There are great advantages in for once removing ourselves distinctly from our time and letting ourselves be driven far from its shore, back into the ocean of former world views. Looking at the coast from that perspective, we survey for the first time its entire shape, and when we near it again we have the advantage of understanding it better on the whole than those do who never left it.

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1878

I am myself at last; now I achieve

My very self. I, with the wonder mellow,

Full of fire warmth, I issue forth in clear

And single me, perfected from my fellow.

D. H. Lawrence, I Am Like a Rose, Collected Poems, 1917

What is the self? How do we become who we are? And how does it relate to the evolving habits of reflexivity? These are the questions I have been asking in my series of essays for The London Magazine. I began at the very beginning of autobiography with Saint Augustine and ended with Roland Barthes, the author of the first deliberate anti-autobiography. Are any conclusions possible? Is there a way forward in this most elusive and mysterious of all realms? It has to be conceded that any definitive resolution concerning identity in the matrix of culture and history is all but impossible.And in any case undesirable. But this does not mean that we cannot expand the boundaries of our understanding about personal identity and inner freedom. But today it is extremely difficult, for the language of our consumer and technological age is pragmatic, often anorexic and wildly eclectic. We lack compelling images of well-being, a store of sustaining metaphors and myths as well as a philosophical language. The prevailing hyper-culture of the individual celebrity is counterfeit, glossy, and vacuous; and nearly always a diversion from perennial questions concerning being and the arduous task of becoming oneself.

There is evidence to show that, as we have moved at reckless speed into a new electronic culture, our sense of identity has become more precarious than ever, more under threat and more assailed by symptomatic states of depression, anxiety and general anomie. Are we becoming the frazzled inhabitants of a brave new world of industrious bureaucrats and restless consumers, of crude emotions and monosyllabic clicks, with no depth and an ever-ebbing inwardness? The triumph of Heidegger’s das Man? Could it be that as we enter an unprecedented epoch of global connectivity – or is it global collectivity? – we are, at the same moment, close to jettisoning nearly three thousand years of dialectical growth and psychological development?

Yet these essays have not been intended as elegy, nor have they been written out of nostalgia. Although they have looked at cultural shifts and transformations from the time of Sappho and Heraclitus, Jacob and Job, to almost the present moment, the driving tense of the writing has always been that of the present and the future. I have been animated by the questions: who are we, and how can we become more fully who we are or, more to the point, who am I? and how should I live? I am haunted by this question. I wake with it in my mind and fall asleep with it, always unresolved. Though the highest aspirations and standards invariably derive from the past, my abiding concern is with the existential moment, the abiding predicament of now.

The structure of the self might be compared to a house on many floors. Probably most of us for most of the time occupy only the first two floors, the biological and the social. But the needling question arises: what would it be like to live on all levels with the suppleness to move creatively between them? And what might it be like to inhabit the top floor, if only for a short time? Involuntary prisoners in Plato’s cave, members of an insatiable consumer society, most of us have little conception of what such intricate wholeness, such humanitas, would look like. We seem to have severed our relationship with the animation of being, its gift of presence and its promise of death. It is as if technical mastery, know-how and the habits of a voracious consumption have usurped our simple (but also, paradoxically, most difficult) power to be well in the world. Is it that technology rubs out ontology? Certainly, it is here that the long odyssey of the Western self challenges and speaks to our greatest need. For, however uncertain and dialectical its history, it offers a surplus of reflexive experience: transformative metaphors, speculative concepts and introspective practices. But we have to reach out to grasp it and, in each age, read it afresh.

The tradition – if it is still possible to use that word in a digital age – offers a compelling gallery of exemplars: diverse portraits of those who at different and disparate times struggled to meet the first command of the Delphic Oracle: to know and to be oneself. All these figures compose the stumbling representatives of a fuller consciousness: individuals who struggled to reverse the natural outward movement of the mind and direct it, at times, most dangerously, inwards; who aspired to occupy the various floors in the house of consciousness and left a log – in the form of journals, letters, confession, intimate essays, autobiography and verbal montage – of their trials and discoveries. They reveal the restlessness of Western reflexivity and the protean shapes of consciousness.

