Losing Your Self to the World
– SElf-Knowledge & the Evolution of Being –
Take a look at the entirety of your life, from the moment you slipped out of your mama’s womb to now, and ask yourself if there was a point along this journey when you discovered the “I”? Yes, the ego — that incessant voice in your head — but also the formless, boundless, non-transferable divinity in you: the “I”?
What about if we take a bird’s-eye view of the evolution of human thought? Is there a point in time when humanity first discovered the “I”? Once discovered, how were we then able to share something that can’t be removed from you? That is, how could we have conceptualized it and pointed others to it if they had not yet witnessed the “I” for themselves?
What did — or might — this discovery look like for you, individually, and what did it look like for humankind? What is its significance to your being?
Soak with me in these sweet sounds of reverie.
Introduction & Summary
This is the third episode in a four-part series that will explore the evolution of humankind’s being — that is, of how we experience our ‘selves’ to be:
- Infancy — Primordial Man: Learning to be a Self
- Childhood — The Ancient Ionians: Losing Our Selves in the World
- Adolescence — Socrates & Plato: Discovering the Soul
- Adulthood — Jesus Christ: The Divine “I” in You
Recap – Self to God
In Part 1, we saw that in our infancy we paint concepts or imagery — that is, thought — around only those objects that stand in relation to our innate or genetic impulses.
In other words, we learn to be a ‘self’ through conditioning — as our impulses move us, we encounter obstacles in our environments, which then give us feedback about where we experience our ‘edges’ to be, where the line between self and object is drawn.
So, we experience our ‘selves’ — our beings — as purely conditional. Our ‘self’ is always in relation to an object, whether of the natural or supernatural world — a material object or our outwardly projected inner worlds.
We also saw that, overtime, we tore these supernatural elements apart from their objects and shaped them into numina, or vague spirits, which the poets and ‘divine’ man eventually molded into entirely anthropomorphic gods.
In Part 2, we learned that a few extraordinary people in Ancient Greece, after experiencing culture clash, finally had reason to question what objects — in this case, the gods — are in and of themselves. The ‘self’ and its impulses, then, were finally removed from the pursuit of knowledge.
These physical explanations — where man’s fragmented personality is no longer projected onto the world — are, of course, familiar to science. And they have allowed for the development of all the wonderful technology that comes with it, including the insulin I take each day to keep myself alive.
But, if we are unwary, they can bring spiritually damning effects.
As we detach our ‘selves’ and move more and more into the outer world, into the material realm, we continue to lose our inner worlds, our souls — the entirety of our spiritual lives. Our being is reduced to nothing more than mechanical necessity. It becomes lifeless, totally dispassionate, empty of all essence.
Discovering the Soul
Socrates, in his youth, was quite fascinated in the Ionian cosmogonies and cosmologies. He soon realized, though, that these explanatory systems of the world were missing something rather important: the ‘why’.
The Ionian explanations were great at explaining the ‘how’ — that is, they were able to break up the whole, or God, into its constituent parts and then proceed to give causal explanations about how particular things come about or interact. But they failed entirely to explain why.
Socrates was stoked, then, when he heard that Anaxagoras had come up with a system of Nature that was organized by an intelligence (nous). But he was soon disappointed to find that Anaxagoras’s nous wasn’t really an intelligence at all. It was merely the thing that put everything into motion. And the rest of Anaxagoras’s theory resorted back to mechanical necessity.
Socrates’ dissatisfaction with these strictly physical theories is expressed well in Plato’s Phaedo:
‘I am not sitting here in prison,’ Socrates tells his friends, ‘because my bones and ligaments, by mechanical necessity, have moved me here. I am sitting here in prison because the Athenians have decided to condemn me, and I have decided that…it is more just if I stay here and undergo the penalty they have imposed on me. For, by the dog,…these bones of mine would have been in Megara or Boetia long ago…had I not thought it better and nobler to endure any penalty my city may inflict on me….’
