SURVEY OF LITERATURE ON THE SELF
Philip Sugden (2001) writes of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas which inspired his haunting series of drawings, Himalayan Visions: "…one is confronted in a profound way with the enigmatic nature of being alive. This mystifying experience lies somewhere between one’s incessant preoccupation with the extreme physical discomforts of survival and the local belief systems that promote the idea that all things are, by their nature, empty. The effect is a physiological experience that makes it difficult to deny one’s interrelationship, not just with the environment but with ‘emptiness’ as well. And as an artist, this experience is important in the process of creation; after all, emptiness is the womb from which form becomes manifest and through which the aesthetic experience becomes aware of itself…" His insight might apply equally to the creation of the Self.
The Self is both the most basic and the most difficult human problem - that is presumably why philosophers, anthropologists and psychologists from Plato onwards have grappled with it. On the one hand, the imperfections and perils afflicting human society, both local and global, can probably be addressed most effectively by addressing the core of the human individual; on the other hand, this core is arguably an appearance only. The Self under scrutiny is hardly a reality. The Self may be an illusion, at best an artifact in constant process of re-creation.
Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged about 130,000 years ago and a major stage in our cultural evolution was reached around 17,000 years ago, according to archeologists like Steven Mithen of Reading University, with the advent of self-consciousness. The question of the Self may be approached by way of a prior, more concrete and specific question: How do we end up as beings with human intelligence, as beings who are more than the sum of the small individual parts of our evolutionary past? One theory is that, from the earliest beginnings of life, each step was an increase in complexity, a coming together which amounted to more than the sum of the individual elements.
In his lecture "Do we have a true self?", the first of a series of three lectures as newly appointed Gresham Professor of Rhetoric, Richard Sorabji (2000) gave an historical overview of conceptions of the self: "…the conceptions of self employed in the 17th and 18th centuries were so thin that people have felt they were valueless. Descartes was certain of one thing: ‘I exist’. But he could not be certain that a Frenchman existed, educated at La Flèche and called Descartes. In order to retain certainty, he had to keep his conception of ‘I’ very thin. It might have no history at all, for all he could know, but exist only long enough to entertain the thought, ‘I exist’. John Locke thought of the self as tied together by memory alone. It is not surprising that when Hume looked inwards, he claimed to find only individual perceptions and no self in addition. After him, Kant thought we must decide how it is right to act by reference to what a rational being would do, not a German, nor a man or a woman - that would introduce bias - but just a rational being. Again the concept is very thin.
Leading philosophers who have denied there is such a thing as self in the 20th century include Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Anscombe, Tony Kenny, Derek Parfit and Daniel Dennett…Another philosopher of the first century AD was the Platonist, Plutarch. In his treatise On Tranquillity, he says that for our own tranquillity we should use our memory to weave the story of our life…A different light on Plutarch’s belief in the importance of memory is shed by the late Russian neuropsychiatrist S.Y. Luria. In Man with a Shattered Life…Luria comments that he found what really shattered personality in his patients was not loss of memory, but loss of the ability to pursue a forward looking project" (lecture delivered 25 October 2000).
The Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, famous for his account of the psychological effects of emprisonment in Nazi concentration camps (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946/1984), similarly insisted on the necessity of belief in a future. Without rejecting Freudian or Existentialist insights, "Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future" (p.120).
In Anthony Giddens’ terminology such a project would imply ‘colonisation of the future’. For Anthony Giddens (1991): "Self-identity is not a distinctive trait, or even a collection of traits, possessed by the individual. It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography" (p.53).
"The protective cocoon is the mantle of trust that makes possible the sustaining of a viable Umwelt" (p.129).
"…avoidance of dissonance forms part of the protective cocoon which helps maintain ontological security" (p.188).
Giddens (1991) seeks to place the modern individual in the wider context of history with his concept of historicity: "the use of history to make history, a fundamental aspect of the institutional reflexivity of modernity" (p.243). He defines institutional reflexivity as: "the reflexivity of modernity, involving the routine incorporation of new knowledge or information into environments of action that are thereby reconstituted or reorganised" (p.243).
An interesting contrast to this radical conceptualization is provided by what the archivist Canon Louis Marteau writes about the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in St John’s Wood: "The Mission and Philosophy of any organisation has to be seen in the light of its specific identity. This identity is built up from two factors, its Foundation and its History. Tradition can be seen as the experience of the institution’s history in living out the purposes of its Foundation" (Booklet: An Historical Tradition, available at the Hospital).
Antonio Damasio (1999) describes various cases of neurological damage and uses them to identify a transient core self and, beyond it, the autobiographical self: "Unlike the core self, which inheres as a protagonist of the primordial account, and unlike the proto-self, which is a current representation of the state of the organism, the autobiographical self is based on a concept in the true cognitive and neurobiological sense of the term" (p.173). Whereas Giddens’ approach to the Self is largely sociological, Damasio’s is neurological. In Damasio’s observation the proto-self exists beneath consciousness as "an interconnected and temporarily coherent collection of neural patterns which represent the state of the organism, moment by moment, at multiple levels of the brain" (p.174). The core self partakes of consciousness as a "second-order nonverbal account that occurs whenever an object modifies the proto-self" - here, at a different level, we are presented with the reflexivity so much emphasized by Giddens. According to Damasio, the core self can be triggered by any object, "the transient protagonist of consciousness, generated for any object that provokes the core-consciousness mechanism…Because of the permanent availability of provoking objects, it is continuously generated and thus appears continuous in time" (p.175). Just as the mechanism of the core self requires the presence of a proto-self, so the autobiographical self gradually develops out of the records of core-self experiences which are activated as neural patterns and converted into explicit images, though these permanent records "are partially modifiable with further experience" - again Giddens’ reflexivity. Thus, in Damasio’s account, the autobiographical self not only requires the presence of a core self but the mechanism of core consciousness for the generation of its memories: "The autobiographical self is based on autobiographical memory which is constituted by implicit memories of multiple instances of individual experience of the past and of the anticipated future…Each reactivated memory operates as a ‘something-to-be-known’ and generates its own pulse of core consciousness. The result is the autobiographical self of which we are conscious" (p.174).
Towards the conclusion of his Gresham lecture (25 October 2000) Richard Sorabji asks himself which concepts of the Self he finds useful. One is the Stoic theory, starting in the first century BC and set out in Cicero’s treatise On Duties, of four personae: "When you are considering how you ought to act, you should take into account not only your nature as a rational human being, but also your particular endowments, positions and choices…Kant’s conception of the moral agent as rational being is a very thin one. The Stoic concept, by contrast, is very thick, and includes the history of the individual." Sorabji pursues his assessment in a winning, almost homely, way: "The idea of a woven self would be useful in those cases where it could promote tranquillity, even though the idea of an inviolable self might only be useful in the extreme circumstances of the prison camp. The idea of an everlasting self is not so much useful as, in my view, desirable, if only it were true. Do these concepts of self in fact correspond to reality? I think the personae are real, and a woven self or an inviolable self can be made to come into existence."
Thomas Brown, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, reflected much earlier and in more general terms on this distinction made by Sorabji between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ conceptions: ‘the more various the views are, which we take of the objects of any science, the juster consequently, because the more equal, will be the estimate we form of them" (Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, 2nd edition, 1824, vol.1, p.335).
George Herbert Mead (1934) writes on Mind, Self and Society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist: "There are all sorts of different selves answering to all sorts of different social reactions. It is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self; it is not there as a self apart from this type of experience" (p.142) - an assertion borne out by accounts of prolonged solitary confinement (e.g. the BBC Radio 4 programme on ‘Solitude’, presented by Peter France, 9pm on Monday 16 April 2001).
Jerome Bruner (1990) reaches a similar conclusion at the end of his Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures, collected into his persuasive book Acts of Meaning: "…Selves are not isolated nuclei of consciousness locked in the head, but are ‘distributed’ interpersonally. Nor do Selves arise rootlessly in response only to the present; they take meaning as well from the historical circumstances that gave shape to the culture of which they are an expression. The program of a cultural psychology is not to deny biology or economics, but to show how human minds and lives are reflections of culture and history as well as of biology and physical resources. Necessarily, it uses the tools of interpretation that have always served the student of culture and history. There is no one ‘explanation’ of man, biological or otherwise. In the end, even the strongest causal explanations of the human condition cannot make plausible sense without being interpreted in the light of the symbolic world that constitutes human culture" (p.138).
The Personality Disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-III-R, in particular, Cluster B, pp.343-351) are largely disturbances of sense of identity. They may be understood as a group if placed in a larger context and regarded as problems of awareness of the Self, or indeed lack of a Self. This seems particularly clear in the case of what is termed in DSM-III-R (pp.349-351) Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It seems likely that a narcissistic personality (Kohut, 1971, 1977) develops in lieu of a secure sense of Self. There is little to disagree with in the conclusions reached by Anthony Giddens (1991) after he has examined in some detail the diagnoses of modern narcissism made by Richard Sennett (1977) and Christopher Lasch (1980, 1985). Giddens goes for the jugular of the problem, the aetiology of narcissism: "Narcissism , in clinical terms, should be regarded as one among several other pathologies of the body which modern social life tends in some part to promote. As a personality deformation, narcissism has its origins in a failure to achieve basic trust. This is particularly true where the child fails satisfactorily to acknowledge the autonomy of the prime caretaker; and is unable clearly to separate out its own psychic boundaries. In these circumstances, omnipotent feelings of self-worth are likely to alternate with their opposite, a sense of emptiness and despair. Carried over into adulthood, these traits create a type of individual who is prone to be neurotically dependent on others, especially for the maintenance of self-esteem, yet possesses insufficient autonomy to be able to communicate effectively with them. Such a person is unlikely to be able to come to terms with the contemplation of risk which modern life circumstances entail. Thus she or he is likely to depend on the cultivation of bodily attractiveness, and perhaps personal charm, as a means of seeking to control life’s hazards. The central dynamic of narcissism…can be seen as shame rather than guilt. The alternating feelings of grandiosity and worthlessness with which the narcissist has to cope are essentially responses to a fragile self-identity liable to be overwhelmed by shame" (p.178). Thus, insufficient autonomy is the crux of problems of effective communication with others.
