It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.
In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.
In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.
The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.
As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).
If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.
A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.
This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.
From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)
With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.
The examined life is indeed worth living.