Bizarrely, and quite randomly, the Whitney Houston song “The Greatest Love of All” has been going through my head and I can’t get it to stop. This is the song that begins with the line “I believe that children are our future.” Maybe this is because last night’s episode of WHY? was on teaching philosophy for children, I don’t know. An added annoyance is that it is not the Whitney Houston version that I keep imagining (I’m not a fan) but, rather, it is the Sexual Chocolate version from Coming to America that is stuck in my head. And, I only know the first line of the song by heart, so it just keeps repeating and repeating and repeating. Once I learned the rest of the lyrics, my mood only got worse.
The song sounds like it’s about love of children, but it’s really not. It is an ode to narcissism. After Whitney declares that she has vowed “long ago, never to walk in anybody’s shadow,” she then realizes that whether she fails or succeeds, she has achieved the greatest love of all: love of herself.
“I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me
The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all”
This, needless to say, is problematic. Self love is important, as is dignity, which she also mentions in the song. (Dignity is what we’re supposed to be teaching the children who are our future.) But I find it hard to imagine that self-love is the greatest love of all, and I am wondering just how pervasive this narcissistic attitude is in pop culture and in our contemporary attitudes.
This moral solipsism isn’t just happening in the United States, although some people will knee-jerksihly say so. (Yes, knee-jerkishly is a perfectly cromulant word). I recently visited a friend in Vienna who had spent a few months in Nigeria teaching very poor children. It was a physically and emotionally difficult task and she couldn’t fulfill her commitment. I understand this and I don’t condemn her in the slightest for coming home. But during the conversation about her time in African she said to me that although she had to leave, “I know that I learned a lot about myself and that’s the most important thing, right?” She’s going through some tough times, so I didn’t say anything, but no. No, it’s not. However important self-knowledge is, I don’t think it compares to creating a significantly better life for a couple of dozen poverty-stricken school children with few options.
I want to avoid the discussion of what obligations we have to the poor. It is a long, complex, and interesting one, but it will derail my point here. I simply want to think about the nature of loving and knowing oneself in the contemporary world.
The idea of self-knowledge as central to morality has a long history. For example, the classical Greek philosophers saw is as a necessary component of virtue. But the idea that self-love is itself a virtue and not a vice really began with Bernard Mandeville in the turn of the 18th century. He argued that acquisition, bad behavior, and the vicious life actually helps society by increasing economic welfare. (Without criminals there wouldn’t be police or locksmiths, therefore we’re all better off because there are more jobs.) Adam Smith extended this idea to recognize that self-interest and self-betterment were themselves worthy and noble goals. But none of these thinkers ever suggested that loving oneself was the most virtuous, most glorious thing that anyone can do, only that in-itself, there is nothing corrupt about self love and self interest.
We hear every day that it is important to be true to oneself, and many parents, teachers, movies, and songs, repeat this advice. But surely, authenticity is not the sole moral criteria. Wouldn’t we have been better off is Stalin, Hitler, and Mao had not been true to themselves? I can think of many people in my own life who aren’t as evil as those three but who would still benefit from being inauthentic every once in a while. Bill Cosby said it best in his 1980’s standup comedy:
“I said to a guy, ‘Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,’ and he said, ‘Because it intensifies your personality.’ I said, ‘Yes, but what if you're an asshole?’”
None of what I’m saying here is revolutionary or new. But I was struck by the tone of power and glory that The Greatest Love of All cultivates. The song sounds like it’s about love of children (which, as a father, I think may indeed by the greatest love of all), and it sounds like it might be about one’s relationship with God, which, for many religious traditions is also a likely candidate for the greatest. It could also be about the love for humanity as a whole, which is key as well. But the song is insidious because it actually sneaks in this massively corrupt claim that love for oneself is the central moral mission of a human life. That makes it dishonest as well as misleading and I wish it would get out of my head.