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In defence of Narcissus

Mark Vernon

Religion commonly speaks of putting others first, yet developmental psychology holds that we cannot truly love others until we love ourselves. Mark Vernon wonders if both may be valid.


The problem with such a profound truth as 'God is love' is that it can come to mean everything and, in the next breath, almost nothing. Compassion is the fruit that bears witness to roots embedded in the life of the divine. Yes. Of course. And yet, such a central spiritual insight risks becoming bland and vacuous in a thousand easy confessions.

The ancient Greeks seemed to have recognised the difficulty. There is a story that when Eros was born, he failed to mature and grow up. His wings stayed limp; his flesh soft and chubby. His mother, Aphrodite, became quite worried and was advised to have another child, this time by Ares, the god of war. Anteros was born, a brother for Eros. The two did not have an easy life together. They fought as siblings do. But Aphrodite noticed that when they were together, Eros became strong. When they were apart, he regressed. Anteros means 'equal to Eros'. He introduced grit into the life of Eros that helped ground and root love.1

So the challenge is to add weight and complexity to our conceptions of love and I wonder if insights from developmental psychology can help. The subject has progressed substantially in recent years. It might introduce us to dynamics inherent in love that, while not easy, are enriching if we struggle with them and so help to keep the idea of love alive. Here is one suggestion. It has to do with the tricky notion of self-love or narcissism.


One of the striking images that Sigmund Freud injected into the zeitgeist is that of the newborn baby as a tyrant. The neonate is helpless, soft to touch, open to love too. But also supremely demanding. Freud's phrase was, 'His Majesty the Baby'. The very young child treats its parents as service providers to meet the needs it has to survive. It is as if the baby loves itself first, a condition that Freud termed primary narcissism.2 It has to. The child who doesn't scream is the child who dies.

Such is our first love, and, mostly, parents love their offspring for it. They reorientate their lives so as to be ruled by their child. Lots of evidence highlights how much young children need that devotion. It is not just that their demands for physical sustenance must be met. Their psychological wellbeing rests on being emotionally held and attuned to in their parent's ardent gaze and spontaneous attention as well. It is known as attachment theory in the literature.


These early experiences are not remembered explicitly. Instead, they are implicitly laid down as feelings in the body. It probably explains why we look like our parents in our gestures as much as in our physical appearance. I notice that I play with my hands like my mother used to. Or that my brother smiles like my father does. Or again, that my sister's voice inflects in exactly the same way that my mother's used to when she spoke to kids. If all goes well enough, the young child learns to feel comfortable in its own skin; to gain a sense of who he or she is that is grounded in the body. Primary narcissism is fundamental to psychological health. Pathological narcissism is what happens in adulthood as a result of the child's need for self-love having been undermined, abused, ignored.

And yet self-love carries almost only negative associations in religious parlance. This is the gritty love that enables you to love yourself enough to get over yourself. As Iris Murdoch put it, 'Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.'3 A certain kind of narcissism resources us for that realisation, which includes the realisation that there is a God who is other than oneself and real. An infant must know that it is loved because, only then, can it trust the risky business of coming to acknowledge and love others. Adults need it so they have a self to offer in the service of others, and so that they can offer their service freely and joyfully, not out of guilt or moral compulsion.


The US psychotherapist, Thomas Moore, has noticed that problems with understanding the positive value of narcissism often underlie issues that he sees in the consulting room. In his book, Care of the Soul, he writes: 'Many people seem to have difficulty distinguishing [pathological] narcissism from a proper and necessary love of self. Therefore, the person confused about being too hungry for praise holds back from the pleasure of achievement ... False humility denies the ego the attention it craves, but the denial itself is narcissistic, since it is a negative focus on ego rather than on the pleasurable possibilities of life.'4

I wonder further whether a re-evaluation of self-love has cultural implications too. In a recent book, Love: A history, the philosopher Simon May argues that we have become confused about love because we have become confused about God's love.5 The modern world has remarkably high ideals of love, particularly in the realm of romantic love. The notion that there is someone out there who will heal your life, make you whole, satisfy your longings is extraordinarily powerful. Moreover, if you look at the way dating websites operate, they encourage users to conjure up the image of a perfect partner, as well as encouraging users to present a tidied up image of themselves. The business of finding a lover has become an exercise in troubled narcissism.


Notice something else about this romantic myth. There is someone out there who will heal us, make us whole, satisfy our longings. These are attributes traditionally ascribed to God. What Simon May believes is that the modern world has given up on God, becoming 'functionally atheistic', though it has not given up on the hopes that were once placed in the divine. The romance industry, which invests billions building websites and flying roses across continents, is one tangible product.

This romantic humanism turns people into virtual gods, because of the high hopes for personal salvation that it places in them. To use the language of psychotherapy, the cult of the individual readily idealizes others. The trouble is that idealization quickly turns into denigration because real individuals don't live up to the ideals. It is as if we are forgetting how to love others warts and all; forgetting how to find flaws loveable.


I wonder whether this dynamic, founded upon a hope that should really only be placed in God, lies behind the collapse of trust in other parts of contemporary life too. Take political leaders. They too resist admitting faults, knowing we don't vote for those who admit faults. Of course, they fail us. And trust declines.

It sets up a see-saw-like effect, a culture in which it is very difficult to accept others. It cultivates an ideal of love without the realism of grit and struggle. You see it in language too. Take the word 'altruism', describing the ethical ideal (supposedly) in which all egoism is eradicated in concern for others. I found it surprising to learn that the word is only a hundred years old, having been invented in the 19th century by Auguste Comte.6 He was a man who had such high ideals for what human beings could attain that he invented a 'Religion of Humanity', in which human qualities were worshipped as if divine. It was as if he needed to drive a binary opposition between altruism and egoism, rubbing out the wisdom of millennia which knows that self-love and other-concern are actually intimately entwined.


So, in his discussion of friendship, Aristotle makes the point that the person who is a good friend of others is, first, capable of liking themselves.7 Alternatively, there is the commandment that links love of neighbour with love of self. It is partly saying, put others first as you are inclined to put yourself first. But it can also be read as encouraging the kind of self-care that resources you to love others.

The basic point is this. Narcissism becomes a problem not because individuals love themselves, but when they can't love themselves. The grandiosity of the troubled narcissist arises from being unable to tolerate that they are flawed, vulnerable and needy. Similarly, our culture might be understood as narcissistic because we struggle to see humanity as it is: not divine, not perfect.

And perhaps this is a Christian issue too. Preachers routinely peddle idealised notions of love in high-minded calls for kenosis. We are commanded to die to ourselves, sacrifice for others, put ourselves last without much thought really given to what that entails - that, paradoxically, you need to know yourself valued to offer yourself freely.

I suspect that resisting the awkward complexities of human love explains why such profound truths as 'God is love' become so bland and vacuous. Love is rendered unreal in a thousand easy confessions. The psychology of human love may help make it more difficult and grounded.



1  Stephenson, Craig E., Anteros: A forgotten myth (Routledge, 2012)

2  Freud, S. On Narcissism: An introduction (Standard Works, 1914)

3  Murdoch, Iris, 'The Sublime and the Good' in Existentialists and Mystics (Penguin, 1999), p.203

4  Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul (HarperCollins, 1992), p.72

5  May, Simon, Love: A history (Yale University Press, 2011)

6  Dixon, Thomas, The Invention of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2008)

7  Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, IX.8, 1168a29 ff