Such is the infatuation of self-love, that, though in the general doctrine of the vanity of the world all men agree, yet almost every one flatters himself that his own case is it to be an exception from the common rule.
If I were to trust to my observation and give a verdict on it, I must depose that, in my experience, I have found that those who were most indulgent to themselves were (in the mass) less kind to others than those who have lived a life nearer to self-denial. I go further.In my experience I have observed that a luxurious softness of manners hardens the heart, at least as much as an over-done abstinence.
If self-denial be the greatest part of godliness, the great letter in the alphabet of religion, self-love is the great letter in the alphabet of practical atheism. Self is the great antichrist and anti-God in the world, that sets up itself above all that is called God; self-love is the captain of that black band (2 Tim. iii. 2): it sits in the temple of God, and would be adored as God. Self-love begins; but denying the power of godliness, which is the same with denying the ruling power of God, ends the list.
The error of Hobbes, and the school of philosophers who maintained that in doing good to others our ultimate end is to do good to ourselves, lay in supposing that there is any antagonism between benevolence and self-love. So long as self-love does not degenerate into selfishness, it is quite compatible with true benevolence.
So in London lately, my acquaintance might happen, or might not happen, to make a slight inquiry about some subject deeply interesting to myself; and if they had happened, by the time that I had constructed the first sentence of reply, the question was forgotten and something else adverted to. So one does ones self in the same case; so every one does: we are interested only about self, or about those who form a part of our self-interest. Beyond all other extravagances of folly is that of expecting or wishing to live in a great number of hearts.
Every man is prompted by the love of himself to imagine that he possesses some qualities, superior, either in kind or degree, to those which he sees allotted to the rest of the world; and, whatever apparent disadvantages he may suffer in the comparison with others, he has some invisible distinctions, some latent reserve of excellence, which he throws into the balance, and by which he generally fancies that it is turned in his favour.
We are blinded in examining our own labours by innumerable prejudices. Our juvenile compositions please us, because they bring to our minds the remembrance of youth; our later performances we are ready to esteem, because we are unwilling to think that we have made no improvement; what flows easily from the pen charms us, because we read with pleasure that which flatters our opinion of our own powers; what was composed with great struggles of the mind we do not easily reject, because we cannot bear that so much labour should be fruitless. But the reader has none of these prepossessions, and wonders that the author is so unlike himself, without considering that the same soil will, with different culture, afford different products.
Thus, we see, every man is the maker of his own fortune; and, what is very odd to consider, he must in some measure be the trumpeter of his own fame; not that men are to be tolerated who directly praise themselves: but they are to be endued with a sort of defensive eloquence, by which they shall be always capable of expressing the rules and arts whereby they govern themselves.
That the principle of self-love (or, in other words, the desire of happiness) is neither an object of approbation nor of blame is sufficiently obvious. It is inseparable from the nature of man as a rational and a sensitive being.
The motives of the best actions will not bear too strict an inquiry. It is allowed that the cause of most actions, good or bad, may be resolved into love of ourselves: but the self-love of some men inclines them to please others; and the self-love of others is wholly employed in pleasing themselves. This makes the great distinction between virtue and vice.
The undue love of self, with the postponing of the interests of all others to our own, had for a long time no word to express it in English. Help was sought from the Greek and from the Latin; Philauty ([Greek]) had been more than once attempted by our scholars, but found no acceptance. This failing, men turned to the Latin; one writer trying to supply the want by calling the man a suist, as one seeking his own things (sua), and the sin itself suicism. The gap, however, was not really filled up till some of the Puritan writers, drawing on our Saxon, devised selfish and selfishness, words which to us seem obvious enough, but which yet are not more than two hundred years old.
In order to be enabled to enjoy all the happiness of which his present state is capable, the sensitive part of man needs to be combined with another, which, upon a comparison of the present with the future, shall impel him towards that mode either of gratification or of self-denial which shall most promote his happiness upon the whole. Such is self-love. We give this name to that part of our constitution by which we are incited to do or to forbear, to gratify or to deny our desires, simply on the ground of obtaining the greatest amount of happiness for ourselves, taking into view a limited future, or else our entire future existence. When we act from simple respect to present gratification, we act from passion. When we act from a respect to our whole individual happiness, without regard to the present, only as it is a part of the whole, and without any regard to the happiness of others, only as it will contribute to our own, we are then said to act from self-love.