Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Motivating Question for Immanent Transcendence


It began with a simple question.  It ended in a labyrinth of arcane answers.  Who are we, when we are not whom we think?  People live a fundamental duality between making the world their own and sharing the world with us.  We step from the cliff and find ourselves on the other side, yet so few see the chasm between.

Plato acknowledged two dark horses of our nature, one firm and one spirited, and Aristotle likewise divided the wisdom of thought and act.  Both aspired for the harmony of the person with oneself.  A person without self-harmony or sophrosune would fall to viciousness and hubris, over-stepping human limitation.

When we step from our world and into the world of others, we bridge a chasm not only with them, but also within ourselves.  We are ourselves only because we were already someone else.  Personality is social first and individual second.  This leads to the moral duality of human nature that is a journey between hubris and tragedy.  When my world is not first my own, but is gifted to me by another, am I not also  burdened with their hubris?

When I step out over the howling deep and step down, am I greeting my fellows in the blindness of hubris or through the mornful eyes of tragedy?  If "I" am first "us," am I born with the living history of their hubris?  Yes.  We are Janus-faced, and the difference between tragedy and hubris is stoic acceptance and reconciliation.

The duality is known as the distinction between narrative self and behavioral or "performative" self.  Between the story that I tell to voice my identity, and the behaviors that enact this self.  A schism here is commonly known as hypocrisy, but that does not address my question.  My question is how our embodiment, which is so dramatically informed by our social, historical, cultural, economic, material, etc. conditions, limits the meaningfulness or intelligibility of experience.  For example, how can a person do something overtly racist or ethnocentric, but not experience the action as such, even when confronted with the act and its consequence?  If we are embodied beings first and thinking beings second, contra Plato and Aristotle, then how can we be at harmony with ourselves when the "we" from which we were born defiles the "I" that might be?  The harder question is how do we reconcile this knowledge, our bite of the apple of the tree of good and evil, with my hope to be other than who we were.

The insight that the author offers is to recognize both the necessity of this dilemma and the danger of its narcissistic recognition.  I have always done evil, because we have always done evil, but we did not always care.  Innumerable atrocities have been committed throughout history, but only recently have some had the narcissism to voice their repentance--as if changing my story edited our history and thereby its legacy in my flesh.  Too many of my contemporaries accept the lie of self-authorship and its narcissism.  The only other path is tragedy, the acceptance human limitation mingled with the will to be better than we once were.

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