Philosophy of the Self

This paper will discuss three philosophical writings, one each from the Indian, Western, and Chinese traditions, each one dealing with our views of our selves. The first piece, Sri Aurobindo’s The Reincarnating Soul, is representative of Indian philosophy and gives us a discussion of the human soul and its relationship to the universe. The second piece representative of Western philosophy is an excerpt of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism, which discusses ideas of atheism and self-determinism. Finally, I will use a summarization of Mencius’ Human Nature is Good to represent Chinese philosophy that ascribes human nature to man, and not a heavenly being.

I will begin by summarizing the three pieces, in the above-mentioned order, then discuss similarities and differences between the pieces and their implications to society. As stated before, all pieces deal with our views of our selves—but they also carry implications about the role of the individual in society or in the universe. While looking at the ideas of these essays on an individual level I can find points of personal disagreement, taking all three together does have considerable value to life. If anything, they should encourage us all to be a little less selfish in our manners.

Sri Aurobindo—The Reincarnating Soul

Sri Aurobindo’s The Reincarnating Soul is an attempt to find the proper point from which we should start our discussion of the possibility of reincarnation. He feels that “human thought” for most people has resorted to “a rough and crude acceptance of unexamined ideas.”  This observation holds even truer when the ideas require “subtle thinking” and “precision.” We can manage thought about evident, tangible things, but Sri Aurobindo feels that out of “impatience,” in almost a lazy manner, we are contented with accepting crude ideas.

Reincarnation is one such subject. Aurobindo holds that the idea of reincarnation as popularized by contemporary thought has become popularized in a crude, misleading manner. The popular idea is that of a reincarnating soul, where “the soul is reborn into a new body.” The questions often stop here, with no thought given to the definition of a soul. Is the soul Purusha (Person, or Atman)? Does Purusha simply take up a new body and bring along with it the old personality of the “now discarded physical frame?”

The popular view, as seen by Aurobindo, is that many believe that our identical souls infinitely waft into new bodies after the death of our present physical frame. The crude notion is that the personality is reborn into different “bodily circumstances.” According to Aurobindo, this view satiates those who truly love life and are afraid of the loss of “their” personality at death, for it offers them a promise of survival—a form of immortality, and a way to cope with death. The “obvious non-survival of memory” of past lives, however, is the prime objection to this idea of an identical “I” leaving one body and entering another.

This has not always been the view held of reincarnation. Aurobindo recalls Buddhist and Vedantist thought, which deny the survival of the identical personality. After all, what is an identical personality? Does my present personality persist for more than just a moment before it changes? Buddhist and Vedantist thinkers took this into consideration and determined that an “identical personality was a non-sense, a contradiction in terms.”

Buddhist thought concerning the self “denied any real identity.” As Aurobindo puts it, “The identical ‘I’ is not, never was, never will be.” Rather, we more closely resemble flowing water in a stream—ever changing. Continuing the analogy, however, despite the continually changing water in the stream, the identity of the identical stream remains the same to us. Buddhist thought does not believe that this is an incarnating soul or personality, but a flow of Karma that persists down an “apparently uninterrupted channel.” A major distinction in Buddhist thought, however, is that there can be an end to the permanent flow of Karma with enlightenment, at which point we are brought to a state of non-being.

Vedantist thought is a bit different from Buddhist thought. It also comes to the conclusion that there can be an end to the cycle of rebirth. But, according to Aurobindo, the Vedantist “admits an identical, a self—but other than my personality.” However, when the person achieves the knowledge—the enlightenment—of the real Person, Immortality is achieved. What separates the Vedantist conclusion from the Buddhist one is that there is a distinction in Vedantist thought between the Immortal life and the “constant passing from death to death,” while in Buddhism there is a cessation of being.

Aurobindo asks the question, “Who creates the forms into which we reincarnate?” Vedantist thought ascribes “the Self, the Purusha…” as the answer to this question. Our “ego-sense” then goes on to distort the reality, giving us notions of identity and personality. Indeed, the Purusha is “imperishable, immutable, unborn, undying,” and as such does not exist in the body, but rather, we exist in the Self. We create the illusion of our identities, but we are really all part something much larger.

