The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self,

The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self, - Leo Damrosch As I was listening to this lecture series I was telling my wife why I thought it was so important for us to understand the nature of our self. She responded "the Greeks gave us the concept of the self". This lecture starts off with the fact that when the Oracle at Delphi says "know thy self" what they really meant to ancient listeners would have been entirely different from our modern interpretation and would have meant something more like know your proper place in society and don't rise above your station and most of all play your role that society expects of you. Yes, a concept of the self but not necessarily how we see our self today.

The lecturer likes to put everything in its proper historical context before delving into a thinker or work of literature in detail. He starts with what I would call two anti-self thinkers, Pascal and John Bunyan (author of "Pilgrims Progress"). What do I mean by anti-self? Pascal with his Jansenism ultimately will conclude that one must hate oneself before one can love God, Bunyan will similarly conclude that wisdom starts with the fear of God. At this point in the lecture I ended up listening to "Pilgrims Progress' to see for myself the points he was making in the lecture. Pascal and Bunyan think in terms of a soul being attached to the body but not quite part of the body and thus something different from us. Psychology in its original meaning is "the study of the soul", more of a branch of theology than of science. It's going to take an Enlightenment to change that viewpoint.

The world dodged a bullet because the Enlightenment took us away from that brand of self to realizing that Philosophy (and natural philosophy, science) is not complete when it thought of itself as the search for wisdom instead of the search for knowledge and the understanding of the self beyond the soul.

The philosophers of the time period are covered in detail and some books considered as literature which I had never heard of are covered in detail by way of explaining how we are learning to see ourselves differently. Hume would say we should never look introspectively, but, rather we should let our social milieu be our guide. The Enlightenment is guided by logical positivist thought (the world is made up of things which the senses experience and they are the ontological foundation for the world and are the absolute ground for our being thus leading to universal, necessary and certain knowledge) and they want to try to apply the same kind of thinking to the psychology of individuals and of course that doesn't quite work. Diderot (and others) think we are always actors and are just playing a role as if we are in a play. (That statement finally lets me know what Sartre was getting at in "Being and Nothingness" when he said "Pierre is not a waiter he is only playing at being a waiter" or when Gore Vidal said "there is no such thing as homosexuals only homosexual acts". See even that kind of neanderthal thought stuck around way past the Enlightenment and still lingers around today). The reality of our unconscious mind only gets developed slowly over time.

To me, the lecture started getting exciting at Boswell and that leads to the real focal point of the whole lecture series, Rousseau. There's a line of demarcation between those two thinkers (Boswell mostly with his diaries only discovered and published in 1960, and Rousseau with his many published books) which lead to how we think about our modern self differently from previous thinkers. Before them, we would think in terms of 'character' and 'sincerity'. Character is what others give to us. In Aristotle's Ethics he'll define character as the values we have coming about through the right action of our habits and the emulation of experts and that's how we build 'character'. As for 'sincerity' one can always say that 'sincerity is the easiest thing in the world to fake'.

The turning point was going from 'character' to 'personality' and from 'sincerity' to 'authenticity'. There is a realization that sometimes our desires aren't really our own. That we might know what we want but we don't always control wanting what we want (there's an unconscious mind in play, the id in Freudian speak). Our true selves are often in conflict due to external and internal demands put upon us. (It was near this point, I ended up listening to Hume's "Dialogues on Natural Religion" because the lecture had been previously discussing it in great detail and was starting to make sense to me).

Rousseau understands (and without the sexual baggage and denial of repression nonsense that Freud brings to the table) and starts the formulation of the modern self, with its focus on the modern personality and the authenticity of the self. There is a direct line from Rousseau to Nietzsche and then Freud. (At this point, I ended up listening to Freud's "Civilizations and Its Discontents"). I don't think the lecturer mentioned Heidegger or Kierkegaard, but their focus on our authentic self obviously partly comes from some of Rousseau's thoughts too. The lecturer also devoted a lecture or two on the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and he mentions that Franklin saw "Plutarch's Lives" as a model in order to shape his own life thru his behavior, but Rousseau saw it as a noble period of a bygone era that had no relation to his time period and we must not shape our self but shape the world instead. Both ways of looking at the self and its formation are valid.

He ends the lecture with William Blake. A romantic who is not within the Enlightenment period as such, but is interesting in his own right and acts as a summary character for what was learned within the lecture. I'm not a poet but I did love hearing the lecturer explain Blake's works of art and poems, and loved the lines "prisons are built with stones of law, bordellos with bricks of religion" and how he related that to the whole lecture series. Wonderful stuff.

Most of this lecture series is talking about works of fictional literature. I seldom read fiction, because I have such a hard time understanding it, but this lecture told me why it was important and I could understand while he was explaining their relevance. This lecture flows like a book since it has not only a consistency within each lecture but a coherence of a narrative to tie them all together. That doesn't always happen with a Great Course Lecture, but when it does it makes for one of the best listens available.