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The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism*

Paul Zweig


The Chandogya Upanishad tells how Virochana and Indra came one day to Prajapati in order to question him about the true nature of the Brahma. Prajapati welcomed his divine disciples; but instead of answering their demand, he gave them a set of false instructions. He told them to put on their finest robes and then to look at themselves in a mirror: the image they saw there, be said, would represent the highest Brahma. Satisfied with their new knowledge, the two gods left Prajapati, though later Indra returned, unable to believe that nothing higher could be found than the pleasures of earthly self-delight. The success of Prajapati's ruse depends on a distinction which not even the gods, it appears, could always make. The truth of mystical union, we learn, is revealed only to one who has undone his ties with the world of experience, having gathered to a single point the scattered parcels of his selfhood. This is a theme of mystical theology common to East and West alike. In the words of an Arab mystic, "To mount to God is to enter into oneself. For he who inwardly entereth and intimately penetrateth into himself, gets above and beyond himself and truly mounts up to God." Yet as the mystic gathers himself into that circle of "inwardness" which he calls the "apex" or "spark" of his soul, he encounters an obstacle, the last and subtlest of all: the strands of his passion become confused, he cannot be sure to choose rightly between the "true self" at the apex of his soul and the "false self" of earthly experience.

The Hindu parable is meant as a warning to those who have undertaken the mystical journey into themselves; for when they arrive at this difficult fork in the "way," they must learn to continue inward to the spark beyond their selfhood, and not downward into the self-deluding pleasures of the ego. Between the true "way" and the false, the resemblance is bewildering to any but the wisest disciple. The Gnostics also knew this strange difficulty of "knowledge," projecting their insight onto the figures of the good and bad Narcissus, God and man, who work out the psychology of their self-delight in a fresco of cosmological events. And indeed the mystical traditions of the West, from Plotinus onward, have at their disposal an image which they will use again and again to express the dilemma of the spiritual journey. In a text which had a forming influence on much of Christian mysticism, Plotinus describes the distracting "beauty" that can lead men astray:

Let him who can arise withdraw into himself, forgo all that is known by the eyes.... For if one pursue what is like a beautiful shape moving over water-is there not a myth about such a dupe, how he sank into the depths of the current and was swept away to nothingness? Well, so too one that is caught by material beauty and will not cut himself free will be precipitated ... down into the dark depths ... where ... he will traffic only with shadows, there as he did here.

The worldly soul is compared to Narcissus, whose life and love is wasted in the pursuit of shadows. For all earthly experience is bathed in the false glitter of the senses; our changing passions dissolve at the touch like an image on water, clouding the true permanence of the self, of which Buddhist scripture writes, "Have Self as a lamp, Self as a refuge, and no other refuge." Also "Through Self one should urge on the self, one should restrain the self by Self-for Self is the lord of the self." The mystic "way" contains at the outset this subtle danger which will haunt the ethics of Christianity, shaping its doctrines, feeding from within its ever-renewed insistence on orthodoxy and spiritual obedience.

In the Ninth Book of his Confessions, Augustine echoes Plotinus, as he describes the experience revealed to him in the garden:

The good which I now sought was not outside myself. I did not look for it in things which are seen with the eyes of the flesh by the light of the sun. For those who try to find joy in things outside themselves easily vanish away into emptiness. They waste themselves on the temporal pleasures of the visible world. Their minds are starved and they nibble at empty shadows.

The resemblance between the two texts is not surprising, for we know that Augustine practiced the Enneads diligently, and was in fact largely responsible for bringing the speculative genius of the Neoplatonists into accord with the more properly religious vision of Christianity. Yet something bas become blurred in the passage from Plotinus to Augustine. The image of Narcissus has disappeared, and with it the troubling awareness that Self and self are brothers to the unpracticed eye. The worldly passions of the ego speak a language strangely similar to that of this high Ego, concealed by the changing surfaces of sense and illusion. Plotinus, like Prajapati in the Hindu parable, and like the Hermetic poet of the Poimandres, understood this deceptive danger of the "way," and the need to preserve, within the renunciatory discipline of the senses, the goal of a purer, more permanent Self. With Augustine, however, all this has become less clear; perhaps because the task be set himself was more difficult. Augustine, with his Christian sensibility, is less interested in the frescoes of cosmology and speculative metaphysics than in the elusive psychology of revelation. He needed to "reduce" the mythical insight of the Gnostic, and the vast speculative vision of Neoplatonism, to the experience of the Christian mind, with its spiritual energies and worldly obstacles. For this reason, undoubtedly, he has remained the most "modern" of his contemporaries. But in the transposition, the psychology of Narcissus has gone underground.

