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The Self is a Problem

June 1st, 2022 | 18 min read

By Jake Meador

There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique. ~ C. S. Lewis

Context collapse! That sounded pretty bad, didn’t it? And also like the thing that was happening to the honeybees? ~ Patricia Lockwood

That C. S. Lewis quote comes near the end of his essay The Abolition of Man and is perhaps as neat a summary of Lewis’s intellectual project that I can think of. The second quote, which comes from Patricia Lockwood’s recent novel No One Is Talking About This might be regarded as coming from someone who has lived in the world of the scientists and magicians her whole life and is becoming aware of what that means. It’s the space that exists between Lewis and Lockwood that interests me.

Another way of stating Lewis’s point is that the wise men of old believed that there was an inner harmony to the world, that there was a sort of moral law to reality no less real than the law of gravity and that life is harmonious and pleasant when our choices, desires, and actions are aligned with that natural order. Humanity has a context, if we want to use Lockwood’s word.

For the magicians and scientists, however, no such order exists. Reality is not harmonious, but violent. To thrive, humanity doesn’t need to be drawn into the inner life and logic of the natural world, but instead needs to exert control over the world in order to make it a place hospitable to human flourishing. In the former imagining of reality, the world is primordially peaceable and orderly, in the latter it is primordially chaotic and violent.

This divergence has massive ramifications for how we imagine the place of the individual self in the world. In the former approach, self and world and society can all theoretically exist in a harmonious relationship of mutual flourishing. In the latter approach, both world and society are threats to the self, for they are the sources of violence and chaos that so often assail the individual, inhibiting them in their attempt to articulate their authentic self in the world. For the magicians and scientists, the self is a problem because much of reality actively militates against the true expression of one’s self.

It’s perhaps worth observing that Lewis’s framing of the problem isn’t entirely accurate. Phrased as it is, it suggests a fight between pre-modernity and modernity, but that isn’t quite correct, a fact which Lewis of course knew, though that knowledge doesn’t show up in the much-cited quote shared above. In his book When Athens Met Jerusalem John Mark Reynolds suggests this is the primary question of philosophy and was, indeed, the primary problem that the ancient Greeks puzzled over, with Socrates representing the school of harmony and order and Homer representing the school of chaos and violence. So while this question strikes us in a uniquely urgent way under contemporary modernity, which is why Lewis draws his contrast between “the wise men of old” and the magicians and scientists, the question itself is not new, nor is it a creation of the modern regime. It is older than modernity. But modernity has changed the way we think about the problem, I think.

What we should do first is consider why the magicians and scientists would rise to such power and control under the modern regime. There are many reasons for this, of course. But I want to focus on two. The first is material: The 1755 Lisbon earthquake was a cataclysmic event that transformed European politics and presented an existentially compelling argument against some versions of the argument for a harmonious, orderly creation. In a dark irony, the earthquake occurred in the morning on All Saints Day, opening up fissures 16 feet wide in the heart of Lisbon, a city that at the time was home to between 200,000 and 275,000 people—roughly 15% of whom were killed that day. Following the earthquake itself, the city was slammed by multiple tsunamis, carrying away many people and animals in the rush of water. The earthquake also caused the candles lit by many in the city to mark the festive day to tip over, causing widespread fires. By the end of the day, Europe’s fourth largest city was virtually destroyed and tens of thousands were dead.

Given such devastation, it is unsurprising and natural that many would find in these events a strong argument for the Homeric take on reality, seeing it as red in tooth and claw, brutal, vicious, and hostile to human life. It was this event, after all, that inspired Voltaire’s Candide, a book that sold between 20,000 and 30,000 copies in its first year, was translated into 20 languages, and was recognized by one contemporary as being “perhaps the fastest-selling book ever.” While Candide’s crosshairs are focused less on the idea of a harmonious natural order that governs the world and more on the optimistic notion that “we live in the best of all possible worlds,” the practical effect of Voltaire’s argument is to destabilize not only that obviously false idea, but to also destabilize the idea of the world having any sort of naturally benevolent harmony to it. Indeed, his famous conclusion is that the best any human being can do in the world is simply to look after their own garden, trying to bring something beautiful and good out of the otherwise chaotic world.