Of course, in the infinitely complex matter of human life, there can be no single exemplar. There are many actualizations of human potential; but a considerable number are in tune with that mindful creation of identity epitomised by the historic Socrates subverting his allotted role as a humble mason to search, through the power of relentless inner and outer questioning, the highest possible form of existence, or the fictional Hamlet dramatically struggling to compose himself, against the tribal odds, as if he were shaping a work of art. Although often still enmeshed in the assumptions of their own epochs, our gallery of representatives offer lancing insights into the riddle of existence; while a few, like Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Goethe, may offer redolent, even daunting, images of fulfilment, of Aristotlean eudaimonia. In this they prefigure our own submerged possibilities.

The nearer these representatives of inner consciousness come to our own time, the more easily we can identify with them or, at least, feel a sense of affinity. The youthful ecstasy of Keats in “To Autumn”; the polymathic aging Goethe joyously gazing into the multiverse of life without blinking; Emily Dickinson contemplating the mutilated hand of God; the ill-fated death of Camus as he struggled to define his uneasy sense of the absurd; the irrepressible tears of the intellectual Barthes as he confronted his mother’s death, all of these may still seem close to us. But with the development of historical imagination we can find many other figures, further and further back in time, who similarly struggled to achieve an encompassing existential understanding and some form of personal salvation: Petrarch, Dante, Abélard and Héloise; Paul, Jesus and Job; Seneca, Socrates and Sappho. Most of these protagonists had, at times, to confess with Augustine: ‘and so I became an enigma unto myself’. Indeed their urgent enquiry often began with a pathological feeling of dislocation and dis-ease: an experience of the Greek aporia or the Christian dark night of the soul or just the daily fact of gnawing perplexity. What for? What ultimately for?

And slowly one becomes aware of a procession of reflexive lives, with each individual a participant in a complex conversation spanning the centuries about who and how to be in the world. Nietzsche proclaimed ‘I am all the names in history’. It may sound inflated and on the edge of mania, yet it was literally true – for Nietzsche, an insatiable reader, had assimilated nearly all the reflexive voices of the past and re-composed them to create his own symphony. In the historical imagination the dead are never silent. They still have the power to guide us: to address, challenge, and, yes, even shame us. They can be infinitely more present than those who, seemingly alive, are little more than sleepwalkers drifting down long metropolitan corridors wearing the latest designer-fashions and clicking selfies. In contrast, the historical protagonists of reflexive being possess a certain aura, a frowning gravitas. They offer themselves as possible models. They carry, in the words of Louis MacNeice, an emerald lamp behind their faces, and the light still shines through.

But it is not only a question of exemplars; as both Saussure and Barthes would insist, the tradition involves language, and all that language opens and makes possible and also (they would add) what it closes down. Our story discloses a growing complexity in self-consciousness, especially from the Renaissance: the time of Montaigne, Ficino and Shakespeare. Here the greatest symbolic figure, casting his outsider’s shadow down the centuries even into our own digital age, is that of the bewildered and inwardly divided Hamlet. But the general historic drift towards a deeper, if profoundly unsettled, subjectivity is more neutrally recorded in various mutations of the language. In the inconspicuous biography of words we discern most accurately the shifting morphologies of consciousness

The number of English words hyphenated with ‘self’ record a growing tendency to connect the thinking subject to all manner of objects and activities; and they increase dramatically in the 17th century and then continue, without a pause, into our own time – with, significantly, self-harming being one of the most recent. It takes twenty-five pages of the Oxford English Dictionary to document these additions. The 17th century coined such crucial compounds as self-examination (1647), self-conscious (1688) and self-reflexive (1677); the 18th century self-control (1711) and self-formation (1713); the 19th century self-criticism (1857), self-analysis (1860) and self-realization (1874); the 20th century self-alienation (1906)), self-image (1939) and self-actualization (1939). The steady stream of new words quietly testifies to a deepening flow of self-consciousness.