There may be behaviour which can justly be termed ‘evil’ but, behind the evil, there is almost certainly a host of causative and accompanying factors which are more banal: a bad start in life, a compartmentalized mind, paranoia, a habit of subservience, unconventional attitudes including intent to harm, a fractured sense of personal identity.
There is an obvious general observation to be made about emotional security: initial security seems to beget greater security with time, provided there is no overwhelming trauma along life’s path; conversely, early insecurity seems to escalate to greater and, in some cases, ultimately crippling insecurity.
According to their resilience, people develop positive or negative attitudes in response to life’s problems and ordeals. The positive nonagenarians have usually had a fulfilled life, in which they had been largely successful and achieved many of their aspirations. A positive example would be Alistair Cooke, who has become an historic figure, a chronicler whose every word has been heard or read by millions of people all over the world. His Letters from America will probably be referred to hundreds of years hence. A negative example would be an erstwhile editor of The Times, who was asked whether he could think of anything good about growing old. He said, sorry, no, he couldn’t think of anything good about growing old. A few tentative suggestions were made, such as cheaper travel and concessionary prices for entertainment…but, no, he was adamant - there was nothing, not a single word of cheer! The differences between individuals become more evident as the ageing process continues.
Viktor Frankl and Jerome Bruner, in identifying the quest for meaning as a basic human characteristic, stand in a line of philosophical enquiry which loses itself in the mists of prehistory. An urge to find meaning through art and through religious exploration surfaced, according to current archeological thinking about 17,000 years ago. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark, of the University of Sussex, speaking in the third and last part of the television series Testing God (Channel 4, 8-9pm Sunday, 16 September 2001) saw this urge to find meaning as part of human brain function. We are resource-limited creatures, he pointed out - we don’t have infinite amounts of either brain-power or time. We have to make decisions on the hoof, on the basis of limited information and limited processing time. We encounter problems in social situations since we are social creatures. When we can’t make sense of how one thing gives way to another we interpose a will - someone wanted this to happen. When two things are systematically linked but we can’t see why, we invent a good story, to make sense of things which otherwise would not make sense.
We have a need to create narrative. The historian William Sullivan spent over twenty years examining the rise and fall of the Incas. He is convinced that they studied the sky and believed that their contact with their ancestors on the stars could only be preserved if they sacrificed their children and sent them to plead in the War against Time. The secrets are there in features of the landscape and to be deciphered in the Spanish chronicles of the conquest of Peru - why the Inca empire was founded and why it crumbled. The Spaniards decimated them and they offered almost no resistance because they believed it was the fulfillment of a prophesy. They needed the story to make sense of their history, their culture and their identity as individuals. Sullivan (1997) pieces together the hidden esoteric tradition of the Andes to uncover the tragic secret of the Incas, a tribe who believed that if events in the heavens could influence those on earth, perhaps the reverse could be true. He seeks the meaning of ancient Andean beliefs, arguing that in a series of sophisticated myths Incan soothsayers foretold their own civilization's doom at the hands of Pizarro and his conquistadors in 1532. He begins with a question that has perplexed historians of the Spanish conquest: How could the vast Inca Empire, with its millions of subjects, have been conquered overnight by a band of 170 Spanish adventurers? He digs into the history and mythology of Andean civilization to find what he feels is the answer: For hundreds of years the sages of the Andes had believed that astronomical transitions presaged earthly cataclysms; reading changes in the night skies in the 1400s, Inca priest-astronomers foretold the imminent destruction of their own recently founded empire. The Incas followed the planets, recorded precessional events in their myths, and equated social and celestial changes. Sullivan further asserts that elements in Incan culture preceding Pizarro's arrival - constant warfare and the Incan ritual of human sacrifice - represented an attempt to halt the march of time and prevent the apocalyptic events foreshadowed by changes in the night sky. The Incas assumed that the arrival of Pizarro represented the culmination of the prophecy and the failure of their own efforts to prevent its occurrence.
At its peak, the Inca empire was the largest on Earth. Yet in the year 1532, it was conquered by fewer than 200 Spanish adventurers. The Incas accepted their fate as written in the stars.
The novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote of his encounter with three islands: Corfu, which inspired his novel 'Prospero's Cell' (written in retrospect during his wartime sojourn in Alexandria), Rhodes, where he sought to capture not just the truth of his experience of the Aegean but 'the essence of truth' in 'Reflections on a Marine Venus', and Cyprus out of which 'Bitter Lemons', arguably his most valued book, grew. He was distilling his Self on these three islands, and now, of course, tourism has obliterated much of their magic.
South Korea recently demanded that Japan should rewrite its history books, asserting that the present account does not give a true picture of Japanese imperialistic behaviour in Korea. Once Stalin was laid out beside Lenin in the Mausoleum in Moscow like a kindly old grandfather. A few years later he was behind a stone in the Kremlin wall reading simply 'Stalin', and his image had been expunged from the paintings in the Museum of the Revolution. Everything, not just human history, is in a state of flux.
We all fill in the gaps in the information at our disposal by a type of confabulation. Brian Goodwin, a biologist of Schumacher College, sees the distinction between subjective and objective experience as a wound we have inflicted on ourselves and one we should seek to heal. Since Descartes and Galileo this separation of the subjective and the objective has meant that, not only Nature, but we ourselves are reduced to a mechanism. We equate ‘objective’ with ‘real’, yet the things we value most in our lives are subjective. Inside our brain everything is a real experience. To heal this gaping dichotomy we have to cultivate a different kind of primary knowing, by all means backed up by mathematics and quantification where possible but these are secondary.
Brain scans on Buddhist monks have shown a decrease in cortical activity, at the peak of their meditation, in areas where orientation of the self with the rest of the world takes place. This reductionist finding may well be associated with the subjective mystical experience of the cessation of time and space, of a oneness with something larger than oneself.
At the University of Southern California, an electrical engineer, Bart Kosko, expounds a theory of ‘fuzzy logic’. Nothing is a hundred per cent black or white, all our experience consists of shades of grey. It is true that this binary instinct, with which science has imbued us, favours concrete action. To act promptly and decisively we want each phenomenon to be ‘either - or’, we want objective certainty, but this longing for objective certainty has subjective roots. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has seeped from quantum mechanics so that the phenomenal world is shot through with uncertainty. Boundaries are no longer clear-cut but jagged and, like fractals, irresolvably complex.
If you designed a robot which checked every detail of information for accuracy, at that moment, before embarking on any action, the impression would not be one of intelligence but of cognitive deficit. In the twenty-first century some workers in artificial intelligence are coming to think that an intelligent robot sometimes needs, not to know with certainty, but to believe, in order to act. Belief is the only way of negotiating the complexities and uncertainties of this life.
Our Real Identity according to the Vedanta
We all have personal likes and dislikes, fond memories, and plans for the future. But all these inclinations change - your plans as an infant are not the same as your plans now.
The Existence of the Soul
The temporary body is not as important as the soul, because the soul is eternal. As far as the soul's existence is concerned, no one can establish the soul's existence experimentally. There is no source of understanding for the soul except through the Vedas, just as there is no source of understanding for the identity of the father except that emanating from the mother.
The Subtle Body
When we speak of the body, we include the subtle body. The subtle body is made up of the mind, the intelligence, and the false ego. The false ego is the material identity that the spirit-soul accepts upon entering a material body. The intelligence is meant to make judgments and plans by remembering information supplied by the mind. Everything we have done, felt, desired, or said is stored in the mind. Most of it is information beyond the reach of consciousness, especially that from past lives. Within the arena of the mind, the intellect works and the senses reach out for their objects. Whatever gratifies the senses, the mind accepts, and whatever does not gratify, it rejects, unless the intelligence intercedes on behalf of the desires of the soul. The intelligence and the soul are closely enwrapped, separated only by the transparent layer of the false ego.
The Changing Body
The body changes continuously, almost like the frames of a movie. Moment by moment, the cells of the body are changing. The body is subject to the processes of growth and ageing. All the cells of the body are renewed every seven years. Thus the body changes many times in a lifetime. The small baby's body is gone, and now it is replaced by another. But despite all the changes of the body, the spirit-soul exists permanently, remaining the same. To enlighten those who do not understand the difference between matter and spirit, the Lord teaches Bhagavad-gita.
The Symptom of the Soul
If you take salt and mix it in a glass of water, the salt can no longer be seen, but the salt can be recognized by tasting the water. Similarly, the soul is a spiritual atom, smaller than a material atom, one ten-thousandth part of the tip of a hair in size, but it can be recognized by its symptom, consciousness. Consciousness pervades the entire body. If you pinch your body, you will feel pain. Everyone is conscious of the pleasures and pains of his own body. This consciousness is direct evidence of the presence of the spirit-soul. A material body without consciousness is a dead body, and no material means can bring back the consciousness. Consciousness is limited to one's own body. The consciousness of another's body is unknown. Therefore each body is the embodiment of an individual soul.
The Sun and the Sunshine
Sometimes we cannot see the sun in the sky owing to clouds, but the light of the sun is always there, and we are convinced that it is daytime. As soon as a little light appears in the sky early in the morning, we understand that the sun is in the sky. Similarly, since there is some consciousness in all bodies, whether man or animal, we can detect the presence of the soul. As the sun is illuminating the world from one place, the small particle of spirit in the heart is illuminating the body. Although the spirit-soul is within the body, the soul remains forever detached from the body. The soul does not respond to material influences. The soul cannot be dried by air or heat, burnt by fire, or cut with a knife.
Proper Use of Independence
Living entities are eternally fragmental parts and parcels of the Supreme Lord. As fragmental parts and parcels, they have fragmental portions of his qualities. Thus every living entity, as an individual soul, has personal individuality and a minute quantity of independence. By misuse of that independence one becomes a conditioned soul, and by proper use one is liberated. After liberation the soul remains an individual and lives in eternal knowledge and bliss with the Personality of Godhead.
