In interiore homine

I have been planning a post on Augustine for sometime, for so long in fact that it has morphed into something quite different.  But it still relates to him, so I preface what follows by stating that I am by no means an expert on Augustine, or any of the authors I mention here, though my professional duties have required that I teach some of them; sparse though it might be, I still would like to share what are an amateur’s thoughts on one way of conceiving of human personality or identity, namely that of interiority.

I have always been interested in the phenomenon of people referring to their “inner selves,” a rather obvious absurdity if taken literally (so your soul is “within” you?  In where—your chest?) it nonetheless expresses a common point of reference for self-identification for most people.  The language of interiority is basic to Christianity:  Paul talks in his letters about the “inward man,” and Christ says you have the kingdom of God within you in the Gospels (although the Greek word can be translated as “among”).  Augustine was really the first one to pick up on this, and turn it into a discourse all its own.  Yes, I know there are some antecedents with Stoicism, but there are some major differences between the two visions.  Charles Taylor, in his magisterial work, Sources of the Self, points out that one of the big differences between say, Seneca’s injunction in Letters from a Stoic to “retire into your self as much as you can” in order to avoid the crowds, and Augustine’s exclamation  in the Confessions that God is “nearer to me than my inmost self, and higher than my highest self” is the very way in which each of them conceives of divinity.   Fore Seneca, one has to escape the crowds to find that stillness of soul that leads to apatheia apart from the crowd, so as to free oneself from the false opinions of the mob.  But it does not mean going inward to “find oneself,” in modern parlance.  One can glimpse this more clearly when in another letter Seneca, speaking of the grandeur of the natural world, says that when a man gazes on such wonders that he can hardly help but know that he has a “divine spirit” within him.  What this passage hints at was his pantheism, and it suggests why the injunction to withdraw into one’s self (reced in te in the Latin, literally “recede” into one’s self) does not mean one should find one’s personal identity “within” one’s self.  This is because the pneuma pervades the entire universe, and so one can find one’s place within the cosmos by reference to nature—by gazing at its works one can know where one fits just as much as “within” one’s own person.  On the other hand, man for Augustine is uniquely made in the image of God, and so there is that lovely passage in the Confessions where Augustine says, after having asked all the different parts of creation, realizes one can only know God by reference to the soul: “He is the Life of the life of my soul.”  One can only find oneself “in” God as it were, one can only do that by going into the “interior” of the soul. 

But there is another major difference that between Augustine and his predecessors on this account which Taylor picks up on, which is use of memory as a means of “finding” God within the soul.  In the Meno when Socrates wants to prove that some ideas are innate in the human mind, he asks a series of questions of a slave boy, and gets him to answer correctly about a mathematical figure well that he can draw the figure in the dust.  Socrates then takes this as evidence that there are some ideas that exist in the mind by nature—the doctrine of innate ideas, or at least an ancestor of it.  But as Taylor notes, this is not an option for Augustine, as in Plato’s account it presumes the pre-existence of the soul, which is not really an individual soul anyway,  but part of a larger world soul, thoughts in the overarching intelligence which rules the universe, the One or to hen of later “Neoplatonist” writers.  Instead of seeing memory as something that recollects everything that is past or prior to earthly existence, obviously incompatible with Christian belief in the created nature of the soul, Augustine makes of memory a repository for more than merely past experiences:  he includes within it all the potential understanding and knowledge of the “intelligible order” of the universe, and if we search this memoria fruitfully enough (i.e., with aid of grace) we come to understand what llies behind our memory is God himself.  This explains why, in Plato’s writings, when he speaks of inwardness he is really using it only as a metaphor for what came before, as Taylor points out; with Augustine, it is something much more literally important, because the interior is supposed to lead to the exterior, to God who is above all.

This language of interiority get a famous reworking later on in the seventeenth century, in philosophers like Descartes, who in his Meditations on First Philosophy famously shut himself up within himself (or tried to, anway), cordoning off his senses from the “external” world, and tried to deduce the existence of God and the structure of the universe on the basis of the workings of his own mind, his own indubitable existence:  cogito ergo sum.   The emphasis here differs from Augustine, in that whereas Augustine searched the cosmos for God first before delving “into” himself as a stop on his quest for God, Descartes begins there—it is “within” himself that Descartes finds the foundation stone of his new philosophy, which is why histories of the self in its modern forms inevitably include a section on Descartes as a pioneer of modern “subjectivity” (though he hardly uses that term at all in the Meditations, at least the Latin version, anyway).  This along with his new conception of reason as a faculty that “objectifies” things, turns them into objects of an instrumental reason which is disengaged from the world, safe withing the citadel of subjective reason, as Taylor rightly notes, becomes a springboard for later theories which could dispense with older notions of personhood:  I am not who I am because of what tribe I belong to, what institutions I am bound to, or what my status is or what my relationships are (father, husband, etc.), but by what is within me—my reason, my soul, my feelings, my instincts, etc., whatever is taken to be the key to human personality.  The establishing of the human within juxatposed to the world without has something of a parallel in the visual arts coming out of the Italian Renaissance as well, when the development of linear perspective put a distance between observer and the work observed; the work is now an object “outside” the human perceiving it, whereas before in the iconic tradition there was no determinate context, no separation of inside/without, as Taylor notes. This naturally places a premium on what happens “within” the perceiving subject; thus it is that visual images are so ambiguous and therefore powerful, since so much can be read onto them.  It is from this fact that we likely derive the commonplace that someone “projects” his beliefs onto someone or something, from an inside to an object on the “outside,” as when Feurbach contended that God was merely a projection of the human mind. 

