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The Birth and the Collapse of the Western Idea of Self

Rollo May

One of the dramatic changes in world history occurred during the Renaissance, with the shift from medieval feudalism in Europe to the society of the self of the modern age. The Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt wrote that in the Middle Ages, a person was "conscious of himself only through some general category, such as his place in the feudalistic structure, in the family pattern, and in the moral and spiritual structure of the church." The "self" as we know it was hardly discernible.

This can be seen clearly in the art of the period. The medieval mosaics look out over the viewer's head representing not selves but eternal power and forgiveness, the spirit of God, the church, and eternity.

In the cathedrals such as Chartres, one sees all of the signs of the community and scarcely ever an acknowledgement of the individual. In the famous rebuilding of Chartres Cathedral after it was destroyed by fire in the twelfth century, every person in the village worked together in one effort, hauling stones across the fields, carving the statues, placing the beautiful glass windows. No sculptors' names adorn the different statues; no one knows who was responsible for this or that portion of the great church. Individual selves were not recognized; the village acted and reacted as a totality.

But with Giotto in the fourteenth century came intimations of the Renaissance. We see a new mood--namely, that the human individual self, formerly ignored, becomes paramount. Giotto for the first time depicts individual emotions, such as the joy of a father kissing his daughter, or the mourning of the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross. The individual self is born into its own.

We see the same radical change in the writings of the Renaissance. In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, the Italian Renaissance scholar Pico della Mirandola wrote that God says to Adam: "Thou, restrained by no narrow bounds, according to thine own free will, in whose power I have placed thee, shall define thy nature for thyself…; thy own free moulder, shouldst fashion thyself in what from may like thee best."

The new emphasis on the individual self can be understood partly as a reaction against the feudalism of the Middle Ages. The self of the Renaissance was a defiant one: "I have no friend, nor do I want any," proclaimed Michelangelo. This individualism expressed the power of the individual self in the Renaissance. "Capacity might raise the meanest monk to the Chair of St. Peter's, the meanest soldier to the duchy of Milan." Here is indeed the self that will become centrally important, replete with power, a passion for success, and, as one result, loneliness.

A number of intellectuals provided the structure for this new view of the self. One was Paracelsus (1493-1541), a physician in the Renaissance, who emphasized the influence of the patient's own individual will, and hence self, in the achievement of health. With Paracelsus, the physician in modern culture began to take over in modern culture the role that the priest had played in medieval society.

In the late Renaissance, there were several thinkers who developed germinal ideas for the modern period and revealed the new emphasis on the self. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake by the Inquisition, argued that creation was a process that evolved through different levels represented by concentric circles, with the individual's self at the center: The self was the starting point for all of life. Another thinker was Jacob Bohme, a German mystic and precursor of Protestant thought, who wrote with amazing insight about how anxiety can aid individual creative effort.

Religion was also reshaped in the light of this new view of the self. The individual no longer needed a pope; he could discern the moral truths by reading the Bible for himself. Hence Martin Luther (1483-1546) translated the Bible into the common vernacular of Germany so that every person could know what it said. Each person was now free to follow the dictates of his own conscience. This self-determination implied power, but also loneliness. We had already lost the great sense of community that was manifested at Chartres; instead, we now had millions of individual selves, undermining old symbols with a new rationalism. Each person now depended upon himself. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz were to explain how this could be done.

'I Think, Therefore I am'

Rene Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy," was to exemplify the coming worship of individualism and rationalism of the Western self. It was a graphic and lonely act that historic day in the seventeenth century when Descartes crawled into his large stove in the morning with the vow that he would not come out until he had found the ultimate principle. At the end of the day he emerged with a sentence that ties together both ideas of his time, individualism and rationalism: "I think, therefore I am." It is I who do the thinking. I am an individual and I need no one else and each individual proves his existence by thinking, that is, by rationality. Thus individualism and rationalism became the two principles on which modern philosophy, and to a large extent culture, was based. And thus the Western self would be formed upon the two principles that were the epitome of our Western way of looking at life--rationalism and individualism.

