The Self as an Achievement

What is the self? Naturally this question invokes vast reflections spanning philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, sociology, biology, and many other fields. Although I claim no special insight, in my Aristotle readings over the last few years I chanced upon a fascinating perspective that I thought I’d share.

In her book Aristotle’s Philosophy of Friendship (SUNY Press, 1995), Suzanne Stern-Gillet observed that Aristotle’s famous analysis of a friend as “another self” implies that the self is not a natural endowment but a personal achievement.

Specifically, Aristotle argued that someone who is thoroughly impulsive is buffeted about in many directions and lacks the consistency of thought, desire, action, and emotion necessary to have a self in the first place. Similarly, he argued that someone who is thoroughly corrupted or vicious has strayed so far from the innate potentials of being human as to also lack true selfhood. (We find a similar thought in J.S. Mill: “One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.”)

For us moderns this is counter-intuitive, because we think that nothing is more natural than the self. We also see selfhood and personhood as intimately connected, and with good reason we’re leery of saying that someone isn’t really a person! Furthermore, we tend to think of the self as a bundle of whatever thoughts, desires, actions, and emotions someone happens to have; this is why we also tend to think that someone who acts to satisfy their desires is selfish.

By contrast, ancient Greek thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and even Epicurus held that one’s desires are not arbitrary urges to be unthinkingly satisfied but raw materials to be pruned, moulded, shaped, and sculpted through a process of education; only thus could one live a fully human life. Therefore someone who acted to satisfy their desires wasn’t necessarily building up their selfhood or personhood – it all depended on whether those desires were informed by deliberation and reflection. Enter the importance of philosophy as a way of life.

As always I don’t claim to have the final answer (is there such a thing?), but I think the question is eminently worth pondering.

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