Augustine seems not to have trusted that fine difference between Self and self which Prajapati tricked his divine disciples into understanding. In his treatise De Musica, Augustine analyzes the psychology of transgression. Things of the body, he writes, are dangerous because they "strongly fix in the memory what they bring from the slippery senses." Later, these traces of past experience-Augustine calls them "Phantasms" float dangerously in the mind; they have become images of potential delight, drawing the consciousness of the individual away from the naked otherness of God, into this circle of self-delighting fantasies. A man sins, according to Augustine, because he has lived too often and too intensely among the images of his mind. All such indulgence of the self is dangerous, for it leads one never closer, always further from God. To preserve himself from sin, the Christian must terrorize his inward life; he must flagellate his spiritual energies and extinguish the "pride" of the self. We must not forget, however, that Augustine wrote in an atmosphere of polemics and religious contention. His goal was to defend the Church, and the "dangers" he warned against were palpable in the rival doctrines of pagan and heretic alike. Elsewhere in the Confessions, we read:

There are many abroad who talk of their own fantasies and lead men's minds astray ... These people want to be light, not in the Lord but in themselves, because they think that the nature of the soul is the same as God. In this way their darkness becomes denser still, because in their abominable arrogance they have separated themselves from you.

Augustine speaks here to defend Christian orthodoxy against the anarchic vision of the Gnostics and Manichaeans, both of whom accorded a powerful freedom to those idiosyncrasies of the individual spirit which the Church so mistrusted. By castigating the "pride" of self, and emphasizing the terrible abyss which separates God from man, Augustine strengthens a traditional bulwark of the Church that will continue to serve throughout its history, setting definite limits to the spiritual autonomy of the individual. The Christian lesson of humility will have as its counterpart, from the very first, an exhortation to obey the doctrines and dogma of the Church. The mystical purgation of the self is reshaped by official Christianity into a moral homily; the first article of Christian virtue becomes abdication of the individual will which humbles itself before the authority of God's representative on earth. The flight from self to Self, which is at the heart of Gnostic speculation, has become a flight from self to the infallible authority of the Church. It is no wonder, then, that the greatest of the Church Fathers should have allowed certain distinctions to become blurred. In doing so, he sets the tone of Christian morality, and defends the authoritarian order of the Church which was to become so overpowering during the Middle Ages.

This vision of humility conceals within it, however, a power of imagination that will never cease to strain at the limits of Christian dogma. The themes of Gnostic speculation, in particular, will continue to erupt, inherited or reinvented in the heat of mystical adventure by many illustrious, if marginal, Christians. Like the Gnostics before them, the Christian mystics and theologians used the dialogue between the image and its object to characterize the mysterious transfer of divinity from God to His creation: the divine gift which alienates nothing from the giver, for what He has given He still retains. As early as St. Paul, we read, "We all with unveiled face reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory." In later centuries, the sense of the spiritual journey is revealed in this description of man as a mirror for the divine light. Scotus Erigena calls man's soul "the purest mirror in the world," while Bonaventure's Itinerarium Mentis in Deum is described as an upward journey of the soul, which learns first to discover God "mirrored in the external world!'; but then we move beyond this, to encounter, there "in the sanctuary of our souls... God reflected in His image." At this inmost point of the spiritual journey, the Christian rejoices to "behold the reflection of God as in the light of some candelabrum."

