Finding Your True Self, or The Problem With Socrates

I was one of many readers intrigued by a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times about finding out who we really are. Under the title, “In Search of the True Self,” the piece was by an associate professor at Yale, Joshua Knobe, who attempts something very ambitious. He wants to solve the dilemma that humans are divided between our civilized and our animal nature. The question is far from abstract. Sexual drives have brought down governors and congressmen; violence in the form of terrorism obsesses us; and thousands of deaths by gunshot every year are part of the background of American life. So much for the animal side. On the civilized side we have philosophers pushing the value of reason over passion, the doctrine of “know thyself,” and Freud’s argument that civilization cannot exist without paying the price of suppressed unconscious drives, most particularly sex and violence.

Knobe makes the issue more personal by giving the example of a fundamentalist preacher who has devoted himself to a crusade against homosexuality, taking the common position among fundamentalist Christians that gay sex is a sin and the “gay lifestyle” is against God’s commandments. The wrinkle is that this particular preacher is himself gay and has fought against his sexual inclinations his entire life. Thus for one man the ancient doctrine of “know thyself,” says Knobe, reaches a fork in the road. If the true self is rational, this man is obeying his true self by living according to higher values — his Christianity — instead of giving in to animal drives (the preacher, who admits that he sometimes loathes his attraction to other men, takes this self-hatred as a good sign, since it is in accord with God’s own attitudes).

On the other hand, many modern people find such a position abhorrent. They would argue that the preacher’s true self can be found by stripping away the veneer of moral judgments and giving in to the impulses that it takes such effort and self-denial to suppress. If the preacher were out and proud, for example, he would be expressing who he really is. Clearly there is no agreement on the true self, which brings up what philosophers call the Socratic problem. We owe to Socrates, living in the age of Pericles in fifth century BCE Athens, our Western admiration for reason. Faced with a society where each person had his own opinions about everything, Socrates went from citizen to citizen (he would talk to anybody, rich or poor) and asked them basic questions about their beliefs. At first the questions seemed innocent, but by the end of the discussion, Socrates had unearthed the illogical or prejudicial basis of things held to be true. The person could see, by the light of reason that the truth was far different from what he supposed. Socrates’ method was to outwit ignorance by calling on the higher faculty of rationality.

Ever since, up to the triumphant rise of science, enlightenment has been equated with reason and ignorance with unreason. So what is the problem with Socrates? The problem is that Socrates himself was also a champion of unreason. He said that he had a mysterious inner voice that told him when he was doing wrong (his daemon), and that this voice had a divine source. Socrates was famous for his traditional worship of the Greek gods. In addition, he revered the inspired state known as divine madness. Divine madness was something to be valued highly, because it was the source of art, music, love, the imagination, and our connection to the soul. How did Socrates balance reason and unreason? He didn’t. Sometimes he speaks from one aspect of himself, sometimes from another. The Socratic problem is that when you look closely, the father of Western philosophy cannot be defined one way or the other.

Prof. Knobe has a novel idea for solving the riddle of the true self. He proposes a new field known as “experimental philosophy” that would do research into tough problems that have plagued philosophy for centuries, such as the riddle of the true self. For example, he and two colleagues at Yale asked 200 subjects a series of questions about their true selves. But a trick was involved. The questions were weighted toward a liberal and a conservative bias. The point was to see if a person’s value judgments influence his ideas about the true self. Would a conservative approve of fighting against one’s homosexual impulses and a liberal approve of the opposite value? Naturally. Would this give each of them a different idea of which side of human nature was the true side? Yes. People see reality through the lens of their prejudices and social beliefs. The finding isn’t very startling, and I think the whole endeavor may be futile.

If you ask people who they really are, why should their answers mean much? They haven’t undertaken the inner journey that Socrates was pointing toward. “Know thyself” doesn’t mean taking a thirty-minute quiz. It means going through a lifelong process of self-reflection, contemplation, and questioning. The point is that when this journey is taken seriously, the opposites within ourselves are resolved. The war between reason and unreason exists at many levels of the self, but it doesn’t exist at the level of the true self. A river has turbulent currents until you reach the very bottom, where the water is calm and barely flows. This has been the position of the world’s wisdom traditions, and the true self has gone under different names: Atman, spiritus, the soul, and many others. A true experimental philosophy, which sounds like a very good idea, would test the proposition that unity lies beyond duality. That is what philosophy has tried to do since the beginning. For a conflicted gay Christian, such a journey seems far more promising that batting him around between various opinions, right and left.

I think that the Socratic problem is the result of confusion. Whether we are speaking of Jesus, Buddha, or Socrates, the result of “know thyself” doesn’t end in a muddle. Each of them spoke of a higher reality that could be reached, and as the journey unfolds, reason and unreason each play a part. Reason sorts out contradictions and analyzes what is happening as inner experience shifts. Its chief value is to pierce through self-delusion, just as Socrates did with his Socratic method. Unreason brings intuition and insight. Its chief purpose is to deepen one’s experience until the presence of the divine is actually real. Rather than warring against each other, these two aspects of the self are allies in the battle against a common enemy: illusion. So the muddle is ours, not Socrates’. By definition an experiment that seeks to find the true self by asking twenty questions is secretly on the side of rationality, as all data collection is. The results are skewed in advance. After all, a subject who said “This is a stupid experiment. I’m outta here” would be just as true to the self as someone who sat still and obediently took the test — maybe he would be even more true. But all such statements are secondary. The true self means little until it jumps off the page of a philosophy textbook and becomes a vocation, a vision, and the ultimate goal of life.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle