Tuesday, January 15, 2008

To thine own self be true?

We sometimes hear people justifying not doing an action by saying: "I am just not that sort of person." Taking this literally, and perhaps we shouldn't, the idea is that the speaker is a certain sort of person, and she should be true to that.

But why? Why be true to ourselves? How is the fact that I have a character that inclines me to act in a certain a good reason for acting in that way? There is, indeed, a danger of an is-ought slide here. I am a certain way, but ought I be that way? Yes, it may be easier to act in accordance with character, so there may be a reason of convenience there. But when people say "I am just not that sort of person", they do not mean that the action is inconvenient.

One might think that if we have a theistic picture on which we have vocations from God, the idea of acting in accordance with our character makes sense, since that is surely our vocation. But that seems an unjustified leap. If I am inclined to be a loner, is my vocation therefore more likely to be a solitary one? Or is it not more likely that God might pull me out of my solitude, give me the cross of having to interact with other people? If I am good at dealing with people, is it not unlikely that God might call me to solitude, to learn how to be without people given that I already know how to be with people? (One might think that God would want to use one's talents. But God is omnipotent--he does not need us.)

Perhaps, though, we have some picture of how we shape ourselves into a particular kind of character, and so we should act out of a conception not of what sort of character we have, but of what sort of a character we choose for ourselves. But that is a serious mistake. For it is not up to us to choose what we are called to. God is the potter and we are the clay. God is making a great work of art through the diversity of human character--he needs the ornery Jeromes, the passionate John of the Crosses, the scholarly Aquinases, the courageous Joans, the sensible and firm Thomas Mores, and so on. But just as we may not be much like what he wants us to be, so too we might not choose to be what he wants us to be. We may want to be like Thérèse de Lisieux, but be called to be like Dominic. Here I think of the Curé d'Ars, running away to join a monastery, but brought back by God (or his parishioners).

There is, however, one way in which the maxim to be true to oneself is correct. We are human, and thus need to be true to our humanity. There, there is no doubt--we not only are human, but are called to be human. It is our job to do that well, to be human well, to fulfill our human duties. And it is up to God to mould us into the kind of human he wishes.

This does not mean that self-knowledge is unimportant. Far from it: we need to know our weaknesses in order to come to be human well.


Anonymous said...

I think the maxim is generally one meant to establish self-reliance of character - that is, one ought to be what one wants to be rather than what someone else wants them to be. For instance, if I wish to live a life in quiet solitude meditating on the deeper things of life (and there are no relevant obligations that take precedence over my own desire to that effect), should I not spurn the person who demands that I join society and eschew the introspective life?

I would emphasize, however, that it seems fit to mention relevant obligations; for instance, if I desired the above course of action, I would be wrong in doing so because my wife and children depend on my support (and ultimately, on my denial of this self-desire in many other non-material ways). In this way, the desire of God to make us into something other than what we are or what we personally wish would take precedence to the desires of self.

It might also be a point of consideration to say that this maxim does not merely confuse "ought" for "is"; certainly my own desires for what I ought to be still take precedence over what someone else wants me to be in the absence of other obligations (even general ones - if I desire to rape, murder, and plunder, my general obligation to be a good person and citizen demands that I eschew this desire - and probably to seek some psychiatric help as well).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure why a desire to live a life in quiet solitude meditating on the deeper things in life gives me any significant reason to live such a life. Part of my concern here is theological: I don't think our lives are our own. Our desires are weak defeasible evidence of what way of life we would do well in (or, better, of what alternate ways of life we would not do well in), but that's all. Moreover (this is a Mark Murphy point), there is the value of a harmonious life, and riding roughshod over my desires is not so likely to produce that. But these are very weak reasons, I think.

pgepps said...

I'm pretty sure, given the tenor of the surrounding advice, that Polonius (that old gasbag) had something a great deal more mundane in view: the de minimus social contract.

That is, he is suggesting that "enlightened self-interest" demonstrates that infidelity (to "be false to any man") is harmful to one's own cause (so that one cannot "be true" to one's "own self").

The problem here is simply that one must take an exceedingly long view--longer than the lifespans of most humans--to see more than a reasonable probability that certain kinds of fraudulent behavior *will* harm one's own cause. Hence "enlightened self-interest" has a shorter shelf life than tragedy. The erosion of "basic trust" in society is, of course, an incremental and distributed cost of all such infidelities; but it takes a very long time for it to be obvious that there is any link between a particular person's fraud and that particular person's share of the general costs of mistrust and disillusionment.

Another reading is available, and wittier yet: "to thine own self be true," if read among the many other bits of advice to Laertes about one's self-presentation in clothes, friends, quarrels, etc. should perhaps be understood as in the phrase "a true copy" or "a true likeness."

One could hardly present "a true likeness" of oneself through one's appearance and behavior in society, while dissimulating that same likeness, right? The words crumble in the mouth.

I think maybe the former is the better reading, but it does not erase the latter--or yours, or others; it is the beauty of the Bard that we may take each and every reading into the world of Hamlet's Denmark with us, and see whether they save Polonius from a rat's death in his troth to his false king. . . .

If you're around campus when I come back down for prelims, I would enjoy an excuse to chat.

(Baylor English MA 02,
PhD pending)

goosey said...

Excuse me for butting in, but when people use that line, isn't it just because they know that they shouldn't have done what they did? Or that they know their peers/society would not approve of what they did? So they just excuse themselves by pushing off responsibility? Maybe we're not our own persons & we belong to higher powers, but we still shouldn't run around being self-indulgent brats because we were also built & designed with an ability to use judgement & reason. In your opinion, are you also excusing serial killers & child molesters? I'm not here to bash, by any means. A friend forwarded the link to your post & I thought it was interesting.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure exactly what I said that can be read as an excuse of child molesters and serial killers. In fact, it seems to me that the view that I am attacking is one that could be read as an excuse of them ("I am being true to myself by molesting children"--you can imagine someone saying that, and even if that is true, it is no excuse).