There is an idea, widely accepted in academia, that there was no such thing as the ‘self’ separate from the tribe in classical culture, and that we only became self-obsessed in the modern era. I want to take issue with this.
This idea was particularly expressed by the communitarian philosopher and expert in Aristotle, Alisdair Macintyre in his very influential 1981 book, After Virtue. MacIntyre insisted that in ancient society, the self was inconceivable separate from its communal context – its position as a family member and a member of the tribe.
MacIntyre writes: ‘In heroic society there is no ‘outside’ [the tribe] except that of the stranger. A man who tried to withdraw himself from his given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make himself disappear.’
Likewise in the Greek enlightenment, the idea of the person ‘is rooted in forms of social life…to be a man is to fill a set of roles, each of which has its point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God. It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that ‘man’ ceases to be a functional concept.’
Therefore, MacIntyre argues, it is only in the modern age, since the modern Enlightenment, that the separate self was invented, and became an object of reflection, fascination, and narcissism. We have become fascinated with becoming ‘authentic’, finding our ‘true self’, playing multiple roles and re-inventing our selves endlessly, like Madonna.
This view of the modern invention of the self has been basically accepted by both philosophers and psychologists. Roy Baumeister, for example, the influential social psychologist, writes in a 1987 essay, ‘How The Self Became A Problem’
that ‘concern with problems of self-hood is essentially a modern phenomenon.’
Baumeister says: ‘there is no reason to assume that self-knowledge posed the same problem for ancient Greeks as it does for modern citizens…Given MacIntyre’s analysis of early concepts of person as purely functional, ‘know thyself’ probably can and should be interpreted as advice to appraise one’s talents and capacities accurately so as to be able to carry out one’s duties effectively.’
So there’s a widespread view that the ancients had no concept of the self, because their idea of persons were entirely social, entirely absorbed in tribal, political and communal roles. It’s only in the modern era that we have been shackled with these terrible and narcissistic questions like ‘who am I?’, ‘what should I do?’, ‘what is my true self?’ – so the theory goes.
It’s my opinion that this theory is inaccurate. The idea of the ‘separate self’ actually originates with the ancient Greeks. They invented it, and our era’s anxious questions about the self are not so different from the ancients’ own self-questionings.
The way the Greeks first invented and imagined the ‘separate self’ was through the figure of the exile, the outcast or refugee. This figure was a nightmarish prospect for the Greeks, because they did indeed have a very strong communal sense of the self. Their identity was, as MacIntyre says, defined by their membership of the polis.
And yet people could be thrown out of the polis. They could be ostracized, sent into the wilderness. And that terrifying prospect haunted them like a nightmare. It raised the question, which niggled at them and would not go away: ‘who am I when I am outside the polis?’
And we see this question addressed in some of the greatest tragedies of the fifth century BC. Two of the last plays that Sophocles wrote, for example – ‘Philoctetes’ and ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ – have as their heroes people who have been thrown out of their societies to wander in the wilderness.
For sure, both characters feel this exile as a sort of death. They feel like shadows, not fully ‘there’. And yet they live on, they face this situation. They continue to exist outside of the polis. And by confronting this situation through drama, the Greeks were forced to recognize there was some thing, some ‘self’ or ‘person’, that carried on existing beyond the confines of the polis.
It is from this sort of imaginative confrontation with the figure of the exile that Greeks began to ask: does law and justice only exist within the confines of the polis? Are these purely communitarian concepts? What if we are wrongly and unjustly thrown out of the polis, as Philoctetes was? Is there no higher law we can appeal to?
It was Sophocles, in fact, who in some ways invented the idea of ‘natural law’ – the idea that there are higher laws of nature which a person can appeal to, even when they are at loggerheads with their tribe, as Philoctetes is, as Oedipus is, as Antigone is.
So with this invention of the idea of natural law comes the idea: I, as a person, might be right when my tribe is wrong. I might be ‘closer to nature’, closer to natural law, than my corrupt society.
So the relationship between the individual and their society becomes much more critical, more problematic, more fraught.
About 50 years or so after Sophocles, this idea of the self-as-exile gets turned into a philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes was an exile, he was thrown out of his native Sinope. He comes to Athens, and sets himself up in the market-place, living like a tramp.
Diogenes asserts his personhood outside of the polis. He says: ‘I am not the citizen of any polis. I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites)‘.
Diogenes also develops the idea of the separate self being closer to ‘nature’ than the corrupt polis. The conventions of society corrupt us, Diogenes says. We should drop out and ‘live according to nature’. Now, his idea of living according to nature is quite morally rigorous, and involves a sort of ascetic training. But it also involves embracing counter-cultural practices like free love, nudity and so on.
The Stoics, heirs to the Cynic tradition, were much less ostentatious in their rejection of conventional values. But they also absolutely had a sense of the self separate from the specific tribe or community. Again, the figure of the exile is key. Marcus Aurelius describes himself as a ‘stranger’ from his society, an ‘alien’ with very different values.
Stoicism is a highly individual philosophy, which grew out of the collapse of the free city-states in the fourth century BC when they were conquered by Alexander and other despots. It tried to answer the question: ‘who am I when I am no longer a citizen of a free city? Can I still be free? Can I still follow the truth and be true to my nature, if my society has collapsed or lost its way?’
Like the Cynics, the Stoic response was: yes. I can stay true to my own values, even if I am exiled (as indeed Stoics often were). I am a cosmopolitan – I am not primarily a member of this community or that community, but of the City of God. No community can force me to betray my ‘true nature’ or my own values.
Now both Sophocles, the Cynics and the Stoics did not go from there to a form of radical individualism – the idea that I am free to choose any self I want, because there is no such thing as ‘truth’. They did not say ‘I can be whoever I want to be’. But other ancient Greeks did – the Sophists in particular asserted the complete mutability of the self, through rhetoric. ‘As I show myself, so I am’, as Isocrates put it.
The Stoics argued with this sort of individualistic sophistry, arguing that we have a nature which we must strive to be true to and to develop: this nature is rational, social, and divine. By developing our reason, we are being ‘true to ourselves’ or ‘authentic’.
The modern era did, for a while, embrace a sort of ‘anything goes’ individualism, where we can choose to be whoever we want to be.
But in fact, this can be over-exaggerated. The Romantics very much had an idea of ‘being true to our nature’, and looked to the Greeks for a model of this. Jean Jacques Rousseau, often castigated for inventing our culture of narcissism, also followed the Greeks in believing we have a rational nature which we should develop through training.
And the ‘therapy culture’ of the 20th and 21st century also, increasingly, accepts that we have a human nature that we should try and develop, and that this nature has the capacity for rationality, for self-knowledge and self-mastery. And psychologists increasingly return to the Greeks (particularly Socrates and the Stoics) for their techniques of self-knowledge, self-mastery and self-fulfilment.
So we should stop beating ourselves up about being uniquely narcissistic and self-obsessed. We are, in fact, living out the questions that were first raised in our culture by the Greeks in the fifth century BC: Who am I, outside of my community? Are my community’s values ‘true’ or do they stand in the way of the fulfilment of my nature and happiness? How do I take responsibility for myself, understand myself, and govern myself?
The Greeks may not have had a word for the self. But they were the ones who invented it.