Retiring from his youthful fascination, then, Socrates believed his time would be better spent if he turned his gaze from the heavens to the soul. Rather than seek cosmogonies — explanations of beginnings — like the Ionians, Socrates began to seek teleologies — aim- or purpose-driven explanations. If he can’t understand the beginning of the cosmos, he sure as hell can know his own aims, which to him seemed far more important anyway.
The question for Socrates, then, became: ‘What ends are worth living for? What, in itself, is intrinsically valuable? Not merely as a means to something else — money, influence, popularity, etc. — but an end that is, above all others, worth striving for?
Socrates’ solution: perfecting the soul; acquiring self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge, Socrates believed, is the direct insight of goodness into the values of our desires, of which only each individual is capable of discerning for herself. It is the recognition of that soul in each of us whose perfection is the only true end. This is expressed in his famous paradox:
“Virtue is Knowledge” — Socrates
Socrates claim to fame rests on the recognition of our individual souls and the morality of each soul’s spiritual ascension.
And it was this recognition that led Socrates to believe that nothing could be taught to anyone else. All knowledge is Self-Knowledge. Right and wrong, and all other values, are a matter of direct insight, which doesn’t consist of things that can be handed from me to you. (Note: compare this to the Sermon on the Mount.)
(In my post The Human Impulse for Freedom, I explore in more depth how this discovery shifted the moral foundations of society from god — or nature — to each individual. No longer, with this recognition, can society be governed by any code of laws imposed from without. Each individual must judge for herself, based on her own inner faculties, what laws, norms, and institutions are ‘good’.)
Who are You? Do you know your Self? What effect does the discovery of the individual soul have on your being? If your soul is not my soul, have we permanently fractured God? Is there any way to find our way back to Him — back to the Cosmos — without losing our souls?
Forgetting the Supernatural
The Greeks’ discovery that we don’t really know our objects—e.g., the gods—opened a space to investigate objects apart from our ‘selves’, apart from our impulse-driven actions. The fragments of our inner lives, then, were no longer projected onto the world.
The supernatural background, therefore, began to disappear. Anaximander, for example, thought that thunder and lightning are caused not by Zeus but blasts of wind. The tearing of dark clouds cause thunder. And the contrast created by dark clouds separating gives the appearance of flashing light. His teacher Thales, as another example, thought that earthquakes are caused by violent stirrings in the ocean, on which he believed the earth floats.
Atomism, of course, was the crowning glory of this pursuit. The movement and rearrangement of atoms through the void was meant to be a complete theory of everything. Its purely materialistic or physical explanation was even meant to describe consciousness — the smallest and lightest atoms, through physical interaction, were somehow the cause of our experience.
These physical explanations — where man’s fragmented personality is no longer projected onto the world — are, of course, familiar to science. And they have provided us with an incredible understanding of our world. They’ve brought us life-saving medicines and technologies. They’ve allowed us to create gizmos and gadgets and launch astronauts into space.
It is definitely a remarkable ascension into a higher realm of being, to be able to step outside of yourself and look at the world of things from a higher (even cosmic) perspective.
But, what unintended consequences might these physical explanations have carried— or might they still carry?
What happens to your being as you move more and more into the outer world, into the material realm? What happens to the supernatural — to your inner life; to your soul?
Turn your gaze inward, as Socrates did, and find the treasures that live inside you — truth, beauty, and goodness. These can’t be found in the outside world; they exist in you.
Know thyself. Find your soul. Know your characteristics, your personality, your impulses, your will. Find love, peace, equanimity, curiosity, inspiration, goodness, and all the other magic that lives and breathes inside you. Observe it, study it, and see how this ascension, this perfection of the soul, affects your being. What else, after all, is worth striving for except that which you alone discern as good?
In Part 4 of this series, the final part, we will explore how the ingenious (and too-often misunderstood) philosopher and humble man Jesus found his way back to God: through the Christ.
God gave you these shoes to fit you, so put ’em on and wear ’em… Be yourself… Don’t ever let no one tell you you ain’t beautiful.