These thinkers emphasized the individual self as their starting point. This is the basis of the individualism that was later to become the mythic cornerstone of psychotherapy in America.

The systematization of the philosophical viewpoints that were to define the modern self occurred later in the seventeenth century. Leibniz painted the most graphic picture of the modern myths of the self in his doctrine that we ourselves and all reality are made up of monads, each monad infinitesimally small, with no doors or windows from one monad to another. Every single one is solitary in itself without any direct communication. The more one lets this doctrine sink in, the more lonely and frightening it becomes. In this formulation each of us is condemned to isolation, to solitary confinement, because each has no basic connection with any other person.

The horror of it, however, was overcome temporarily through the more or less continuous growth of industry, capitalism, invention, and technology; these developments were to have a "harmonistic" effect on laissez-faire activities. Thus, the importance of the self seemed justified. Despite the basic loneliness, the individual self, according to the myth, was effective in the external things of life--buying and selling in the marketplace.

Spinoza And The Self As Reason

Every self can overcome the myth of fear and hatred, proclaimed Spinoza, by basing his ethics on mathematical reason. Reason in that day did not mean arid intellectualism coupled with the repression of emotions, which the term often connotes in both academic and popular circles today. For Spinoza reason was an "ecstatic" term. It meant a general attitude toward life which penetrates below the customary distinction between subjectivity and objectivity and includes emotions and volition as well as thinking.

Spinoza anticipated almost word for word some of the later psychoanalytic and psychosomatic concepts. He proclaimed that we could get over our fear and hatred by using mathematical reason as the basis for our ethics. Fear, he believed, is essentially a subjective problem: "I saw that all the things I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save insofar as the mind was affected by them." He held that fear and hope always go together: "Fear cannot be without hope, or hope without fear." Both these effects are characteristic of the person in doubt (i.e., the person who has not learned the right use of reason).
Fear, he wrote, arises from a weakness of mind and therefore does not appertain to the use of reason… [Therefore,] the more we endeavor to live under guidance of reason, the less we endeavor to depend on hope, and the more to deliver ourselves and make ourselves free from fear and overcome fortune as much as possible, and finally to direct our actions by the certain advice of reason. This is surely as direct and clear use of individualism and rationalism as psychological therapy three centuries later.

The term certain leaps out of Spinoza's writings; the removal of doubt, hope, and fear is possible if we direct ourselves by the certain advice of reason. It is obvious that if one believed, as Spinoza in his century could believe, that such intellectual and emotional certainty could be achieved, if one could be as certain about an ethical problem as about a proposition in geometry, great psychological security would result.

Given the cultural milieu in which Spinoza lived and taught, it seems that his confidence in individual reason did serve him satisfactorily. For that was a time, parallel to the fifth century B.C. in ancient Greece, when the culture boasted some unity in its basic myths. Thus the citizens found in their society more psychological support. The problems that we in the twentieth century see as calling for therapy--severe anxiety and guilt feelings, for example--were met by the natural, spontaneous processes of education and religion in the seventeenth century, before the problems became symptoms of neuroses.

The Self in the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment in the eighteenth century was the high point in the development of individualism and rationalism, the central structure of the myths of modern life. During this period of Voltaire, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and other notable thinkers, an intellectual crusade was waged to free the human self from superstition. The leaders were convinced they could overcome ignorance, obscurantism, and the prejudices that had characterized the dogmas about human life. The new science, they were convinced, would sweep away and supersede all this. The movement was highly optimistic; these thinkers believed that nothing could stand in the way of their new truths about the self.

It is tremendously interesting that the height of the Enlightenment occurred during the decades of the 1770s and 1780s, at exactly the time when the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, and the others documents crucial for the birth of America were written. Jefferson and others had drunk deeply of the spring of the Enlightenment. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is already part of the enlightened crusade. We can state that "all selves" are created equal. Such faith, noble and inspiring as it is, covers up the difficult dilemmas that will later become the pitfalls of these two central myths.

