The Elusive Self: an Archetypal Inquiry

Flickr - In the mirror - sean|mundyGary “Z” McGee, Staff Writer
Waking Times

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” –Albert Einstein

One of the many difficulties we find in living an “examined life” is the constant feat of overcoming the perceptual self. What we need regarding the inner-self is not fixed conviction but adaptability. Perhaps it is just as much the case that we are changing as it is that time is moving. And so we must be just as adaptable toward the vicissitudes of self as we are toward the vicissitudes of time.

For our purposes here, let’s imagine using Nietzsche’s Dionysian-Apollonian Dynamic as a tool to leverage our adaptability. Imagine a teeter-totter in your mind: the Teeter-totter of the Self, if you will. On one side we have Apollo. On the other side we have Dionysus. One goes up, the other goes down. One cries wolf, the other is wolf. One sighs, the other howls. In order to maintain an examined lifestyle both of these inner-archetypes must have their say. Nietzsche’s concept of the Over-hero (or Übermensch) is the hero who constantly overcomes the illusion of the self. The Over-hero oversees Apollo and Dionysus going through the motions of “play” on the Teeter-totter of the Self. The Over-hero knows that it’s when the “game” becomes serious, as opposed to playful, or when one side gains too much power over the other, that stagnation becomes the default and the examined life comes to an end.

  • First, we must accept that the problem of the Self is a complex one, riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. Yes, it is possible to be part of the problem and part of the solution at the same time. Understand: hypocrisy is a crucial aspect of fallibility, and fallibility just so happens to be the essence of the human condition. But by cultivating awareness of all factors involved, and learning to weigh the consequences of our actions, we can begin to make choices that contribute less to the problems and more to the solutions. This is the beauty of the fallibilistic approach: it is inherently an overcoming of itself. Like Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, and not just physically. Our minds contain a vagary of multitudes. This is because our brains were designed by the trial and error of mutation and time: what’s known as evolution.

    Human evolution has brought about a modular brain, where a deep menagerie of selves creates the mind that calls itself “Self”. It explains why we are conflicted, inconsistent, and hypocritical. It reveals how we have a multitude of evolutionary layers overlapping, like a giant onion in our skulls, reeking of multifarious odors. Each layer has an evolutionary importance of which we are just beginning to scratch the surface. But we do know that each module, each part of this infinitely fascinating organ, is a prerequisite for our being here. Every module, whether outdated or not (and some are), is necessary for there to be such a thing as homo sapien sapien: a creature that has the capacity to live an examined life.

    “It is not the strongest of the species that survives,” wrote Charles Darwin, “nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The one most adaptable to change is the one who can be the most fluid and flexible in the face of adversity, as well as the most courageous and daring in the face of complacency. This, essentially, is the Dionysian-Apollonian Dynamic. It is not just adversity that prevents existential growth and puts an end to most journeys, but also complacency, contentedness, and comfort. Those who would interrogate the many layers of consciousness are the Over-heroes who seek all that looms beyond the surface of things. They pursue mystery (a Dionysian act of courage) until the very substance of reality is revealed to them, then they make sense and order out of it (an Apollonian act of courage), and then they pursue further into mystery (Apollonian death/Dionysian rebirth), and the process is repeated constantly, while always seeking to reinvent the self. This is the essence of living an examined life. This is self-interrogation par excellence.

    Our perception of self is as much a construct of a construct as it is an abstraction of an abstraction. The self is not one single thing. It is not an essence; but a process. It is simply what a psycho-physiological system does, the side-effect of an organism having gone through the motions of evolving. The sense of individuality that arises from this process is multifaceted. It’s almost as if the billion-bundled neurons in the brain, coupled with the physiology of the body, came together to perform a symphony. The music from this symphony is what we call the self. Similarly, the masks we wear are multifaceted, even though we still remain an individual. The “roles” we play while wearing our masks are merely versions of who we are, and not entirely who we are. “To switch to a cinematic metaphor,” writes Julian Baggini, “we may ‘edit’ and ‘direct’ ourselves, but it is still ourselves who is being edited and directed.” The psycho-physiological unity of experience is who we are. And that experience is forever in the throes of change.

