Augustine and the Therapy of Self-Love

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For over a century, theologians, ethicists, and philosophers have debated the coherence and moral validity of Augustine’s account of self-love. What to make of statements like “Love the Lord, and in so doing learn how to love yourselves” (s. 90.6) and humanity’s ruin “was caused by love of self” (s. 96.2)? Does Augustine’s account of self-love contain an inner contradiction? And does loving oneself by loving God turn God into an instrument in the quest for self-love and happiness?

In this dissertation, I analyze Augustine’s account of self-love and its relevance for pastoral care and redefine the more than a century-old debate in three ways. First, employing Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, enriched by Augustine’s insights, I analyze the prejudgments scholars brought to this debate. I demonstrate that scholars who fault Augustine’s understanding of enjoyment (frui) with instrumentalization read Augustine with wrong assumptions. Aware of how modern utilitarianism’s emphasis on happiness could lead to the instrumentalization of people, critics like Hannah Arendt, Anders Nygren, and Oliver O’Donovan think Augustine’s usage of utilitas (“usefulness”) and uti (“use”) instrumentalizes God and neighbor. Through a detailed analysis of how uti and utilitas appear in ordinary Latin, ancient philosophy, Scripture, and Augustine’s writings, I show that Augustine uses forms of uti to describe the divine order. For Augustine, to use something is not to instrumentalize it but to love it as it should be loved: as an end in itself, situated within the higher end of loving God above all, from which every end receives its order, meaning, and purpose.

Second, situating Augustine’s account of self-love in its historical context—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, the debate between Stoicism and the Old Academy about the good life, and Scripture—I refute that his interpretation of self-love is incoherent. Augustine’s understanding of self-love is grounded in the ancient ideal of therapy. In antiquity, therapy is about a new way of seeing and being in the world. Through his writings and preaching, Augustine seeks to move his readers from a competitive self-love that favors the self over others to a connective self-love that flourishes in loving relationships with God and neighbor.

Third, having established the nature and coherence of Augustine’s account of self-love, I go one step further by making explicit the implicit motivation for the entire debate: the relevance of Augustine’s interpretation of self-love for living a good life. I argue that Augustine’s nuanced understanding of self-love offers a good starting point for integrating self-care and self-denial for the common good. And in dialogue with feminist critiques of Augustine and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, I also analyze where Augustine’s account of self-love needs to be corrected and expanded.





de Vries, Wilco (2023). Augustine and the Therapy of Self-Love. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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