In Search of the Self

John F. Doherty
June 25, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Self-expression now preoccupies the thoughts of a large number of Westerners. Being "true to themselves" defines their religion, politics, and even sexual choices.

On the internet, countless people cultivate their "digital footprint" or "public persona" - not as a pastime, but as an existential necessity. They express to the world whatever they are thinking; they put icons on their social media profiles to show "solidarity" with political causes. Some lash out in rage if anyone remotely questions their self-image - such questions make them feel "unsafe," as if their very being were under threat.

Whence comes this anxiety? Some say from centuries-old philosophical movements or recent politics. But perhaps people are protecting their "selves" because, not knowing what or where the self truly is, they are grasping at other things to give meaning to their lives.

This is what the late antique thinker Augustine of Hippo, were he alive today, might tell us, drawing on his book The Trinity and its groundbreaking analysis of the human psyche. In this exploration of the natures of God and man, Augustine gives us tools to uncover the roots of today's anxiety for the self and find a better path to happiness.

Mind, Word, Love

We first connect with reality through our senses. Some experiences delight and attract us, like the fragrance of a flower. Others repel, like the pain of blinding light. Then there are higher, emotional experiences: we feel shame at failure and joy in the presence of a beloved. All these stimulate our desires and form the stuff of our memory and imagination.

Animals also have experiences that move them to act; but man's desires move him further. To find shelter a beaver will build a small den from sticks, but a carpenter will carefully cut and sand wooden beams to construct an elaborate house. A caribou will migrate hundreds of miles for grass to eat, but he won't travel the globe for the finest grass, as a gourmand might fly from New York to Paris for the finest filet mignon.

Why do man's desires go beyond animals'? Because they are fundamentally deeper in kind.

Animals know their environment only externally, through their material senses; hence they respond to the world solely by unthinking instinct, and their desires are superficial and transient. But through the "word" his mind forms about the objects he experiences, a human subject penetrates a reality's interior, organizing principle - what makes it one whole, rather than a heap of particles, oriented toward certain purposes. Augustine calls this word the "image" of the thing, which shares the pattern of the thing's "inner truth." Man's "judgment of truth" deepens his knowledge of the world and, therefore, deepens his attraction to it. This word-image allows man to become the thing he knows - although "without any confusion" with it, because the principle of the thing exists intellectually in him ("intentionally" or "spiritually" as some have said), not with its own substance. Man's very existence shares in the existence of the objects he knows, and so his desire for them is greater.

But what strengthens human desire even more is that the same intellectual (or rational) nature that elevates man's knowledge elevates his desires to the order of free will, or love: he can choose on which attractions to act; and therefore, when he acts, these attractions penetrate his life more deeply. Our first love, from which all others arise, is so intimate to us that we might hardly notice it: it is our mind's love for its word: its assent to, or affirmation of it, as being true to the object it represents. When the word comes to be, "love, like something in the middle, joins together our word and the mind it is begotten from, and binds itself with them as a third element in a non-bodily embrace." This "embrace" intensifies the more a person acts on his word, whether he pursues the object it represents in love, hates the object in anger, or flees from it in fear. The mind loves its word even if it is of something it hates or disapproves, because "even when we . . . dislike things we hate, and disapprove of them, we like and approve of our disapproval of them." This mind-word-love trinity is, for Augustine, the image of the Trinitarian God in man.

The Smothered Soul

Yet the rationality that deepens man's knowledge and love of reality also enhances his power to pervert it. By an excess of love, the human mind can get "stuck" to the images of reality that are bound up with its judgments. "[I]t drags them along with itself," Augustine writes, with "the glue of care;" it "clutches" them so fast that "it gets conformed to them in a certain fashion, not by being what they are but by thinking it is." His intellectual union with external objects becomes so great that the person begins to act as though he were substantially one with them. The glutton's imagination becomes so taken up with taste, the miser's with possessing, and the pornography addict's with sexual experience, that they all think of themselves as mere bundles of these experiences. As each acts on his judgments of these things, he "enslaves" his mind to them (and in a way animals cannot: a healthy lioness will eat her fill of prey, but she won't become obese).

But to no image will the human mind cling with as little effort as the image it forms of itself. Of all the words man can conceive, there is no other so like his mind, and therefore so easy to love by merely natural power. He may even cling to his self-image if it leads to bad behavior, justifying himself with phrases like "That's just the way I am," or "This is what normal people do."

One's self-image may arise not only through lower bodily desires, but also from higher ones - like the pleasure of belonging to a particular group - an ethnicity, nationality, or race - or even from interests like sports or music. If these attachments become excessive, they too can distort our judgment, control our lives, and dispose us to react violently to any threat to them.

