The Platonic Notion of the Person

Some thoughts on why the self does not exist, and why realizing this can be quite a healthy achievement


Aristotle (left) and his teacher Plato

In the blog post of last June 9 (The Search for Meaning in a Cultureless Society), I briefly referred to the illusion of the "self": "When a culture - that which is greater than our own selves - is forgotten, a narcissistic attitude centered on the notion of the self develops (the idea of the 'self' is, in the main, a Platonic hallucination, but this is another matter). But this self-obsession, brought to its logical continuation by the rise of social media, where no thought is thought and no feeling felt that is not broadcast to all and sundry, only masks the natural human desire of being part of something greater, of historical events, of heroism, of struggle."

Heraclitus, a.k.a. "the dark one" and "the weeping philosopher", the most divine thinker (along with Aristotle) of all time. Painting by Johannes Moreelse.

The idea of the person, or the self, has a complicated philosophical history, but it is mainly Plato who is responsible for its creation. He maintains that there is a soul, and that this soul is the core or essence - the true nature and purpose - of the person. (Aristotle, as always more sensible than his teacher, while acknowledging essence, argued that it did not have a separate existence from the person.) By and large, when people think of themselves, when they think about personhood and the self - insofar as they do - they think of it the Platonic way: They believe that they have an unalterable essence, that there is some aspect of their persons that would be the same through space and time. People think of themselves as fundamentally the same person now as ten years ago. By extension, one might thus hear someone say something like: "If I had lived in France during World War II, I would have joined the Resistance." What this person is assuming is that even though he or she would have been French, lived at a different time, and so on, there is still something about him or her as a person that would have remained the same regardless of the changed circumstances.

The ship of Theseus

But this is entirely false. The proper response to this person would be: "No, you would not have joined the Resistance, because you would not have been you." When we look at a person, we see a series of characteristics and aspects. Some of them seem to be stronger than others - e.g. the fact that someone is a writer would appear to more defining than the fact that his hair is brown - but they are all various facets describing the person. And the fact of the matter is that, although some aspects of a person are more dominant than others, they are all of the same kind: a bundle of characteristics that exist next to each other, with none of them having the claim to be the "essence" or "true nature" of that person. That the "self" is thus a piece of quasi-religious mysticism was seen clearly by David Hume, but has a precursor already in the pre-Platonic and divine Heraclitus, who saw that various perceptions and aspects of our person, and how they interact with the world, succeed one another in perpetual flux, and are never quite the same from one moment to the next. That is to say, our identity, insofar as we have one, is simply the sum total of our experiences, of the perceptions – both our own and those by others – of all our thoughts and actions. It is true that nothing is purely nature or nurture, in the vulgar sense: we are a combination of both, but all the ways in which we define ourselves would have been different in another place and at another time.

A group of repugnant individuals obsessed with something that does not exist.

This is well illustrated in the famous paradox of "the Ship of Theseus", fully recorded by Plutarch, but already present in Heraclitus and picked up by many subsequent philosophers (Plato, Hobbes, Locke, et al.), namely that Theseus’ wooden ship, which has each of its planks replaced over time, one by one, until every single component of the ship has been replaced by a new one, is still said to be Theseus’ ship, even though not a single part of it existed in Theseus’ time. So by calling it "Theseus’ ship" we are assuming a non-existent essence of that object. We are, unwittingly, victims of our own language: referring to something as "Theseus's ship" or as "that woman there" or as "myself" is a convenient shorthand but masks the fact that these things are always changing. But since we need to use words to designate these objects, the static nature of the words themselves leads us, erroneously, to deduce a static essence in the objects to which those words refer. Through our words, we become victims of Plato's quasi-religious and metaphysical mysticism.

We still need these words for everyday practical living, of course, but we should be aware that they are quite hollow. Dissolving the sense of self and thereby banishing the ego from the realm of perceived existence, becomes one of the most salutary undertakings in which we can engage. To return to the opening quote of this post, no thought is thought and no feeling felt that does not end up on social media (and I am well aware of the irony of propagating these words of mine on social media and the internet, so there is no need for anyone to point that out - I do not wish to disparage all these media as such, but only to say that they could be used more wisely). There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of "self"-promotion, especially not if it is in the service of one's work or business, but social media have become the vehicle, and increasingly the sole vehicle, by which notions of the self are established, an instrument of pure narcissism through which carefully planned and manicured posts are designed to portray a particular image of a person, a self, an essence. This narcissism is so commonplace today that people do not even realize that it is narcissism - because everyone below a certain age does it. Even postings that are meant to stress the importance of selflessness or of charitable work are designed to illustrate the moral superiority of the poster. The millennial generation has established its modus operandi as such an obvious matter of course that none of its members realize that it is entirely self- and narcissism-based. Instead, were they truly interested in cultivating themselves, that bundle of characteristics which is properly theirs, they would strive to dissolve the ego and reject the erroneous notion that there is such a thing as their own true essence. This would help them achieve a measure of true liberation from enslaving self-aggrandizement and constant worries about appearances. Through that liberation, they would be better equipped to engage in true contemplation and to make the world around them a bit more beautiful.