What, then, are we? What is it that takes form and has personality? Sri Aurobindo says that the changing personality can be called Prakriti, or “the totality of nature that is not Purusha.” This is an intricate, multi-level composite that is “all surface work.” Memories or burdens of the past are set aside allowing us to “concentrate on the work immediately in hand.” Aurobindo sees the body simply as a convenience, and urges us to pay more attention to the Self: “To ignore it is to ignore the whole secret of our being.”

Jean-Paul Sartre—Existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre was a major French intellectual in the existentialist movement. His lecture, Existentialism, dealt with defining and defending existentialism, and also with defining the assertion that we are free.

Sartre begins by pointing out that there are Christian existentialists and atheistic existentialist. Both forms of existentialism agree that “existence precedes essence.” This is an essential statement in his lecture, for it would appear that, if God exists and did create man, essence preceded existence. That is to say, God knew exactly what he was creating, thus making us determined—a product, or realization of a concept.

According to Sartre, if God does not exist, human reality is at least one being “in whom existence precedes essence.” This means that there is no such thing as human nature, for from this point of view, “man exists, turns up,” then goes about the task of defining himself since there is no God to determine his human nature. This is the first principle of existentialism—that man is what he makes himself. Prior to this point of definition that is an act of will, man is nothing. Sartre goes on to point out that although this definition is an act of will, the will is based on a plan rather than a want, since man is continually “conscious of imagining himself as being in the future.” As such, since we are responsible for what we are, and we are conscious of ourselves in the future, we are responsible, also, for all of mankind.

Sartre asserts that it is “impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,” which is the act of “making” himself. This is the second essential principle of existentialism. Since we are responsible not only for ourselves, but also for mankind, when we choose our own self, we make the choice for all men. We do not just make ourselves what we want to be, but we make ourselves, and others, what we think man ought to be. Our choices create man’s image, and our actions affirm values. When we choose our acts, we ascribe value to them, and we will “always choose the good,” since Sartre feels that what is good for the individual will be good for all men.

It is because of this responsibility for mankind that Sartre feels “that man is anguish.” We must always realize that we are not the only ones involved when we do something. As Sartre believes, we should always be thinking about the consequence of our actions in consideration of the question, “What if everyone acted this way?” In other words, the scrutinizing eyes of humanity are our guiding forces in our choices.

Sartre uses this idea as support for the atheist perspective. He uses the idea of a form of divine intervention and questions how it is that one could prove this and be certain it is not a hallucination. Ultimately, the one who has been chosen as the messenger must question whether the advice given is good or true, and it is then the messenger who has the will to believe or not to believe. In other words, even orders that seem to come from above—especially those which are too broad—must be interpreted considering mankind. Existentialists feel that seeking omens, if they exist, is dangerous since many are likely to interpret the omens to suit themselves. Sartre feels that in cases where interpretation is necessary, the only thing we can trust is our instincts.

Existentialists are not ready “to abolish God with the least possible expense.” According to Sartre, they do not believe that God is useless. The existentialist is distressed that there is no God, because with that, the notion of an “a-priori Good” disappears since there was no perfect consciousness to conceive it. As such, “everything is permissible if God does not exist,” leaving man feeling forlorn. There are no pre-determined values or commands that we can use to excuse our conduct. As Sartre put it, “man is condemned to be free.” We did not choose to be in this world, but once we are here, we are responsible for ourselves.

According to Sartre, no given doctrine will show you how to live since we ultimately involve ourselves as our advisors. With that in mind, he leaves us with a doctrine of his own: “Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.”

Mencius—Human Nature is Good

Mencius, a Chinese philosopher, believes that human nature is good. That is to say, considering what Mencius believes to be genuinely in man is what makes man capable of becoming good. The question about whether humans are by nature good or evil is a central debate for students of Confucius’ philosophy. If we feel that humans are naturally good, we are more likely to look to outside influences, such as society or government interference to see what corrupts the good and brings evil into society. If, on the other hand we feel that human nature is evil, we may be inclined to impose more corrective controls over individuals.