Although Christian philosophers have rarely been interested in cosmology, when the Cambridge Platonist, John Smith, turns to speculations it is in terms that are now familiar to us. The entire creation, according to Smith, can be thought of as a mirror; for "God made the universe and all the creatures contained therein as so many glasses wherein he might reflect His own glory. He hath copied forth Himself in the creation. The examples could be multiplied, from sources as mild as Smith, the Anglican Brahmin, to the heretical German cobbler, Jacob Böhme,[1] who wrote in his Six Theosophic Points:

Seeing then the first will is an ungroundedness, to be regarded as an eternal nothing, we recognize it to be like a mirror wherein one sees his own image . . . Thus we recognize the eternal Unground out of Nature to be like a mirror . . . The eternal Ungro und eternally takes rise in itself, enters into itself, grasps itself in itself, and makes the center in itself [....]

Böhme, in his eccentric language, goes on to elaborate this image of God's self-creation with all the freedom of a Gnostic poet. The intertwining energies of Will, Fire, and Erotic Passion which animate his vision articulate the original act of self-delight by which God gave Himself to man and to the world. But Böhme did not stop here. Like the Gnostics, he sought to embrace in a single sweep the violence of the Cosmic struggle and the spiritual psychology of man. Between one and the other he found occult resemblances which he was careful to point out. In doing so, he warned against a temptation which lay beneath the surface of Christian morality, ready to draw even the most devout believer into its "error." The vast mirror of the Unground, Böhme wrote, is closer to man than be may realize; for the "fire" that surges within him, disturbing his serenity, propelling him toward the most unreasonable ambitions, has its source in a similar mirror: the "fiery mirror" of his pride. Pride causes man, in love with his own "great glory and beauty," to reach out after the properties of the unsurpassable "center." In Böhme's language, this meant that man, because of his pride, has sought to equal God: he bas forged, within his own imperfect experience, a mirror in which be means to take pleasures like those taken by God in the great mirror of the universe. Such is the meaning of this lovely passage from Böhme's early work, Aurora, in which he warns man against the bewildering mirror he carries in his soul:

Now being that he was so beauteously and gloriously Imagined or formed as a King in Nature, his beauteous form and feature tickled him, and so he thought with himself, I am now God... I will prepare and erect for myself a new kingdom; for the whole Circumference, Extent, or Region is mine, I am God alone, and none else... And in his pride he struck and smote himself with darkness and blindness, and made himself a Devil... He wrestled with the Salliter of God in the flash of fire and anxiety.

The danger for man, according to Böhme, lies in his very nobility. Because he has been endowed with a shadow of spiritual greatness and is capable, therefore, of great things, he may climb to that dangerous height from which his all-too human frailty will betray him into pride. His fall is a dark measure of the height to which he had risen. We find echoed here, in Christian language, the tragedy of human greatness that so tormented the Greeks, finding its most powerful expression in the anguished choruses of the Agamemnon. Although the language of Christian piety since Augustine bad concealed those uneasy brothers-the light and dark Narcissi of the Poimandres, or the self and Self of Buddhist scripture beneath the surface of the language they continued nonetheless to shape our response to the dilemma of personality and spiritual ambition. The mirror as it was used by Saint Paul, Scotus Erigena, Saint Bonaventure, and others, describes the danger, but also the ecstatic challenge concealed in the Christian vision, despite its authoritarian bias. In every case, the miracle of God's intimacy with man-the miracle of His immanence-is described as an act of self-delight. The image of the mirror enabled theologians to solve a paradox which troubled their understanding of God and His creation. How could God be present in the world of matter, even if it was only at the apex of man's soul? How could He be mingled with imperfection, though remaining flawless? How, above all, could He love what was less perfect than Himself, giving and yet somehow retaining what He gave? The image of the mirror, and the corresponding vision of God's generosity as an act of self-delight, allowed these questions to be answered. God came down into the world as into a mirror. He came down in order to possess an image of His own divinity. And He will allow man to be "saved," in order to save that fragment of His image captured in the human soul. Man is at best an invisible partner in this exchange between God and Himself.

This feeling of man's nothingness in the face of the Divinity, what Rudolph Otto has called the overpowering sense of his "creatureliness," is undoubtedly an element in all religious experience. The Christian must acknowledge his infinite dependence in the face of God's self-delight. He is exhorted to efface the movements of his will, in order to reflect more perfectly the image of his Master. For the only virtue the good Christian must traditionally seek is to become less and less himself, so that God, through this act of personal self-effacement, may delight more purely in His own reflected image. It is this complicity in God's pleasure which lies behind passages like this one, by that somber moralist, Thomas a Kempis: "The highest and most profitable learning is this: that a man have a truthful Knowledge and a full despairing of himself." Or this one, by the German mystic Meister Eckhart[2]: "It is always you yourself that hinders yourself.... Therefore begin first with yourself and forsake yourself. Truly you will then flee first from yourself, whatever else you may flee."

