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know thyself  


Know Thy Shelf

To know oneself is mighty good advice, but how do you do it? I say, Caveat Emptor! The thing precisely not to do is to simply go into the metaphysical-therapeutic department store and pick one off the self-shelf. Sartre may be overestimating how much existential freedom we have, limited as it is by heredity and upbringing, but surely he is right that one must go within to discover the secret of selfhood or even to decide what selfhood is going to be. The alternative approach is that offered by Freudianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Stoicism, etc. All these doctrines have defined notions of the True Self that seem to be functions of the larger systems in which they occur. As John Winston has argued, each religion oversimplifies all human difficulties into a single Problem (don’t forget the capital “P”), so as to set you up for a single, over-simplified “Solution.” Both include a particular prescribed model of selfhood.

Thus in Christianity the problem is Sin; the answer is Faith in Jesus. The unsaved self is a sinner with a ruined image of God. The regenerate self is to be modeled upon a highly theoretical Christ model. In Buddhism the problem is Craving, the solution Cessation of Desire. The self is the Absence of self, anatta. In Hinduism the problem is mistaking a false, conditioned self for the real, unconditioned Self (the Atman). The solution is identifying with the latter. Stoicism says the problem is ignorance, the solution virtue, the self a diamond in the rough to be chiseled by events. Twelve Stepism says the problem is universal addiction, the solution Anonymous groups, the self a study in powerlessness. Freud says the problem is repressed trauma leading to neurosis. The solution is to uncover the trauma, face it, and be done with it. The self is a thin film over a deep lake of dark secrets accessible only to the therapist. You must take his word for it.

And that’s the problem with all these selves. You must adopt them deductively from without. Do they seem arbitrary? Not to fit snugly? Well, that just shows how far gone you are! How urgent it is that you force yourself into the prescribed mold. If you don’t, the plan won’t work; the method requires you to become a particular shape of cog in the wheel.

These pre-packaged selves are all a cheat. While one can no doubt learn much by trying each one on, like exotic masks in a costume shop, each is a scam insofar as someone else designed it and tells you to accept it as true to you, which it may not be. It is one of Derrida’s “dangerous supplements,” conceptual add-ons that wind up undermining the unsuspecting host by redefining it after the fact. The icing becomes the cake.

I feel I must learn by close observation who I am, if anyone. Others may even know me better than myself, so I want to hear from them. But I am not about to accept Freud’s or St. Augustine’s or the Buddha’s diagnosis about me. Not until I know myself well enough to be able to tell if they fit. They may have correctly known themselves, and derived their Solutions from their own cases. But they never met me. I have. Or I am trying to.

Robert M. Price


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