But, who is that self? Do we base that sense of self entirely on our own existential experience and knowledge? Or do we understand ourselves in relation to others? The answer could be important for our collective future as human beings.
Centuries after the Delphi oracle, Rene Descartes, in the 17th century, gave us the famous phrase je pense, donc je suis – I think, therefore I am. This phrase has often been quoted and alluded to almost, ironically, without thinking. The phrase supposedly proves our existence as well as forming the foundation for all knowledge. It also solidifies the idea of the self as the one and only reality.
Within a few years of that famous phrase being published Thomas Hobbes was proclaiming in The Leviathan (1651) that we only need know our self in order to know others:
“to teach us that for the similitude of the thoughts and passions of one man, to the thoughts and passions of another, whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth when he does think, opine, reason, hope, fear, etc., and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasions.”Western thought and culture has taken that notion of the self and made it the cornerstone of who we are. Building upon that philosophical idea we became enamoured with personal gratification, we glorified Ann Rand’s extreme form of capitalism and became an increasingly narcissistic culture.
Since the middle of the 20th century the process of globalisation has spread this individualised sense of self to almost every corner of the world. If we answer the question: who am I? with this narcissistic form of self, then we must ask the next question: is this sense of self the very thing that lies at the basis of many of our problems and concerns? Does this self lead us into wars? Does this self drive our consumerism? Does this self perpetuate climate change? Does this self exacerbate the extreme conditions of poverty and hunger in the world? Does this self allow for 1% of the world’s population to garner almost half the world’s wealth?
I Am We
There are other notions of the self though. The Zulu concept of ubuntu is especially vivid. Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu as:
"the philosophy and belief that a person is only a person through other people. In other words, we are human only in relation to other humans. Our humanity is bound up in one another… This interconnectedness is the very root of who we are." 2The concept is not confined to the Zulu, it occurs in many African cultures and is notably different to the western notion. Ubuntu describes a notion of who I am as being so inter-twined with others and my environment that any idea of an independent self disappears.
A very similar concept is found within Asian thought and philosophy. One such is the term interbeing – a term coined by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the concept as being “the many in the one and the one containing the many.” In a nod to Descartes, Thich Nhat Hanh expresses interbeing as:
“I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am. We inter-are.”3Both ubuntu and interbeing are quite different conceptions of who I am to that of the western notion.
Who Am I? Who I Am
Our sense of self is a construct, it could even be asserted that it is a self-proclaimed construct. Alan Clements is very clear on this:
“The idea of self was just that, an idea that had no tangible existence, any more than there is an equator one can touch circumscribing the earth. Self, like the equator, exists only as an idea in consciousness and has no objective reality other than thought.”4If our sense of self is only an idea and not anything tangible, then that means that we can change it. I can change my thoughts, hence, I can change who I am. If we did that, if we changed our concept of who we are, and how we come to know ourselves, then maybe we can also change the state of the world.
1. The maxim (γνῶθι σεαυτόν in the Greek) was inscribed above the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
2. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, p8.
3. Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, p88
4. Alan Clements, Instinct For Freedom, p170
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