It was a time when thoughtful men believed that the great progress in science and mathematics in the previous century--especially that of Newton, but also including Spinoza and Leibniz--gave the basis for unifying all knowledge. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the eighteenth century was the "last period in the history of Western Europe when omniscience was thought to be an attainable goal" by individual selves. Enlightenment thinkers felt they were well along in the great adventure of basing all knowledge upon these scientific and rational principles. "To comprehend the divine harmony of nature, for a rational creature [sic], is tantamount to conforming to it in all one's beliefs and actions," Berlin said. This alone can make the individual happy and rational and free. Thus it was necessary to introduce psychology--the study of how and why people think as they do--to ensure that persons were not fooled by their own mental processes. Each self had a mind that was treated as if it were a box containing mental equivalents of the Newtonian particles, called ideas.

These principles may seem grossly oversimplified, and we may wonder at our forefathers' unadulterated optimism. But it is only on the basis of the central spirit, the central myth, of a period that such a great movement can get under way. It is the collective myths of the time that allow one to overlook the self-contradictions in the very plan. Each of these philosophers worked alone; each made his contribution to the whole. This was the ultimate expression of the myths of rationality and individualism. The phrases and the faith of the Enlightenment were carried down to our present century. "But the central dream [we may read 'myth'], the demonstration that everything in the world moved by mechanical means, that all evils could be cured by appropriate techno-logical steps, that there could exist engineers both of human souls and of human bodies, proved delusive." Berlin concluded, "The intellectual power of honesty, lucidity, courage and disinterested love of the truth of the most gifted thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel. Their age is one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the life of mankind."

Rembrandt And The Shadow Of Modernity

The undercurrent--or the shadow, as Jung would rightly have said--of the beliefs in the self's individualism and rationalism are just below the surface. To find this shadow we need to look at the art and listen to the language of the artist. If we walk through the rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York devoted to the paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, appropriately emphasizing individual portraits, we see many faces of capitalists and burghers looking assertive and successful, each strong in his own right, each dressed like the other persons in his day. But each one seems to have no connection with or relation with anyone else. The implications of Leibniz's monads strike home with a degree of loneliness and isolation that we would not suspect if we read only the written language of philosophers.

This shadow side of the self is shown most clearly in Rembrandt's pictures. He paints the Dutch burghers as he sees them below the surface; he paints the spirit, the numinous quality, of each figure. In spite of the success and assertiveness and conformity of dress, there is an isolation. Each seems unaffected by the others in the picture, each is alienated and removed. They are joined together only by the purely technical fact that they are on the same canvas and gathered into the same picture frame.

Rembrandt's portraits show persons pondering, contemplating, puzzling to find the rational meaning of life, the struggle of the self trying to break through their isolation to a greater community. In one of Rembandt's paintings Aristotle contemplates a bust of Homer; in another an unnamed philosopher withdraws into his corner to think. Peter ponders the success and failure of this early Christian mission in a third. Even a little girl, Kokspiga, seems to be puzzling deep within herself, when portrayed by Rem-brandt's brush. We are inspired to ask, standing before a Rembrandt portrait, "What is this person thinking? What goes on in his mind, inspired by the myth of reason?" it would never occur to us to ask this when looking at an ancient Greek statue in Athens, or at mosaics on the floors of Pompeii; one only admires the harmony of the body, the peace and serenity of the whole figure.

But in our age of rationalism, the questions the artist addresses are different. There is a sense of despair in almost all of Rem-brandt's paintings, not despair in the negative sense of giving up, but in the creative sense, as though each one were paraphrasing Job: "These things are too mysterious for me." It is the admission that the mystery of life goes beyond what anyone can hope to fathom. The mystery gets greater the more one lives, despite the fact that these burghers consciously believed that reason would give all the answers. It is clear in all of Rembrandt's figures that the answers cannot be found in the isolation they experience.

