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Images of the Self: East and West, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 1995

Essay

Introduction

It is likely no coincidence that only the contemplation of God, or divine forces, rivals the philosophic interest in understanding the true nature of the self.  Both are concerned with the elemental reasons for existence; both seek to address purpose and direction in human life.  Perhaps most interesting in all of this is that the study of the self provides no more definitive answers than does the pursuit of the truly unknowable, or the divine.  In the latter, external searching generates new frontiers to investigate and consider, but the same is true when men turn their gazes inward.  In this complex arena,  Confucian ideas may be said to represent Eastern conceptions, as Rousseau is virtually symbolic of Western thought in the Age of Enlightenment.  In a very real sense, the parameters are valid, but what an examination of both philosophers’ thoughts are in regard to self presents a fascinating similarity.  They emphasize different elements, yet they “arrive” at the same place.  This in view, it is possible that combining Confucius and Rousseau may lead to a concept of self that incorporates the truths expressed by both men.  Confucius holds to ideals beyond the self as determining worth, Rousseau holds to the primal nature of the self as responsible for its own integrity and for the world around it, and together these views may be offered as suggesting another concept: the self is a thing in which an internal core and external forces act equally to shape its meaning and identity.

Discussion

Given the antiquity and esteem associated with Confucius, it is tempting to examine the man behind the philosophy, more so than with the relatively modern Rousseau.  Confucianism, after all, is a profoundly respected ideology; Rousseau’s impact is enormous, but even he cannot claim to have given his name to a belief system.  The issue becomes, then, relating the Confucian idea of the self with what is known of the philosopher.  What emerges is an interestingly affirmation, if an oblique one.  Based on the man perceived behind the Analects, Confucius is, first and foremost, an individual man.  He is not as obsessed with the self as a component within the state as Aristotle, but he most definitely appreciates the power of the relationship.  It is, moreover, not a situation with which Confucius is usually at peace.  While the Analects were not written by the man himself, they come as close as mankind can near to an idea of the philosopher’s nature, and it is by no means a portrait of profound serenity.  Life, it seems, was often as troubling to Confucius as it is to any ordinary man, and very human traits are evident: “His political motivations are often obscure, and he seems to appreciate various struggling rulers’ foibles less than his own”  (Spence  36).  At the same time, it may be argued that these characteristics compelled Confucius all the more to understand just what the self is, and the obligations to it: “The superior man must be ever watchful over himself”  (Confucius, Legge 32).

The entire Confucian conception is, in a word, beautifully human.  In Confucius, the self is not only beholden to all life, it exists in a way to elevate both self and external world, and the path to this is through nothing more than human effort.  Virtue is what must be sought in Confucius, above anything else, and this externalized view turns inward to then illustrate how he perceives the self.  On one level, that humans must continually make such efforts indicates a lack of authentic excellence as intrinsic to the self.  This is emphasized by the Confucian insistence on virtue as being rarely attained; Confucius notably remarked that those who understand de, or the true power of the self to attain virtue, are rare (Yan  114). What ultimately matters in Confucius, however, may be described as a metaphorical “trinity”: there is the self, the world, and virtue, and the self knows and creates itself by responding properly to the world while seeking to attain virtue and be true to this effort: “To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men…and keep aloof from them may be called wisdom”  (Confucius  100).  It is a “balancing act,” and one reliant on the human impulse to be better: “In Confucius’ understanding, human beings possess a constant nature that leads toward virtue” (Yu  286).  It may be said, then, that the Confucian self is not an entity, but an interactive process relying on a core selfhood serving worldly interests, and pursuing virtue.

If the concept of the self is diffuse in Confucius, Jean-Jacques Rousseau renders it a far more absolute construct.  The two philosophers may be said to be in agreement about one point, in that each holds to an idea of an essential nature of self, and one removed from the world around it.  The difference lies in application, as well as in degree.  More exactly, the Confucian self is shaped in both reactive and active ways, while Rousseau’s self is a far more dominant core.   This is largely expressed in the manner by which Rousseau explored self; that is to say, his self.  His fiction notwithstanding, Rousseau appears to view himself as an ideal object of study here and, in fairness to his philosophy, he is perfectly justified in doing so.  If each self is a unique construction, beholden only to its own composition, then that with which he is most familiar – his own – provides an ideal template for analysis.  Unfortunately, what this generates, in his own time and afterward, is a skepticism.  In plain terms, Rousseau’s focus upon the sheer strength of the individual self becomes, when presented with himself as archetype, almost narcissistic.  This is exemplified in his autobiographical work: “The Confessions presents its subject as a person who always strives to express natural impulses and is recurrently frustrated by society’s demands and assumptions” (Lawall  496).  It may be argued that Confucius’ view to the pursuit of virtue, then, reduces Rousseau’s exaltation of self to self-glorification, rather than definition.

