Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a modern term that describes a dangerous psychological condition. Maximus the Confessor (580–662) described the same condition fourteen hundred years ago as Philautia, a spiritual condition with similar symptoms.

Foot-stampers anonymous

A person in this psychological condition sulks or rages when criticized or is unable to ‘get my own way’, living always in the delusion of having a more important job, and associating only with people of influence and power. The mind is never on the present job but always on the next more ‘important’ job. Other people are dehumanized when evaluated in their usefulness for one’s own ends. Depressive tendencies develop in the sufferer who lacks self-esteem and is always seeking the admiration of others, whose adoration he needs, and avoiding people who have a true evaluation of him.


Philautia is a spiritual condition meaning literally, self-love or self-centredness, and manifests these same symptoms in human behaviour. Self-love and self-centredness snatches the world, and indeed the Church, away from God to annex it to one’s own ends and ambitions. People are dehumanized from the neighbour to be loved for his own sake, into things to be used in achieving one’s own ends, or ignored if having no such value. There is no longer the ‘Other’, or ‘other people’ but only the absolute ‘I’.

Maximus claimed, ‘Whoever has philautia has all the passions.’ The two overriding ‘mother passions’ are pride and greed that annex the whole being to the ego. Greed, the doorway to over-indulgence, unleashes a debauchery that expresses itself as sexuality and alongside pride conceives avarice that gives birth to depression. Such depression is an induced grief condition, on the one hand at not possessing everything and on the other, an envy of those who possess what is wanted. Anger is not far below the surface and finds expression when anyone threatens what ‘I’ want or prevents me securing something I love and want.

Pride produces vainglory, which is an unwarranted pride in one’s accomplishments or qualities, and the disposition to exalt oneself unduly by displaying one’s ‘riches and temptations’ at the right dinner party to which the right people have been invited. Anger and depression always follow when the sought-for admiration, approval and reward are not forthcoming. Within this disposition is a deep desire to monopolize that leads to forgetfulness, spiritual insensitivity, a kind of ignorance or stupidity, and ‘the primary cause, the baleful mother of them all, so to say, is philautia, love of self.’

In the end we are forgetful of God, that we receive him at every moment, and only conscious of the absolute ego or ‘I’. Consequently, we ignore our neighbours, lose the capacity for wonder and end up by living like sleep-walkers. Such people cause havoc in the politics of life and devastation if the desired end is achieved.

A way forward in faith

The way out of philautia lies in a prayer frequently used in the Orthodox Church:

Lord and Master of my life,

take far from me the spirit of laziness, discouragement, domination and idle talk;

grant to me, thy servant, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, love;

yea, my Lord and King, grant me to see my sins, and not to judge my neighbour,

for thou art blessed for ever and ever. Amen.

Ephraim of Syria Prayer for the season of Lent in the Byzantine Rite

Forgetfulness is a ‘laziness’ that because of ‘hardness’ of heart cannot see beyond appearances, or ‘sense-data’, that produces a spirit of domination and pride; ‘idle talk’, means gossip, ‘careless words’ of lying, vainglory, profit-making, despair, cynicism and discouragement that exposes an ‘accidie’, a dryness of soul. The prayer develops the virtues, faith that overcomes philautia; chastity that is not necessarily continence, since marriage is chaste, and means the integration of desire in a personal relationship; humility and patience apply the faith to everyday matters and strengthen it with indestructible hope. Clear self-knowledge becomes the essential basis, not of a guilt-inducing obsession, but of a greater confidence and the refusal to judge others.

The ‘keeping of the commandments’ means following the teaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. For the Beatitudes describe Christ himself, his beauty and through him the very mystery of the God of kenosis and love. To obey Christ’s commandments is to love him unconditionally, which means emptying out the absolute ‘I’, so that he can possess us and transform our life ‘in him’. Then we become a centre of blessing rather than the focal point for self-promotion.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a tutor at St Chad’s College.