Our Constitutional Position
Everyone wants to love and be loved. No one can live without loving someone else. This inclination to love moves us to serve our family, our community, our country, or society in general, but our love remains imperfectly fulfilled until it reposes in the Supreme Beloved, Sri Krishna. The Supreme Lord is the source of everything, including all loving relationships. Although human civilization has furthered comfortable living, we are not happy, and many are frustrated and confused because they are missing this point: our constitutional position, as spirit-soul, is to serve in love the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Missing Krishna means missing one's self, and loving Krishna means loving one's self and all living entities perfectly.
Kong Fuzi, romanized to Confucius (551-479 BC), said "Study the past if you would divine the future."
Confucius advocated a respect for hierarchy, ritual and self-cultivation through learning, but he warned: "Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous."
In traditional Chinese philosophy and science the psychological was almost never separated from the physical. The attitude was holistic, in contrast to Indo-European thought deriving from the Greeks. Plato and his school distinguished matter from ideas, and the soma from the psyche. In the twentieth century, however, an array of psychobiological, monistic attitudes arose in the Western tradition, basically idealistic, reinforced by Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Philosophical anti-dualism in China can be traced to Confucius and even earlier. Chinese rationalism of various schools opposed supernatural conceptualization. An organic outlook on interactions between man, nature and government became entrenched in the minds of educated people. Religious, supernatural beliefs continued within popular Taoism. Earlier animistic beliefs in spirits which possessed the human body and soul, producing physical, behavioural and social disorders, were paralleled by natural factors like heat, cold, drought and wind, which affected the human body in much the same manner. Confucians, however, created a rational system of beliefs which were nonetheless metaphysical. Phenomena belonged together in groups governed by numerological principles. These groups consisted of concrete as well as abstract things and the changes they went through occurred in resonance or ‘in correlation’ with each other. Paired relationships were analysed in terms of yin and yang. The Five Phases were used in correlating anything divisible in fives. The Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches were applied jointly to the calendar. The gods were disregarded as was any dichotomy between the body and its soul.
St Augustine (354-430 A.D.)
Aurelius Augustinus, whom we know as the Christian theologian St Augustine of Hippo, and read chiefly in his autobiography, Confessions, and in City of God, was born on 13 November 354 A.D. in Thagaste, now called Souk-Ahras, south of Bône in Algeria. He had at least one brother, Navigius, and two sisters. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian but his father, Patricius, a small landowner and local government official, still held pagan beliefs, only converting to Christianity in 370. From eleven to fifteen Augustine was sent to school at Madaura (now Mdaurouch) about twenty miles from Thagaste. For a year he stayed at home until enough money had been saved for his enrolment at the University of Carthage. Patricius and Monica were gentlefolk of modest means and the School of Rhetoric at Carthage demanded high fees during Augustine’s studies between 371 and 374.
Several important events occurred during these years of study under the great rhetors of Carthage, "where a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me" (Confessions, Book III, ch.1). In 371 his father died. Augustine settled down with a common-law wife to whom he was faithful for thirteen years. She gave birth to his son, Adeodatus, the following year when Augustine was nineteen. The relationship was ultimately sacrificed to his career in 386: "She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage. My heart which had held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood. She went back to Africa, swearing that she would never know another man, and left with me the natural son I had had of her. But I in my unhappiness could not, for all my manhood imitate her resolve. I was unable to bear the delay of two years which must pass before I was to get the girl I had asked for in marriage. In fact it was not really marriage that I wanted. I was simply a slave to lust. So I took another woman, not of course as a wife; and thus my soul’s disease was nourished" (Book VI, ch.15).
Augustine was only eighteen when he became involved with the Manichees, who represented Satan as co-eternal with God. Even before their founder Manes, or Mani, or Manichaeus, had been crucified in 277 in Persia, his religion had spread rapidly and by the time Augustine encountered it a century later, there were Manichean groups throughout the Roman empire, particularly in North Africa. It was a proscribed sect, practising in secret, regarding Christian doctrine as only partially true and incorporating elements from other religions. The virgin birth and the crucifixion were denied since the flesh was evil and any association with it was unworthy of God. In the beginning there were the two independent principles of Good and Evil, or Light and Darkness, which became mixed in matter. They were in constant conflict, the particles of good perpetually striving to escape from the darkness which enveloped them. More particles of light were present in vegetables than in meat so a devout Manichee was a vegetarian, reluctant even to cut down a tree. Fruits should be plucked by the wicked, the lost souls, belonging to neither the higher nor the lower order of the sect. For the former, marriage was forbidden since procreation was a collusion with the powers of darkness. It is difficult to credit that a man of Augustine’s intellectual calibre could have swallowed these doctrines but they provided him with an explanation of the problem of evil. Although he never rose to a degree beyond that of ‘aspirant’, he remained a member for almost ten years, even promulgating Manichean ideas to others.
In Book II of the Confessions he relates a boyish prank when he was sixteen: "There was a pear tree near our vineyard, heavy with fruit, but fruit that was not particularly tempting either to look at or to taste. A group of young blackguards, and I among them, went out to knock down the pears and carry them off late one night, for it was our bad habit to carry on our games in the streets till very late. We carried off an immense load of pears, not to eat - for we barely tasted them before throwing them to the hogs. Our only pleasure in doing it was that it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart: yet in the depth of the abyss You had pity on it. Let that heart now tell You what it sought when I was thus evil for no object, having no cause for wrongdoing save my wrongness. The malice of the act was base and I loved it - that is to say I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me - not the thing for which I did the evil, simply the evil: my soul was depraved, and hurled itself down from security in You into utter destruction, seeking no profit from wickedness but only to be wicked" (ch. 4). Augustine is still agonizing over the despoiling of the pear tree in chapter 10: "I went away from You, my God, in my youth I strayed too far from Your sustaining power, and I became to myself a barren land." As Bertrand Russell points out, this hypersensitivity, which is also to be found in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, might seem morbid by our modern moral criteria, but in Augustine’s own age it seemed a mark of holiness. The sense of sin is essential to self-importance and a direct relation to God, since it explains how a loving God can cause men to suffer. Even as an infant, he questions: "what then were my sins at that age? That I wailed too fiercely for the breast?" Confessions, Book I, ch.7). He was responding to a mounting wave of asceticism in the Roman world with a ferociously severe self-analysis.
Augustine turns from the narrative of his life, occupying the first nine books of the Confessions, to his examination in Book X of his memory and the extent of his present ability to withstand temptation. He remains puzzled about the nature of his Self: "As for the allurement of sweet scents, I am not much troubled: when they are absent I do not seek them; when they are present, I do not refuse them: yet at any time I do not mind being without them. At least so I seem to myself; perhaps I am deceived. For that darkness is lamentable in which the possibilities in me are hidden from myself: so that my mind, questioning itself upon its own powers, feels that it cannot lightly trust its own report: because what is already in it does for the most part lie hidden, unless experience brings it to light: and in this life, which is rightly called one continuing trial, no man ought to be oversure that though he is capable of becoming better instead of worse, he is not actually becoming worse instead of better. Our one hope, our one confidence, our one firm promise is Your mercy" (chapter 32).
In Book XI he becomes preoccupied with the nature of Time: "there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things future. For these three exist in the mind, and I find them nowhere else: the present of things past is memory, the present of things present is direct perception, the present of things future is expectation" (Confessions Book XI, ch. 20).
Some of the tenets of Manicheanism Augustine continued to hold after 383, when he had set up his own school of rhetoric in Rome. He was offered a professorship in Milan where he encountered Neoplatonism and came under the influence of St Ambrose, who baptised him in 387, after he had renounced his unorthodox beliefs. On his return to Africa he formed his own community but it was only against his wishes that he was ordained a priest in 391. Five years later he was made bishop of Hippo. He lived with his cathedral clergy for 34 years and died in 430 as the Vandals were besieging Hippo.
The chief formative influences on Augustine’s mind were probably Cicero, Mani, Plato and Christ. His surviving writings consist of 113 books and treatises, more than 200 letters and 500 sermons. His Confessions and City of God, written after the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric and the Goths, have influenced not only Christian theology but Western psychology and political philosophy since the Dark Ages.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Montaigne is aware of the mutability of human life. Everywhere everything changes. Perhaps because this is so, he proposes to describe himself, not seeking the universal but simply the changing reality, the patterns which represent his own particular way of living in flux. Self-knowledge is the key to self-acceptance and, feeling at home within the limits of our condition, we learn to draw them from within, shorn of pretensions to universality, of superhuman spiritual aspirations.
In defining the limits relevant to his own existence, Montaigne eschews excess. He turns away equally from rigorous, self-satisfied morality and unbridled passion, advocating an individual kind of reflection on the self, which sees through the delusions created by passion or spiritual pride.
We must turn inward and examine ourselves in the particular, not the general. The Self can be better explored through the dialogue of friendship than solitary debate. Coming to terms with ourselves has become a fundamental theme of modern culture. Montaigne, like Epicurus and Lucretius in the ancient world, recognized that human beings lay a crushing burden upon themselves with their spiritual aspirations and the sacrifices these entail in ordinary life.
René Descartes (1596-1650)
As Richard Sorabji pointed out in his Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Rhetoric, delivered 25 October 2000 at Gresham College, London, Descartes was certain of one thing: ‘I exist’. But he could not be certain that a Frenchman existed, educated at La Flèche and called Descartes. In order to retain certainty, he had to keep his conception of ‘I’ very thin. It might have no history at all, for all he could know, but exist only long enough to entertain the thought, ‘I exist’.
Descartes takes Augustinian inwardness in a new direction by situating the source of morality within us. In relation to Plato, he offers a new understanding of reason and its hegemony over the passions, which both regard as the essence of morality. His understanding of the universe has nothing to do with the Platonic Ideas but is mechanistic and embraces the compositive method of Galileo. This account of scientific knowledge is representational. Knowledge of outer reality depends upon a correct picture within, and representations attain the status of knowledge firstly by being correct but secondly by carrying certainty. Confidence comes where the truth is undeniable through a chain of clear perceptions. In the Discours he gives the modern advice on problem-solving, to divide up the problem into smaller parts.
His insight that our knowledge of external objects is our own construct is the basis of Descartes’ confidence and the arguments justifying this confidence of attaining certainty seem to follow later. It must be attainable because, in a process of metacognition, we can reflect on our own mentation. Thinking is something we do so we can achieve certainty about it.
