EROS AND EDUCATION – ii. The Self and The Soul


Seventeenth century moral theory, spanning thinkers from Hobbes to Locke, identified the innate human desire for self-preservation as the basis of political relations, and happiness or felicity as our chief natural aim. A man cannot be denied his claim on his own life, or his natural wish to sustain and enhance that life through his own effort, alone or in conjunction with other men. This is the view that Fichte and Dewey condemn as selfishness and hedonism.

“Self-preservation” is a term of art, or rather of science. It is the modern empiricist’s way of describing human motivation in terms reminiscent of the physicist’s laws of motion. A “self,” qua moving thing, will naturally remain in motion until stopped. To stop a self by force is to thwart its nature. Therefore, the self qua moral entity has a right to preserve itself, i.e., to preserve its motion. In the end, the idea may be somewhat reductionist and trivializing, as scientific explanations in the moral realm tend to be. The problem may be seen by asking the Lockean or Hobbesian theorist, “How long does a self naturally wish to preserve itself?” The likely answer, “Until the end of the man’s life,” has the air of a logical run-around, akin to the title character in The Importance of Being Earnest declaring to his love, “Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you, I have admired you more than any girl…I have ever met since…I met you.”[i] 

The reductionism is rooted in the modern effort to cast off ancient philosophical baggage, particularly as delivered by medieval scholasticism. Hence the language of the soul, which had come to carry explicitly religious portent, was gradually eschewed in the name of the new scientific perspective. This modern zeal for escaping the ancient sensibility is apparent at every turn in reading Hobbes, Locke, and Descartes. As is typical of such passionate declarations on behalf of a great new idea, however, sober reconsideration inclines one to view the new partly in light of what may have been lost in the process of sweeping away the old. In particular, one is compelled to ask whether the new lexicon of the self is really so unqualified an enhancement over that of the soul, or even whether it is really more grounded in empirical reality than its ancient precursor, as it is purported to be.

The soul (psyche) was a less speculative entity than medieval religion and modern reductionism have made it appear, having a basis in concrete, pre-linguistic reality—not so clearly true of the “self.” The psyche, at its Homeric conception, was literally “breath,” that which observably and unquestionably distinguishes a man who is living from that same man after he has been run through with a spear.[ii] That is, psyche is a fact, an immaterial but undeniable fact. The Greek philosophers, applying the dreaded dialectical thinking that so disturbed the moderns from Hobbes to Kant, sought to develop the idea further: If we have an intangible life-force that distinguishes us from our carcass, what is it, how is it distinct from the body to which it brings life, and how does it come into relation with that body so as to make a pile of ever-changing matter a living thing? The study of the soul (psychology in the original sense) is grounded in the observable reality of the Homeric “breath of life,” and therefore meets the requirement of proper rational inquiry, namely that it be an attempt to explain the world of ordinary experience.

The modern lexicon of “self” and “ego” intentionally departs from this traditional inquiry. From Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke, the goal was to step away from the ancient psychological method, which was inexorably bound to a moral philosophy, a metaphysical view, and later a particular religious doctrine, all of which these moderns wished either to reject or to minimize in favor of a more scientific (meaning materialist) understanding of man. Psychology was the touchiest area of all in which to seek scientific verifications and the dismissal of metaphysics, so the early moderns did the best they could with subjective consciousness, atomism, extension, and the groundless and endless string of sense impressions, but in the end they did what one perhaps must do when one wishes to side-step the unifying soul and still make sense of man at all: They became metaphysical grammarians, if you will. Hence reflexives and pronouns became real entities—“self,” “ego.” Observable facts in need of theoretical explanation (e.g., breath in a lump of matter) were replaced with theoretical abstractions (the “I” or “self”) in search of plausible and definable content. Generations later, Rousseau, and then the German idealists, went to town with these notions, building an entire theory of mind and reality, even a kind of theology, out of grammar. In other words, modernity effectively reversed the relationship between reality and language. Whereas the ancients had begun with a bare fact of experience (albeit the most mysterious one), and developed it through language, poetic and philosophical, into various accounts of our essential nature, the moderns had turned a linguistic tool into a conceptual repository to be stuffed with everything seeming to indicate an individual person, thereby setting in motion a new way of describing human experience that risked eliding the most basic questions—life and unity—in the name of objective theory.[iii]