Alongside these empirical realities are philosophical trends in the 18th century which exist in a kind of constant conversation with the empirical realities of 18th century Europe. In his book The Politics of Authenticity Marxist theorist Marshall Berman explains how this works while paying particular attention to Voltaire’s contemporary and fellow philosophe, Montesquieu and, in particular, how Montesquieu develops his ideas in his novel The Persian Letters.

For Montesquieu, as for many other European thinkers, the abstractions of seventeenth century natural law collapse in the eighteenth century’s encounter with empirical reality… Montesquieu depicts the universe as an infinite aggregate of particles of matter in motion. Man and his world comprise a few of these particles—a very few. Even within a given world, different particles move in different orbits. By what right, then, he wants to know, do a very few among these very few particles presume to impose their own peculiar atmosphere on all the rest of nature? This mechanistic argument was to become one of the most trenchant weapons in the arsenal of the philosophes. It cut boldly through the arcane intricacies of the hierarchical scholastic image of the world and projected sharply and clearly a vision of Nature devoid of all normative content. From now on, Nature meant, simply, all that was.

This radical hollowing out of nature, transforming it from the Christian conception that views it as, in Benedict XVI’s words, “a plan of love and truth,” into a kind of brute materialism, creates enormous changes for how the human person is imagined and how the good life is imagined.

Effectively what happens is that critics now felt emboldened to use one vision of “nature” to assail the traditional natural law arguments often used as one part of the case for Christianity and Christian morals in particular. Indeed, the natural law arguments would come to be seen as deeply unnatural for how they violate and vitiate the natural capacities of the human person, artificially constraining the freedom of the individual and imposing on them a variety of unchosen chains that can only have the effect of imprisoning the human soul. Berman writes,

Only when men retain their natural individuality—their authenticity—can they participate in nature as a whole, and enjoy the forms of happiness that nature has made available to man in the world. A man can be happy only if he can be—himself. But a society which deprives every man of the primary source of his happiness cannot hope to satisfy its members; hence it must inevitably disintegrate from within.

Strikingly, Berman, reading Montesquieu, anticipates where our current debates regarding the self and freedom have ended up, noting the particular relevance of this conception of the person and of freedom for our sexual lives. Berman:

(Montesquieu)’s approach to sex is deeply moralistic; but because his morality is the morality of authenticity, he comes to the radical conclusion that sexuality has positive moral value. Sexuality is the most vivid expression of Nature—and hence of individuality—in man. As such, it is integral to the formation of personal identity: sex is a medium through which every individual can not only enjoy himself, but actually define himself. When Usbek’s wives finally revolt against him, they do so by taking lovers: now they can be authentically naked, by choice, in mutuality.

Later Berman continues,

Sexuality is perhaps the central symbol of The Persian Letters. On one hand, it stands for itself, and expresses a demand for greater freedom in sexual life: thus Montesquieu defends adultery and promiscuity, divorce, and even incest. On the other hand, it embodies the authenticity of the individual, and expresses a demand for profound changes in the structure of social status and political authority which will permit the full authenticity of the self to unfold.

He continues, saying,

A repressive society creates a radical gap between people’s social identities—the roles they are forced to play—and their real identities. Montesquieu is one of the very first thinkers see personal identity as a problem. In a repressive society it cannot be taken for granted, but must be achieved: men cannot be themselves within such a system, but must strive to become themselves, against the system.

There is something reminiscent here of De Lubac’s treatment of what he calls “atheist humanism,” a philosophical system that grounds its approach in the virtually infinite capacity for action, transformation, and accomplishment that exists within the human person and that is constantly thwarted by religion, by society, by antiquated ways of thinking. Rousseau summarizes this potential this way in one of his treatises,

It is a great and beautiful spectacle to see man raising himself from nothingness by his own efforts; dissipating, with the light of his reason, the shadows in which nature enveloped him; lifting himself above himself; soaring in spirit up to the celestial regions; like the sun, traveling with giant steps through the vast extent of the universe; and, what is still greater and more difficult, returning into himself, to study man and get to know his nature, his duties and his end.