John Locke (1632-1704)
John Locke (1690) believed that all our knowledge is the result of our experiences and of reflection. Our ideas are the result of abstracting certain elements from our experiences. These elements are then combined into one whole. The idea of justice, for instance, results from our experience of a number of just acts. We abstract the common elements and unify them into the idea.
Locke's epistemology, his radical disengagement and reification of the human psyche were influential throughout the Enlightenment, down to the present: "It is plain, consciousness, as far as ever it can be extended - should it be ages past - unites existences and actions very remote in time into the same person, as well as it does the existences and actions of the immediately preceding moment: so that whatever has the consciousness of present and past actions, is the same person to whom they both belong." (Essay 2.27.16)
He offered a plausible account of the new science, the Newtonian model, as valid knowledge, together with a theory of rational control of the self, the ideal of self-responsibility. The rational, self-responsible mind can suspend its acceptance of many authoritative assertions, can test their validity and replace them.
Locke intensified the new stance of disengagement, which was inaugurated by Descartes, to the extreme of what Charles Taylor (1989) calls ‘punctuality’. Disengagement towards the Self brings a new understanding of human agency and its powers, a new definition of freedom and dignity. We believe we have a self in the same way as we have a brain, but defining human agency as ‘the self’ is, as Taylor (1989) points out, "a linguistic reflection of our modern understanding and the radical reflexivity it involves…but it was not always so" (p.177).
Although Locke was one of the most eloquent exponents of disengaged freedom, he nonetheless remained a believing Christian, accepting the Puritan affirmation of ordinary life. His faith was serious but his theology was not orthodox: the Law of Nature is normative for human beings because it is God’s command but it is not known exclusively by revelation - it is also known by reason. We are able to learn God’s purposes from his creation. Locke links divine commands and human reason through hedonism: good is pleasure; pain is evil. For Locke, the injunction to improve was not only aimed at increased benefits to the improver but also at the general good.
For Locke human beings are potentially rational but tend to behave irrationally and they have an inclination towards evil. Only a law which brings punishment if transgressed will keep them in order. Only God as Judge brings hope that they will escape the despair and self-destruction attending the human condition. He must exist for them to create some order in their life. Locke was not tolerant of atheists whom he regarded as having spurned the basis of human civil life.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
When Rousseau, whose social philosophy influenced Robespierre, whose praise of the simple rustic life inspired the 19th century French and English romantic poets, was born on 28 June 1712 in Geneva, the son of a watchmaker, his mother died in childbirth. "I was born," he states at the beginning of his Confessions, "a weak and ailing child; I cost my mother her life, and my birth was the first of my misfortunes." When he was ten his father abandoned him. He was sent by his uncle to live at Bossey with Pastor Lambercier, who would tutor him and his cousin Bernard. Mademoiselle Lambercier, the Pastor’s motherly sister, beat him and initiated a craving for flagellation which remained with him for life. Rousseau was much more than a masochist, but his masochism was typical - constantly provocative, prone to fantasy and self-engendered misfortune, alternating between prudishness and preoccupation with sex - and it largely explains why he was so difficult to get on with. Despite his passionate defence of childhood in Emile (1762), he committed his five children by Thérèse Levasseur to the foundling hospital. He died on 2 July 1778 in Ermenonville, the guest of the Marquis de Girardin, a paranoiac and virtually insane.
The two great autobiographies before Rousseau’s time, St Augustine’s and St Teresa’s, were written to communicate a powerful religious experience which might inspire others, but by the time Rousseau began writing his autobiography in 1765, men and women no longer felt they were particles of a fabric woven by God and encompassing the whole of Nature, but unique individuals, each important in his or her own right. He could, therefore, write his life in terms of his worldly experiences and assess his own worth quite apart from orthodox religious values. Rousseau’s theory of the Self was unusual and had an important bearing on his autobiography. Though he took the title of his Confessions (published posthumously in two parts in 1782 and 1789) from Saint Augustine, Rousseau rejected the Augustinian doctrine that love of self was evil. He believed that self approval was imperative: "What can one be pleased with in life," he wrote to a friend, "if one is not pleased with the only man one can never be separated from?" He believed two attitudes were possible towards the self: an innocent and inescapable love of self and a vicious and corrupt amour propre. The innocent emotion was limited to the individual, whereas self-conceit sought the favourable opinion of others in a never-ending, insatiable quest - "it requires that others should prefer us to themselves, which is an impossibility."
His defense of love of self meant that he believed that only we ourselves, knowing what is taking place in our heart, can judge ourselves: "I can see by the way in which those who think they know me interpret my actions and my conduct that they know nothing. No one in the world knows me except myself."
Though he knew Montaigne’s Essays well, in Book X of the Confessions he wrote: "I had always ridiculed the false ingenuousness of Montaigne, who, while pretending to confess his defects, is most careful to attribute to himself only such as are amiable; whereas I, who have always believed, and still believe, myself to be, all things considered, the best of men, felt that there is no human heart, however pure it may be, which does not conceal some odious vice." For Rousseau there was the self which was given to him by nature and the self or selves he himself created. By nature, he confesses, he was lazy and lived for the moment, did not plan evil but succumbed to passing temptation. When he decided to write, he became "another man" - austere, stern, the champion of liberty, truth and virtue. In Book XII of the Confessions, when he felt his career as an author had ended, on the island of Saint-Pierre, he reverted to his old aimless, idle, natural self, daydreaming and learning the names of the wild flowers.
These two selves, the one natural and the other created, shaped the two-part structure of the Confessions. Soon after he returned to France from England in 1767 he set his memoirs aside for two years. He resumed work on them with a declaration: "You have seen my peaceful youth flow away in a tolerably uniform and agreeable manner, without great disappointments or remarkable prosperity. This absence of extremes was in great part the result of my passionate but weak disposition, which, more easily discouraged than prompt to undertake, only quitted its state of repose when rudely shocked, but fell back into it again from weariness and natural inclination…What a different picture I shall soon have to draw!"
He continues Book VII: "I may omit or transpose facts, or make mistakes in dates; but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt, or about what my feelings have led me to do." He was indeed a creature of feeling, out of his element with the rationalism of the Encyclopedists, and the feeling which constantly recurs in his Confessions is one of loss, a longing for some other, happier way of life. It was not uncommon for sentiment to slide into melancholy. His chronic ill-health was aggravated by hypochondria. He was constantly preoccupied with his sensations - whether he was comfortable or uncomfortable - with his likes and dislikes - whether people, places, the weather pleased him or displeased him. His emotions of indignation, jealousy or affection were coloured by bodily feelings.
Sentiment acquired a moral importance in parallel with the burgeoning feeling for nature in the 18th century. The monied classes took a delight in living and walking in the country, whilst Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting played at being milkmaids in the Petit Trianon. The formal French garden gave way to the jardin anglais. The idea that simple, rustic life is closer to virtue than the corrupt life of the city was reinforced by tales of primitive people overseas, by a respect for ordinary occupations and for agriculture. Rousseau espoused primitivism, ordinary life, and a moral stance which granted a place for depravity. He rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin and asserted that human nature was essentially good - it was the institutions of society which corrupted man.
The inner voice of nature, Rousseau believed, the inner voice of true sentiments, must be consulted since they define what is good. The traditional manner of recognizing and understanding universal good within a providential order can remain in parallel, but we must discover from within, from our own impulses what is significant. Our happiness is to be found by listening to this inner voice and being ourselves. Rousseau thus stands at the origin of our contemporary philosophy of self-exploration which holds self-determination to be the key to virtue. He initiates the modern tendency to inwardness and autonomy.
From Book I onwards the Confessions compel respect by the empathy, the acute self-awareness of their author: "I felt before I thought: this is the common lot of humanity. I experienced it more than others…I only remember my earliest reading, and the effect it had upon me; from that time I date my uninterrupted self-consciousness," and as time went on, "I lost my identity in that of the individual whose life I was reading."
Whilst boarding with Pastor Lambercier at Bossey, Rousseau became attached to his cousin Bernard: "we were alone, we were of the same age, each of us needed a companion: separation was to us, in a manner, annihilation." During this period: "although little susceptible to praise, I felt shame keenly." "Failure to please grieved me more than punishment, and signs of dissatisfaction hurt me more than corporal chastisement."
In Book III Rousseau reflects upon himself thus - a remarkable piece of metacognitive monitoring: "Two things, almost incompatible, are united in me in a manner which I am unable to understand: a very ardent temperament, lively and tumultuous passions, and, at the same time, slowly developed and confused ideas, which never present themselves until it is too late. One might say that my heart and my mind do not belong to the same person. Feeling takes possession of my soul more rapidly than a flash of lightning; but, instead of illuminating, inflames and dazzles me. I feel everything and see nothing. I am carried away by my passions, but stupid; in order to think, I must be cool. The astonishing thing is that, notwithstanding, I exhibit tolerably sound judgment, penetration, even finesse, if I am not hurried…This sluggishness of thought, combined with such liveliness of feeling, not only enters into my conversation, but I feel it even when alone and at work. My ideas arrange themselves in my head with almost incredible difficulty; they circulate in it with uncertain sound, and ferment till they excite and heat me, and make my heart beat fast; and, in the midst of this excitement, I see nothing clearly and am unable to write a singe word - I am obliged to wait. Imperceptibly this great agitation subsides, the confusion clears up, everything takes its proper place, but slowly, and only after a period of long and confused agitation."
One of Rousseau’s unexpected, created selves was the musician. He had no professional training but had gained most of his knowledge of opera by visiting the opera houses of Venice during 1743-44 when he acted as secretary to the French ambassador to the doge. He entered into public controversy with Jean-Philippe Rameau, 30 years his senior, who stated that harmony should have priority over melody and believed that conformity to rationally intelligible rules is a necessary condition of art. Rousseau pleaded the superiority of Italian music where melody has priority over harmony. He argued for freedom in music and succeeded in changing attitudes. Gluck acknowledged his debt to Rousseau. Mozart based the text of Bastien und Bastienne on Rousseau’s opera, Le Devin du Village, much admired by the king on its 1752 performance in Paris. Rousseau decided, however, that, as a moralist who had broken with worldly values, he could not continue to work for the theatre.