Because God seeks Himself, man must flee himself. Such is the moral dilemma of Christianity. Yet, as Prajapati sought to teach his disciples, the mirror can "betray" those who cultivate it. This is what Böhme clearly saw when he warned man against the mirror in his soul which was also his greatest glory. When man looked inward, past the deforming veils of his ego, he might discover in the soul's mirror another image: not God's but his own. Indeed, in the pure heat of the mystical experience, the distinction between the two, so important to Christian morality, becomes secondary. Instead there is a powerful sense of God's nearness to the soul, a glory at the "presence" which has drawn one so completely into its Light that such distinctions need no longer be made. The distance between God and self bas become so diminished that the very words, in mystical language, are interchangeable. At the end of the Poimandres, we see the purified souls "rise up toward the Father, and give themselves up to the Powers, and having become Powers themselves, enter the godhead. This is the 'good end of those who have attained gnosis: to become God." Such is also the language of the great German mystics Eckhart, Suso, Tauler, Ruysbroeck, and others who will repeat, with Eckhart's Sermon on the just Man, that "if a man is in justice, he is in God and he is God." Pursuing the logic of their experience, the mystics restore to Christianity the suppressed Self inside the ego whose virtue is to be both human and more-than-human, both man and God. The very warmth of the Christian vision, the growing experience of personality that begins to animate its doctrine following the example of Augustine himself-charges this moral dilemma with all the bewildering attraction of a loving, highly personalized God. When Dante, in the Paradise (Canto xxxiii), renews the traditional image of the mirror, his language radiates a mood of sensuous delight that was unknown to the Gnostics:

Eternal light, that in Thyself alone
Dwelling, alone dost know Thyself, and smile
On Thy self-love, so knowing and so known!

The sphering thus begot, perceptible
In Thee like mirrored light, now to my view -
When I had looked on it a little while -

Seemed in itself, and in its own self-hue,
Limned with our image

This self-loving, self-delighting God is not only a term in the speculative logic of theologians. He is sensuous and attractive; He draws the imagination to Him, and troubles the all-too human emotions of the believer. The explosiveness, the tension of Christian morality can be traced, surely, to this image of a God who exalts those very qualities of emotion which are forbidden to man. The ever-repeated injunctions against pride, the authoritarian rigor of the Church, the terrible lesson of humility repeated century after century, point to a living presence always ready to surge into the light and claim its own: the repressed, tantalizing Self which Christianity has alternately fed and starved with an ever-renewed energy of contradiction. Given this confusion in the Christian experience of grace, one can hardly blame the Italian mystic Angela of Foligno for the cruel story she tells of her progress toward God:

In that time and by God's will, there died my mother, who was a great hindrance to me in following the way of God; my husband died likewise; and in a short time there died all my children. And because I bad begun to follow the aforesaid way, and prayed God to rid me of them, I had great consolation of their deaths, although I also felt some grief; wherefore, because God had shown me this grace, I imagined that my heart was in the heart of God and His Will and His Heart in my heart.

Angela is a ruthless penitent. Because "God had shown her this grace," she will allow no earthly attachment to stand between her self and that high ground in the soul toward which she travels. She bad "great consolation," and also "some grief;" yet it is clear that the consolation far outweighed the grief. Surely there is something inhuman in Angela's passion for grace. The death-wish become reality which she evokes with such serenity of conscience recalls the extreme individualism of certain heretics, of whom we will speak in their turn. Indeed, to be fair, Angela's zeal has often been blamed by "wiser" doctors of the Church. Yet the way she has taken is the high road to Heaven, the goal she sets is the noblest that Christianity can offer. And the infantile selfishness of her experience is as deeply embedded in the spiritual vision of Christianity as is its exhortation to humility. Of all the great mystics, Eckhart is perhaps closest [....]

