St Maximus the Confessor, blog 3, Discussing Problem of Self Love

In his day, St Maximus faced problems of definition when describing the Trinity and the Incarnation.  Today we have a different problem.  Rather than letting the Scriptures or the Church Fathers define key spiritual words such as love, we understand concepts like love using definitions formulated by psychologists.  Sadly, we do not even realize when there is discordance between them.

Blog 1 of this series:
Blog 2 of this series:

In the writings of St Maximus self-love and perfect love are polar opposites, and self-love is the mother of all passions and vices.  Thunberg points out that this concept of self-love is not original to St Maximus, although he expands it.  St Maximus draws heavily on Evagrius’ concept of self-love.  Also and Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, Ephrem of Syria, and Clement of Alexandria all write about the dangers of self-love, as does Philo and perhaps Plato.

Interestingly, St Augustine differs.  Thunberg speculates that St Maximus may have been acquainted with St Augustine since he spent many years in Carthage then Rome.  Thunberg actually found a quote or two from writings of St Maximus that concur with the Augustinian concept of true self-love.[1]  In St Augustine’s work on Christian Doctrine, referenced by Thunberg, the command love your neighbor as yourself implies that you are to love yourself, and that nobody needs a command to love yourself, we all do it quite naturally.  Augustine does not discuss self-love as thoroughly as St Maximus.  St Augustine does say if someone does not Love God he does not truly love himself.  And St Augustine repeats the eastern fathers when they say that not only should you love your enemies, you should love all men equally.[2]  Did the Western Church follow the Augustinian definition of self-love, or that of the Eastern Church Fathers?  This is an investigation for another time, but Dr. Wikipedia informs us that St Thomas Aquinas says that self-love is akin to the capital vice of pride, which is similar to the Eastern patristic definition.[3]

The modern definition of self-love is similar to St Augustine’s definition, but it goes much further.

Often I hear in support retreats that before you love someone else you MUST love yourself.  Self-love is not seen as bad, but is instead very necessary and very good.  Usually this is seen in the context of an enabling family where the dutiful daughter tries to keep her alcoholic parent happy, while she is constantly being told she is no good and won’t amount to nothing.  So in this situation she is told she needs to love herself, which really means that she needs assurance that she has self-worth and is not in any way to blame for her horrible situation.

Where did this definition of self-love come from?  Probably from a popular book by Erich Fromm, a second generation classical psychologist who was a Talmudic scholar before he gave up religion at age twenty-six and became a psychologist.

Fromm uses his Talmudic tools to build an impressive system, of which we will provide only a brief and incomplete synopsis.  In Fromm’s system, love has four aspects: care, respect, responsibility and knowledge.  (Scott Peck, another popular psychologist, also uses this definition when talking about self-love.[4])  Love is giving rather than receiving.  If you have the capacity to love, you cannot help loving your brothers, including strangers.  Selfishness and self-love are opposites.  Selfish people cannot love other and they cannot love themselves.  As is typical for psychologists of his day, the primary example of someone who does not love themselves is the over-solicitous mother who wants her children to be forever dependent on her, and makes them feel guilty by telling them how much she loves them.[5]

Since under Fromm’s definition of love self-love is desirable, his aspects of love, which are care, respect, responsibility and knowledge, can be applied to yourself and to other people.  In contrast, the Pauline definition of love, the aspects of love are either explicitly moral characteristics or can only apply to love of our neighbor.  The Pauline aspects of love are, love is long-suffering, patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful, love is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.[6]

The spiritual danger of this modern concept that self-love is necessary BEFORE you can love anyone is that people rarely understand the meaning of the concept.  Furthermore, most people who hear about self-love have no idea who Erich Fromm is and will never read his book.  Furthermore, these seminars rarely tell them that self-love is the opposite of selfishness.  To the contrary, many people will interpret this linguistically, that since self-love is okay, not only is it perfectly acceptable to be selfish from time to time, but selfishness is necessary for healing, happiness, and feeling better.

That does not mean that Fromm’s thoughts have no value.  On the contrary, his book would be very profitable for any Christian to read.  They are based on his clinical experience where he has helped many people live a better life.  He references many Old Testament stories and precepts when he explains his concepts of care, respect, responsibility and knowledge.  However, his choice of terminology is most unfortunate.


What is love?  Love is long-suffering and kind.  St Maximus teaches us that since love is long-suffering and kind, love destroys conceit because it is not puffed up, love destroys envy from within because it is not jealous, and love destroys envy from without because it is long suffering and kind.[7]  Since love is long-suffering and kind, when our neighbor behaves wickedly towards us our love for him should be fast and not faint hearted.[8]

St Maximus teaches us that love is a holy state of the soul, valuing knowledge of God above all created things.[9]  We should be like God, who is dispassionate and who loves all.  As we should forgive everyone, so we should also love everyone equally.[10]  God loves men, the work of His hands, equally, although He glorifies the virtuous man who seeks to be like God and lead a godly life.  The virtuous man seeking deification, like God, loves those men who are fellow seekers of God, but he also loves the sinner, pitying him for foolishly stumbling in darkness,[11] never thinking ill of anyone, bearing reproaches and insults nobly,[12] fasting, keeping vigils, praying and singing psalms, always thinking good of everyone.[13] If we truly love our neighbor, we will feel not bitterness or resentment against him no matter what he does.[14]  So chant the writings of St Maximus, he so often links fasting and worship of God to how we think about and treat our neighbor, to St Maximus deification, seeking God, is forgiving others, loving our fellow man, as God has loved us.