What is a “self”? No one has ever really clarified this term, used in our modern way, and I doubt anyone ever will. Consider Locke’s attempt at a definition: “that conscious thinking thing (whatever substance made up of, whether spiritual or material, simple or compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.”[iv] The self is an artificial category borrowed from language, where its function is important but entirely dependent, to express something supposedly real and independent. This puts those of us who prefer the language of soul in an impossible position. We cannot speak of issues of morality and psychology without seeming to mean something quite different from what we actually mean, due to this radical break in the philosophical vocabulary. Translated into the vernacular of “self” and “ego,” Aristotle’s great-souled man (Nicomachean Ethics IV.3) looks like a ridiculous egomaniac.[v] Aristotle stipulates that any true education must promote learning in the student’s own interest, since any action not undertaken in one’s own interest would seem slavish. It is easy to see how, in the modern psychological language, this might be reduced to “selfishness.” In the language of the soul, which carries the musty scent of the much-maligned teleological view of man, Aristotle’s statement is perfectly reasonable, but we have lost that language, so communicating on these extremely important matters becomes a web of complications and misunderstandings. In fact, Aristotle’s defense of what we now call “self-interest” comes immediately after his observation that the individual qua citizen belongs to the city, and not to himself. In modern terms, this makes Aristotle seem almost schizophrenic, although it is quite understandable from beyond the modern lexicon of ego, self, collectivism, and socialization.

The reason this lexical shift is so important is that its effects upon moral theory have been cataclysmic. Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke set the stage, though unintentionally, for our post-Kantian idealist nightmare, from which we may never awaken. For we all know the opposite of being “selfish” is being “social.” If we are selves, and happiness is our natural goal, then self-interest in the modern so-called libertarian sense is the only moral position. To deny this is to deny the self—the individual human being—the right to exist. Hence, in order to connect men to one another more than contractually, without seeming to reject life itself, one must follow the progressives in inventing alternative, supposedly other-regarding selves, such as Dewey’s “social self” or Fichte’s “clear consciousness.” Somehow the fiat creation of multiple selves within or transcending a single individual is to be accepted as a profound new discovery—even as a scientific advance—rather than what it obviously really is, namely grasping at collectivist straws without regard for reason or experience. An unself-interested self is an absurdity and a moral outrage.[vi] Yet an “unselfish” connection to other people seems to deserve a place in moral theory. The modern moral problem appears insoluble on its own terms.

If one substitutes “soul” for “self” in these modern equations, however, one immediately sees the difference, and a plausible solution. For soul has no opposite corresponding to “social.” Soul, in effect, comes to the body from the world; self, by contrast, goes to the world from the body. That is, soul is inherently rooted in the cosmos, which would make us essentially rational beings, whereas self is rooted in the body, which would make us essentially feeling, rather than thinking, beings. Relatedness to the world beyond our material limits is intrinsic to the soul; atomism intrinsic to the self. Thus, in the era of the modern self the pursuit of individual happiness begins from behind a natural wall of separation from others, and the unifying purpose of political community is precisely the shared aim of building more secure walls to protect private development, whereas in the age of the classical soul the pursuit of individual happiness meant the quest for the fulfillment of a human nature which unites, not as irrational feelings unite, but as reason and truth unite. For the ancients, the just state is the state directed toward the happiest (i.e., most natural) life for its citizens, and may therefore claim an intermediary role in the individuated soul’s search for self-knowledge, which ultimately means for completion according to its essential nature—a search for union, not with “the collective,” but with Being. There is no tension, within a conception of man as soul, between the pursuit of individual happiness and connection to other people.