And yet there is a dark side to this as well. We will leave Berman and Montesquieu here:

For the Stoics, and for Montaigne, the right to suicide was derived from a concept of honor that was supposedly accepted by the whole of society: a man should do away with himself rather than allow himself to be placed in a dishonorable situation. Montesquieu, however, bases this right on a claim which every individual holds against his society. Every man is entitled to withdraw his consent from a society which he feels is denying him his proper share of ‘mutual benefit’; suicide is merely the ultimate form of withdrawal. This defense of suicide shows how closely the ideal of authenticity and the principle of consent are intertwined.

It is perhaps worth noting the disturbing overlap between this defense of suicide and the particular ways that concern for suicide is used to justify certain approaches to transgender questions. If “affirmative care” for transgender individuals is a matter of life and death, as many on the left now argue, then this is implicitly to agree with Montesquieu, claiming that if trans individuals are denied such care then they have a right to withdraw their consent to participate in our society and, indeed, our world and to enact this choice through suicide. The logic of the contemporary sexual revolution, then, can be found many centuries ago in these Enlightenment era philosophes.

In passing, we might also note a further real-world application of this thinking. Anxiety often occurs as a result of feeling insecure, uncertain of your place in the world or of where you are going or of what you ought to be doing. The remedy to anxiety, as Mark Sayers notes, is a “stronghold,” a biblical concept Sayers develops in his book, A Non-Anxious Presence. The idea of a stronghold is that it provides a buffer between the self and the chaos of reality. It creates a space of stability and certainty, where I am able to know myself, know where I am going, and know what is expected of me. But if we begin with the assumption that my self exists within me and must be manifested in the world, the stronghold collapses. Why? Because strongholds, simply in order to actually be strongholds are inherently structured and grounded in unchosen forms which help to draw the line of demarcation between the outer chaos and inner safety. Thus a stronghold, though effective at curbing anxiety, is also inherently oppressive of the authentic self because they impose an identity on anyone who shelters within them. So we might say that the modern world condemns us to anxiety because it denies us the resources we need to be freed from anxiety.

So the attempted explanation (perhaps even a qualified defense) of Lewis’s magicians and scientists. Now to try and critique this approach, which is practically the air we breathe today, in a register that might, perhaps, resonate with modern people who regard Lewis, as he himself did, as a dinosaur.

To begin, we might continue considering the issue of suicide. Here is how Walker Percy addresses the problem in Lost in the Cosmos, and please forgive the incredibly lengthy excerpt. I didn’t know what to cut. But it’s Percy, so hopefully that makes it more tolerable:

Thought experiment: A new cure for depression:

The only cure for depression is suicide.

This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it.

This treatment of depression requires a reversal of the usual therapeutic rationale. The therapeutic rationale, which has never been questioned, is that depression is a symptom. A symptom implies an illness; there is something wrong with you. An illness should be treated.

Suppose you are depressed. You may be mildly or seriously depressed, clinically depressed or suicidal. What do you usually do? Or what does one do with you? Do nothing or something. If something, what is done is always based on the premise that something is wrong with you and therefore it should be remedied. You are treated. You apply to friend, counselor, physician, minister, group. You take a trip, take anti-depressant drugs, change jobs, change wife or husband or “sexual partner.”

Now call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption.

Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth – and who are luckily exempt from depression – would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age – more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who is or what he is doing.

Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you’d be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade you depression to become any of these?

Now consider, not the usual therapeutic approach, but a more ancient and honorable alternative, the Roman option. I do not care for life in this deranged world, it is not an honorable way to live; therefore, like Cato, I take my leave. Or, as Ivan said to God in The Brothers Karamazov: If you exist, I respectfully return my ticket.

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be least painfully, either by counseling, narcotizing, boozing, groupizing, womanizing, man-hopping or changing your sexual preference.

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable, after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you will go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you deicide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders who, it turns out, are themselves worried sick – over what? Over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.

And you, an ex-suicide, lying on the beach? In what way have you been freed by the serious entertainment of your hypothetical suicide? Are you not free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the comic mystery of your own existence? And even to consider which is more absurd state of affairs, to manifest absurdity of your predicament: lost in the Cosmos and no news of how you got into such a fix or how to get out – or the even more preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.