After Rousseau had broken his friendship with David Hume, suspecting him of plotting against his life, Hume said: "He has only felt during the whole course of his life, and in this respect his sensibility rises to a pitch beyond what I have seen any example of; but it still gives him a more acute feeling of pain than of pleasure. He is like a man who was stripped not only of his clothes, but of his skin, and turned out in this situation to combat with the rude and boisterous elements."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Goethe was perhaps the last of the Renaissance men - critic, journalist, painter, educationalist, statesman, an encyclopedic mind, contributing to poetry, drama, philosophy and science. He was born on 28 August 1749 in Frankfurt am Main. From October 1765 he studied law at his father’s old university of Leipzig and became a lawyer in 1771. That year he wrote the drama, inspired by Shakespeare, Götz von Berlichingen, revised and published in 1773, which became the first major landmark in the Sturm und Drang movement. A wave of suicides swept Europe after the publication of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in 1774. It gained him a European literary reputation at the age of 25. Much of his lyric poetry was inspired by his own love affairs. In Italy he made many sketches. He spent sixty years of his long life working on Faust. The Urfaust was published in 1833 after his death on 22 March 1832. He was in his eighty-third year and Minister of State in the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar.
Goethe came from a middle-class background. This Bürgertum he always extolled as the environment in which culture could grow. Johann Kaspar Goethe, his father, was a retired lawyer who had acquired a handsome house, a large library and a collection of paintings. Katharine Elisabeth Textor, his mother, was the daughter of the Bürgermeister of Frankfurt. Sadly, only Wolfgang and his sister Cornelia survived out of eight children.
In his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit ("Poetry and Truth", 1811-22), Goethe creates the picture of a happy childhood. He sets out the psychological and emotional complexities of his relationship with Cornelia, the brother–sister relationship which recurs in his work. He tells of his passionate attachment to a barmaid, Gretchen, which foreshadowed the repeated pattern of rejection of many of his loves. He describes the broadening of outlook that came with French occupation during the Seven Years' War. The French army had brought its own troupe of actors, and their performances intensified a passion for the stage, first kindled in him by his grandmother's gift of a puppet theatre. These performances left Goethe with a lifelong devotion to Racine. His friendship with a young clothier from Leeds (Goethe's paternal grandfather was a fashionable tailor) inspired him with admiration for things English. Cornelia, imagining herself the heroine of one of Samuel Richardson’s novels in letter form, fell hopelessly in love with this Englishman. Her brother Wolfgang's reaction was to start a novel in letters, a kind of linguistic exercise in which four brothers correspond in different languages.
The autobiography takes us only to the age of 26, to a turning-point in 1775 when he departed for Weimar where the turbulent poet would grow into the Olympian. He was 60 when he began work on it. He had twice been gravely ill in the preceding years. With Schiller’s death in 1805 he felt he had lost "the half of his existence". In 1806 he began to collect his works in a complete edition. As he went through his early poems he reflected that they were fragments of a confession: "And thus began that tendency from which I could not deviate my whole life through; namely the tendency to turn into an image, into a poem, everything that delighted or troubled me, or otherwise occupied me, and to come to some certain understanding with myself upon it, that I might both rectify my conceptions of external things, and set my mind at rest about them. The faculty of doing this was necessary to no one more than to me, for my natural disposition whirled me constantly from one extreme to the other. All, therefore, that has been confessed by me, consists of fragments of a great confession; and this little book is an attempt which I have ventured on to render it complete" (Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book 7, Vol. I, p.305).
He could not leave it to others to complete this confession, with their obituaries and encyclopedia articles. Names, dates and events did not capture a life. In an Epilogue he wrote when Faust was yet a fragment, he meditated:
Des Menschen Leben ist ein ähnliches Gedicht.
Es hat ein Anfang, hat ein Ende,
Allein ein Ganzes ist es nicht.
(The life of a human being is a similar poem. It has a beginning, it has an end, but is is not a whole.) He ends the autobiography with a quotation from his drama Egmont (1788): "Child, child! No further! As if lashed by invisible spirits, the Sun Horses of Time are bolting with the light chariot of our destiny, and we can do nothing but hold fast the reins in cool self-possession, and steer the wheels, now left, now right, away from the rock here, from the precipice there. Whereto - who knows? Indeed he remembers scarcely whence he came" (Dichtung und Wahrheit, Book 20, Vol. II, p.437).
Goethe’s autobiography is a panorama of people and events, of young love and bitter parting, of burlesque tomfoolery and intellectual quest, of religion, art and philosophy, with the mature man interrupting the life-narrative of the young hero with assessments which set things in perspective. He reflects on the immense impact of Werther: "the shock was great, because all extravagant demands, unsatisfied passions, and imaginary wrongs were suddenly brought into eruption" (Book 13, Vol. II, p.219). He depicts the social fabric of his age yet he himself remains shadowy, pouring his inner life into his poetry, his uncensored confession.
At times Goethe rated his scientific writings, such as his Theory of Colour (1805-10), higher than his artistic achievements. He postulated that the leaf is the most primitive part of the plant, of which other parts are modifications. In anatomy he considered the skull a modification of the spine. What was valuable above all in his scientific pursuits was not his discoveries but his insight into his methods of arriving at them. He understood that the scientist must beware of his own mental processes in observing phenomena and constructing theories. He concluded that the only way of coping with the inescapable involvement of the observer in the phenomena to be observed is to let knowledge of self develop with knowledge of the world. Such monitoring of his own mental processing led Goethe to found and to name the science of morphology, the systematic study of formation and transformation, principles which applied equally to rocks or colours, to plants or animals, or indeed to human social phenomena when these objects of study present themselves to a sentient being. He did not regard his morphology as a substitute for the quantitative sciences and he was not opposed to analysis but he believed that it should alternate with synthesis. He wanted a humanizing counterbalance to physics, a qualitative understanding of nature as well as a reduction to mathematical terms aimed at controlling and predicting.
Thomas Brown, Professor of Moral Philosphy in the University of Edinburgh, gave a series of 100 lectures which were published as Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (Second edition 1824).
Lev Nikolaievich Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Count Lev Nikolaievich Tolstoy was born on 9 September (28 August, according to the old calendar) 1828 on the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana in the province of Tula. He was tutored privately then attended the University of Kazan where he studied law and Oriental languages. In 1851 he joined an artillery regiment in the Caucasus, taking part in the Crimean war and the defence of Sevastopol. His Sevastopol Stories established his reputation as a writer. His marriage to Sophie Andreyevna Behrs in 1862 was happy for fifteen years, producing thirteen children. During this time Tolstoy managed his large estate, cared for his peasants and developed the educational ideas he had previously studied abroad and in St Petersburg in the school he had established for their children. He also wrote War and Peace (1865-68) and Anna Karenina (1874-76). After A Confession (1879-82) his life and public personality changed. He became a rationalist, a moralist, and wrote pamphlets from 1880 onwards, rejecting the church and the state, denouncing private property and carnal desires. He acquired disciples in Russia and other countries, including Gandhi as a young lawyer in South Africa. In 1901 the Russian holy synod excommunicated Tolstoy. At the age of 82, in 1910, he fled from home, to die of pneumonia on 20 November (7 November, old style) at the small railway junction of Astapovo in Ryazan Province.
There is a dualism in Tolstoy’s intellectual and moral development. He sought for absolute truth in an imperfect world where imperfect men could possess only incomplete knowledge. His stance was full of contradiction. He was an aristocrat, wealthy and highly individualistic, yet he attempted the life of a poor peasant. He was of a sensual nature, yet he became puritanical to the point of intransigence. He was filled with zest for life, yet he feared death at every moment. Given this duality, it is not surprising that he forsook the mere writing of fiction to become a radical Christian, devoting his energies to pamphlets, essays, didactic short stories and plays, in which he propagated a life of love and faith, uncorrupted by property.
Childhood, Boyhood, Youth is not strictly an autobiography. It is, in fact, less of an autobiography than the Confessions of Rousseau, who was his mentor. There is marked discrepancy between the innocent events depicted in the first section, published in September 1852 in the Petersburg monthly, The Contemporary, and Tolstoy’s actual childhood, which was troubled and emotionally deprived. His mother actually died when he was just two years old, and he continued to try in vain, even into his old age, to recover the memory of her face. His father, who may well have had syphilis, died when he was nine, so that he and his brothers and sister were brought up by aunts. As he entered his teens he tried to fill this emotional vacuum with promiscuity, visiting brothels with his brothers. By the time he was stationed in the Caucasus in 1851 he was undergoing mercury treatment for gonorrhoea. He set to work on Childhood after reading Dickens’ David Copperfield and Dombey and Son, which reinforced his belief, already aquired from Rousseau, that childhood was a time of innocence into which dark passions are introduced from a corrupting adult world. Thus, when he began to write at the age of 23 he did not draw on his own actual memories so much as seek to depict the time of innocence which he needed emotionally. In so far he used actual memories they were rather those of another family, the Islavins, with whom he used to play from time to time, rather than the Tolstoys.
Tolstoy entitles one very short chapter of the second section, Boyhood, ‘Myself’ and concludes prophetically: "In general, I am beginning to get the better of my youthful defects, with the exception of the principal one - the one which is destined to do me considerable harm in the course of my life - namely, my penchant for philosophising." And one has to agree with him. For instance, in the third section, Youth, he devotes a chapter to a description of different forms of ‘Love’, making it clear that he is not considering the romantic love of young men and women "seeing that I have been too unhappy in my life to have been able ever to see in such affection a single spark of truth, but rather a lying pretence in which sensuality, marital relations, money, and the wish to bind hands or to unloose them have rendered feeling such a complex affair as to defy disentangling." No, he is speaking of the love of one human being for another or for others, and of such love there are three kinds: "(1) beautiful love, (2) self-denying love, and (3) practical love." He proceeds to an analysis in that order. First, beautiful love: "People who thus love conceive the object of their affection to be desirable only in so far as it arouses in them that pleasurable sensation of which the consciousness and the expression delights the senses." Second, self-denying love "consists in a yearning to undergo self-sacrifice for the beloved, regardless of whether such self-sacrifice will benefit or injure the person in question." Third, practical love "consists of a yearning to satisfy every need, every desire, every caprice, nay, every vice, of the beloved person."