All of this is fairly well known, as Taylor and others have written extensively on the subject.   Indeed, much of what we take to be characteristic of “modernity” likely depends on such a distinction; such and such a belief is private, merely existing subjectively “within” a person, while some other belief is solid, objective, verifiable empirically, etc.  This modernistic way of conceiving of personality has been challenged, to say the least, by continental theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, de Man, and the like, whose ideas are sometimes labeled “postmodern” because they seek to show the instability of such conceptions (and many of course consider them to be undermining them).  I tend to be more sympathetic to such theorists, if only because they are a good antidote to the idiotic idea, sometimes expressed most in a most sickening way in bad pop songs, which inform us that “you know all the answers must come from within.” (The song is “Free Ride,” by Edgar Winter, if I’m not mistaken.) 

But there is another reason why these theorists interest me, which is that, at least with regards to the whole question of interiority, they might represent a turning back to an earlier way of conceiving personhood, not a going forward.  First of all, one wonders if the identification of Augustine with the Western tradition has not obscured the fact that, beyond a few mystics like himself, say, Bonaventure, Catherine of Siena, and the later medieval mystics, that people in medieval times in general  were probably not all that invested in the idea that their identity was bound up with their “interiority.” That’s probably overdoing just a bit, but then Taylor’s book sort of bears this out:  in developing the historical part of his argument, he leaps from Augustine to Descartes, without a mention of any writer in between. For example, I took a class in grad school one time in which I got to read a memoir by a medieval monk Guibert de Nogent, who was an abbot of a monastery at Nogent.  The memoir begins by describing his early life, his mother, and some of his early education, providing a rare glimpse of autobiographical narrative which was rare for the period.  But the second part of the book, which describes his entrance in the abbey, quickly leaves behind his personal story for the story of the abbey, or rather, the two blend seamlessly together.  The third is a history of an uprising, unconnected with his personal story in any way.  The point is that his “interior” life as a monk is really not separate from his institutional role as an abbot, and his narrative reflects this.  In fact, one can see something of the same thing at work even in Augustine’s Confessions, which contain so much rich biographical detail but whose final chapters deal with the most abstract questions of time, eternity and the relationship between them.  This is not surprising, as we have said that his goal was not to “find himself” in himself but to find God.  What this all points to is a sense of interiority that is real, meaningful, but also permeable, and temporary; as Taylor points out, it was a way station on the way to God, an important one, a crucial one even, but nonetheless one step on a journey.  It is not surprising that Augustine’s later writings more and more defended the Church as an institution, since that would have been the focal point of his identity at that point, though God would have been behind that ultimately too in his mind.  That leads to my second point, which is that this is probably how most people conceived themselves (and likely still is): by reference to their family, their tribe, their clan, their relationships, in other words, with others and with institutions like monarchy, empire, church, and the like.  In other words, one’s interiority might well be only a part, albeit privileged part, of one’s identity, and not part of a person’s everyday life, as it evidently was for Guibert.

In Taylor’s book, he has a digression on historical explanation in which he declines to tackle the question of historical causation, preferring instead to describe the contours of what he calls the “modern identity” in rich detail.  This was a wise choice, as it probably made for a better book, in my opinion.  Philosophers don’t always make the best historians, not because they cannot make acute historical observations (indeed, I am obviously indebted to his book for much of my discussion here!) but they tend to leave out the time dimension when asking questions about the past as a matter of intellectual habit, which is just the nature of different disciplines.  I being an historian by training, on the other hand, tend to want to answer the causal question which he avoided, in particular with regards to interiority.  How did we get to a point where we see our inner selves as inviolable, and totally cut off from the outside world?  Not that I think I could answer this question in my musings on this blog, but I do think a considered reflection on some aspects of what makes it possible, for example, to regard our thoughts as being sacrosanct—just think of all myriad films that Hollywood has produced about mind control, for example—can be illuminating.  That is, of course why I’ve started this blog.  Next time I’ll return to the question with a bit more focus on this causal question, taking up where my posts on “From Eternity to Here” left off.

~ by Alypius on May 13, 2009.

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