What remains of this paper might be called “How to be an Ex-Suicide.” Cast adrift in the world of scientists and magicians, we seek any kind of solution, anything that can help us draw our authentic selves into the world. And Christians are not immune to this fear; we have simply transposed the language of authenticity and identity onto Christian conceptions of the self, rendering “Christian faith” an essential part of one’s “authentic” self. Or to shift metaphors (and this is another image I’ve taken from Sayers), if we imagine that the authentic life is like being in orbit, we’re happy to let Christianity be regarded as one type of fuel that might power the rocket that lifts us into orbit or, perhaps, that restores us to orbit should we fall to earth. But once we’re in orbit we no longer need the fuel.

Percy suggests something altogether different. We do not need better therapies to help us self designate, better strategies for being true to our selves. We need to ditch the whole thing. The point is not that life is worth living only if we consent to the conditions of our life. The point is that living is better than dying and, as J. M. Barrie puts it, “to live would be an awfully big adventure.” Set aside the onerous, impossible task of self-creation. Embrace, instead, the givenness of things, the givenness of your own self and the world in which that self exists and to which it relates, and from which it derives its life.

And what of the empirical critique? What do we say of that? When someone challenges the notion of a coherent, good, intentional creation born of love on the basis that evil and calamity exist, what do we say?

Now, my goal here is not to address theodicy. That is a far larger question and, anyway, it is not as if the problem of evil first announced itself in the 18th century. The proponents of natural law throughout Christian history have been well aware of this issue and taken it up in a variety of ways. So that is not my goal here.

Rather, I want to ask a more specific question pertaining to the way that we moderns respond when we observe pain, suffering, and calamity in the world. Why is it that when we encounter the bentness of the world, to use Lewis’s image, we respond to it by seeking domination and control or, failing that, therapies and remedies to help us endure the world or, failing that, simply opting out of existence altogether?

Here we can learn from three very different scholars whose work I’m going to try and draw together in my conclusion.

First, we should consider the work of Willie James Jennings and particular his concept of “ontological density” as a tool for understanding our moment. By “ontological density,” Jennings means something like the inherent weight of being that is possessed and shared by our fellow human beings and, in a different, attenuated way, by other created things and even the natural world itself as well.

When you come to a new place and you seek to accommodate yourself to its norms, its way of life, its habits, you are acknowledging the ontological density of that place and its people; you’re recognizing that there is something weighty and significant here, something that can’t simply be reduced down to raw matter and modified in whatever way pleases you.

Yet throughout the story of modernity, we see a rejection of this concept: We see it in the story of colonialism, for instance, when European powers fabricated nations and national boundaries out of nothing, overriding hundreds of years of history and common life in Africa and western Asia. We also see it in the ecological actions of modern people: In my home place of Nebraska, our natural ecosystem was ruthlessly destroyed over several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by settlers who did not understand or care for the prairie, the buffalo, or the Native peoples that called this place home. They plowed up the prairie, killed the buffalo, and sought to remake Native peoples and, when that failed, consigned them to a painful and marginal existence on undesirable lands. This is a failure to respect ontological density.

Over time it has taught us to encounter the world not as the theatre of God’s glory, the fruit of his creative word, but instead as something more like a ball of playdoh, as Joe Rigney has described it, or the raw material taken into a factory where it is transformed into something valuable. The story of colonial modernity is a story of ignoring ontological density. And it is no surprise, then, that modern people would find the notion of a natural order counter-intuitive or unimaginable. We are well-schooled in denying ontological status to our neighbors and to nature. So, of course, when we encounter the world’s “bentness” we respond by attempting to assert dominance and control, all the while cursing the primordial violence of the world and seeking our salvation through innovation and technique.

