Philautia versus Agape

In my last post I shared some thoughts about the patristic notion of philautia and the psychological concept of self-esteem.  In this post, I would like to offer a reflection upon the difference between philautia and agape.  As I described it, philautia is characterized by an obsession with the self.  It is always directed inward and if perchance it finds itself concerned with others on the outside, it is only because of their importance for the preservation of the self’s inner world, the center of all possible universes.  This tends toward a narcissistic myopia that holds up an illusion of self-satisfaction but always ends up in more suffering for the self and those related to that person.

Why doesn’t philautia work? Why is self-esteem so fragile? The answer lies in the fact that we human beings are all created in God’s image and likeness. Fr. John Romanides in one of his university lectures noted, “Although some people certainly refer to man as the image of God, it’s improper to do so. Literally, man is fashioned in the image of God, but he is not the image of God. Although the Bible relates that “in the image of God created He him,” precisely what is meant by this verse was fully revealed only in the Incarnation, because from the very beginning human destiny was to become like Christ, to become god by grace, and to attain the state of being “in the likeness.” A person actively becomes “in the image” when he becomes like Christ in compassion.” In this sense, we can say that being in the image of God means being kenotic or self-empyting, even as Christ was perfectly and fully kenotic and self-emptying, so that He could take on all our infirmities.  On this subject, I quote a passage from Abba Isaiah which should help to confirm this fact, “Philautia is obviously contrary to God’s purpose for humanity.  In a passage of extraordinary beauty, Abba Isaiah writes, ‘Nature did not fashion human beings to be like solitary beasts, but rather like a flock of gregarious animals who share the same pastures, so that each person would live not only for himself, but also for his father and mother, for his siblings, for his spouse, for his children, for his other relatives, for his friends, for his fellow townsmen, for his fellow countrymen, for those living in his part of the world, for all humanity, even for every aspect of all things, for the entire world, and foremost for his God and Maker.’”  This is a sound, practical notion of agape that resonates throughout Holy Scripture and the teachings of the ancient fathers.

In Christ, Our Way and Our Life, Archimandrite Zacharias describes Elder Sophrony’s thoughts on the kenotic aspects of agape thusly, “Such love puts to death any feeling of self-love [meaning philautia] in man, so that God may live in him and be increasingly glorified in him.  Prayer, accompanied by kenotic self-abhorrence, and inflamed with the fire of humble love for Christ, takes place face to Face with the unoriginate God.  During such prayer the state of Christ Himself is conveyed to man.  Man becomes a true and fulfilled hypostasis through the grace of God.  Bearing within himself the Holy Spirit he too can cry out with holy boldness:  ‘Now, my Christ, in Thee and through Thee I too, am.’”

This kenotic self-abhorrence is not ontological but moral in that the one who prays in such a way finds his past life of sin and his distance from God abhorrent.  Much like in the parable of the Prodigal Son, one finally recognizes his woeful state and turns to God in abhorrence of his prodigal state.  In the state of philautia, such recognition is not possible because the goal is the satisfaction of the ego’s cravings and desires for esteem and praise.  In chapter 4 of my book I note, “St. John Chrysostom notices that philautia blindfolds us with blinders that can only be removed by those who are hostile to us.  ‘Under the influence of philautia we do not see our own failings, while those who are hostile to us often see them quite accurately.”   (This is why the God-seeking person who is attempting to cultivate a spirit of genuine humility recognizes the spiritual benefit of receiving criticism even from those who are hostile to him.)

In my book, I also refer to the insights of St. Peter of Damascus in my reflections on philautia, “St. Peter of Damascus observes that concern with pleasing the body eventually ‘entangles us in worldly concerns and in this way leads us to complete unawareness of God’s gifts and of our own faults.”  In like manner, Saint Maximus locates the source of philautia in ignorance of God.

While it is true you have to be good to yourself and love yourself, it’s not because you are special, unique, and the center of all things, nor is it because of any I’m okay you’re okay philosophy, but because you are created “in the image and likeness of God” and your soul find’s its very purpose in a holy love for humanity and a burning love for God that embraces all things. In other words, in place of the false “love” of philautia, the fathers suggest that we try to fill ourselves with Love (Agape) incarnate who is Christ and from His gracious love for us to love others as well.

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