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Self-esteem and Moral Progress: From Plato to the Stoics

Georgia Tsouni (University of Crete)

Self-esteem is usually defined as confidence in one’s worth and is rendered in both ancient Greek and Latin with a variety of terms. Ancient philosophical texts contain a wealth of information on the phenomenon of self-esteem, which is linked to either a critique or a positive appraisal of oneself. The psychological aspects of the phenomenon are embedded in a larger discourse concerning an ‘ideal’ or ‘real’ self which is the object of philosophical investigation. In my talk, I intend to approach self-esteem as a tool for moral improvement or as an indication of moral progress in ancient philosophical texts.  A case in point is Alcibiades in the First Alcibiades, where it is shown how Socratic dialectic may transform a false self-esteem (based on external resources and fame) into a true one (based on awareness of one’s true ‘self’). On the other hand, In Seneca we find a plurality of descriptions of the psychological condition of progressors which is characterized as a ‘dislike’ or contempt (even ‘disgust’) towards oneself (taedium sui, fastidium sui), which is manifested in the unstable behaviour of non sages. By contrast, the sage is shown to possess the highest degree of appreciation and trust towards oneself. Focusing on De Tranquillitate Animi and the Epistles I will show how Seneca identifies different stages of progress towards virtue with different degrees of confidence in oneself and in one’s worth. 

Esteem’s value in Plato

Alex Long (University of St. Andrews)

To what extent can we generalize about the value of esteem and its proper weight in practical reasoning? Perhaps differences between the people who judge us (some are morally discerning, but some are not) and between societies (some have correct standards and priorities, but some do not) preclude such generalizations. Plato, if anyone, might be expected to think so. His dialogues contain some of the strongest contrasts to be found in ancient Greek texts between the knowledgeable and the ignorant, and between well-administered societies, whose values are correct, and corrupt societies, impossible to satisfy without becoming corrupt oneself. My aim in this chapter is to show that this view captures powerful tendencies in the Republic, but not the entire dialogue, and is at variance with his later dialogue Laws.


Esteem and Self-Esteem in Aristotle

Phillip Mitsis (New York University)

David Konstan gave a memorable analysis of Aristotle’s notion of πραότης in the Rhetoric as a rather mysterious counterpoise to ὀργή.  He describes it as a kind of “satisfaction” involving both compensation for injury or insult and the self-esteem deriving from an affirmed sense of self.  He concludes, however, that Aristotle and the Greeks generally did not go on to further develop this self-confirming sense of πραότης, while its opposite, anger occupied an undeniably conspicuous position (EAG 2006 pp. 89-90).  He suggests that in the wildly competitive context of the Greek city, gestures intended to augment the reputation and esteem of others were so rare that there was no need to spend much time developing a special vocabulary for the response they elicited. Now, even though it is often argued that the Aristotle of the Rhetoric is almost entirely focused on such societal relations and explanations, while in the NE, he is more concerned with questions of individual moral virtue and happiness, most commentators have read his accounts of self-love, respect, and esteem in the ethical treatises in a similarly competitive framework, especially in regard to megalopsuchia. Building on arguments by Allen Wood and Jennifer Whiting (2023) about Aristotelian self-love, I focus on NE 9.8 and the extent to which self-esteem in Aristotle is independent of a socially competitive context and approaches the Kantian notion that only to the extent that they esteem themselves as agents do individuals correctly choose and value their ends in accord with reason.

Finding Self-Esteem in Epicurean Philosophy

Clive Chandler (University of Cape Town)

Although the term ‘self-esteem’ sounds anachronistic, David Cairns has shown that the concept can be usefully applied to ancient Greek thinking about the self, and my task is to explore the opportunities that such a concept offers to re-evaluate how the Epicureans negotiated their standing with respect to both their fellow adherents and the broader society in which they were situated. Epicureans were fully conscious of the fact that their life-choices and convictions were often considerably at odds with those adopted by the majority in civil society. These differences potentially had consequences for self-esteem because the Epicureans eschewed, or at least devalued, the tokens through which people were normally granted respect and status: nobility, civic office, and material success. Since there is no explicit Greek term in Epicureanism for the concept self-esteem, one will need to approach the question creatively. The first task is to ascertain the extent to which Epicurean ethical discourse avoids value terms which are associated with esteem conferred by society in general. Sections of Philodemus’ writings on encomium are useful for reconstructing sources of esteem from an Epicurean perspective. For a practical application, one can turn to the same author’s advice on wealth, poverty, and property management, since these works deal directly with subjects which are traditionally linked to esteem in Greek societies. A more difficult question is how an individual Epicurean maintained self-esteem when measuring himself or herself against the standards recommended by the School. Philodemus’ On Frank Speech may offer some assistance on this issue because deals specifically with interactions between members of the Epicurean community.


Freedom and Self-esteem in Epictetus

Attila Németh (Hun-Ren, RCH, Institute of Philosophy)

According to the early Stoics there are two major differences between ordinary shame (aischyné) and moral shame (aidós) – (D.L. 7.116). On the one hand, they have different objects: while ordinary shame concerns the fear of ill repute that is external to one, moral shame is about justified blame that concerns one’s own deeds in prospect and, hence, it is interior. They also differ in their affective contents: while the former involves the negative emotion of fear, the latter results in a positive, eupathic response that only the sage can experience. One of the major figures of the imperial Stoa, Epictetus, extended this emotional reaction to imperfect people, which – as this paper will argue – was the consequence of his conception of reason as the only genuinely free human faculty. Since it is at our liberty to learn what the preconceptions of reasonable and unreasonable are that help us investigate what is in certain situations ‘according to nature’, it is up to us, for example, to decide whether we would hold out a chamber pot for another in fear of physical punishment, or it would be not only intolerable to us to do so, but to have someone else to hold one out for us, because it would be simply beneath us. Therefore, whether one puts up with the prospect of having to bear physical punishment in such a situation is determined by the value everyone can freely attribute to oneself based on our divine power that provides us to choose freely between alternatives. This paper will investigate this free choice in the complex matrix of the role shame, moral conscience and God play in one’s self-evaluation and self-esteem.

