Selfishness —Not Just a Virtue but an Art
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
True or False: Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness was the first book on egoism intended for a popular audience. False. A quarter century earlier came The Art of Selfishness, a number one bestseller by psychiatrist David Seabury.
Seabury (1885 - 1960) was a successful therapist who wrote at least 15 books and founded his own institute. Some of his titles include How to Live with Yourself, Adventures in Self-Discovery, and How Jesus Heals our Minds Today. The last title may give one the idea that Seabury is a seriously religious thinker, but I did not detect that quality in The Art of Selfishness. The Art of Selfishness was originally published in 1937 and stayed in print for at least 50 years. It is now out of print, but should not be too hard to find used or in a library.
In this review I'm going to frequently compare Seabury's work to Rand's, but that is not to suggest that Seabury is just an understudy for Rand. Seabury is quite valuable in his own way, and after all, he did get to some "Randian" points first.
At times, Seabury sounds strikingly similar to Rand, in sentiment if not in style: “We have been left for centuries with only the echo of a workable philosophy. We have been given no true middle way between insipid spirituality and brute conquest: either act like a stained-glass saint or ape a tyrant” (p. 122). Unlike Rand’s book on ethics, however, The Art of Selfishness is a self-help book, not a work of philosophy. It is not systematic. It does not work from first principles. It is not especially careful about terminology. It is not trying to prove a theory. It is, however, astute, based on good observations, and full of good advice.
Seabury offers a veritable cornucopia of practical guidance. For example: “Keep your problems objective. Don’t identify with them. Don’t become involved or personal. Treat them as an interesting experience and do what you can in each new adventure” (p. 40). While I can imagine problems so awful where that calling them "adventures" is puerile, the suggestion that one should not just wallow in a difficult situation but think about how to deal with it seems sound. The general attitude that life is an adventure is quite bracing.
The Art of Selfishness uses an informal case study approach on the model of medicine. (Seabury was a physician after all.) Seabury also adds discussions of principles and many lists of how to do and not do things, ranging from how to invest to how to get to sleep.
Seabury reduces his advice to two basic principles, which help to organize his thinking. The first is: "Never compromise yourself" (pp. 4-5). I take this to mean, "never surrender your judgment or your authentic needs."
The second principle is: “No ego satisfactions” (pp. 4-5). This may give pause to an admirer of Rand's work, but in Seabury's context, it means: no spite, no self-aggrandizement, no martyrdom, etc. In Nathaniel Branden’s terms, it means: “no pseudo-self-esteem.” As Seabury says about this principle: “To win, you must obey nature. Her will, not yours, is omnipotent” (page 5).
Some of Seabury’s notions derive directly from the two principles. For example: “Nothing becomes an obligation merely because someone tells you it is” (p. 61). Some, while consistent with the two principles, derive more from Seabury’s clinical insight, as on page 103 where he counsels, “Make your thinking into experience. Make your theories tangible.... Try out your ideas by imagining them in action.” Rand makes the same point 40 years later in almost the same words. There are gems like this scattered throughout the book.
Sometimes Seabury uses humorous imagery in his benevolent advice: On the subject of sex, he says, speaking of a shy but inwardly passionate man: “At heart he is a son of Eros. He would like to have a hairy chest and follow the phallus to everlasting glory” (p. 140).
Much of Seabury’s advice is common sense (although it probably wasn’t when the book was first published), but some of it is quite amazing. In the chapter “How to Avoid Suicide,” he states, “If your primary relation is social, every trend of the group … will overpower you. Only he who makes some basic contact with natural objects, things of the earth, its animals and trees, its minerals and mechanics—only he is safe” (p.145). We could point out that Seabury's inventory of reality is a bit too narrow, but his basic point is surely sound: you need to orient yourself with existence and not just the consciousness of others.
One of my favorite chapters is “New Skills for Quarreling.” It brims with good advice, such as remaining silent while your partner gets to speak her piece, and bringing to the surface any unadmitted fears that might motivate your own position.
In addition, he lists some of the common blame patterns. One pattern worth mentioning is blaming someone for being born as they are. Seabury encourages accepting the assortment of talents and dispositions one has inherited from one's ancestors, and not trying to force oneself into a cookie cutter.
A lot of the advice in The Art of Selfishness is concerned with difficult people; there are at least three mentions of kicking parasitic in-laws out of the house. (That must have been a real problem in the 1930s; I haven't heard of it any time recently.) Sometimes, however, one wants or needs to keep a person in one’s life. In such cases, Seabury counsels “scheming,” or benign manipulation — referring to techniques such as reverse psychology.. For example, if your husband has a contrary nature and always wants the opposite of what you suggest, Seabury might advise that you suggest the opposite of what your want. This sounds rather unethical, but Seabury, "realist" as he was, would no doubt say that you can't "fix" everything about those you love and sometimes you just have to play it as it lays. The reader would have to decide for him- or herself the appropriateness of such questionable techniques.
At the same time, Seabury repeatedly advocates benevolence and mutual aid. He has an enlightened attitude on the subject of women and children. (He was married to a feminist journalist.) He is explicit in stating that selfishness does not require hurting other people. In fact, he proposes that unselfishness hurts people because it keeps them dependent.
Not everything in The Art of Selfishness is wonderful. Seabury is often philosophically confused, speaking of "good" and "evil" selfishness, and "good" and "evil" unselfishness, without making totally clear the principles that differentiate them. He is unclear about the human need for self-esteem, and consistently condemns pride as a vice. Perhaps his biggest fault as a writer is his tendency to deluge the reader with lists of loosely catalogued precepts and observations — a symptom of his lack of theoretical structure, although it offers the reader with plenty of material to ponder.
I think I know what he means when he talks about good unselfishness. Consider this quote: "A wise unselfishness is not a surrender of yourself to the wishes of anyone, but only to the best discoverable course of action." This is another way of saying that nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. You could say that it is selfishness, in a poorly understood way, that makes people think that they can command nature on their own terms, and not hers, so that "unselfishness" might be a good term for obeying nature. I have known a number of people whom I would describe as "thinking they are smarter than reality." (Drug-users, corner-cutters, and the like.) One might describe the proper attitude here as "humility", thought not of the groveling variety. Perhaps "respect for existence" would be the best term.
Despite his theoretical confusions, The Art of Selfishness has much to offer in the way of practical wisdom, and the reader who patiently mines it can discover many a gemstone. Seabury may not offer formal and systematic definitions of the cardinal virtues, but he will certainly tell you how to say “No.”
Originally published in the Atlasphere, November 20, 2003.
If you enjoyed this review you might also like my collection of essays on authenticity, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life