Tolstoy intended to publish a continuation of Childhood, Boyhood, Youth but never did so. The original plan was for a novel with the general title of Four Epochs of Growth. When he re-read them some fifty years after publication he disliked them: "I have re-read them, and regret that I wrote them, so ill, so artificially, and insincerely are they penned. It could not be otherwise; because what I aimed at was not to write my own history but that of friends of my youth and this produced an awkward mixture of the facts of their childhood and my own." It could, however, be argued that these stories which were a mixture of self-projection and an obsessive scrutiny of other people, filtered through Rousseau and Dickens but with a Russian consciousness of guilt, possessed the realism of art. This realism Tolstoy turned against. He condemned it in Shakespeare. He achieved his extraordinary realism as a novelist precisely by projecting himself into the minds and personalities of so many different human beings - a general in battle, a young girl at her first ball, a monk struggling against lust. Once he renounced this capacity as a writer of fiction in favour of being a moralist, making his own boots and eating only vegetables, he became a tormented soul and an eccentric. He acted out his characters - the peasant, the revolutionary, the apostle, the misogynist.
By 1877 when he finished Anna Karenina, Tolstoy, having probed since his youth into the meaning of life, was reaching the point of a spiritual crisis. He began writing A Confession in 1879 and finished it in 1882. It was banned in Russia. In it he relates his spiritual suffering, how he contemplated suicide, finding little comfort in his reading of theologians, philosophers and scientists. The peasants told him the secret was to serve God and not live for oneself. He became convinced that the answer was to be found in Christ’s teachings in the New Testament. From them he formulated five commandments: do not be angry; do not lust; do not bind yourself by oaths; resist not him that is evil; be good to the just and the unjust. His disciples came to visit him at Yasnaya Polyana from all over the world. They gathered together into colonies in which they attempted to live according to his precepts, but Tolstoy mistrusted such organized endeavours, believing that truth and the happiness it brings cannot be preached but only achieved by individuals who look honestly within themselves.
In his old age Tolstoy found it painful that his family should accept a life of ease, whilst he wanted the simple existence of a religious hermit, with no worldly possessions, dedicated to serving others. He felt that his position of landed aristocrat made a mockery of the faith he professed. He left home stealthily, accompanied by his doctor and his youngest daughter, Alexandra, to search for a refuge where he could live closer to God.
William James (1842-1910)
In his long chapter on "The Consciousness of Self" William James (1890) adds an ironic footnote to the section headed "What self is loved in ‘self-love’?": "The kind of selfishness varies with the self that is sought. If it be the mere bodily self; if a man grabs the best food, the warm corner, the vacant seat; if he makes room for no one, spits about, and belches in our faces, - we call it hoggishness. If it be the social self, in the form of popularity or influence, for which he is greedy, he may in material ways subordinate himself to others as the best means to his end; and in this case he is very apt to pass for a disinterested man. If it be the ‘other-worldly’ self which he seeks, and if he seeks it ascetically, - even though he would rather see all mankind damned eternally than lose his individual soul, - ‘saintliness’ will probably be the name by which his selfishness will be called" (pp.317-318).
George Herbert Mead
A special characteristic of the self, emphasized by Mead, is that it is an object to itself. The word "self" is reflexive. It can be both subject and object, and this makes it essentially different from other objects in that it affords the possibility of consciousness. Consciousness indicates an experience with a simultaneous experience of one’s self. A behaviourist must therefore look for an experience in which the physical organism can become an object to itself. Mead goes on, however, in a footnote:
"Man’s behavior is such in his social group that he is able to become an object to himself, a fact which constitutes him a more advanced product of evolutionary development than are the lower animals. Fundamentally it is this social fact - and not his alleged possession of a soul or mind with which he, as an individual has been mysteriously endowed, and with which the lower animals have not been endowed - that differentiates him from them."
What about the pack animals, the wolves and hyenas? - one immediately questions.
Carl R. Rogers (1902-87)
Who could fail to feel warmed and inspired by the teachings of Carl Rogers? by his faith in the innate creativity, the potential for growth and inner harmony of the human being? Focused on the present moment, yet forward-looking to a future which is achieved fluidly, through a continuous process of becoming, he is a central figure in the field of humanistic psychology, existential analysis, the human potential movement, the personal growth movement, the phenomenological approach - a fitting variety of names for a movement in psychology which reached out to existentialist philosophy for an understanding of the human being. Hailed as a 'third force' by Abraham Maslow (1968), it emerged in mid-twentieth century America as an alternative to the reductionism and determinism of the psychoanalyticand behaviourist approaches.
Carl R. Rogers was born on the 8th January 1902 in Oak Park, Illinois, of religious parents who sought to imbue their children with strict ethical values, amongst them the sanctity of hard, honestwork. His father endeavoured to run their farm in a scientific manner, thus awakening an early respect for scientific principles in his son and encouraging him to include books on scientific agriculture in his reading. His first studies at the University of Wisconsin were, in fact, in agriculture but were dropped after two years, when he experienced a vocation for the ministry. On a trip to the Orient he had occasion to observe the sectarian attitudes and mutual hostility of German and French devotees, otherwise likeablepeople. He decided on a more liberal training at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, but evenso, doubts about specific religious doctrines caused him to leave and enter child guidance as a clinical psychologist.
In 1931 Rogers obtained a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, where "rigorous, scientific, coldly objective, statistical" methods prevailed. These he offset by extensive study of Freudian theory, and aspired to find ultimately a means of reconciling the two opposing trends: "Therapy is the experience in which I can let myself go subjectively. Research is the experience in which I can stand off and try to view this rich subjective experience with objectivity, applying all the elegant methods of science to determine whether I have been deceiving myself" (Rogers, 1961, p.14). President of the American Psychological Asssociation 1946-1947, he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1956) and the Distinguished Professional Contribution Award (1972).
The opening in 1968 of the Center for Studies of the Person represented several shifts in emphasis in Rogers' work: from work with 'disturbed' individuals within a formal academic structure (chiefly as Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago) to work with 'normal' individuals, assisted by colleagues sharing a broad humanistic perspective; from individual therapy to group workshops.
Rogers postulates an innate tendency to actualize, to realize potentialities. This idea he drew largely from Otto Rank, a member of the Vienna psychoanalytic circle, (Rank 1936). Happily he also fully acknowledges his debt to Freud, himself. Happily, because some of his concepts constitute merely a change of nomenclature - sometimes barely that. Rogers' 'denial' is, for instance, Freud's 'Verleugnung' (usually rendered disavowal); 'talking out' (Rogers, 1942, p.151) is not very different from reporting everything coming into one's mind without censorship. The danger of premature revelation of repressed feelings, leading to resistance, is similarly recognized. 'Catharsis' is, of course, the description that Freud and Breuer gave to their 1880s form of treatment. Before adopting the more familiar and also more complex term 'super-ego', Freud used 'Ichideal' (ego-ideal) - precisely Rogers' 'ideal self'.
The most fundamental difference between Freud and Rogers turns around the issue of determinism. In Rogers' own words: "Given certain psychological conditions, the individual has the capacity to reorganize his field of perception, including the way he perceives himself...a concomitant or a resultant of this perceptual reoganization is an appropriate alteration of behavior" (Rogers, 1947,p.316). "Behavior," he asserts, "is not directly influenced or determined by organic or cultural factors, but primarily, (and perhaps only,) by the perception of these elements" (p.362). At the conclusion of therapy "the most characteristic outcome is not necessarily solution of problems, but a freedom from tension, a different feeling about, and perception of, the self" (p.363). From audio-recordings (an innovation to be credited to Rogers) it emerges that "when all of the ways in which the individual perceives himself - all perceptions of the qualities, abilities, impulses, and attitudes of the person, and all perceptions of himself in relation to others - are accepted into the organized conscious concept of the self, then this achievement is accompanied by feelings of comfort and freedom from tension which are experienced as psychological adjustment" (p.364). This state is termed 'congruence' by Rogers.
His phenomenological approach to personality, the belief that each individual experiences the world in a unique way through the perceptions which constitute his own 'phenomenal field', grew out of his chosen form of therapy - not 'patient-', but 'client-centred therapy' (Rogers, 1951). The therapist's task was non-directive, simply to create a genuine, warm, empathic, 'releasing' atmosphere, to reflect back what the client (Mrs. Oak, Miss Vib) had just revealed so as to clarify and reassure her that she was understood, with an emphasis on feeling rather than content. If her experiencewas that she was being fully 'received', then her personality would begin to move "from rigid structure to flow, from stasis to process" (Rogers, 1958, p.143). In listening naively, without preconceptions, to recorded interviews, Rogers was concerned with how people perceived their worlds and themselves, with their process of change. He saw it as occurring in seven distinguishable stages from internal and external blockage to "an integrated process of changingness" (p.149). The ultimate stage, the achievement of a consistent fluidity and flexibility, was 'self-actualization'.
Rogers (1942) wrote, in conclusion to his fine chapter on 'Releasing Expression': "Instead of striving desperately to be what he is not, the client finds that there are many advantages in being what he is and in developing the growth possibilities which are genuinely indigenous...finds that expression leads also to the releasing of new forces within himself, forces which heretofore had been utilized in maintaining defensive reactions" (p.172) What then is this concept, the 'self', so central to Rogers' theory of personality? It is not a homunculus, sitting inside the organism, regulating behaviour. Each person has a phenomenal field consisting of perceptions of external objects and experiences to which meanings have been attached. Some parts of this phenomenal field are seen as 'self' and organized into an integrated, consistent pattern, of which the person is largely aware. The self is therefore primarily conscious, or available to consciousness, as is the related structural concept of the 'ideal self', which is what the person would like to be, those self-related perceptions and meanings which he most values. If this were not so (and therein lurks, it must be admitted, a deal of wishful thinking), the concepts could not be made the material for objective research. They could not be measured. After listening to many interviews with clients, in which problems and attitudes were so often expressed in terms of the self, Rogers (1947), in his address as retiring President of the American Psychological Association, affirmed that the concepts were valid and they "suggested a fruitful new approach for study and research" (p.367).
