Friday, February 5, 2016

Writing the Self: Chapter 2 (Philosophical Shifts in Me, Myself & I)

The title of this chapter is, "Soul from Animism to Monotheism". Heehs begins a more detailed, but still introductory discussion of the idea and evolution of “soul” in society.

To begin, Heehs asserts that during the Axial Age (between 200 and 200 BCE), when iron brought many advances in technology, even to peasants working on farms, social dynamics shifted, especially in regard to religion: “The religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were centered on the king and his priests. During the Axial Age, the focus began to shift to the general population, in particular the rising commercial classes” (13). At this time, religious leaders spoke to “common people” about ideas that “challenged orthodoxies” and “emphasized general human values and concerns” (13). 
During the same time in India, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama and Mahavira “stress[ed] on the need of liberation from the cycle of karma and rebirth and insisted on the necessity of individual effort without the intervention of priests” (Heehs 13).
Meanwhile, in China, Confucianism and Daoism stressed humanistic values (although Daoism, like Buddhism, stresses “self” as a construct in flux throughout time, instead of one self that exists forever (Heehs 14).
Greece was, of course, bustling with revolutionary thought about “self”. Socrates made the implication of the importance of self-knowledge; Plato spoke on the origin of the soul and how it related to the origin of the universe. Most important, Plato asserts that the soul is separate from the body and immortal; as previously the psyche is thought to be temporary. Plato’s model of the soul and it’s functions paved the way for the psychological perspective of the modern “soul”, and “helped him account for psychological conflict” (14), something Freud would do much later as well.
Roman stoic, Seneca, believed, unlike Plato, that the soul was a construct, not essential to every human. Heehs pauses to briefly describe how Neoplatonism understands the intelligible world, the world beyond our senses, in three sections: “the One, Intelligence, and the Soul” (15). Additionally, Stoics believe “[The soul’s] highest part is in a constant state of contemplation and identical with what it contemplates” (15).
For Plotinus, looking within, a human would find all things (15), and while that sounds “mystical,” it would have a lasting impact on Western thought. 
Heehs then turns his attention to the rise of monotheism and its impact on the “self”. The author briefly remarks on the Stoics as one of the first groups to reflect on the inner-man in a first person narrative in the Western world, but Heehs spends most of his time describing the profound impact of Augustine. After a quick summary of Augustine’s life, changing philosophies, beliefs and career, Heehs shows that through the painful introspection on the duality of human nature, Augustine realizes the soul is both essential (all are born with one) and also a construct of our own will. The author warns that judging Augustine’s conclusions as “hackneyed” is naive because the greatest difference between Augustine’s perspective and, say the Neoplatonists, is that while the Neoplatonists contend that all humans have souls, they also believed that all souls are identical. On the other hand, “Augustine’s inner space was private” but not divine in and of itself, like Neoplatonists believe (Heehs 20).
It’s important to note that Augustine most likely came to this conclusion by combining Neoplatonic thought with the idea of a separate soul/ body created by God from Christian thought. 
The dark ages put a pause on philosophical introspection in the West because “sheer survival was difficult enough” (Heehs 21). 
Meanwhile, Eastern perspectives of “I” were in shift: Buddhists struggled to answer: “If there is no self, what is it that bears the burden of karma from life to life?" There was also a heavy emphasis on “the pride of saying ‘I’” in Eastern perspectives from Chandrakirti and Shantideva; and Heehs makes a point to show that both Augustine and Buddhists saw “that the ‘I’ was a fabrication, the mind unreliable, the body a stumbling block. But they dealt with the problem of self in very different ways” (23). 
Saint Caterina of Alexandria during her ecstacy by Bernardo Cavallino.
At the end of the dark ages, “Christian scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury were applying reason to dogma, helping to inaugurate scholastic philosophy” (23). In the twelfth century, the Islamic world “was approaching a peak of political, artistic, and intellectual glory”  and Islam began to spread speedily (25). The author briefly shows the mystical influence of Hildegard in the West and  Ruzbihan in the East as evidence that the “self” was understood as a tool of “unveiling” truth through ecstatic experiences. I appreciate the note Heehs makes on this writing, self-writing done by Ruzbihan, for example, as understood as “conform[ing] to the conventions of the ‘rhetoric of sainthood,’ which encourages overstatement as a sign of closeness to God’” (Ernst qtd. in Heehs 26).
The chapter was a nice introduction to historical and philosophical influences on the evolution of "I" which I need to understand in order to navigate through the already tricky world of diary research. It was full; as Heehs admits, "this chapter has covered, in less than twenty pages, more than three thousand years of the history of the idea of the self" (28).
The content of self-writing is a product of cultural shaping, and that is very interesting to me. Even writing this blog is a choice I made because of the cultural allowances and inspiration to "reflect" on myself as a reader, writer and teacher. Apparently, I have been inspired by thousands of years of this practice.
This was a challenging chapter to get through. I ain't no philosopher, and some of the terms were left undefined; without much "context clues" to go on, I did a lot of side searching, which is always beneficial anyway.
What was most interesting to me was how introspection on inner good v. evil (to put in painfully simplistic terms) brought many "writers of self" to new discoveries. Thinkers saw "the self" as a perpetual problem, so they spent time pondering it's inner machinations.
I see that the experience of introspection brought on the writing of introspection. I wonder how this sequence differs from other self-writing I have read where it is obvious that the author writes first in an effort to arrive at introspection. I suppose it is a "chicken or the egg" question, but a question that I think many diary researchers struggle with.
Works Cited
Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York: Bloomsbury P, 2013. Print.

Related Articles