Like all mystics, Eckhart knew that the only way to meet with God was to dissolve the boundaries of the self. The mystic was precisely a man who had learned to reach beyond the frailty of his ego. Yet, in a famous parable of the mystic way, Eckhart begins, "A nobleman went out into a far country to obtain for himself a kingdom, and returned." As Böhme was later to point out, the man who sets out on the journey must already be noble; for he who abandons the self must already be self-possessed; in giving up his selfhood, he must have something to lose. But then, when at last he does rise beyond the ego, it is to obtain an even greater wealth: the title to a kingdom. The seeds of his humility are endowed with a powerful grace. Eckhart quotes St. Matthew, who says, "He who forsakes anything for My sake shall receive a hundredfold as much again." The mystic abandons the self, because he knows he will receive it back a hundredfold. His humility is an adventure, and a harsh constraint, but it is also a delight; the "nobleman," after his long journey, returns loaded with "riches." Eckhart, it is true, argues that the noblest Union, at the far end of the journey, can never again be contained in the compressed circle of the self. But such stability, he adds, will be possible only "in eternity." We, who are still anchored in the flesh, are condemned to backslide from the joy and terror of Illumination, into the old self. Yet what a strangely exalted ego Eckhart proposes to us! After having journeyed to the end of the way, Eckhart writes:

I can do all things by my will. I can bear all the hardships of all men, and feed all the poor and do the work of all men, or whatever else you can imagine. If you do not lack the will, but only the power, you have really done it in the sight of God ...

Eckhart was the shaping influence on fourteenth-century German mysticism.

If I wanted to have as much will as all the world has
then I have it, for what I want I have.

Simon's vision was not bolder than this. Eckhart unleashes the power of his imagination. He expresses the thirst for solitary greatness that will be echoed in Goethe's Faust, in Hegel's image of the history-devouring sage, in Holderlin's Empedokles, in Lautréamont's Maldoror, in Nietzsche's character of Zarathustra. When, centuries later, the German mystic Angelus Silesius attempted to capture in verse the loving exaltation he felt during such moments of grace, he wrote:

I am rich as God. Dear friend, believe me: No particle of dust that is not His and mine. I know God cannot live a moment without me: If I should come to nothing, God shall cease to be.

The "way up" leads past this country of the emotions, where the strands of self and Self are woven into a single fabric. The final glory of the way, all seem to agree, lies beyond such pleasureful exaltation, in a coincidentum oppositorium of plenitude and emptiness, Light and Darkness, Height and Depth. Yet something in the Western sensibility is irrevocably pleased by the transvalued selfhood which it encounters on the way. The yogi, in his mystical wisdom, was familiar with this dilemma. As he mastered, step by step, the complexities of his body, be was said to reach a degree of discipline so extreme that be acquired unequaled magic powers. Nothing on earth could resist his will. At this stage, the yogi was said to have ended his climb from the world of change into the world of eternity. He had risen above imperfect experience by mastering it entirely. But the yogi understood at this point the futility of such magical powers. The same movement of wisdom which had led him so far, now led him still further. He renounced the magic and the will, moving beyond them into the pure impersonality of Union. But we in the West have been fascinated by the magic, we have been fascinated by the rich possibilities of character and individuality. The delight of God's mirror has tempted us to apply it to the dilemma of our earthly frailty and to the "unreasonable" humanity of our ambitions.


1 Böhme was an idiosyncratic German theologian and mystic (15751624) who lived an obscure life as a shoemaker. He wrote numerous books and tracts wherein he sought to reconcile the speculative thought of his century with a more traditional mysticism. His writings, couched in strange visionary language, had a great influence on the Romantics, as well as on later philosophers such as Schelling, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

2 Meister Eckhart: probably the greatest German speculative mystic, born at Hochheim, near Gotha (c1260-1328). His voluminous writings helped to form the tradition of medieval German prose. He taught and preached actively in Strasbourg and later in Cologne, where he became the most popular preacher in Germany, though his mystical doctrines standing not only the danger of this egotistical backsliding, but how closely it is bound to the nature of the mystical experience itself.

The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism

Paul Zwieg
Princeton University Press, 1960

Excerpts appearing on these pages are from the Paperback Edition (Princeton, 1980)

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