Thus it is only the modern language shift that has implicitly and illegitimately made concern for one’s own welfare appear “antisocial,” which is to say immoral. This is where the German idealists went in for the kill. For all moral philosophers worthy of consideration prior to Kant, the moral purpose and goal of life was happiness. Kant rejected this, following the logic of the modern language of the self, though disapproving of its atomistic consequences. But to reject happiness as the moral end is to reject the soul itself, which means to reject life. From Kant onward, it has been improper among enlightened people to regard individual happiness as a moral end. The reason, though not always stated explicitly, is obvious—individual happiness (supposedly) flies in the face of being social. Where the two goals seem to conflict, the moral man must always defer to the social (i.e., moral), at the expense of his own petty happiness (i.e., selfishness).

Yet as Aristotle suggests, denying one’s own happiness as the proper moral end of one’s endeavors is slavish. Modernity’s universal submission to precisely this denial—rooted in indefinable abstractions derived not from life but from grammar and science—helps to explain why civilization has acquiesced so passively to its modern machinery of slavery. It further explains why those who resist this enslavement tend to do so either with a spirit-deforming guilty conscience (“Am I selfish?”) or with the abrasive swagger of the amoral nihilist (“Yes, I’m selfish—who isn’t?”).

Nevertheless, for all its dangers, the moral primacy of self-preservation as conceived by Hobbes and Locke was, before Rousseau and the Germans corrupted it, a modernized, abstract echo of a motive Plato defines more poetically, but also more concretely, as the desire for immortality. The irreducible moral presupposition that the Greeks shared with the pre-Kantian moderns was that the moral man, like all others, acts out of a desire for happiness. No other ultimate motivation is conceivable. Trace back a man’s proximate reasons for what he does—he acts in order to learn, to escape, to destroy, to produce—and you will always arrive at one final answer: “in order to be happy.” This is not a premise for which one need offer an elaborate argument or proof. One’s own life and experience are all the proof that is needed or possible. (I once tested this on a group of skeptical university students. Imagine their dismay as they came to grips with the fact that they were all “selfish.” This is the real alienation of the modern world—an entire planet of men and women raised to be suspicious of themselves.)

This precedes all questions of moral theory, and for millennia it gave moral philosophy its purpose. For while happiness is indisputably the condition we are seeking when we act, the problem is to determine what will truly bring happiness, the fulfillment suited to our nature.

Socrates, through his account of the lessons in love he claims to have learned from Diotima of Mantinea, leads us further along this path to ourselves. Diotima teaches that to be happy is to have good things. Again, this is hardly a debatable point. No one wants to possess bad things, because no one could ever imagine that possessing what is harmful might bring happiness. Therefore happiness means possessing the good. Furthermore, since wanting to have good things and to avoid bad things entails wanting never to lose the good once achieved—for then we would lack that which provides happiness—we are forced to introduce the idea of time into our desire for happiness. That is, we do not merely desire to possess the good, but we desire to possess it forever, which brings us face to face with our intractable limit, since possessing the good forever would require living forever. It follows that desiring to possess the good forever entails striving to overcome our natural temporal limits. Hence, our innate desire for happiness, followed through to its ultimate implications, is a longing for immortality.

This conclusion is perfectly logical, and intuitively understandable to anyone who has been in love. It makes little sense within the confines of scientific materialism, but it makes complete sense within an account of the meaning of Eros—the urge toward perfection or wholeness, a goal that transcends the narrowly “human” or “private” elements of our existence.