Unless man resists making and acting on these false judgments, they soon become habitual and, to follow Augustine's analogy, the soul, smothered in twisted self-images, "cannot make itself out" from them. The mind loses knowledge of what it is, as though it had forgotten itself.

To "find" itself, the soul cannot go looking outside, "as if it were absent" from itself, because it is itself; it must instead enter deeper into itself, to remember what it already should know through its very existence. It must lessen its attachments to other things, "to tell itself apart" from them; then "whatever is left to it of itself, that alone is what it is."

One's self-image may arise not only through lower bodily desires, but also from higher ones.

From Knowledge to Wisdom

Augustine's psychology is remarkably similar to that of many modern schools. They too locate the cause of many emotional disorders - anxiety, depression, anger, addiction, etc. - in an excessive attachment of the mind to its experiences, through its exaggerated judgments of reality.

If the attachment forms through a past trauma, whether gradual or sudden, the person may need medicine or therapy. But in most cases - even ones that require medical intervention - psychologists say the person must exert some moral effort, often painful, to withdraw from the attachment. He must go against the grain of his moods and other emotional inclinations, to transcend his material experience; he must choose to live by reason and his commitments (love grounded in truth, Augustine would say) rather than his feelings.

Such effort is at the heart of what Augustine's biblical, Christian tradition calls the pursuit of virtue, or "the ascetical life" - from ascesis, the Greek word for "exercise" or "training." Virtue applies reason to human action, rebalancing the person according to the ideal harmony of his nature. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism pursue the same in their own way.

But for Augustine, natural efforts are not enough. How am I to differentiate bad attachments from good ones? How could I distinguish my mind from the images that stick to it, unless I already understood my mind in the first place?

The answer, Augustine says, is to look to the Mind of all minds, God, who is the standard of spirit or personhood - the infinite "I AM" who keeps my finite "I am" in existence. The human mind, "the image of God," "will achieve its full likeness of him when it attains to the full vision of him." When I find that in me which is most like God, I will have found my truest self.

No word of our finite knowledge, no rational asceticism, can capture the likeness of the infinite God. Asceticism does, however, prepare the way for a higher act of the mind, contemplation, that can receive a more intimate knowledge of God that Augustine calls "wisdom."

We begin contemplating God philosophically in nature, especially in the natural moral law in our conscience. These finite truths, patterned on the infinite Truth, reveal in some dim way God's own nature.

But the highest contemplation is to know God by speaking to him "as a man speaks to his friend" - almost "face to face," as Moses did - in prayer, where God steps down to our level and raises us to his own.

Prayer is (according to Augustine's Christian tradition) a recapitulation of God's coming down to the human race in history, first in his covenant with Israel, and then in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. Through contemplation - man's humility opening to God's generosity - each one of us, with relatively little effort, can see, in some way, the God in whose image we are made, and recognize as false our distorted images of ourselves.

Becoming the Friend of Truth

If we want to be at peace with ourselves and the world, we should live according to reason, not only in our "personal lives" and our politics, but in all endeavors. But rational living alone will not be enough. Our culture's crisis of the self is a crisis of faith in our personhood; its cause is our ignorance of the God who best reveals what a person is; and its solution is to contemplate God, ideally in prayer.

Anyone who finds it difficult to relate to Truth as a person, through prayer, might try finding Truth in nature, philosophical conversations with others, or books that contain proven wisdom. If one does want to pray, but doesn't know how, he might read books about prayer (such as here and here), and then try it, saying whatever he would want to tell his closest friend. He probably won't literally hear someone talking back, but he may get ideas - about how he could resolve his dilemmas, be more generous to his family and friends, or be more diligent in his duties. If he follows those ideas, he may find himself becoming a person better than what he ever imagined.

But we should avoid seeking fulfillment in the political causes that pull our emotions, traveling the globe to see its wonders, or wandering the internet in search of entertaining videos. We should avoid identifying ourselves with our genes, our sexual feelings, or our ideas. These will only make a person feel emptier by pointing him to things outside the deepest part of himself - the "I" that is the image of He Who Is.

The battle to live authentically, according to one's true self, will never end in this life. On one hand, infinite Truth always calls us higher, no matter how far we advance toward him. On the other, we will never be completely freed from our disordered attachments and the suffering they cause; because our choices, good or bad, shape us profoundly, precisely because they are free.

But contemplation of Truth, as it draws out our true personality, will also help us live with the challenges of our faults and others' without being overwhelmed by them. It will help us see how to use them for our benefit, as occasions to learn to loosen our grasp on the good things of this life, and prepare to meet God in the next - beyond the veil of images, truly face to face.