The point is even more clear in Rembrandt's self-portraits. As a young man, we see his joy, his sense of expectation, and the great attraction of the life ahead to be explored with paint and brush. His paintings, beautiful as they are, show the mythic struggle. There is present already the complex contemplation of his eyes that is to become more and more pronounced as he grows older. In his beginning years he had quickly gained renown and success, but the questions in his eyes and around his mouth remained. In his self-portraits as well as his other portraits, the questions of the whys and wherefores of human destiny are always present. And always he answers that the glory of life lies in the questions, not the answers. In the latter part of his life, when his wife and several of his children had died, his paintings became increasingly profound, and apparently carried too much meaning for his compatriots. His canvases fell from favor and he became impoverished. But still the questions remain in the eyes of persons he paints, and his self-portraits become deeper, more spiritual. He seems to be saying that the highest kind of life cannot be a product of answers, precisely for the fact that life always goes beyond rationalism. He would have understood the statement Gertrude Stein made on her death-bed: When asked, "What is the answer?" she replied, "What is the question?" The meaning in these portraits is exactly opposite to Spinoza's "certainty." There is no certainty; there is only the importance of the question as it is shown in the greatness of Rembrandt's art.

The Failure Of The Enlightenment

But the chief criticism of the Enlightenment, and the myths of individualism and rationalism on which it was based, is that Europe and America have succeeded in achieving the goals of this period, with results that are not at all what our brave new thinkers expected. We have given science almost completely free rein, and our scientific discoveries are fantastic indeed; but we have not attained the freedom from fear that Spinoza predicted. Indeed, it is science that has produced the greatest threat, nuclear war. In Europe and America we have universal education, but we are not at all free from terrorism. Each of us must be searched like a common criminal when we board an airliner. We educate more persons but we do not produce wisdom. We have achieved a great deal of individual freedom, but we cannot walk in New York City's parks after dark.

We have overcome practically all our inhibitions about sex, but we are no closer to love than our ancestors (and one wonders whether we are as close). We have driven away the ghosts of superstition and authoritarianism in religion, but instead of having purified beliefs, most people have few beliefs left to be purified. Among our most bombastic clairvoyant evangelists we find sexual behavior of a type that is beneath contempt. We are open-minded about philosophy, but where are the philosophers who have anything to tell us about the meaning of life?

The Self In The Modern Mood

During the first decade of this century we clung to myths of rationalism and individualism, assuming them as subconscious guides for our functioning. We heard the warnings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and the predictions of Ibsen, but we still clung to the belief that the human mind, graced by science and universal education, would triumph. When that myth was challenged, as Spengler did in The Decline of the West, we reacted ferociously. We were confident that the twentieth century would be a century of peace and rationalism.

This view was advanced by Henry Turner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who had proposed an exceedingly valuable "frontier myth" for understanding America. In 1927, when his faith in modern myths, like that of many intelligent people, had been cruelly shaken by the First World War and presumably upset by the raucous Jazz Age with its flaunting of civil laws during Prohibition, Turner wrote, "I prefer to believe that man is greater than the dangers that menace him; that education and science are powerful forces to … produce a rational solution of the problem of life on this shrinking planet."

Though written in our century, this statement echoes the sentiments of the Enlightenment and shows the persistence of our individualistic and rationalistic myths. The phrase "I prefer to believe" is typical of our use of these myths, and indicates that one could choose not to believe. Perhaps Turner, in referring to the significance of the individual and his rational choices, was reassured and strengthened by writing these words; and his colleagues may have felt the same. The passage strengthens the bond of intellectuals, giving them an orientation, affirming their faith in science, education, and human rationality. The self of the West was reaffirmed even though it was also threatened.

But regardless of our faith or Turner's the modern myths were moving toward a change. Like the fourteenth century, and, in turn, like the first century B.C. in Greece, the twentieth century was to be a period of radical change in belief systems.