At first the recorded therapy sessions were analysed and references to the self were categorized. Subsequently Rogers employed the 'Q-sort' technique developed by Stephenson (1953), also working in Chicago. This required subjects to sort cards bearing statements, each of which reflected some characteristic of personality, into piles they considered least-to-most descriptive of themselves. The number of piles and the number of cards to be allocated to each pile were stipulated so as to provide at the end a normal distribution. This procedure might then be repeated in terms of the ideal self, thus providing a means of quantifying discrepancy between self and ideal self - a type of 'incongruence'. The technique is, however, clearly directive - the experimenter is prescribing in several ways to the subject - and cannot claim to be a completely 'phenomenological' report. Other methods of generating analysable data on subjects' perception of self were the 'adjective checklist', a rating of the applicability of different adjectives, and the 'semantic differential'(Osgood et al. 1957), a rating of self and ideal self on various seven-point scales such as active-passive, good-bad or strong-weak. The procedure could be extended to concepts such as 'mother', 'father' or 'therapist'. These techniques may be statistically amenable but it has been pointed out that they are possibly using data which have been distorted defensively - they cannot tap unconscious factors.
Rogers' concept of 'congruence' was not altogether clear in that it appeared to relate sometimes to harmony between actual emotional experiences, sometimes to perceptions of these experiences.Did a person in a state of 'incongruence' seek to fend off hostile feelings themselves or the disturbing perception of the self as hostile, a perception in conflict with the self he wished to be?At all events, Rogers believed that the price paid by the individual for denying awareness to stimuli which are experienced but are in conflict with the self-concept - 'subception' (McCleary & Lazarus, 1949) - was anxiety. Chodorkoff (1954) found that, in general, perception of words which were personally threatening was slower than that of neutral words, but that the tendency to deny threatening stimuli was more marked in maladjusted individuals. Cartwright (1956), as part of his doctorate at Chicago University, investigated self-consistency as a factor influencing immediate recall. His extremely elaborate, yet somehow touchingly childlike, card-piling tests (his 'methods' and 'results' sections run to five pages, his 'discussion' only to two paragraphs) supported the proposition that "experiences inconsistent with the structure of self may be denied symbolization or given a distorted symbolization" (p.217). Again in accord with Rogers, maladjusted subjects showed poorer recall than 'adjusted' subjects for inconsistent stimuli, which they found threatening.
Attempts at objective assessment of the validity of Rogerian concepts have continued over the years, according to his own expressed wish. In 1987, the year of his death, Harrington et al. published their longitudinal study of 106 children and their parents, addressing the influence of childhood environment (psychological safety and psychological freedom) on creative potential. The children who had received the 'unconditional positive regard' of their parents, without any imposition of 'conditions of worth' (a major factor in producing incongruence in the adult), proved to be the most creative, at least up to adolescence. Despite its worthiness, this study is difficult to swallow - 'composite index of creative potential' or not. The method of investigation employed by Harrington et al. (1987) is totally - but totally - alien to its subject matter. Application of statistical procedures to creativity is like attempting to determine the dimensions of a block of spring water. Taking calculations to three or to forty decimal places cannot result in greater exactness, only in greater absurdity. These scores are purely subjective opinions. What is the point of treating them as exact measurements? Consensus does not help much - witness the wild inaccuracy of polls predicting election results.
At its annual meeting on the 4th September 1956 the American Psychological Association held a symposium in which Rogers confronted B.F. Skinner on 'issues concerning the control of human behaviour'. The subsequent report in Science (Rogers & Skinner, 1956) makes fascinating reading, not least for the courtesy and restraint with which the two circle each other. Still smarting from the searing reception of his utopian novel, Walden Two (Skinner,1948), Skinner proposes that "a world in which people are wise and good without trying, without 'having to be', without 'choosing to be', could conceivably be a far better world for everyone...What is wrong with it? Only one thing: someone 'planned it that way'" (p.1059). After a rather sparse listing of general points on which they might agree, Rogers embarks on differences: "The value or purpose that gives meaning to a particular scientific endeavor must always lie outside of that endeavor...Consequently, any discussion of the control of human beings by the behavioral sciences must first and most deeply concern itself with the subjectively chosen purposes which such an application of science is intended to implement" (p.1062). "Suppose," he throws down the gauntlet, "we select a set of vaues that focuses on fluid elements of process rather than static attributes. We might then value: man as a process of becoming, as a process of achieving worth and dignity through the development of his potentialities; the individual human being as a self-actualizing process" (p.1063). Skinner adjusts his horn-rimmed spectacles: "Any list of values is a list of reinforcers -conditioned or otherwise...An organism can be reinforced by - can be made to 'choose' - almost any given state of affairs" (p.1064).Finally he engages: "Man as a process of becoming - what? Self-actualization - for what? Inner control is no more a goal than external. What Rogers seems to me to be proposing, both here and elsewhere, is this: Let us use our increasing power of control to create individuals who will not need and perhaps will no longer respond to control. Let us solve the problem of our power by renouncing it. At first blush this seems as implausible as a benevolent despot. Yet power has occasionally been foresworn. A nation has burned its Reichstag, rich men have given away their wealth, beautiful women have become ugly hermits in the desert, and psychotherapists have become nondirective. When this happens I look to other possible reinforcements for a plausible explanation" (p.1065). The last thrust is a wounding one for a phenomenologist: "From the therapist's point of view it may appear to be possible to relinquish control. But the control passes, not to a 'self', but to forces in other parts of the client's world. The solution of the therapist's problem of power cannot be our solution, for we must consider all the forces acting upon the individual" (p.1065).
For all their polarity, Rogers and Skinner were both, by their own declaration, future-oriented. "An organism can be made to 'choose' almost any given state of affairs" figured in Skinner's critique, but not the more remarkable observation that most organisms, including man, tend to reinstate a previously existing state of affairs - Freud's 'compulsion to repeat', and surely a factor ceaselessly militating against Rogers' optimistic vision. Do people really have "a strong drive to become mature, socially adjusted, independent, productive" (Rogers, 1946, p.416)? Many do, perhaps, during their youth and heyday, but there are also those whose drive to climb back into the womb is stronger, and is augmented by the involutionary processes of ageing.
Skinner mentioned the nondirective therapist with unveiled disbelief. 'Primary empathy' might be neutral, but 'advanced accurate empathy' (Egan, 1975) is surely interpretation, which, however accurate, introduces something new and points to a direction of desirable change. One might extend this doubt to some other ideal qualities: is it possible for a therapist to be genuine, caring, accepting, full of unconditional positive regard for every client, however unpleasant, whatever the therapist's mood?
Above all, there is the question of the inherent goodness of human nature. Freud's reaction to this is clearly stated in Lecture XXIX of the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933): "Unfortunately what history tells us and what we ourselves have experienced does not speak in this sense but rather justifies a judgement that belief in the 'goodness' of human nature is one of those evil illusions by which mankind expect their lives to be beautified and made easier while in reality they only cause damage"(p.104). Rogers' rejoinder to this is an interesting and characteristic one: "I do not have a Pollyanna view of human nature. I am quite aware that out of defensiveness and inner fear individualscan and do behave in ways which are incredibly cruel, horribly destructive, immature, regressive, antisocial, hurtful. Yet one of the most refreshing and invigorating parts of my experience is to work with such individuals and to discover the strongly positive directional tendencies which exist in them, as in all of us, at the deepest levels" (Rogers, 1961, p.27). Of course, these opposing views may be likened to self-fulfilling prophecies - the more man is bombarded with evidence of his own baseness and brutality, the more he may become what he sees, whereas affirmation of his essentialnobility may bring out the best in him. Illusions also have their usefulness, the only substantial objection to them being that, in the end, they let you down.
Schools of thought, psychological and others, which make discovery, exploration and development of the 'self' a central aim have a built-in appeal. Most people do not require much encouragementto become self-preoccupied! There would thus seem to be some danger that self-actualization might be the 'self-seeker's' description for a process which others who have to deal with him, not at an'encounter group' but in the course of the daily grind, might describe less blythely as egocentricity, self-worship or, even more bluntly, as selfishness.
Peter Fonagy and Anna Higgitt (1984) have pointed to an epistemological problem which accompanies the very concept of self-actualization, that of circularity: "Rogers infers the self-actualization motive from his observation that people seek out situations that will offer fulfilment; he then proceeds to put forward self-actualization as an explanation of the behaviour which led him to formulate the concept in the first place" (p.92).
Another characteristic of humanist thinking is the view, at least as old as Genesis (not, however, subscribed to by Freud), that man stands apart from other animals. Lawrence Pervin (1989), in his sympathetic survey of Rogers' beliefs, writes: "Humans are unique among the species. Basic to this uniqueness is the awareness of a sense of self and movement toward self-actualization" (p.197). One might wonder whether a cat, seating itself solemnly, deliberately, with obvious satisfaction and sense of significant gesture, on a tree-stump, is not also an example of self-actualization.
Since he proposed that man was inevitably a choosing, free and responsible agent, Rogers has often been linked with European existentialism, but his optimism probably places him closer to American exponents of a humanistic paradigm in psychology than to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre or Camus. Let us leave him therefore in the congenial company of Abraham Maslow and Rollo May, who also believed that each human being moved through progressive stages in making himself and his own world, with George Kelly and Fritz Perls, who also saw each human being as a unique construer of experience, an actor who could, if he chose, adopt another role. They would surely all drink happily to the toast proposed by Rogers (1958): "A self which is synonymous with experience, being the subjective awareness of that experience" (p.149). So would anyone, no doubt, who was not too severely disturbed or whose personality had not been irreparably damaged.
Jerome S. Bruner
Psychology’s most eloquent advocate of the narrative mode but aware that actual self-narratives are not so dependent on memory as the term ‘remembered self’ implies: "The crucial cognitive activities involved in Self-construction seem much more like ‘thinking’ than ‘memory’" (Bruner, 1994, p.43). There is a multiplicity of selves that we remember. Self-narratives vary from one occasion to the next, one interlocutor to the next, one mood to the next. They are shaped by genre of narration. Turning points invariably appear and ‘agency’ is emphasized - the effect of choices we made ourselves or choices made by someone else (‘victimicy’).
