Human beings are the only creatures with the capacity for unselfishness.
If we look at the natural world, we see that what distinguishes us from lower creatures —as Gurdjieff explained it — is intellect. Other animals have physical and emotional capacity, but only the human being has intellect, in the way that we understand it. As such, the question of selfishness and unselfishness is deeply tied to our natural, or automatic — Gurdjieff would have said unconscious — nature, and we can illustrate this using some fairly simple biological principles.
All creatures are selfish, in the sense that they act from their own self interest. Creatures that do not have an intellect act only on behalf of their own interests: a bee cannot think outside of what is good for itself, any more than a wolf or a herring. The emotional capacity in creatures does create a certain sense of altruism, but no creature other than man can see themselves as part of a larger — let us say world — community, composed of many different elements that need to be respected. So a herring or a wolf can't act unselfishly on behalf of a shrimp or a chicken. Choices of this nature lie outside their intellectual abilities. Men, on the other hand, has exactly that capacity — man has the ability to sacrifice on behalf of others.
This word sacrifice is quite important, because it means to make sacred — to make holy. To give something up for another, in other words, is a sacred action. Unselfishness is sacred.
What this means is that unselfishness belongs to a higher level, and expresses a set of principles different than those available on this level, in the natural biological world.
When we say that man has two natures, broadly speaking, we could say he has a spiritual and a natural (biological) nature. The biological nature is mechanical. It doesn't have intellect; it does not have the ability to reflect and the capacity to choose. It is, as such, mechanical — that is to say, it is composed of stimulus/response mechanisms, an automaticity. This automatic nature is essentially selfish. It does not have an ability to act outside the sphere of selfishness dictated by the interests of the organism.
The conscious nature of man is unselfish. It does have the capacity to act outside the sphere of its own selfishness; but it has to do so actively and consciously, that is, there has to be an intelligent impulse to act unselfishly, because it goes against our lower nature.
In understanding selfishness and unselfishness, we do understand that they act on this level — they are part of our horizontal existence. Yet they are reflections of a higher principle, what Swedenborg would have called correspondences. That higher principle is Love, which is always unselfish and always sacrifices in favor of the other.
Now, it might sound like Love, when one says the word, is part of the emotional ability, thus well within the reach of creatures that have emotional and physical capacity but no intellect. In a limited way this is true. But Love, in its higher nature, is deeply informed by intellect — inwardly formed, in such a way that it is intelligent, and not automatic. It's the difference between selfishness and unselfishness that defines that difference, and that difference arises through the choice that is made to go against what is automatic, that which is selfish.
More on this in the next post.