Second, we should briefly consider the work of the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa. Rosa has argued that the primary thrust of modernity has been an attempt to bring more and more of the world under our control as human beings. The story of modernity for Rosa is not so much one of enchantment and disenchantment as it is one of slowly mastering reality and forcing it into shapes that suit us. Tech critic L. M. Sacasas summarizes Rosa this way:

Rosa’s “guiding thesis” on this score is that “for late modern human beings, the world has simply become a point of aggression,” an apt phrase that seemed, sadly, immediately useful as a way of characterizing what it feels like to be alive right now. The world becomes a series of points of aggression when, as Rosa puts it, “everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.” If our response to this is a measure of befuddlement—how else would we go about living if not by seeking to know, to master, to conquer, to make useful?—then it would seem that Rosa is probably right to say that this is a bedrock assumption shaping our thinking rather than being a product of it.

Thus a second point: If we moderns encounter the world as a “point of aggression,” then it is no surprise that we both feel our own sense of self to be a problem that we must solve and it is no surprise that we routinely feel frustrated in this and, therefore, driven to seize even more control over even more of reality, all of which simply compounds the problem.

Finally, we turn to the work of Marilynne Robinson, the great Iowa Calvinist. In her work, Robinson has suggested that Calvinism, including a Calvinist account of creation that returns it to being “the theatre of God’s glory,” in Calvin’s phrase, offers a coherent alternative to contemporary materialism that provides a better basis for the affirmation of human dignity as well as the goodness and delight of created reality.

What Robinson recognizes is that the kinda of materialist conception of Nature found in some members of the French Enlightenment ultimately bottoms out into a system of thought insufficient to account for the complexity of reality or to provide a worthy metaphysic for modern people. As Robinson puts it in one essay, “So great is my respect for secular people that I wish they had a metaphysics worth of them.”

In contrast to this blunt materialism, Robinson proposes a Calvinism sourced from Jonathan Edwards that, in her view, offers a more satisfying, truthful account of reality, that offers a narrative capacious enough to account for the world we encounter each day.

I have mentioned a number of times that many years ago my sense of reality was transformed by my reading a section of his treatise The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, more specifically, a footnote about the nature of moonlight. I was assigned to read Edwards in an undergraduate philosophy course. His treatise rescued me from the small and dreary determinisms that were offered to us as insight into human nature and motivation, then Freudianism and behaviorism. His argument is that there is nothing in Being that accounts for its persisting as itself from moment to moment. The constancy of moonlight is not intrinsic to it but is instead the effect of the continuous, continuously new reflection of sunlight. So with the apparent continuity of everything that exists, of existence itself. This is a perfectly sound insight from the point of view of physics. For Edwards, it means that creation is constantly renewed as an act of God, who therefore remains free relative to his creation, within constraints he has set for himself, which preserve order, identity, and intelligibility.

In other words, Robinson says, the created order you and I encounter, even our own bodies and souls, are themselves being constantly sustained and renewed by the creative work of God, just as the moonlight is a constant reflection of the light of the sun. (Obviously one could push this analogy in troubling ways, but I do not think that need keep us from using it altogether. All analogies inherently break down at some point, after all.)

It is because of the joyful speech and work of the infinitely creative God that this world is drawn into being and sustained in being. Given that, we should expect to find in the world forms of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery that thwart our attempts to understand or explain them. And yet this needn’t condemn us to anxiety or some sort of Sisyphean attempt to sledgehammer reality into a manageable shape that can be fully comprehended and articulated by any manmade theory.

Rather, because this creative God is also a gracious God, we encounter the complexity of reality within the knowledge that the God who made it is benevolent, good, merciful, and faithful. We might put it this way: Creation itself is a kind of stronghold, a space in which God gives to us reality, our own selves, and, most important of all, himself. And as the recipients of those gifts, we can go anywhere into the world, untroubled in our seeking, quietly confident in the truth and durability of God’s gracious word to us. To conclude, we should say with Robinson that,

A theology for our time should help us to know that Being is indeed the theater of God’s glory, and that, within it, we have a terrible privilege, a capacity for profound error and grave harm. We might venture an answer to God’s question, Where were you when I created—? We were there, potential and implicit and by the grace of God inevitable, more unstoppable than the sea, impervious as Leviathan, in that deep womb of time almost hearing the sons of God when they shouted for joy. And we are here, your still-forming child, still opening our eyes on a reality whose astonishments we can never exhaust.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).