Bruner looks to the forms of psychic-linguistic phenomena that generate an elaborated self that is forever caught in a balancing act between maintaining autonomy and maintaining connection with the social-symbolic world. He thinks of "self-making" as the outcome of our efforts to give a narrative account of our own actions and our interactions with others and with "institutions" that we see affecting us. The product, selfhood, is never all of a piece, for it is rare for anybody ever to try to integrate the whole of his actions and interactions into a single "story." The stories we tell ourselves reflexively are most often occasion-driven, not driven by some large-scale integrative effort. This probably accounts for "resistance" when our analyst, say, tries to force that task upon us. The important self-making occasions usually come when some large-scale event, throws a lot of our enterprises galley west - the famous "turning points" that appear in all extended autobiographies. This was the dilemma that led G.H.Mead (and many others, before and after) to invoke "multiple selves."
Discussion of Bruner’s ideas
'Planning' is a uniquely human expression of expectations (Bruner, 2002). One asks oneself why one always feels a little better having formulated a plan. It's not just the satisfaction of creating order out of chaos, but the relief of believing one may have regained a measure of control after flailing about in a sea of helplessness.
Law narratives are bound to be saturated with self-interest. However, a question hangs over self-interested motivation and behaviour in general. Self-interest spoils relationships with others. Why do we pursue it so remorselessly when there is no permanent self? Is it precisely because the Self is so insecure?
Judges have immunity from prosecution for the decisions they reach. Who is to police the police? Is it ultimately an arbiter we need in a God? Is that why the Pope has to be infallible?
There is a realization on the part of some physicians that it isn't enough
just 'to stick to the facts'. F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) - the philosopher,
John Dewey, was a great friend and believer in Alexander's work and wrote prefaces
to his books - always spoke of 'the Self' where most therapists would have specified
the body or the mind. He made no such distinction as he was convinced that the
physical and the psychological belonged to one and the same continuum. Joyce
MsDougall has the same basic attitude in her books Theatres of the Body
(1989) and Theatres of the Mind (1985), but Alexander was writing and
How strange are our concepts of 'responsibility' and 'privacy', considering, once again, that there is no consistent, unbroken Self. Do we mostly pay lip-service to responsibility because we are inwardly so often irresponsible? Do we cling to privacy because we feel beleaguered by hostile conspecifics?
There is a never-ending struggle to balance autonomy and connection with others. No sooner does one isolate oneself to have a little peace to pursue one's own concerns than one starts feeling lonely. John Bowlby's Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980, 1987, 1988) is a perfectly valid description, as he claimed, of a mechanism for survival in evolutionary terms, i.e. at the level of the species, but at the level of the human individual it may be just as much a means of creating an awareness of Self. One grows a Self within one's mother's recognition.
Bruner talks of constructing and reconstructing a self. It's the famous difference between seeing the glass as half empty and seeing it as half full. It is better to be an optimist. Everybody loves an optimist, everybody warms to enthusiasm. As King Lear says: "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."
In the Autumn of 2001 Richard Sorabji delivered three lectures at Gresham College, London, on the theme: "Mortal questions." In the first on 14 November, "How might we survive death?" he pointed out that the idea that we might be annihilated when we died occurred only relatively late in Western writing, on the inscription to the fallen at the battle of Potidaea (432 BC) in Greece. The Homeric conception of an after-life, prevailing for centuries previously, included a dimmed consciousness and punishment for the wicked. People fear death for various reasons: not only the possibility of annihilation, but illness, pain, the interruption of their cherished activities and relationships, punishment. The philosopher Epicurus tried to relieve the fear of punishment by reminding his contemporaries around 300 BC that they were merely a bunch of atoms which would disintegrate at death. It fell to Plutarch, who was a Platonist, to remind him that disintegration was precisely what bothered other people. However, there are several ways in which annihilation might be avoided.
The first, more prevalent in Indian than in West European belief systems, is reincarnation. The idea of rebirth in another body implies moral responsibility, the conviction that "what goes around comes around". Furthermore, for someone fearing annihilation like James Boswell, Dr Johnson’s biographer, the notion of coming back as a different person is hardly likely to comfort. Sharing the same soul with another person is not likely to be enough.
If we survived without our bodies we could no longer have any effect on the environment. We could not even summon help since our voice would have gone. We might continue to see in some fashion, though, having no light receptors, it would not be like ordinary vision. The act of seeing normally requires a point of view, with objects to our left or our right, near at hand or far away. Even though our body no longer occupied space, we might continue to see as from a sizeless point in space. But if the scene before us seemed to change, would that be because we had actually moved next door or were we simply imagining it? Normally the sensations in our limbs would tell us if we had moved next door but, without a body, neither proprioception nor the sense of touch would be available. If we tried to find out from other, still embodied people what was really happening next door, how would we communicate with them and hear what they said? In the Phaedo Plato makes Socrates consider his disembodied state after his execution and decide that his principal activity will be thinking and enjoying his thoughts. Many Christians after Plato, who was writing in the 4th century BC, believed that the next life, even granted the resurrection of the body, would most appropriately be spent in contemplation. St Augustine at the end of the 4th century AD describes losing a friend of his youth and hoping, in his Confessions, that his friend will still remember him. Christ himself said that in heaven there will be no remembering because past and future will be replaced by rapt contemplation of God. This would never pall, according to Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century AD, because of God’s infinite variety. The desert fathers, living in solitude, tried to rid themselves of all emotion so as to come closer to the state appropriate for the next life.
Disembodied survival could not offer us the activities with which we are familiar in this life and there is some doubt as to the enduring subject who might own such activities. What sort of thing is a soul? For Aristotle it was the capacities of the body with its organs, the capacity to think, to perceive, to desire, and to use food to maintain the body. Obviously, he concluded, that sort of soul could not survive after death. Perhaps our soul might be the psychological aspect of our embodied self. But an aspect cannot own thoughts or experiences separately from the thing of which it is an aspect. Avicenna, the medieval Islamic philosopher, believed that a body was necessary to give us our identity in the beginning but we do not require it to continue. It is not a requirement of the soul or the self that it should always remain embodied. However, this brings us back to the problem of ownership. To whom does a disembodied thought or a disembodied perception belong? If they both occur, is it to two different disembodied owners, or owners who perhaps only exist for a moment? A thought might relate to an ealier thought we had had whilst we still had a body, or as Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past, we might relive an experience we had had when embodied which no one else had had. Other experiences with a familiar flavour might be linked to it to form a history, but this becomes a question of constructing an owner out of a network of interrelated experiences. Provided networks were able to communicate with one another, they might not think of having been reduced from embodied persons to networks. Provided they included wants and wishes, it might seem as if they were entities who wanted and wished, rather than simply networks including wants and wishes. However, disembodied survival would entail a changed conception of a person and of friendship.
Christianity, at least at first, believed in resurrection with a body. God cares about us and our individuality. The early Christian thinkers believed that He would reassemble and give us back our own bodies. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century introduced the complication of an interim period of disembodiment between death and resurrection. He also decided that only essential matter need be preserved, not hair and nails. Long before this, in the late 2nd century AD, however, Athenagoras pointed out that we are part of a food chain. Our bodies would be consumed by a series of creatures, some of whom would ultimately be eaten by other human beings. How would there be enough matter for us all to be resurrected? In the 3rd century AD, Origen proposed that we need only have a body of the same structure as our original body, but without its blemishes. It would not be composed of flesh but of pneuma, a mixture of air and fire. Christians still had to consider whether this body should have the same form as the original body in its youth or its old age, and Thomas Aquinas suggested the replica should be in its prime.
In modern philosophy, Derek Parfit (1986) draws on science fiction rather than Christian theology. A computer might transmit all the information about your body and brain needed to reconstruct you in a heap of matter on Mars. Your body on Earth would be destroyed to avoid there being two of you, but when you decided to return from Mars, the same teletransportation at the speed of light would restore you to your family who would notice no difference in you. Would you, however, feel it would be you or someone exactly like you? If you felt worried about this, you might prefer to retain the orthodox Christian view that resurrection should entail not merely the same bodily form but at least some of the same matter. Hence the burial of at least some part of the body even if other parts were cremated. Parfit imagines a method of rejuvenation whereby your brain, or even half your brain, might be transplanted from your aging body to another body very similar to your own in youth. If the other half of your brain were transplanted to a different youthful body, lending it also your psychological characteristics, the two young people could not remain identical because they would encounter differing experiences. They would diverge more and more from each other and, because of what is understood by identity, they could not both be identical with your former self, yet it would not be fair to say that one was and the other was not. Before the second transplant it seemed you were continuing in a younger body, but now, suddenly, you have perished, even though the operation was performed on someone else and you need not even have known about it.
Reflexive modernization happens as a result of the existing social order scrutinizing itself and, in particular, its limitations and anomalies. In this self-confrontation it becomes the object of its own modernizing forces. The constant inflow of information simultaneously refreshes and revises that society’s concept and manifestation of modernity.
Humanity keeps in touch with the rationale for its actions by a process of reflexive monitoring. This monitoring is characteristic of human societies and is integrated into tradition as the community’s mode of handling time and space within the continuum of that community’s past, present and future life. Pre-modern societies largely reinterpreted and clarified tradition. With modernity, thought and action are continually refracted back on one another. Actions are regarded as legitimate not because tradition pronounces them to be so, but because incoming knowledge shows them to be so. The source of authority has thus shifted away from tradition to current knowledge.
The advent of the risk society and of globalization hastens the displacement of tradition. Distant events influence local affairs and enhance reflexive modernization. The unpredictable and unknown effects of the risk society do not fit existing standards and the expert systems available cannot interpret them. Thus society and the process of knowledge creation change reflexively.
Alain de Botton
In his bestselling book The Consolations of Philosophy (2000) Alain de Botton explains the insights of Epicurus: "We don't exist unless there is someone who can see us existing, what we say has no meaning until someone can understand, while to be surrounded by friends is constantly to have our identity confirmed; their knowledge and care for us have the power to pull us from our numbness...True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in; like ideal parents, their love for us remains unaffected by our appearance or position in the social hierarchy, and so we have no qualms in dressing in old clothes and revealing that we have made little money this year."
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