L'amour-propre est plus habile que le plus habile homme du monde.
Self-love is more experienced than the most experienced man of the world.
— La Rochefoucauld
L'amour-propre is, if you believe what is said about it, the force which has driven man since his emergence upon the earth. It has raised kingdoms and razed empires. It saw the dawn of civilization and it will see its death.
I here present two accounts of self-love; one by La Rochefoucauld, and one by Blaise Pascal. They are subtly very different, but they both contain unique insight into this rarely-overlooked but oft-underestimated facet of human nature.
In 1665 La Rochefoucauld published his Maximes. In it were many pithy saying about love, art, and human nature. In that small volume was not Maxime number 563. This is a Maxime Supprimé—that is, a suppressed maxim, which was removed before the Maximes were published. Fortunately, what with one thing and another, this maxime was found, for it has a very deep account of l'amour-propre.
L'amour-propre est l'amour de soi-même et de toutes choses pour soi; il rend les hommes idolâtres d'eux-mêmes, et les rendrait les tyran des autres, si la fortune leur en donnait le moyens. Il ne se repose jamais hors de soi, et ne s'arrête dans les sujets étrangers que comme les abeilles sur les fleurs, pour en tirer ce qui lui est propre.
"Self-love is the love of the self and of all things for the self; it makes men idolaters of themselves, and would make them the tyrants of others, if fortune gave them the means. It never rests outside oneself, but only stops in others as bees stop on flowers, to take from them what is proper to it."
This is a very grim account of the nature of self-love, but it is a difficult one to deny. Self-love is the love of the self to the exclusion of all else; it loves the self so much that it would deny all the rest of the world. Indeed, it only rests on external objects long enough to suck from them what it wants or needs.
Rien n'est si impétueux que ses désirs; rien de si cashé que ses desseins, rien se si habile que ses conduites; ses souplesses ne se peuvent représenter, ses transformations passent celles des métamorphoses, et ses raffinements ceux de la chimie.
"Nothing is so impetuous as its desires; nothing so hidden as its intentions; nothing so skillful as its leading; its suppleness cannot be represented, its transformations surpass those of metamorphoses, and its refinements surpass those of chemistry."
Self-love, then, is a terrible and sophisticated creature! Infinitely subtle, endlessly adaptable, it is very old, and very mature. But we have not yet seen what it does.
On ne peut sonder la profondeur, ni percer les ténèbres de ses abîmes: là il est à couvert des yeux les plus pénétrants; il y fait mille insensibles tours et retours; là il est souvent invisible à lui-même; il y conçoit, il y nourrit et il y élève, sans le savoir, un grand nombre d'affections et de haines; il en forme de si monstrueuses que, lorsqu'il les a mises au jour, il les méconnaît, ou il ne peut se résoudre à les avouer.
"One cannot sound its depths, nor pierce the darkness of its abyss: there it is covered from the most penetrating eyes; it makes there a thousand twists and turns; there it is often invisible to itself; it there concieves, there nourishes, and there raises, without knowledge, a grand number of affections and hatreds; of those it forms some so monsterous that, when shown them at day, it ignores them, and cannot be made to acknowledge them."
Finally we come to the heart of the maxime. Self-love delves within us, and lives in a place even we cannot see. From there it breeds a host of "affections and hatreds" which we abhor to call our own. But what is interesting about La Rochefoucauld's self-love is that they are not our own; they are our self-love's, which itself does not seem properly to be a part of us. A sin, according to Christian doctrine, is not the sinner. It is divorced from the sinner, and apart from him. La Rochefoucauld's self-love is distinct from the subject, but not the way Christian sin is from the sinner. Self-love is divorced internally. This passion is a part of us; we give it life and nurture it, whether we mean to or not. Its will is really our will, only we have hidden it from ourselves, perhaps through the action of another affect. Humility? Our soul is then a battlefield, where all the passions and affects meet, rank, and draw; and like the cavalry and the archers at Agincourt, the affects lead a magnificent charge, only to be slaughtered by the passions.
In addition, there is the striking image of the birth, nurture, and release of the affections and hatreds that are so terrible that we shudder at them and refuse to own them. This must call to mind the scene from Milton's Paradise Lost:
Pensive here I sat
Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throws.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape and thus grew
Transform'd: but he my inbred enemie
Forth issu'd, brandishing his fatal Dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cry'd out Death;
Hell trembl'd at the hideous Name, and sigh'd
From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.
I fled, but he pursu'd (though more, it seems,
Inflam'd with lust then rage) and swifter far,
Mee overtook his mother all dismaid,
And in embraces forcible and foul
Ingendring with me, of that rape begot
These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry
Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv'd
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth
Afresh with conscious terrours vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.
Are we like Sin? Are the Hounds which torment her the very same that are bred in our own personal Hells? Her torment is strikingly like that which La Rochefoucauld is describing. He goes on to relate how, from the night which covers self-love, it schemes and plots, and deadens all tastes, until it entirely rules. "It finds all its pleasure in what is most insipid, and preserves all its pride in what is most contemptible."
Pascal — Pensée 978
La nature de l'amour-propre et de ce 'moi' humain est de n'aimer que soi et de ne considérer que soi. Mais que fera-t-il? Il ne saurait empêcher que cet objet qu'il aime ne soit plein de défauts et de misères: il veut être grand, et il se voit petit; il veut être heureux, et il se voit misérable; il veut être parfait, et il se voit plein d'imperfections; il veut être l'objet de l'amour et de l'estime des hommes, et il voit que ses défauts ne méritent que leur aversion et leur mépris.