We need only point to the vast transformation since August 11, 1914, when World War I was declared. If it were not for their dreadfulness, one might consider these events to be commonplace: We have experience two world wars, and 170 wars since the last World War was ended. We have witnessed genocide; concentration camps and brainwashing as accepted means of political strategy; Stalinism; the Great Depression; the atom bomb, dropped twice by the same superpower; and terrorism such that one man with a nuclear bomb can hold at bay any large city. Like the fourteenth century, which marked the transformation of the previous age, the twentieth century has brought forth invisible change. And with this transformation we witness widespread concern with the occult, the emerging of cults and gurus, witchcraft, necromancy, and other symptoms of the anxiety that marks the hiatus when old myths are dying and new ones are not yet born.

The Undermining Of Rationalism And Individualism

The western self was most deeply threatened by the emergence of psychoanalysis, which, oddly enough, was a byproduct of the endeavor to find the self again. A cultured man, working in his dimly lit study in Vienna, was producing a system for the healing of the selves of hundreds of thousands who need it in a sick age. Sigmund Freud was to make it impossible hereafter to say "I prefer to believe," The interpretation of dreams--Freud's venture into the occult--was to become something different from what it was for Joseph in the book of Genesis or for Plato or for other empathetic persons throughout history. Dream interpretation now became to some extent objective and teachable.

When, for example, a man makes a "rational" decision, let us say, to give a thousand dollars to charity, he may tell himself that he does this out of his own altruism. But Freud showed that, far from being simply altruistic, this decision involves the man's preconscious and unconscious motives. His narcissism is involved (he wants the praise), what he learned in his childhood is present (his compulsion to do his duty), his libido influences the decision (his new sweetheart would praise him), and so on. Indeed, Freudians used the word over-determined to show the infinite number of "causes" of any action, many of them buried in levels of unconsciousness. Descartes' statement must now be amended to read, "I feel, therefore I am a self," and "I fear, therefore I am," and with artists, "I see, therefore I am." There is always some anger released when narcissism is attacked, or, as in the case of Peer Gynt, when a simple question is asked by the Strange Passenger who accosted him, saying "I want to interpret your dreams." So we must add, "I am angry, therefore I am." It turns out that every experience of human existence is a demonstration of one's "beingness." And from the perspective of Zen Buddhism, it even becomes dubious that one can retain the "I"; perhaps, "I am dreaming and therefore I am."

True, Freud was loyal to the Enlightenment in that he believed he was only enlarging the sphere of reason, which meant the sphere of the self. But his message was perceived by the public as the opening of Pandora's box to let out every kind of irrationality, all now credited as being the eruption of the preconscious or unconscious "minds." I recall a lecture by Carl Jung in which he discussed an argument he had had with a fellow professor at the University of Zurich. The opponent was insisting, "Reason cannot be wrong," while Jung knew that his opponent's wife was having an affair with a student at that very moment.

The assault on the myth of individualism by Freud is even more emphatic than that on rationalism. Psychotherapy requires two people; the relationship (contrary to those solitary monads of Leibniz) is an essential part of therapy, and in some therapies the relationship is the most important part. In America often the first problem in any psychotherapeutic experience is the patient's insistence on his individual identity. Freud always believed that the phenomenon of transference was one of his two great discoveries (the other being resistance). Transference requires a relationship, self related to self, but now we are no longer dealing with the self of the Renaissance or even of the Enlightenment.

Alfred Adler stated that the goal of therapy and the necessary condition for mental health is social interest. People become neurotic, he said, when they become isolated from one another (i.e., when they are too individualistic). To overcome neurosis one must maintain an active interest in one's fellow human beings. Adler was fond of asking at dinner tables how many people each person present was related to, and how many people his parents and grandparents were related to; and it turns out that there is a prodigious web of billions of human beings, with everyone dependent upon others, reaching back century upon century.

Harry Stack Sullivan defined psychiatry as the "biology of interpersonal relations." In other words, persons are neurotic or psychotic because they are blocked from--or never learned how to make--durable relations with other persons. Sullivan comes very close to saying that the central cause of neurosis is this erstwhile tainted individualism. With the assault of Freud, Sullivan, Adler, Jung, and their followers, the older myth of the individualistic self, which was so strong among the explorers and the trappers of our West and was still strong in Horatio Alger's day, has now left us for good.

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