Nature, as it seems, points us beyond our limited (but necessary) material view of ourselves by means of our own most powerful desire. That is, she lights a path leading directly from the immediate impulse we share with all living things—the impulse to perpetuate ourselves—straight into the aether, where our divine spark resides. The man who pursues the welfare of his beloved or his family, the improvement of his community, the joys of friendship, and above all, the pleasures of theoretical inquiry, because his soul is attuned to regard these true goods as the means to his own happiness, is the man Plato depicts as embodying the longing for immortality, and whom Aristotle describes as dearest to the gods. When we place this now alien view of life next to the slavish products of compulsory socialization who represent the ideal of progressive schooling, it becomes clear that we are comparing a moral outlook rooted in love for human nature to one rooted in loathing for human nature. If we were inclined to subject men like Fichte, Marx, and Dewey, not to mention their political facilitators from Mann to Lenin to Mao, to modern psychological categories, we would recognize that their calls for selflessness, social service, and the collective spirit are repressions of a deep-seated repugnance at the thought that anyone should not be living for them—that is, we would categorize these people as severe cases of moral infantilism. Their spiritual deformity is the native sentiment and soil of public school, a mire in which nothing healthy can grow.


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[i] Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (London: Leonard Smithers and Co., 1899) Act 1, p. 25.

[ii] See Homer’s Odyssey 11.221 and 14.425-6, for example.

[iii] Nietzsche, among others, caught them, and exposed the unacknowledged presupposition in the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am,” namely the illegitimate inference that the awareness of thought indicates a discrete “I” that thinks. For Nietzsche, however, this became license to eschew any need for a unifying principle, i.e., a “conscious mind”—a classic instance of throwing out the baby with the bath.

[iv] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (originally published 1690; republished New York: Valentine Seaman, 1824), Book II, Chapter xxvii, §17, p. 308.

[v] For the better part of two centuries, a German interpretive filter has stood between modern intellectuals and all things ancient. Even some very incisive critics of this very filter, such as the contingent known as the Straussians, tend to fall back into presuming that the Greeks were, in ultimate goals, mostly what the nineteenth century German university taught us they were. Anyone susceptible to this perceptual error with regard to ancient moral theory—assuming, with the German scholars, that the aim of Greek moral philosophy was essentially the German idealist goal, namely to diminish individual “selfishness” in favor of the collective—will remain permanently perplexed in attempting to understand the core differences between Greek and German civilization, and forever oblivious to how much of the Western heritage has been lost through the agencies of German scholarship.

One peculiar crystallization of that loss may be seen in the endless academic dismay over Aristotle’s summary account of the social attitude of the completely virtuous man, which he calls greatness of soul (megalopsychia). Is the full-of-himself, condescending egomaniac Aristotle describes really supposed to be the most moral of men? Is this account merely intended as a pep-talk for young students of moral philosophy, to be dismissed with a wink by elders? Is it some kind of ironic joke? How can Aristotle’s definition of greatness of soul—echoed in many ways in Nietzsche’s description of the Übermensch—be consistent with moral virtue? In fact, if we could remove the German-colored glasses for a moment, we would find similarly jarring accounts throughout ancient moral thought. What is the poor modern scholar to make of all this?

I offer the following short-form explanation of the cause of this confusion: For Aristotle, the truly virtuous man experiences himself as so elevated in spirit that all earthly concerns, including petty self-concerns that might prevent virtuous (i.e., honorable) behavior, seem insignificant. For Fichte and Dewey, by contrast, the virtuous man experiences himself as so personally insignificant (“selfless”) that every minor demand or “need” of the collective seems greater and more worthy than any concerns he might harbor for his own petty self. In other words, the German idealists effected such a complete moral reversal that we who live and think in their wake can hardly decipher the sensibilities of the world residing on the other side of that Prussian revolution.

If there is a single intellectual development that may be said to have paved the way for this idealist obliteration of the past, it was the modern conceptual shift from man understood as soul to man understood as self.

[vi] This explains why even Fichte, in his pre-1800 philosophy, made so much hay of “the I” and “self-love” as central principles of morality—though, of course, defining these notions on idealistic and ultimately anti-individual grounds.

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