I read Pope Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei for a class. Well, the rough draft was mostly authored by Benedict XVI (the name-dropping of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Buber are certainly signs of his academic style), completing his series on the three Theological Virtues. One passage in particular continues to stick out to me. Others have commented on it a fair bit, but it is still worth looking at:
Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. (Chapter 1, 13)
Personal identity has been one of those concepts which gets very difficult if you think about it too much. The self, if it exists, does not seem accessible to empirical inquiry, as David Hume noted some centuries ago:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound-sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. (A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Penguin Books, 1969. Pg. 300)
Hume examines himself and sees only a multiplicity of sense-perceptions. There is nothing there except sense-perceptions. Of course, he works under the assumption that the self must be something immediately accessible to self-introspection. Good post-Cartesian like he is, he appears to be convinced that, if the self does exist, it is something in the theatre of the mind.
Instead, he was given a name, and was convinced that this name picked out some ineffable, unrepeatable individual. Indeed the self seems to be visible only within a world of meaning. To non-English speakers, the words on this page are only a multiplicity of lines and shapes. They are made visible by something exterior to it. Hume divorces himself from this world of meaning in order to focus on Matters of Fact and Relations of Thought and finds that he has no self. Centuries later, the rest of the world has caught up with him, and we have a plethora of pomo literature variously celebrating or bemoaning the fragmentation of the self.
Now there have been others who have tried to puzzle out the notion that the self is somehow established by something external to it. The Hegelians and the Marxists, for instance, try to understand the self purely in terms of its social context. Stability of self is for them thus a matter of the right relation of society to the individual. They also make the disastrous assumption that there is some sort of archimedean point where you can stand outside of the world of meaning, interpret it correctly and manipulate it into bringing about the desired state of affairs.
But the self doesn’t seem reducible to a social narrative, or at least it seems horrifying to do so. Because narratives of the state, of society, need to be judged. They cannot have the last word.
Of course, the other people around me give me some shape. Their minds are like black boxes, inaccessible to me, recording me. So the question of who Josh is, is not entirely a matter of subjective fiat. There are records outside of me which are fitting me into a narrative that isn’t of my own making. Still, while they may serve to convict me of a crime which I have stealthily erased from my own personal narrative, my self will still remain ultimately inaccessible. My most accurate biography would not open up the self.
The point I’ve been trying to make has probably been guessable for a while now: only when I am in a relationship with God, is the actual self disclosed. Here we have an Other, a black box which knows me perfectly, and is recording the true narrative of my life – which will be revealed to myself, and ultimately to everyone else. We have avoided the pitfalls of both my self being an unintelligible microcosmos, and a function of society. It remains unique and unrepeatable, but dependent on another for its truth and fulfillment.
Because I am able to grope towards a stable self, my life becomes a coherent narrative – a quest where I struggle to achieve the destiny disclosed to me.
The existentialists realized this need for an overarching quest in life, but (for the most part) denied any sources of meaning outside of the individual – hence the emphasis on ‘commitment’ and ‘projects’. But just as it is not the case that society should have the last word, so it shouldn’t be for ourselves. We need to be judged too. It is the powerful, more than anyone else, who are sorely tempted to have the final word. Pontius Pilate quipped, “what is truth?” and tried to convince himself, and others of a narrative where he could condemn an innocent man to death and not be guilty. He is remembered in the Creeds recited every Sunday in a rather different light.