“They Dishonor Themselves:” Plotinus on Human Value”

Lloyd Gerson (University of Toronto) 

In one of his early and famous treatises, V 1 [10], Plotinus diagnoses the plight of the majority of humanity as one of habitually dishonoring themselves, in fact, honoring everything else more than themselves. He attributes this sorry state to ignorance, that is, ignorance of one’s true self. Even upright citizens seem to Plotinus to be more or less clueless about who they are. In this paper, I will explore Plotinus’ deeply Platonic argument regarding self-identity and the prospects for the recovery of self-esteem.

Augustine on ‘Pride,’ Self-Love, and Self-Esteem

Bonnie Kent (University of California, Irvine)

Some of Augustine’s best-known doctrines suggest that it is bad to have a positive assessment of one’s own worth. Consider, for example, his famous dichotomy between the heavenly city, which loves God above all else, and the earthly city, which loves and glories itself. This is the kind of self-love Augustine calls ‘superbia,’ a word normally translated as ‘pride.’ In one work after another he stresses the dangers of superbia, even presenting it as “the beginning of all sin.” Today, when most Western philosophers consider a healthy sense of self-esteem important for a flourishing human life, Augustine’s teachings appear deeply misguided. This essay argues that Augustine is not the enemy of self-esteem that many have taken him to be. A clearer understanding of his thought emerges if we only avoid misleading English translations and read more of his work, especially texts where he discusses Christ’s command to love your neighbour as yourself. (What sense would this make if loving yourself were bad?) More specifically, Augustine describes superbia as the desire to surpass and to exercise power over others, in a perverse imitation of God. In strictly historical terms, this trait is much closer to arrogance than what we now call ‘pride.’ Unlike ‘pride,’ which can have a neutral or positive meaning, the meaning of ‘superbia’ is consistently negative—not only in Augustine’s works but also in the Vulgate, and even earlier, in the pre-Christian Roman authors he studied. If we try translating Augustine into the vocabulary of recent academic psychology, we find that superbia has many of the same elements as what psychologists now called narcissism, in contradistinction to self-esteem. A growing number of psychological studies argue that self-esteem and narcissism differ in their origins, their developmental trajectories, and their outcomes: differences in kind, not merely in degree. Augustine thinks that the disordered self-love he calls superbia involves a perpetual craving for praise, inevitably leads to envy and interpersonal conflict, and generally results in misery. For this reason, it is truly closer to self-hatred. Healthy self-love essentially involves loving other people, recognizing that all humans are created equal, and understanding that you cannot love others unless you learn how to love yourself. Finally, the trait that Augustine praises as humility should not be conflated with low self-esteem. He presents Christ as the ultimate exemplar of humility, and he never recommends that we consider ourselves worth less than other human beings. Instead, he argues that other people may have talents and even virtues that we ourselves are in no position to recognize.


Domingo de Soto on Secrets, Friendship and Duties of Esteem​

Andreas Blank (Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt)

Derogatory judgements raise intricate questions concerning justice. One obvious way in which a derogatory judgement can be unjust is when it—intentionally or out of rashness—misrepresents the character traits or actions of others. In these cases, the injustice of the judgement derives from its falseness, together with a violation of a natural obligation to invest care into forming true judgements. A false derogatory judgement is unjust because it—intentionally or out of rashness—takes away something from the social esteem that someone merits. This is a prominent issue in scholastic ethics, from Thomas Aquinas to early modern scholasticism. A less obvious way in which a derogatory judgement can be unjust is when it is true but expressed in illegitimate circumstances. Here, it cannot be argued that something is taken away from the social esteem that someone merits. As the scholastics observed, what matters here is not merit but needs and rights deriving from sociability. This is why the debate about the connection between duties of friendship and duties of keeping secrets was relevant for the analysis of the justice or injustice of true derogatory judgments. Aquinas devoted some short but important remarks to the issue of keeping the secrets of our friends, and the sixteenth-century Dominican philosopher and theologian Domingo de Soto expanded considerably on these remarks by discussing in detail the relation between keeping secrets, the duties of friendship, and the relation between these duties and justice. Soto argues that friendship leads to situations in which giving others information about our friends that is perfectly truthful can be unjust. Thus, if these acts are unjust, they cannot be unjust because they violate the truth or trigger truth-related emotions. Rather, Soto suggests that they are unjust because they undermine the natural rights of sociality and, in particular, the natural right of building up and maintaining relations of friendship. In Soto’s view, the injustice of violating the duty of keeping secrets does not make keeping secrets an act of justice. Rather, in a sense yet to be explained he uses Aquinas’s notion of a “potential part” of justice in analyzing this duty. Exploring the connections that Soto establishes between keeping secrets, the duties of friendship, and “potential parts” of justice is interesting for two reasons. First, it may indicate how friendship creates some justice-related duties, thereby shedding critical light on the view that friendship and other community-oriented ties make questions of justice less pressing. Second, it may indicate that the justice-related duties arising from friendship are not restricted to the duty to avoid derogatory misrepresentation but are also related to the duty of protecting the natural right of being held in good esteem unless there is a contrary public interest.

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