The Human Meaning of Identity

Filippo di ser Brunellesco, known to posterity as Brunelleschi, was a man with a mean streak. In 1409, with the collaboration of a group of friends from his hometown of Florence, he played a practical joke on another friend of his, Manetto Ammannatini, a master inlay worker also known as “Grasso” (the Fat man) for his impressive thickness. Brunelleschi managed, with the help of his and Grasso’s friends to make the latter believe he was actually not himself, but someone else named “Matteo”, a man who had the habit of gambling himself into debt and making others pay to get him out of trouble. After a night in jail, courtesy of a creditor who claimed Grasso owed him money, along with other tribulations, the inlay worker was so shaken by his experience of being “not himself” that he left his native Florence for Hungary, where he became a rich man. Returning to Florence in later years, Grasso apparently forgave Brunelleschi for the practical joke, but never returned to live in the city of his birth.

It is a curious fact of history that Brunelleschi was also an incredibly innovative architect, who laid down for the first time the principle of the absolute primacy of perspective in architecture, at once returning to the Greco-Roman canon of architecture and inaugurating an entirely new epoch in the art of architectonic design. For in taking advantage of late Medieval advances in geometry and optics, and in particular the new science of optical perspective, Brunelleschi developed a way of building that permeated his designs with something hitherto never seen, namely mathematically exact perspective that built the resulting building around the viewpoint of a single viewer, who, in a certain sense, retained a mastery over the resulting building and its “identity”. The later development of the Western sense of “self” has much to do with this radical Renaissance development, because perspective introduced the necessary existence of the subject into the world, the single point that in a very real sense “creates” the world that he or she experiences. No longer could it be naively said that Truth was “adaequatio rei et intellectus” (conformity of mind to the world), because the fact could no longer avoided that the perceiving subject played a critical role in the construction of phenomenological “reality”.

All this talk of “subjects” and “perspective” and “construction” might seem impossibly abstract, but in fact it has everything to do with one of the biggest struggles that every one of us faces over the course of our lives: the construction of a self, of a “me”, of a unique identity that marks us as independent and, to a certain degree, free beings in a world of other such selves. Any parent who has had an adolescent knows of the travails of the teenage years, where rebellion, insouciance, disobedience and apparently inexplicable anger can become the order of the day in the family household, while the maturing person fights to define him or herself as “other”, a “not my mother” and “not my father”. For some, this struggle ends at age 15, with the acquisition of a certain sense of self that likely partakes heavily of random cultural influences, some coming from the teenager’s peers, others from television and advertising and political rhetoric, with some perhaps deriving from the young man or woman’s own readings and thoughts. Parents are almost universally disconcerted by this process, but invariably the young person takes a path that is somehow abhorrent to the parent… for conservative parents, it is their daughter’s determination to break every sexual taboo that they themselves spent years developing and inculcating, for their son perhaps it is a descent into surliness, violence and drugs that ends with trips to the police station and long sessions with social workers. For liberal parents, their children will of course choose some intensely conservative or irrational religious sect, or will become a fierce young Republican militant, coming home every day to assure his or her mother and father that in some way they are destined to hell for their wrongheadedness.

This “identity” that we spent so much time and effort developing (both in adolescence and in later years) is an odd thing. For philosophers who have critically studied these issues, oftentimes they come to the conclusion that there is actually no such thing as “self”, and hence nothing that we could call our “identity”. Objections to the self are legion: we are different at every moment, and hence no unique, self-identical being can be said to exist over time; whatever it is that we think that we are, it can be easily destroyed or changed by modifications to the brain; if identity has anything to do with our physical being, then our “identity” could be presumably be transferred, via an atom-by-atom copy to another being, a clone of ourselves with the exact same brain state as we have at time t. Or, as the Buddha puts it, a close examination of the “self” shows that it simply reduces to a loose collection of mental “factors” that have no real unity whatsoever. But nonetheless “identity” persists, as does the notion of self. It can hardly be an accident that every  language in the history of the world has a word for “I”… being able to navigate the world successfully appears to absolutely require some concept of “this thing that is me”, even if we generally fail to develop any convincing definition for what this thing might be.

Yet for all its oddness, “identity” is a crucially important factor in our lives. Being a “self” with an “identity” is sufficiently important as to imply a dramatic breakdown of human functioning when it is brought into question or destroyed. Knowing that “I am this and not that” has been a necessity in every culture we know of, straight back to prehistory: in every narrative we have retained from ancient times, the great, heroic figures they speak of, or the gods they chronicle, have names, and act according to a definite character that they do not share with anyone or anything else. Whether it be Gilgamesh or Genji or Freya or Abraham, these figures act in the world knowing, in a mysterious way, who they are, and in their struggles or even battles, with gods and men, their great achievement is precisely in preserving that selfhood, that identity, intact despite the real danger of failure. And it is not only human individuals that need an identity: almost any community that we participate in, whether it be a “band of brothers” or a vast nation straddling a continent, spends major time and effort in developing intricate symbolism and myths that brand it as “itself” and nothing else. For anyone who has been witness to the obsessive urgency of high school sports, it is clear that despite one set of high school students not being fundamentally different from any other, there is in each school a fierce loyalty to “their” team, its mascot (silly or not), its colors, motto and perhaps even its song, not to mention its specific cheers (and sometimes insults). Losing our identity, be it communitarian/collective or individual/self, is a disaster that can leave us unable to function properly in the world.