Such a view, however, does an injustice to what may be termed the totality of Rousseau’s self.

There is a great danger of misinterpretation with the philosopher as his concept of self, distilled into the phrase of “amour-propre,” implies self-obsession.  In a sense, it does.  For Rousseau, there is no more worthy focus of interest for the self than the self.  At the same time, Rousseau never deludes himself into ignoring the inevitability of human and cultural interactions, and the responsibilities they entail.  In a kind of beautiful logic, in fact, Rousseau elevates the self through its state of being defined as how that self matters to others.  To be someone as a self must translate to counting to others as one (Neuhouser  36).  It is a forceful equation, and it very much give weights to what otherwise would be an ideology both unrealistic and shallow.  For Rousseau, the ”love” of the self for the self has nothing to do with egoism; rather, it is merely a recognition of a natural element of life.  Each self is incontrovertibly unique and empowered as such but, rather than present this as an end unto itself, Rousseau insists upon the obligations the entity then has, both to itself and the world around it.  Regarding the former, there exists the imperative to know as completely as possible this self, which may be translated as the “owners” familiarizing themselves with their most prized possessions.   The unique being of the self is no light matter, so comprehension is demanded and conforms, in fact, to an idea of virtue: “To take the self this seriously as subject…implies belief in self-knowledge (knowledge of feeling, thought, action) as a high moral achievement” (Lawall  497).

At the same time, Rousseau perceives other responsibilities as arising from this construction.  In essence, as the self is better understood, the individual is better equipped to enhance the external world.  This may take highly pragmatic forms, as in the volunteer work of a person whose self is innately generous in spirit, or it may also be seen in the self-inflicted isolation of a very private “self.”  When the self is known, there can be less chance of its nature being defied, and this must serve the interests of the world.  For Rousseau, the interaction is crucial; there is danger when each individual: “Regards himself as the sole spectator who observes him…and as the sole judge of his own merit” (Rousseau in Neuhouser  36). This is all rational and by no means removed from ethical considerations, but it also seems barely attainable.  If Confucius seeks a balancing act, Rousseau is on a high wire over the essence of the self as in perfect unity with the external world.  Confucius is more diffuse and less insistent on the essential precision within the self’s relationship to the world, yet that lack of singular emphasis appears closer to the truth of self.  More to the point, in this arena, it appears that a lack of certainty or definition is to be more trusted, if only because no philosopher can truly delineate where influences begin and a core of unique individuality, or self, begins.

This then leads to a different conception, if one more in line with Confucian thought than with Rousseau.  It seems logical, certainly, to affirm that a kind of unique essence lies within each self.  Just how that self evolves, or comes to be in any definitive sense, however, is not a pathway easily perceived.  More exactly, and parting company from both Rousseau and Confucius, it is maintained here that the actual core of the self may well be a mutable entity in itself, subject to external forces which then create exponential influences within itself.  If this core is as “solid” as anything associated with defining a human individual, it is still not necessarily solid.  A geological metaphor is applicable; the core of the Earth is the planet’s most fixed element, yet it is molten.  It shifts in influences, even if its position remains constant.  So it is with the self.  It is an essence unto itself, as nothing can take its place, but that does not translate to its being unalterable.  In this conception of the self, then, process is as defining a component as “self.”

Conclusion

When Confucius and Rousseau are juxtaposed, it may appear that an Eastern sense of the self as defined by the pursuit of virtue is contrasted with a Western view of the self as more autonomous.  That is, in fact, a valid, if topical, assessment.  At the same time, deeper examination reveals that both philosophies of self assist in the forming of a concept relying on both, yet removed from each.  This is possible only because each philosopher, perhaps inadvertently, echoes the thinking of the other, certainly in terms of the role of the self in the world.  They differ in angle and approach, but they near the same truth.  Confucius asserts ideals beyond the self as determining worth, Rousseau holds to the primal nature of the self as chiefly responsible for maintaining its integrity while responding to what is around it, and together these two views suggest a greater reality: the self is not a single and immutable entity, but a thing in which internal and external forces act equally to shape its real meaning and real identity.

Works Cited

Conficius, & Legge, J.  The Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the   Mean.  New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2009.  Print.

Lawall, S.   The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, 8th Ed., Vol. II.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.  Print.

Neuhouser, F.  Rousseau’s Theodicy of Self-Love: Evil, Rationality, and the Drive for Recognition.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.  Print.

Spence, J. D.  “Confucius.”  The Wilson Quarterly 17.4 (1993):  30-38.  Web.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40258766

Yan, A. Z.  An Existential Reading of the Confucian Analects.  Amherst: Cambria Press, 2011. Print.

Yu, J.  “Confucius’ Relational Self and Aristotle’s Political Animal.”  History of Philosophy Quarterly 22.4 (2005): 281-300. Web.  Retrieved from  http://www.jstor.org/stable/27745033 .

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