By the middle of the 19th century any alert student of philology could have predicted that the growing emphasis on reflexive consciousness would soon manifest itself in a revolutionary movement like psychoanalysis, with its practice of bending reflection back inwards to interrogate immediate experience. The same observer of words might also have guessed that such an inner backward movement of mind would put an emphasis on speaking – ‘the talking cure’ – and supply further abstract nouns to the growing
language of self-consciousness: concepts like Freud’s ego, super-ego and id or Jung’s introvert, extrovert, collective unconscious – and especially his word individuation, to crown the psychic process. It was as if the critical compound self–examination, coined in 1647, was destined three hundred years later to metamorphose into the more positive and challenging self-actualization.

In the archaeology of the self mapped in these essays we have excavated further words which, although many have fallen into the shadow of obscurity, may well remain essential for any further journeys into the interior. From the classical tradition some of these key words are: doxa, elenchus, arête, paideia, eudaimonia and amor fati. From the Christian tradition; ascesis, ipseity (inner selfhood), witnessing, confession, salvation and selving. From the later European humanist traditions; Rousseau’s amour-propre and amour de soi, Keats’ Negative Capability, the German Bildung, Hegel’s sublation, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, Husserl’s intentionality, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Foucault’s le souci de soi (care of the self, a phrase, significantly revealing the long history of reflexivity, taken from the Stoic philosophers.)

And often flowing in and through these concepts, depending on their chronology, are a number of images, narratives and myths which further inspirit the story of the self: the harsh journey of the philosopher from the cave; Socrates drinking the fatal hemlock as he reflects on life and death; Job, in extremis, questioning the divine wisdom of God; Jonah emerging, after three days and nights, from the mouth of the whale; the departure and return of the prodigal son; Augustine hearing the words tolle lege: take and read in an enclosed garden in Turin; Dante, in mid-life, finding himself lost and fearful in a dark wood; Michel Montaigne withdrawing to his tower to contemplate life; the quest of the Holy Grail; Faustus; Rousseau taking his solitary but rhapsodic walks on the Ile de St Pierre; the voyage of the Ancient Mariner and the gratuitous killing of the albatross; the bewildered Josef K. prosecuted for an unnamed crime by a remote bureaucratic authority; the outsider, Meursault, suddenly affirming his contingent life as he confronts a meaningless death; Roland Barthes, at the end of his life, not mourning, but suffering. And these forever accumulating metaphors and narratives, some real, some fictional, are at times informed by other more diffuse poetic metaphors alive in the language and culture: psyche (that, in the ancient Greek, signifies both soul and the zig-zag butterfly); the seed that has to die to become itself; the priceless treasure buried in a field; the camel in the desert turning into a roaring lion before finally, metamorphosing into a free-wheeling child; Jung’s circular mandala suddenly grasped as an image of psychic wholeness.

We stand in need of these diverse terms and conflicting metaphors, and all that they represent: the many introspective practices that lie hidden behind them and the various genres of expression that they, in turn, engendered: from lyrical poetry to confessional writing, from ruminating personal essays to deep autobiography, from journals and diaries to the Romantic’s Bildungroman , from postmodern verbal montage to Roland Barthes’s humble biographeme; from the sacrament of Confession to psychoanalytic therapy; from the philosophical and psychoanalytical investigation of identity to the political struggle for freedom to live the life of reflexive consciousness.

In a digital age we must not allow this Socratic legacy to slip from our collective memory – for without a language of reflexivity how can we speak coherently of being, or of the unending, paradoxical, struggle to be who one is? Indeed, at the end of our long story of the Western self the Delphic Oracle’s command ‘Know thyself and be thyself’ still awaits its fulfilment.

This is the concluding essay in the series. For further details of the story of the self, see

By Peter Abbs

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