    As it stands modern man has been suffering from an over-abundance of the Apollonian dynamic. Weaning ourselves from the 2,000-year Apollonian rigidness takes a very powerful Dionysian assault on our weltanschauung, one that wakes us up with a ruthless cognitive dissonance. Now enter Dionysus: the creative, intoxicating, impulsive, non-rational, nature-based archetype, the individuated untermensch (under-man). This energy is necessary to get us back in touch with our bodies, with the sacred garden of our flesh, so that we can learn, build upon, and evolve the consecrated blossom of our soul blooming in the always harsh “desert of the real.”

    But a Dionysian frenzy toward self-liberation only gets us so far. At some point there must come a sobering, an Apollonian continuity and unity that produces a construct of self that is able to function in an ever-changing world. Perceptually the self exists; actually it’s just an illusion. But we live in a reality where our perception is, quite literally, everything. So we must ‘go through the motions’ of having a self, despite, and maybe even in spite of, the illusion. Because as far as we are concerned, the illusion is all we have. The Apollonian continuity of self is a grounding of our multifaceted Dionysian nature into one coherent construct that we can call ‘Individual’. The back and forth play of the Apollonian-Dionysian dynamic is crucial for healthy evolution. The acceptance of the illusion of the self, and the ‘going through the motions’ of being oneself, is what I call self-legerdemain, or ontological sleight of hand.

    In the same way that a physicist cannot perceive both the momentum and location of an electron in space, an individual cannot perceive both the multiplicity and the continuity of the self. The concept of ‘I’ is elusive. Any attempt at perceiving it as a “thing in itself,” is akin to trying to eat our own face. Similarly, the concept of ‘now’, like the concept of ‘self’, cannot be located in time, for as soon as one declares a “now!” the moment has already become the past. As soon as one declares “I am myself,” the moment has passed and the self has changed.

    So not only are we Creatures of Self in any given instant, we are Voyagers of Self eclipsing all ‘Now’s’. Just as there can never be a ‘now’, there can never be a ‘self’. And yet, paradoxically, perceptually, there is always a Now and there is always a Self. And so self-legerdemain is an act of strategic, healthy denial. Like Jonathan Swift wrote, “Happiness is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived.” It is strategic because we use it despite the illusion. It is healthy because it keeps us sane, and it keeps us aware of the difference between two very important concepts: the Perceptual, and the Actual. (I write more on this concept in my article A Heuristic Inquiry into the Correlations between Consciousness and Theoretical Physics.) But what’s important to understand right now, is that the self is a multifaceted, fluid, ever-changing, amorphous illusion that, nonetheless, must be treated as real. We are a fluid yet binding flux. It’s the permanence of self that is an illusion, not the impermanence of self. After all, the ‘self’ is just as real as ‘now’ is real. Our ‘self’ is just as much a thing moving through time as ‘now’ is a thing moving through time. Some might even argue that the self, through conscious observation, is what’s doing the moving. Like Julian Baggini wrote, “’I’ is a verb dressed as a noun.”

    The important thing to understand is that mental paradigms are not necessarily bad. They are cognitive constructs we use to perceive reality. The Apollonian and Dionysian are just two archetypal examples of mental paradigms. Actually, all paradigms are unique to the individual. And since change is the fundamental construct of the cosmos, so too must our paradigms change, lest we stagnate and become locked into a particular neurosis. Breaking mental paradigms is like killing Hydra. When you break one, two more pop up. Like psychological dominoes toppling over each other. Epiphanies and Eureka moments are those times when we manage to take out many “heads” all at once, and the avalanche of mental paradigms popping up can literally change the way we perceive reality.

    In the end we are, all of us, emergent phenomena. The illusion is that we’re in control. The self is a complex system of neurological firings and physiological reactions that happen to form a pattern that is unique to “being” you. Just as storms are an emergent expression of a complex system known as weather, the self is an emergent expression of a complex system known as the human condition.

    Perhaps time is just Reality’s way of preventing everything from happening at once. Perhaps space is just Reality’s way of allowing a place for everything to happen. Perhaps space-time is just Reality’s way of allowing everything that’s happening to be perceived. And perhaps the Self is just Reality’s way of perceiving itself. And suddenly we are not so small.

    About the Author

    Z, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.  His recent works can be seen here and also found at Z’s Hub, where this article wasoriginally featured.

    This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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