humanity. Those passions prevent the growth of envy, covetousness, hatred, all the repulsive and cruel passions which make our sensibility not merely a cipher but a negative, passions which are the torment of those who experience them.

Rousseau Questions

Guide to unit 2

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