Idealism and Identity

Personal identity is a deep, and deeply meaningful, subject: at some level, what’s more important than what makes you you? Paradoxically, throughout history and across cultures, often personal identity has been a social construct, tied closely to tribe, clan, family, ethnic group, race, caste, class, societal role, and so on – usually in opposition to some Other (“I’m a Capulet, not a Montague”, “I’m a proletarian, not a bourgeois”, etc.).

By contrast, the great wisdom traditions (what I once called the Minerval Arts) usually emphasize what Socrates called “the care of the soul”: cultivating the moral and intellectual virtues, seeking wisdom and truth, consistently doing good works, becoming one with the divine, or in general realizing an ideal conception of the human person in your own life.

Naturally, things aren’t quite that simple (they never are!). Personal flourishing could be difficult or next to impossible if you’re a member of an untouchable caste, if you’re shipped off to a concentration camp, or if you’re so poor that you’re hemmed in by what Earl Shorris (in his excellent book Riches for the Poor) called the “surround of force”. On the other side of the equation, we know from history and from hard experience that it’s all too easy for self-cultivation to morph into narcissism, truth-seeking into dogmatism, doing good into authoritarianism, religion into sectarianism, idealism into fanaticism.

Nevertheless, I find the wisdom traditions deeply attractive, for a number of reasons:

  • They provide stronger foundations for a culture of human flourishing than do conceptions of personal identity that are based on unchosen, immutable characteristics of human beings within strictly-defined groups.
  • Despite their focus on self-improvement, because they almost always build up communities of learning and practice they do not advocate purely solitary pursuits; for instance, even an outwardly hedonistic tradition like Epicureanism stressed the importance of friends helping each other to become better people.
  • The ethical virtues they encourage are usually quite pro-social (generosity, moderation, tolerance, justice, etc.) – more so than ways of life that are based on group solidarity and cohesion, where in-group psychology frequently leads to intolerance of those outside the group.
  • Similarities across wisdom traditions have the potential to bridge otherwise intractable cultural divides; examples include Taoism and Epicureanism, Stoicism and Christianity, Confucianism and Aristotelianism, Buddhism and Pyrrhonism.
  • They leave some measure of space in human life for reflection, learning, choice, effort, and hope; without these, life would feel awfully barren.

Thus, at least for myself, over any strict form of socially-constructed identity I heartily prefer even an uncertain and unreliable but idealistic personalism.

P.S. After writing this entry, I found a fine expression of the value of idealism in Rob Riemen’s book Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal (pp. 57-58):

There can be no civilization without the realization that human beings have a double nature. They have a physical, earthly existence but are distinguished from other animals by also having a spiritual being and by knowing the world of ideas. They know about truth, goodness, and beauty, are familiar with freedom and justice, love and charity. The basis of every form of civilization is the concept that humans derive their dignity and true identity not from what they are – flesh and blood – but from what they should be: the embodiment of these immortal life-affirming qualities, these values that encapsulate the finest aspects of human existence, the image of human dignity.

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