The Virtue of Unselfishness

DONALD DEMARCO

The story is told of a Chinese hero who acted with remarkable unselfishness during an earthquake.

From the vantage of his hilltop farm, he noticed the ocean swiftly withdraw, like some prodigious animal crouching before a leap. He knew that the leap soon to take place would be a tidal wave. At the same time, he realized that his neighbors, working in the low fields, were in danger of being swept away by the ocean’s fury. Without a second thought, he immediately set fire to his own rice ricks and furiously rang the temple bell.

The hero’s unselfish act prompted his neighbors to act with similar unselfishness in coming to what they believed to be his aid. The paradox here is that, by acting unselfishly, the neighbors saved their own lives. This paradox is consistent with the Gospel instruction that “[w]hoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk. 17:33).

I vs. we

At the heart of the paradox is the truth of the human being as a person and not a mere individual. If a human being were merely an individual, unselfishness would be a vice, selfishness a virtue. But a human being is a person whose communal dimension is an inseparable part of his reality. Unselfishness is a virtue because man’s destiny is to be whole. And he cannot be whole if he remains a solitary individual.

In her book The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand makes the mistake of opposing individualism with self-defeating altruism rather than a liberating personalism. She does not understand how self-respect and love for another can be harmonized. She does not see the truth of man as a person, that is, one who, in loving, simultaneously affirms both himself and those he loves. Therefore, in her narrow context of individualism, Miss Rand extols “the virtue of pride, which is based on the fact that man ‘is a being of self-made soul.’”

Communion of persons

Marriage is a beautiful illustration of how reciprocal unselfishness is expansive and mutually beneficial, not “morally cannibalistic” and “parasitic” (to use Miss Rand’s images). In Shakespeare’s King Richard III, Richard, as Duke of Gloucester, speaks these tender words as he proposes marriage to Lady Anne:

Look, how my ring encompasseth thy finger,
Even so thy breast encloseth my poor heart;
Wear both of them,
for both of them are thine. (I, ii, 203)
Why are these words so moving (if we can consider them apart from the rest of the play)? Why do they appear worthy of a future king addressing his queen-to-be? Is it not because they highlight a truth about marriage as a communion of persons?

Cause of celebration

Husband and wife encircle each other’s souls in Holy Matrimony. As they give themselves unselfishly to each other, their souls expand, not contract. Their love for one another allows them to transcend their mere individualities and find a richer existence as two persons in one. This is why marriage is a public celebration, whereas divorce is a private sorrow. People rejoice at the spectacle of a husband and wife enriching their lives as persons by pledging to share them with each other.

Sharing is closed to the strict individualist. Divorce is not the triumphant ascent into individuality. It represents a personal failure, and this is why it is not celebrated. When Adam and Eve impaired their relationship with God, they impaired their relationship with each other. As a result of original sin, they fell into individuality. The central meaning of redemption is to recover one’s personhood.

The reason that the family, and not the individual, is the basic unit of society is because the family has a program for unselfishness. The individual, by definition, cannot have anything larger than himself as a focus. For this reason, staunch individualists such as Ayn Rand and others denigrate unselfishness. They see it as a threat to the only reality they hold sacred, namely, their own individualities. Individualism, however, can lead only to social anarchy and personal inauthenticity.

More blessed to give

Authenticity for the human being means living fully as a person. The cult of individuality is a fairly recent notion in the annals of human history. The 19th-century author and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville remarks in his essay on the French Revolution that the word individualism was unknown to our ancestors, for the good reason that in their days every individual necessarily belonged to a group and no one could regard himself as an isolated unit.

People do need each other. Economic and cultural deprivations can underscore this mutual need in very dramatic ways. But the virtue of unselfishness is established independently of external conditions. It is a self-forgetful expression of love for others that has the paradoxical effect of enriching the life of the giver.

And the reason it is more blessed to give than to receive is because giving is the most fundamental act of a person. To be a person means to give unselfishly. On the other hand, to be an individual means to consume, and a life of consumption leads to boredom. “As persons we rule the stars,” the saying goes, but “as individuals we are ruled by them.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Unselfishness.” Lay Witness (March 1999).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

THE AUTHOR

Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 LayWitness


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