This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The discovery of the self

When approaching our difficult subject, which is the modern fixation on political liberty, it is useful to identify certain causes and how they might contribute to our present way of thinking. When we do this, the first thing we notice is that we are inescapably self-centered beings. As Colin Morris put it:

The student of the Greek Fathers or of Hellenistic philosophy is likely to be made painfully aware of the difference between their starting-point and ours. Our difficulty in understanding them is largely due to the fact that they had no equivalent to our concept of ‘person,’ while their vocabulary was rich in words which express community of being…Whereas Aristotle began from the polis, the city which to him was the natural unit of society, the ‘classical’ Western political philosophers (among whom one must count Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) assumed that the individual person and his rights pre-existed any form of society.[1]

Of course, man has always been taught by world religions that he has a tendency toward egoism, from Buddhism to Christianity, but at the same time man did not completely sever himself from his fellow, dead or alive, thanks to the supra-individual emphasis of traditional cultures. We can even say that traditionally men were more naturally aware of their super-nature, hence the respect for ancestors and those already in the next life, a ‘superstition’ foreign to the modern mentality.[2] We differ in that it is no longer possible to make such an assumption: our self-centeredness is almost complete. Nothing that exceeds the individual level has any reality for us. Because the growth of this new, more comprehensive self-centeredness immediately preceded the birth of Liberalism, and in a way prepared the cultural soil for its establishment, it is useful to pause on it before tackling Liberalism specifically.

Roughly speaking, the process in question—the ‘discovery of the self’—has its origins in the European Middle Ages, specifically the 11th and 12th centuries. It was expressed in every area of life, not only in politics, but also in art and literature as well.

Take, for example, the fact that our modern literature is always based on the individual and his relationships, whereas the Greek forms seem to care very little for these aspects of narrative. As Morris explains in his excellent work, The Discovery of the Individual: “Greek tragedy was a drama of circumstance, whereas the Western tragedy is essentially a drama of character.”[3]

Compare the style and development of the plot in Oedipus with that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. In the latter we hear constantly of inner and relational turmoil; in the former, the concern is mainly with destiny and cosmic irony. The ancient themes were universal rather than personal.

During the same period, we see the rise of autobiography.[4] We see also, in the church, new developments in the practice of confession. Until the 11th century we did not see the emphasis on self-examination and sincere contrition that would come to predominate during that period. Confession had been a more external and public sacrament. During the Middle Ages, it was to transform from a public exercise to a more private and internal affair, which is to say, its focus migrated from the collective aspects of sin to the individual. This transition can be clearly marked by observing the attacks of Peter Abelard on the system of public confession. He does not complain that the practice was too severe or embarrassing to the penitent, as we might imagine, but that it was not deep enough, it was too ceremonial and neglected the sincerity of the individual in his remorse. Intimately connected to this development, we see the first interests in what would become the field of psychology.

So thoroughgoing was this transition that a theological giant such as Abelard could title one of his most original works: Ethics: or, Know Thyself (1135). The title reflects the transforming emphasis on the self, and it inevitably led its author to try and make intention the foundation of morality. For Abelard, and for many after him, it was a man’s intent that mattered when it came to moral culpability, even going so far as to suggest that the men who crucified Christ were not sinning, since they believed that what they were doing was just, even though, were this true, it would render Christ’s words at that moment pointless: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” has no meaning if their ignorance in itself absolves them.

In this way, man’s perception of life was slouching toward the subjective. In fact, it was not until Pope St. John Paul II condemned this sort of morality, labeling it ‘consequentialism’ in the 1993 document Veritatis Splendor, that the Church officially and decisively rejected intention as the sole criterion of moral culpability.

This is not to say that the Church of the Middle Ages followed Abelard on this point. We only mention his error because it manifests the tendency we are studying; his ideas were in fact opposed in his own time. For it was at this point in history that the tide of the self crashed against the philosophical mountain that was St. Thomas Aquinas.

The philosophical weaponry that Aquinas contributed to the West may never be appreciated in its magnitude, even considering its weaknesses.[5] By synthesizing Aristotle’s objectivity with Christian subjectivity, he successfully fused and harmonized what at that moment threatened to dismantle Christian philosophy altogether. His fusion enabled man to be both subject and object, in the proper relationships and at the proper time, to be vincibly or invincibly ignorant of acts which were right or wrong. He reconciled Abelard’s insistence that intention counts with the objective nature of good and evil. In St. Thomas we find man and Man, we find the individual both as person and as member of a human community. Finally, he showed us through his development of law—eternal, natural, and human—how man could be both material and spiritual, natural and supernatural.

For all this, it was still a highly rationalistic approach, and in the end the Thomistic synthesis decomposed back into its constituent elements and became a dichotomy: man is either individual or collective, animal or angel. When Thomism fell, the possibility of a ‘religious life’ separate from ‘ordinary life’, a harbinger of materialism, first became possible in the minds of political philosophers, and with this conception was born the possibility of a secular state—the first seeds of the ‘wall of separation’, a wall which even contemporary Catholic authors attempt to straddle.

Let us now step back to observe the long-term results of the process in its two extremes, which can be identified as egoism (man’s personal aspect) and nationalism (man’s collective aspect):

On a personal level, the victory of the self has led to acute self-consciousness of a negative sort. In the words of John Updike, writing of Franz Kafka, who exemplified this condition through his writing and life:

The century…has been marked by the idea of ‘modernism’—a self-consciousness new among centuries, a consciousness of being new…a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.[6]

The experience of life as a social affair had its comforts. If a man lived in a healthy community that acknowledged its bonds, then he was never existentially alone. Even in his religious life, his sin was in part a social sin—he was fallen but the world was fallen with him—and his relationship with Christ was not a 1-to-1 exchange but an intermingling of cosmic degrees in such a way that the individual disappeared and the two were “one body.”

With the onset of selfhood, this supra-individual (and thus properly ‘social’) perception of reality could not persist. Today, the best the Christian can hope for is the “personal savior.” He takes the full weight of life on himself, stripping himself of the insulation that a co-experience of life could have offered, and he suffers for it.

In the opposite extreme, this cocooning led to the envelopment of the collective aspect of man’s psyche. Whatever remained of his social awareness became prone to an insecure self-consciousness. Once this happened, a new hypersensitivity of one’s separateness was made manifest in what, on the political level, would become nationalism.

As the formation of the national self proceeded, the unity of Christendom fractured and gave way to ‘nation-states’, each attempting to satisfy a pandemic lust for self-consciousness in the collective sphere, a need that previous societies had apparently never felt. Just as the self-conscious man becomes automatically insecure, and therefore combative in the presence of his peers, so the self-conscious nation becomes suspicious of everyone around it. In this way, the seeds of alienation and strife were planted in the soil of the West. They had only to germinate and flourish.

[1] Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual: 1050-1200 (New York: Harper, 1972), pp. 2-3.

[2] This is why Paul could speak so easily of a “cloud of witnesses” while contemporary Protestantism has absolutely no idea what to do with this notion.

[3] Morris, op. cit., p. 4.

[4] There were older works, such as Augustine’s Confessions, which are undoubtedly ‘autobiographical’, but they are exceptions that prove the rule, and the form of the autobiography did not become ‘popular’ until the modern era.

[5] We will at various points in this manual explain problems of Thomistic thought, not to diminish its value but to put it in perspective and avoid the problematic tendency of some Catholics to grant it a virtual monopoly on Catholic theological expression.

[6] John Updike, Foreword to Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), ix.

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