Sunday, August 11, 2019

Constructing Your Self III

The project of creating your authentic self can appear to be, and actually may be, just another form of navel gazing, culturally-defined self improvement or narcissism.

In addition to those negative aspects of our self construction project we also need to consider that a human who becomes, and operates as, a free individual may be ungovernable by the state resulting in anarchy as more and more people become "individuals".

The word anarchy has at least two definitions, "a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority" or "absence of a government and absolute freedom as an ideal". The first is frightening and how we usually think of anarchy. The second is interesting to think about as we consider ways humans might create a better world.

Peter Maurin, Dorothy DayChris Hedges and Jesus Christ, propose a form of christian anarchism where humans receive authority from God not the state.

According to Wikipedia, Leo Tolstoy's book "The Kingdom of God is Within You" is a key text for Tolstoyan proponents of nonviolence, of nonviolent resistance, and of the Christian anarchist movement." Gandhi wrote that the book The Kingdom of God is Within You "overwhelmed him" and "left an abiding impression". 

Nothing in excess - we all know that a theocratic state or other forms of theocratic hierarchy (the Church) can lead to all sorts of badness.


Navel gazing can be defined as, "self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue, at the expense of a wider view."

In your project to construct your self you can avoid being a navel gazer by having a higher good (an end) other than simply becoming who you are or finding your self. Without a higher good we end up with cases where who you really are may be a thief, a sadist, or a murderer.

It's possible to use religion and philosophy to find this higher good. Of course it's also possible to use religion and philosophy to justify all sorts of terrible things.

In picking religion(s) or philosophy(s) to help you find the higher purpose for your life it's best if you have a foundation from your parents to help you choose. You may also find a particular minister, rabbi, teacher, coach or friend you trust who could help you choose some possible paths. You could also start by reading Plato, arrive at your own conceptions of goodness, truth, beauty and then use those conceptions to guide your further investigations.

Societies, families, organizations and most types of work require that humans cooperate with one another. The human species survived through cooperation. Cooperation requires empathy, listening, speaking, suppression of the self at times, forgiveness at times and above all trust. Investigating religions (or parts of religions) and philosophies (or parts of philosophies) that adhere to these basic ideas that allow people to live together should keep you on a fairly good trajectory. 


Culturally-defined self improvement vs. constructing a self.

Culturally defined self improvement is a multi-billion dollar industry, where some one wants to sell you some thing to improve your self. Some of what they sell is useful, some of it useless, and some harmful. None of it resolves the existential anxiety all humans must confront, in their short time here on earth, if their project to construct an authentic self is to succeed.

Authentic selves are constructed not purchased. It's a hard DIY project...nobody sells a pre-assembled version.


Isn't constructing a self just another type of narcissism?

That's a good question, and as a good liberal I'd answer - it depends. 

First we need to decide what narcissism means and then what a narcissist is. The word narcissism has it's origins in the myth of the Greek hunter Narcissus who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water. It wasn't quite that simple though. Narcissus fell in love with his own image in the water mistakenly believing the image he saw was someone else. 

If we think of a narcissist as someone who is in love with their self we have it all wrong.

A narcissist is someone who looks outward for justification, definition, and affirmation of their self. A narcissist has no self other than the self defined by how others view him.

The narcissist looks in the mirror not because he loves himself but because he fears others don't.

Even if others view him as beautiful and strong he fears the day when he will lose his beauty and strength. Rather than acknowledging this anxiety, and constructing his own "firm foundation", he suppresses the dread with trivial pursuits and magic elixirs.

To summarize - being a narcissist isn't all it's cracked up to be.


Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism writes,

"This irrational fear of old age and death is closely associated with the emergence of the narcissistic personality as the dominant type of personality structure in contemporary society. Because the narcissist has so few inner resources, he looks to others too validate his sense of self. He needs to be admired for his beauty, charm, celebrity, or power - attributes that usually fade with time. Unable to achieve satisfying sublimations in the form of love and work, he finds that he has little to sustain him when youth passes him by. He takes no interest in the future and does nothing to provide himself with the traditional consolations of old age, the most important of which is the belief that future generations will in some sense carry on his life's work. Love and work unite in a concern for posterity, and specifically in an attempt to equip the younger generation to carry on the tasks of the older. The thought that we live on vicariously in our children (more broadly in future generations) reconciles us to our own supersession - the central sorrow of old age, more harrowing even than frailty and loneliness. When the generational link begins to fray, such consolations no longer apply."

This New York Times article says, "In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval."

This Kansas State University professor's site Political Philosophy has several lectures on Christopher Lasch and his books.


BBC Radio 4 In Our Time has a wide range of thoughtful podcasts on culture, philosophy, history, religion and science.

I was particularly interested in this podcast on authenticity This is the BBC Radio 4 description of the discussion -
"Melvyn Bragg and guests dicuss what it means to be oneself, a question explored by philosophers from Aristotle to the present day, including St Augustine, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre. In Hamlet, Polonius said 'To thine own self be true', but what is the self, and what does it mean to be true to it, and why should you be true? To Polonius, if you are true to yourself, ‘thou canst not be false to any man’ - but with the rise of the individual, authenticity became a goal in itself, regardless of how that affected others. Is authenticity about creating yourself throughout your life, or fulfilling the potential with which you were born, connecting with your inner child, or something else entirely? What are the risks to society if people value authenticity more than morality - that is, if the two are incompatible?"
Participants in the discussion include -
Sarah Richmond
Associate Professor in Philosophy at University College London
Denis McManus
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton and
Irene McMullin
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Essex


It's always sort of odd to think about putting a lot of work into constructing a self or becoming a good Christian, when we meet someone who never read or thought about either and yet is the best of both. We've all met people who are characters in the best sense, sometimes a bit of a force of nature - people who definitely have a "self" but didn't learn it from a book. Many of the most Christian (in the sense of following the golden rule) people I've met, thought very little, if at all, about Christian theology.

Fifteen years ago I was pondering if Van Gogh might of been close to the truth when he said,

"The best way to know God is to love many things." 
Vincent Van Gogh
Maybe all the wisdom we need is in some good old country music...