Who Invented You, Anyway?
No, that's not quite right, because deep down, the subject of this blog is always the same, that is, How did we get here? And with it, What are we supposed to do while we're here?, and Toward what end? Or in other words, Origin, Present Being, and Destiny; or Creation, Freedom, and Judgment. Or Who, What, and Why.
I've mentioned before that the Book of the Same Name was essentially an extended meditation on this question of How did I get here? The question provokes any number of answers, all of them true; for example, there are genetic, historical, biological, evolutionary, psychological, anthropological, cultural, economic, religious and other factors that contribute to Who We Are.
Most people seem to pick one or two and say to hell with it, but I wanted to look around, dig down, peer behind, and stretch upward, in order to consider as many angles as humanly possible, and then found my own religion. In the end, I decided to outsource the second part for reasons of comparative advantage.
Chapter 3.2 is called Humans and How They Got That Way: Putting the Sapiens into Homo. You see, we were Homos for a good long while before we became especially sapiental (wise) about it. That chapter contains some dodgy and overly generalized "history" that traces the emergence of what we call the "individual" or personal self. This self is something we cannot take for granted, nor can we simply project it into the past, as if premodern humans (including contemporary ones!!!) experienced the world in the same way.
The question is, Who invented the individual? Long story short, Christianity; you might say that Judaism did a lot of the R & D, while Christianity focused on marketing. But without this radical new philosophy, we might still be pre-individual members of clans and tribes with no personal identity, no better than the multiculturalists of today.
So, this book, Inventing the Individual, pretty much has my hair on fire. I'm only up to page 65, so I don't know the author's ultimate conclusions, but already there is plenty to playgiarize with, and more than enough to make my own theories almost seem plausible.
I'm just going to flip through the book and expand upon passages that arrested my attention. It begins with a quote from the 19th century historian Fustel de Coulanges, to the effect that the true object of historical study "is the human mind: it should aspire to know what this mind has believed, thought, and felt in different ages of the life of the human race."
Right. The problem here is that mere empathy is not only insufficient, but probably going to mislead. In other words, it is exceedingly difficult to simply project ourselves back in time, as if people of the past were "just like us."
Note that this doesn't just apply to the past. For example, I don't think it is truly possible for us to understand the mindset of Islamic terrorists, or pedophiles, or mass murderers.
(Coincidentally, yesterday's Best of the Web was on the subject of pathological altruism, in which Taranto cites an author who said of the Australian murderer that we face a "difficult test of our empathy," in that "While we do not know [the murderer's] story or his motivation, we know he was once someone just like those people whose lives he has now treated with such disdain. He must have loved ones, too. Forgiving him will be very difficult, and it will take time. Without forgiveness, though, we have to live with destructive hate." Liberalism. Is there anything it can't pervert?)
More generally -- and this is something I'll be expanding upon later -- to the extent that we misuse empathy, it will only "reveal" what we have projected into the subject. It will only tell us about ourselves, not the other person.
This was one of the most important lessons of my psychoanalytic study, first, that empathy is a tool of investigation, and second, that it must operate at the same level as the person under study. To take an obvious example, it requires empathy to understand an infant, a spouse, a friend, or a stranger, but in each case it is different.
For our purposes, when a patient comes in for therapy, they are generally operating at a certain level of development, e.g., neurotic, borderline, autistic, narcissistic, psychotic, etc. If you try to deal with a borderline patient the same way you would a neurotic, you'll get nowhere. In each case empathy is required, but in order to empathize with the borderline, you have to use it to reach a more primitive mode of experience, relating, and cognition (within both your self and the other person, the former facilitating the latter).
We have to do something similar to understand the people of the past, especially people who are or were swimming outside the Judeo-Christian stream. As Siedentop writes, "Deep moral changes, changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions." And very much contrary to postmodernists in all their nasty variety, "it seem to me that moral beliefs have given an overall 'direction' to Western history."
For me, a more interesting way to chart this progress is through the emergence and deepening of the individual. That is, if we trace our existence from the Big Bang all the way to the present post, what is most striking -- and most important to us -- is a gradual expansion and deepening of the subjective horizon.
In other words, our "mental space" -- the space in which we live -- expands and deepens along with our individuality; these are really two sides of the same process, as we shall see. Freedom, conscience, and personal self are all bound up together, but we also need to examine the conditions that made these possible.
What I would say is that God is of course the necessary condition -- the condition without which -- while various religious, psychological, and cultural factors provide the sufficient conditions -- the conditions with which.
Let's begin with pre-Christian antiquity. In order to even begin to understand these remote ancestors, "We must imagine ourselves in a world where action is governed by norms reflecting exclusively the claims of the family, its memories, rituals and roles, rather than the clams of individual conscience. We must imagine ourselves into a world of humans or persons who were not 'individuals' as we would understand them now" (Siedentop, emphasis mine).
Interestingly, this would imply that in order for God to save or redeem individuals, he had to first bring about conditions through which people could individuate from the group (just as humans had to first "speciate" from animals, and life had to anim-ate from matter). Thus, as we shall see, culture is the bread which shall be leavened by some very wise men from the yeast.
To be continued....