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.
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.
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.
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.
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.