Indeed, St Maximus teaches us that perfect love is attained when we imitate God by loving everyone equally, wishing that all men be saved, a love that is free from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor, love that goes the extra mile, turns the other cheek, returns evil for good.[15]  Perfect love is indifferent to fame and dishonor, riches and poverty, pleasure and distress,[16] and this indifference to things of this world keeps anger at bay.[17]  Perfect love does not distinguish between Christian and heathen, free or slave, male or female, those who love with perfect love looks on everyone the same.[18]

St Maximus teaches that the degrees of love, from the perfect to the base, are first perfect love, then love of family, then a lower form is to love those who benefit you, and the basest form is the love (or lust) that satisfies your passions.[19]

How does St Maximus define self-love?  Self-love is mother of all passions, self-love is the attachment to the body.  Love and self-control is the opposite of self-love.[20]   Self-love, the mindless love of the body, is the mother of all vices, mainly gluttony, avarice and self-esteem.  Rid yourself of self-love and self-indulgence, you rid yourself of these other vices also.[21]

Just us that as self-love is rooted in selfishness, so is self-esteem rooted in selfishness.  St Maximus teaches us that self-esteem and avarice feed on each other, those who are full of self-esteem accumulate riches, and those who are reach are full of self-esteem.[22]  Worldly self-esteem is being puffed up about your wealth, beauty, power and moral achievement.  Monastic self-esteem is being puffed up about your own achievements, not crediting them to God, and holding others in contempt.[23]

From gluttony, the thought of unchastity, from avarice, comes the thought of greed; from self-esteem comes the thought of pride.  These lead to thoughts of all other vices, including anger, resentment, envy, these passions drag down the intellect like a massive stone.[24]  Unchastity and self-esteem together put to death the Logos of virtue and spiritual knowledge.[25]

To struggle free from self-esteem, inner practice of the virtues by more frequent prayer, you know you have banished self-esteem when you are no longer bitter against someone who abuses you.[26]

How can we fight self-esteem?  St Maximus teaches us that when you overcome a gross passion, gluttony, unchastity, anger, greed, you are assailed by self-esteem, and once you are rid of that, you are assailed by pride.  “Self-esteem is eradicated by the hidden practice of the virtues, pride, by ascribing our achievements to God.”[27]

How are we to be saved?  We are saved by Christ descending to take flesh in the Incarnation, so we can ascend with God’s grace and the practice of the virtues in deification.  St Maximus teaches us the steps of divinization: he who believes fears, he who fears is made humble, and his humility leads to gentleness.  He who is gentle obeys the commandments, through obedience he is purified, through his purification he is illumined, finally becoming a “consort of the divine Bridegroom and Logos in the shrine of mysteries.”[28]

We should never forget that our Love of God is as intertwined with our love of our neighbor just as the Trinity and the Incarnation is intertwined with man and the Creation.  St Maximus teaches us that “Love for God always aspires to give wing to the intellect in it communion with God; love for one’s neighbor makes one always think good thoughts about him.”[29]


[1] Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator, The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1995), 233-239.

[2] St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 2, translated by Rev Professor JF Shaw (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), originally published 1887, 528-530, book 1, chapters 23-29.


[4] Scott Peck, “Further Along the Road Less Travelled” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 88.

[5] Erich Fromm, “Art of Loving” (New York: Open Road Media, 1956), Kindle edition, no page numbers.

[6] 1 Corinthians 13:4-6, RSV.

[7] St Maximus, “Fourth Century on Love (Charity),” in the Philokalia, The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 2, translated and edited by GEH Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 107, paragraph 61.

[8] St Maximus, “Fourth Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 102, paragraph 18.

[9] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 53, paragraph 1.

[10] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 54, paragraph 17.

[11] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 55, paragraph 25.

[12] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 55, paragraph 28.

[13] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 57, paragraph 42.

[14] St Maximus, “Second Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 85, paragraph 15.

[15] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 59, paragraphs 61-62.

[16] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 61, paragraph 72.

[17] St Maximus, “First Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 61, paragraph 75-76.

[18] St Maximus, “Second Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 70, paragraph 30.

[19] St Maximus, “Second Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 66, paragraph 11 ???.

[20] St Maximus, “Second Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 66, paragraph 10 and “Third Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 84, paragraph 3.

[21] St Maximus, “Second Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 75, paragraph 59.

[22] St Maximus, “Third Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 96, paragraphs 83.

[23] St Maximus, “Third Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 96, paragraphs 84.

[24] St Maximus, “Third Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 92, paragraph 56.

[25] St Maximus, “First Century on Theology,” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 128, paragraphs 72.

[26] St Maximus, “Fourth Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 105, paragraph 43.

[27] St Maximus, “Third Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 93, paragraph 62.

[28] St Maximus, “First Century on Theology,” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 117, paragraphs 15-16.

[29] St Maximus, “Fourth Century on Love (Charity),” The Philokalia, vol. 2, 105, paragraph 40.

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.