Human Nature is Good begins with a discussion between Mencius and other Chinese philosophers. An analogy is made by one of the philosophers that human nature is like the willow, and that dutifulness is like the craftsmanship which goes into making utensils from the willow. Mencius argues that in the process of transformation from the willow to the utensil requires mutilation of the nature of the willow—do we also need to mutilate the nature of men to make them moral?

The second argument against human nature being good is delivered in an analogy to water. A philosopher said that human nature is like water—it goes whichever way the outlet directs it. Human nature does not show any inclination to good or bad, just as water does not prefer to flow in any particular direction. Mencius points out that water does have a preference to high or low ground. He says that human nature seeks the good just as water seeks low ground. However, he points out, just as water can be made to shoot up, or be dammed atop a hill, so to can we alter and influence the natural states of humans.

Another question is posed concerning whether goodness is internal or external. It is decided that benevolence is internal, and that rightness is external. Treating someone with love, for example, is based on internal feelings. Treating someone with respect, for example elders in society, is right, and based on external forces. Mencius feels, however, that rightness is also an internal feeling, but we need to find it in our hearts, and we need others to help us.

It is at this point that Mencius brings up education. According to him, “As far as what is genuinely in him is concerned, a man is capable of becoming good. That is what I mean by good. As far as for his becoming bad, that is not a fault of his native endowment.” We all possess four hearts: the hearts of compassion, shame, respect, and right and wrong. The heart of compassion applies to benevolence, shame to dutifulness, respect to the observance of rites, and right and wrong to wisdom. Mencius feels that these do not have the radiance of coming from outside. They are in everyone originally, but we have to find it—we must have knowledge of the Way.

Mencius goes on to defend that there is rightness in the heart. Again, an analogy is used. If in sowing seeds of corn, you plant some in better soil and pay more heed to them, they will grow up better. The same can be said for humans. Everything needs nourishment to grow, for without nourishment, they would wither away. If humans are deprived of a nourishing environment each day, we are likely to adopt behavior that can be likened to those of animals.

Furthermore, Mencius feels that things of the same kind have the same preferences—they are all alike. According to him, we all have very much the same preferences in taste, sight or beauty, and sound. Reason and rightness is no different, for it is in common to all hearts. To realize this is to become a sage.

This brings up the question, “Why are some men greater than others.” Mencius feels that although all men are equally human, the difference in greatness stems from how men allow themselves to be guided. Those who allow themselves to be guided by the sensory organs, which cannot think, can be misled, and are “small” men. Great men, on the other hand, are led by the heart, which can think, but which finds answers only if it does think.

Mencius feels that man has the four hearts within which are the building blocks for the development of the “prince” within him. When this is fully developed, man can manage and take care of the world. If he fails to develop his hearts and come in contact with them, he cripples himself—he won’t even “be able even to serve his parents.”

Discussion

As we can see with Sri Aurobindo’s essay, before we can begin discussing notions such as reincarnation, it is important to get to know ourselves first, and to understand the notion of the Self. An understanding of the Self for the Vedantist ultimately results in our understanding that we are ultimately part of something much larger—we are all Atman. Atman is the unchanging reality that underlies all things; everything that we perceive as real is actually Maya, or illusion. Our bodies are created by Atman, and are made of everything that is not Atman. Bodies are merely surface work, a matter of convenience, which allow us to concentrate on the present. Ultimately, however, we are largely determined beings, determined by a divine universal moral law, which takes the form of the notion of Karma. According to the law of Karma, we reap what we sow. If we hope to someday achieve immortality from the constant cycle of rebirth we, must partake in correct action in life, and become enlightened of Atman.

In many ways, this would be complementary to the idea of the Western God, which has provided us with directions on how to live our lives. This divine law has already determined the consequences of our actions. This idea, however, is in direct contrast to Sartre’s atheistic view of the world that stems largely from the idea that nothing would change if God does not exist. In complement with Vedantist thought, Sartre feels that it is important to understand the true nature of the self, but he does not feel that we are determined and will-less.

