Searching for Our Human Face: The False Selves of Modernity

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor draws a distinction between the modern and pre-modern self. Here is how he describes a possible experience of falling in love for the pre-modern self:

Say someone falls in love. And this has an impact, good or ill, on his life. An “internal” event, we think, albeit susceptible to pressures from outside . . . But now let’s say that we see this whole side of life as under the aegis of a goddess, Aphrodite. That means that its going well is its being smiled on by Aphrodite. This means not only that she is keeping the external dangers at bay; like a human patron, she is in this aspect causally responsible for the conditions being propitious. It also means that the blooming of the right internal motivation is a gift from her. In other words, my being in the highest motivational condition is not just a fact about my inner realm of desires; it is my being the recipient of the gift of the goddess. The highest condition can’t just be placed unambiguously within; it is placed in that interspace, where the gift is received. Now imagine that this is not just a theory, but how we sense things to be; and thus how we seem to experience them. Then the inside is no longer just inside; it is also outside. That is, emotions which are in the very depths of human life exist in a space which takes us beyond ourselves, which is porous to some outside power, a person-like power. (36)

Now to this porous self, Taylor will contrast what he calls “the buffered self.” The buffered self will seem familiar, for it is the product of modern experience and modern thinking. Outside and inside are clearly defined. Boundaries are hard. In contrast, the kind of theurgic experience associated with tribal shamanism would be understood by a pre-modern as a form of communion and transformation. It was a dynamic activity of various actors, spirits, if you like. Modern man will see all that as animist superstition. Rather, he is apt to grant some validity to the experience, but he will explain its reality as if the shaman were just like us, only deluded as to what was actually happening. Hence, the medicine man thinks his self is fluid, open, capable of transformation by union with other beings, be they deities, the spirits of animals, demons, wood sprites. But modern science knows all this is false. An individual ingests a certain mushroom, say, or induces visions by forms of exhaustion, manipulating the body so that hallucinogenic dreams occur. Rather than a drama where powers are invoked, the seeker also supplicant, one has a simple transaction where a clearly demarcated self uses a chemical mechanism to obtain a result. Today, we know a headache is not a devil haunting the soul. We take an aspirin and numb pain centers in the brain.

Consider Descartes, doubting everything. The cogito is the thinking self posited against a world reduced to mere extension. Where the pre-modern self was in flux and permeated with the force of many outside actors, the Cartesian self resists any such intrusion. My subjective insides are my own, thank you very much. The outside world is the outside world, after all. Outside, get it? Reality itself is made beholden to the judgment of the cogito. It is true that God is asked to vouch for the veracity of the clear and concise ideas elucidated by method, but ultimately this is not so much a pious acknowledgement of a necessary other as a move to solidify a particular epistemology. Kant is perhaps a slightly more ambiguous figure. He is the initiator of the Copernican revolution that placed the modern self at the center, though he is more aware of difficulties. Nonetheless, he managed to suppress his worries and hide his reservations in prose designed to promote narcolepsy. Even if the transcendental ego as subject is not synonymous with a finite, psychological human being, the epistemological turn in metaphysics is not enacted by an ahistorical supposition. Kant gives us the strong modern prejudice that freedom must be understood as purely an act of the individual will. Autonomy and freedom are synonymous. Any heteronomy is a sign of enslavement.

As William Desmond remarks, “Freedom is one of the glories and catchphrases of modernity.” Being a catchphrase, we all know what it means, don’t we? Desmond demurs: “the meaning of freedom remains open.” Yet we moderns do not really acknowledge this. We think it is self-evident, and without a gadfly like Socrates to discomfit our unexamined assumptions, we reason and calculate and judge based upon the regnant concept of our era. “The dominant answer is in terms of the ideal of autonomy as self-determination … being is ultimately made intelligible in terms of self-mediation, self determination … freedom is ‘for-self’; it is autonomy, auto-nomos, law of the same” (Perplexity and Ultimacy, 190-191).

But suppose there is another story? My basic premise is simple. This modern notion of freedom does not best fit the mystery of the Gospel. Many who aspire to an understanding of reality shaped by revelation nonetheless accept concepts of volition and personal being at odds with the mystery of being. Unknowingly, they embrace what Robert Barron has called a decadent, nominalist Christianity. When pushed to address ultimate realities, this leads to a distorted eschatology of imperfect justice and limited freedom.

(Go to “The Nihilism of the Voluntarist Will”)

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