Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Christian Development of "Self" in Western Tradition

Text: John Chapter 10

     The development of the "self" as we understand it in western society is principally the Christian notion of "self."  It does not extend back into the pagan philosophers preceding the Christian era nor is it the outgrowth of the European Enlightenment.  Rather it was appropriated by Enlightenment thinkers trading on the collateral handed to them by Christian humanism.  Nor is the notion of self to be found in any other religious or philosophical tradition outside of where it has been imported from the west.  We shall endeavor in this article to survey the development of the western self both historically and philosophically, seeing such roots firmly entrenched in the Christian tradition.  We will conclude with a brief examination of whether the self as we know it can survive being untethered from those Christian roots.

     Our first order of business must be to define what we mean by "the western self" and how it is to be distinguished from the self found in other cultures and derived from other philosophies.  The western self as we know it today is a deeply personal concept derived from the inner workings of an individual human being.  It has value, musings, development and stature over, above, and independent of the society and culture around it.  This is not to say that it is not influenced or shaped by the culture of which it is a part.  Rather it transcends or at least has the ability to transcend any cultural or societal pressures exerted upon it.

     Indeed, properly understood in western tradition, the self is seen as the very engine and generator of culture and society.  Thus the self forms the kernel of western society artistically, politically, in fact in all ways endemic and necessary to the development of civilization.  Civilization is seen as the expression of self collectively.

     Thus in this definition, we can see how the western concept of self differs greatly from that of ancient society and cultures outside of the Christian tradition.  In all cultures outside a western influence, both ancient or modern, the self is always seen in a relational attitude not as an independent entity.  The self as a module of society or the self as a module of culture or of the family or of the tribe.  The self is never seen nor developed as an independent entity, one capable of expression in decent society.  The self always exists in the service of another entity be it the tribe, or the religion, or the state.  This, then, helps the westerner to understand what informs the concept of the individual seen as honored by human sacrifice.  We see as barbaric what the Aztecs did to their citizens --cutting their hearts out sometimes by the thousands and throwing them often still beating down the steps of their sacred Temples.  Yet, one must see it from the viewpoint of an individual indoctrinated into this other concept of self --the self as existing for the purposes of the religion, existing to please the gods, existing for the sole purpose of feeding the society.  Personal fulfillment is seen exclusively within this framework.  Thus, what greater honor than to have one's heart given to the gods and, that heart seen as worthy sacrifice, bringing peace or bounty or victory in war two one's people?

     There was a game played by south American Indians in pre-Colombian days.  It was something of a cross between soccer and basketball except instead of a soccer ball, the head of a slain enemy was used.  Stone hoops were built high into the stadium walls and, as best as we can tell, the "ball" was kicked around with points scored by getting it into the hoops.  Here, however, is the salient point for our purposes: the winning team had their heads chopped off as a sacrifice to the gods.

     That bears repeating for the western reader: the winners got their heads chopped off as a sacrifice.  We would wonder, "Who the heck would want to win this game?  Why enter into such competition?  And why are on the earth would you attempt to win!?"  And yet they did!  With enthusiasm!  No one had to force them into the competition.  And each side eagerly and fiercely competed to win on no less a level than is seen in any of today's most professional team sport.  Why?  Because the self was in complete subjugation and derived its sole purpose for existence from the collective.  Society gave the individual worth.  There was no other reason for existence independent of one's relationships.  Thus, those socialist proponents who wish to see the self as deriving value from its service to the greater whole are actually advocating a return to an ancient and primitive concept of self.  Far from being "progressive," they are regressive to the concept of "self"; something with which we will deal later.

     There are those who would like to see the western self as extending from the Greek philosophers raised in the first democracies.  This is a failure to read the work of those philosophers and history together.  It is true that Greek democracy utilized the individual vote as its basis for making the decisions of the whole.  However the vote was not extended by any means to all members of society.  Fully half of that society was excluded by failure to extend a vote to women.  Neither were slaves nor free immigrants given the vote.  When actually totaled, an extremely small minority were given suffrage.  The concept of self in these societies was still seen as in service to the greater whole.  To this end, the majority of individuals could be excluded from determining their fate or status in society.  These things were determined by a majority vote of a non-Republican, non-representative minority.

     One need only read Plato's concept of the ideal society as expressed in his quintessential work The Republic.  In this detailed recitation of how the ideal society should function, Plato demonstrates and rationalizes how it is the state's responsibility to determine the vocation of individuals from birth.  Children born of warriors who in their youth demonstrate an aptitude for being a warrior are chosen by the state to be soldiers.  Those born of academics who in their youth demonstrate an aptitude for academics are assigned to be teachers, and so on.  An individual who rebels against the state's decision on their choice of career is banished; if the rebellion is deemed criminal, the offender is executed.  Thus all disagreements with the state on this and many other points are deemed in and of themselves to be subversive to the interest of the state, an interest which in all cases trumps the needs and desires of the individual who is but a module with which to build the state.

     Marriage, too, was seen as an instrument of, for and therefore to be exercised by the state.  As the state required strong soldiers, strong women were to be married to strong men.  As the state required teachers for its youth, smart women were to be married to smart men.  In fact, in an age before genetics, operating on its own pre-Darwinian notion of social evolution, Plato does not seem all that far from Hitler.  He has more in common with Nazi concepts of racial purity than with those of the Western self.  Indeed, as in Nazi Germany, marriage was an institution granted as a privilege by the state.  One could not be married without license from the state after the proper officials had determined the proposed union's benefit to the state.  Marriage for love or individual preference was seen as a vile expression subversive to the interests of the state.  This concept of marriage is almost universal in the ancient world.  Arranged marriages are still the norm in many cultures that have resisted influence from the west.  In western society, it was this crisis between individual duty to the state and the "zeal of the organs" in the service of the individual that formed the basis of the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde, probably the first expression of this conflict in world literature.

     This brings us to another point, namely from whence do these dynamic shifts in thinking within western society come?  Rarely do they spring from philosophers or academicians.  Rather, they flow from the minds and pens, the hands, eyes and brushes of artists, poets, and writers of both fiction and popularized nonfiction.  Neither Leonardo nor Hume were academics nor were Hemingway or Picasso philosophers.  Yet each had profound impact on the popular conception of the self in western society in their respective times.  The late philosopher Joseph Campbell, expert in mythology and comparative religion, correctly identified the artist, poet, storyteller as the root of all social and philosophical change within a culture.  While academics and philosophers study and expound upon change, it always seems to be the cultural black sheep that is the dynamic engine of change and progress.  This accounts for the explosion of change and progress seen in western society as opposed to others.  Thus, those who would see western progress as the result of economic disparity with the west reaping the natural resources of others worldwide have got it all wrong.  It is not economic disparity but spiritual disparity that has marked the upward trend of western society.  Our spiritual base has promoted the value of the self.

     Having dissected off from whence the self did not come, in my next entry I will present the seed from which it did spring and provide discourse on the cradle in which it was nurtured.

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