Sartre would agree that correct action is necessary—but not because there is a doctrine that dictates it. The necessitation of correct action is brought about by the “doctrine” of the eyes of humanity that are upon you. We are constantly keeping ourselves in check because we are always considering the effect of our actions, not just on a personal, immediate level, but also, on a societal, timeless level. Our actions are very likely to have a ripple effect through time, and for this reason, we must be responsible in our actions.

This is not too different from Buddhist thought. In Buddhist thought, which is non-theistic, there is the notion of Anatman. Anatman refers to the Buddhist idea that there is no unchanging reality that people are all part of. Instead, the Buddhist sees reality as constantly changing. We are part of this reality and our identity is made up of Karma flowing apparently uninterrupted, and constantly changing through time. Similarly, to Sartre, we are nothing else than our acts.

One problem with free will is the problem of evil. Without God or some form of divine guidance, are we inherently evil? As with many of the religions that had split from Hinduism, the imperfection in the universe—the suffering and evil—led to doubts in God. To Sartre, the notion that God does not exist is “distressing” since there is no longer the notion of the Good, and “all possibilities of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears.”

The question of evil also arises in the Chinese tradition, also an atheistic tradition. There is, however, still belief in the heaven—not in terms of looking for a doctrine, but to see what works, and in doing so, finding the knowledge of the Way. There is no value in telling people the Way, but we are all, by nature, good, and listening to our hearts and not to our sensory organs, helps get us there.

Mencius’ idea that we should to follow our heart, which can think, rather than our sensory organs, which cannot, is similar to Sartre’s idea that man should follow a plan rather than a want. In fact, it is not too dissimilar from Buddhist thought, which says that to live is to suffer, suffering comes from desire, to end suffering we must end desire, and desire can be ended through the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path, in turn, is a set of advice about correct living.

All of these philosophies embrace the idea of education. For Mencius, although humans are innately capable of becoming good, the influence of society and our surroundings can corrupt us. If our society and surroundings do not nurture us, we can become bad. Similarly, the Buddhist idea that the source of suffering is desire can be related here—with many of the desires we have stemming from desires created by the influence of society, for example material desires. Aurobindo’s essay does not discuss the idea of goodness in Buddhist or Vedantist thought, but the implication of an enlightenment from a correct way of living suggests that we strive for the Good. While Sartre feels that there is no human nature, he does feel that we are all inclined to do good since our actions will involve all mankind. The teaching of society—experience and history—are our textbooks, and ultimately, we are our own teachers.

In all three cases, the nurturing of the understanding of the self is most stressed. Aurobindo ends by urging us to detach ourselves from our physical bodies and to come into contact with our true Self. Sartre points out that we are just our plan, we are nothing other than our acts. As such, we are urged not just to act and create ourselves, but to have a plan—to think at a level higher than the individual, day-to-day, sensory level. Mencius ends his discussion saying that we need to get in touch with the “great man” within us—the teaching of our hearts. Denying the teaching of our hearts cripples us, just like, in Aurobindo’s mind, denying the Self is missing the secret of our being. As J. Krishnamurti put it, “Society is what you and I, in our relationship, have created; it is the outward projection of all our inward psychological states. So if you and I do not understand ourselves, merely transforming the outer…has no significance whatever.”

Whether or not we believe in God, or in an after life, it is important to be able to detach yourself from the individual—from the small self, the ego-self—and realize that we are part of a bigger “plan” or reality. Reality is not just our lives, for in a sense, we do persist in the consequences of our actions. This brings up the importance of education in our society. In many ways, it is not so much education as much as it is providing people with an environment that promotes social growth and well being. It can be dangerous to offer solutions, especially if we are, as Aurobindo feels, quick to accept ideas in a rough, crude, unexamined manner. Considering that, perhaps we should place more faith in humanity and encourage the individual to find their place in the world.

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