The True Self

When we delved into the ancient Greek phrases “Know Thyself” and “Become What You Are” recently, I promised to look more closely at the recent notion of the true self, so here we go.

One basic illustration of the difference between moderns and ancients on this topic is that nowadays we easily throw around the word “self” (perhaps even capitalized “Self”) as a standalone entity, whereas in the Greek phrase γνῶθι σαυτόν the word σαυτόν is a reflexive pronoun that does not imply the existence of a Self in all its modern glory. As we might put the matter: it’s know thyself, not know thy Self.

Without getting too far into scholarly exegesis, we can see something similar happening in Aristotle’s discussion of friendship, where he famously says that “a friend is another self” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1170b6-7). Here the idea is not that someone dear to you is a separate and singular Self of inherent dignity and worth, but that the person is similar to yourself (expressed, again, with a reflexive pronoun).

Speaking of Aristotle, here is how H. Rackham translates a key passage in the Nicomachean Ethics (1178a2 ff.) in the Loeb classical series:

It may even be held that [the intellect] is the true self of each, inasmuch as it is the dominant and better part; and therefore it would be a strange thing if a man should choose to live not his own life but the life of some other than himself.

The problem is that “the true self” is nowhere to be found in the original Greek, which says only that “it seems that each one is indeed this” (Aristotle’s Greek can be quite compressed!).

So where did we get this idea of a “true self” that is inborn and must be discovered within? Can we find it, for instance, in Shakespeare? After all, in Hamlet Polonius gives this piece of advice to his son Laertus: “to thine own self be true”. The Bard, in turn, was likely influenced by perhaps the first thinker to unabashedly celebrate the self: Montaigne, who in the preface to his Essays of 1580/1588 wrote:

Had my intention been to seek the world’s favour, I should surely have adorned myself with borrowed beauties: I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint. My defects are therein to be read to the life, and any imperfections and my natural form, so far as public reverence hath permitted me. If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked. Thus, reader, myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason thou shouldst employ thy leisure about so frivolous and vain a subject.

Yet although Montaigne claimed that he was being true to himself, neither he nor Shakespeare made any claims about the existence of a “true self”.

As far as I know, our modern conception of the true self might be found first in the writings of the Danish Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Consider this passage from his book Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, quoted with approval by David L. Norton on page 67 of Personal Destinies:

I do not now whether it is true that at each man’s birth two angels are born, his good angel and his bad angel. But this I do believe (and I will gladly listen to any objection, although I will not believe it) that at each man’s birth there comes into being an eternal vocation for him, expressly for him. To be true to himself in relation to this eternal vocation is the highest thing a man can practice, and, as that most profound poet has said: “Self-love is not so vile a sin as self-forgetting.” [Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 2, Scene 4] Then there is but one fault, one offense: disloyalty to his own self or the denial of his own better self.

There are clear connections between Kierkegaard’s idea of an “eternal vocation” and the older Christian idea of a personal calling, i.e., of being called by God to perform a certain kind of work in the world. However, although a calling might deeply color one’s long-term goals and characteristic activities, it seems that we can still distinguish the person from the calling. That feels less straightforward when we speak of a person’s true self. Indeed, my friend Kurt Keefner shared an excellent formulation with me recently: “the self is a person viewed from its own point of view”; thus that eternal vocation is, as Nietzsche put it in the imperative form in The Joyful Wisdom: “You shall become the person you are.”

There is much, much more to say on this theme, but this mini-essay is already longer than I’d like, so I’ll save further reflections for another day.

2 thoughts on “The True Self

  1. On this topic, I find the work of Jung fascinating, in particular around discovering/evolving toward one True Self through his “individuation”. I wonder if an engineer turning into philosopher is a good example of such an individuation journey ;-)

    As a side note, this is my first comment. I should comment more. I love reading your posts. Thanks!


    1. Hi Laurent, it’s good to hear from you and thanks for the kind words. You are right about Jung and I admit that I need to read much more of his writings because he is such a foundational thinker. Other good authors on the topic of individuation include Erich Fromm and Erik Erikson, but I am woefully ignorant of their work, too. Clearly I need to stop slacking off. ;-)


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