"The nature of self-love and the human 'me' is to love only the self and to consider nothing but the self. But what will it do? It cannot keep the object of its love from being full of defects and miseries: it wishes to be great, and it sees itself small; it wishes to be happy, and it sees itself miserable; it wishes be perfect, and it sees itself full of imperfections; it wishes to be the object of love and of the esteme of men, and it sees that its faults merit nothing but their aversion and their contempt."
Cet embarras où il se trouve produit en lui la plus injuste et la plus criminelle passion qu'il soit possible de s'imaginer; car il conçoit une haine mortelle contre cette vérité qui le reprend, et qui le convainc de ses défauts. Il désirerait de l'anéantir, et, ne pouvant la détruire en elle-même, il la détruit, autant qu'il peut, dans sa connaissance et dans celle des autres; c'est-à-dire qu'il met tout son soin à couvrir ses défauts et aux autres et à soi-même, et qu'il ne peut souffrir qu'on les lui fasse voir, ni qu'on les voie.
"This embarassment in which it finds itself produces in it the most unjust and most criminal passion which is possible to imagine; because it concieves a mortal hatred against this truth which reprimands it, and which convinces it of its faults. It desires to destroy it, and, being unable to destroy it it itself, it destroys it, as much as it is able, in its knowledge and in that of others; that is to say that it puts forth all its care to cover itsdefects both from others and from itself, and that it cannot suffer one to show them to him, nor that they be seen."
For Pascal, as for La Rochefoucauld, self-love is an agent that acts for its own interests. But there is a qualitative difference, which is that Pascal's self-love is not in the unfathomable depths of the heart, but in the imagination and the mind. There it acts to distort the truth, as much as it is able. The Duke's self-love breeds innumerable passions of which we are ashamed; Pascal's self-love is ashamed of the passions we have.
It is interesting that self-love's most signifying feature is that it hates the truth. It needs to see itself good, right, and noble, and it can in no way make itself these things, so it hides from the truth. That love can't be these good things comes from Pascal's religious beliefs, which he held deeply, and which state that man is inherently wretched. A bleak proposition, maybe, but from all accounts one denyable only by those "new theologians" known to Chesterton:
If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new thologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.
—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Pascal doesn't account for why
man is horrible, but he explains, using l'amour-propre, how man deals with this state. Essentially, man denies it. Not only do we deny it, but we cannot bear to be faced with the truth which we have thrust aside. When we are faced with what we truly are, we become defensive, angry, and unruly, when in fact we have been done a service, by having our faults shown to us. We hate that people know us for who we really are, when in fact they should know us.
En voici une preuve qui me fait horreur. La religion catholique n'oblige pas à découvrir ses péchés indifféremment à tout le monde; elle souffre qu'on demeure caché à tous les autres hommes; mais elle en excepte un seul, à qui elle commande de découvrir le fond de son coeur, et de se faire voir tel qu'on est. Il n'y a que ce seul homme au monde qu'elle nous ordonne de désabuser, et elle l'oblige à un secret inviolable, qui fait que cette connaissance est dans lui comme si elle n'y était pas. Peut-on s'imaginer rien de plus charitable et de plus doux? Et néanmoins la corruption de l'homme est telle qu'il trouve encore de la dureté dans cette loi; et c'est une des principales raisons qui a fait révolter contre l'Église une grand partie de l'Europe.
Que le coeur de l'homme est injuste et déraisonnable, pour trouver mauvais qu'on oblige de faire à l'égard d'un homme ce qu'il serait juste, en quelque sorte, qu'il fît à l'égard de tous les hommes! Car est-il juste que nous les trompions?
"Here is a proof of this which fills me with horror. The Catholic religion does not oblige one to uncover his sins indifferently to all the world; she suffers one to remain hidden with all other men; but she makes a single exception, to whom she commands one to reveal the bottom of ones heart, and to show oneself such as one is. It is only this one man in the world that she orders us to do this to, and she commands of him an unbreakable secrecy, which makes it that this knowledge is in him as if it were not there. Can one imagine anything more charitable, or more sweet? And nevertheless the corruption of man is such that it still finds hardness in this law; and this is one of the principal reasons for the revolt against the Church of a great part of Europe.
"How the heart of man is unjust and unreasonable, to find bad that one obliges it to do with regard to a man what it would be right, to some extent, to do with regard to all men! For is it right that we should mislead them?"
The implication is that, no, stupid, it's not right. We are angry when others mislead us, and thus we should not mislead them. But, as he has shown, men cannot live that way. They cannot even bear to shrive their souls to one man, least of all to all the world.
In the end, this rejection of truth, this love of deception, is our undoing. We allow others to flatter and to control us because we cannot stand what we are, and we love to be told that we are better than we are.
Each view of l'amour-propre is its own, and complete, but each also has the ability to compliment the other. La Rochefoucauld tells us how l'amour-propre acts: its hunger, its passion, and its blindness. "It is similar to our eyes, that uncover all, and are blind only to themselves." Pascal tells us how we act in the influence of it: we are ashamed, and hate what we are, but needing to love what we are, we can only hate that we are what we are. We then become enemies of truth, and would kill if we were able.
L'amour-propre is one of the darker caverns of the human heart. It is, in fact, the darkest cavern, remote in the depths of the soul, whence arise all the evil passions and jealousies.