In a recent visit to Mexico, I was struck by the continuing debate about who “we” are as Mexicans. Despite the massive presence of Hispanic (read, inherited from Spain) culture in every corner of the Republic, some Mexicans have been taught, and will insist with vigor and sometimes anger, that they are “really” Aztecs, despite the fact that this particular indigenous people was largely massacred by Cortés and his band of adventurers, with the complicity of numerous other Indian tribes that loathed their Aztec masters more than the bearded, white riders of horses that came from the East. It is surely the case that Mexico is profoundly “pre-Columbian” in many ways, as their incomparable cuisine (owing nearly nothing to what was brought from Spain) or the many Nahuatl words in their dialect of Spanish, both witness, together with the persistence of numerous native cultures and customs at the “bottom” of the Mexican societal pyramid. For a Mexican to say what he or she is is no simple matter, because if he says “I am Aztec”, he is saying these words in “Castellano”, a language deriving from the arid plains of northern Spain and descended ultimately from Latin, that quintessential language of the European West. But if, against all social and political pressure, the Mexican insists on honoring his/her Spanish roots, there remains the stubborn question of where the fundamental Mexican character comes from, which is decisively itself, not having any “twin” on the Iberian peninsula, and clearly differing in major ways from the Neo-Hispanic “criollo” cultures of the colonial era. From the outside, it is easy to wonder why Mexicans would worry… they obviously are themselves, not having clones in any other part of the world, and having traits that are sometimes immensely attractive and at others tremendously infuriating to non-Mexicans, but which are theirs in an undeniable way. But even after more than two centuries of independence, the issue still is one that is questioned and debated, in restaurants, cantinas, the Mexico City metro and taxicabs without number. So it would seem that we cannot live without at least attempting to know our own identities, even if pinning them down is a Sisyphean endeavor.

On the other hand, our dramatic need to know who we are can lead to dangerous results. Some time ago I dated a woman who, because of frightening health issues and the loss of her parents, fell into a deep depression. Having gone through a serious depression myself, I attempted to communicate some of the “wisdom” that I had accumulated during my journey through this terrifying mental condition. To my deep amazement, however, she insisted furiously on preserving precisely those aspects of her “self” or identity that were most damaging to her future likelihood of escaping depression: her desire to “bathe” in sorrow, darkness and evil, letting herself experience in a way that felt to her as “true” the intensities of an encounter with the worst the world has to offer. My attempts to tell her that evil is just a worthless “parasite” of goodness, in good Augustinian fashion, fell on deaf ears. Losing her taste for despair and suffering would have meant, for her, no longer being her, a consequence that for her was worse than the suicide that can easily be the final stop on that particular train.

Since this is a blog on philosophy for the 20th century, I want to wrap this essay up with a reflection on what precisely philosophy, in the form of the multi-millenial Western tradition, can offer us when we encounter the need to discover, define or even unmake and recreate who we are. There are many responses to this question within the Occidental family of philosophies, but one of the most intriguing has to be that of Socrates. With his famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” he cast down a gauntlet that following generations have been unable able to resist picking up. While his particular methodology was somewhat odd to our tastes, consisting especially in the brutal elimination of all inconsistent opinion within himself in the search for the true and real definitions of the highest things, his method of introspection and radical self-renewal marked a turning point in Western history. While in earlier Greek society character was what it was, arete was either given or it wasn’t, and Achilles was the tragic figure that he was precisely because he was unable to overcome his wrath despite the excellent reasons given him by his companions in war, after Socrates character, selfness and identity became a choice, and the forging of one’s character on the basis of obedience to whatever truth we are able to discern became an obligation that no thinking person worth his salt can now avoid.

So my suggestion is this: confronted as we are by forces that would seek to define our identities for us, whether they be political ideologies or mercenary marketing, the prejudices of the small-minded people that surround us, or the often violent urges of our chaotic biological natures, we can nonetheless look within and make choices about what kind of persons we are going to be. We have the bizarre but undeniable freedom to not obey these irrational forces that buffet us, at least at the level of saying “I will never agree” when we find ourselves too weak to resist the power of environment, genetics and economics. And furthermore, although we never, ever can come to a perfect resolution of the problem of identity, we can orient our choices towards following the promptings of our conscience and the demands of truth, and can steer the stubborn ships of our souls towards being really, truly what we choose to be, and not what the random forces of our world would have us be. In the end, I believe, when death comes to meet us, all of us, whether we be atheists or believers, will find that it is our conviction that we have done our best to align ourselves with truth, whether it be about the world or about our moral choices, that will console us and give us courage to let thanatos take us into her grasp.


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