The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the Eighteenth Century

The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the Eighteenth Century

The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the Eighteenth Century

The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the Eighteenth Century


The absence of self in Classical literature and the emergence in the eighteenth century of the concept of the unique and individual self asserting its existence and seeking its truth in private experience and feeling is often touched upon in cultural histories but little explained. Seeking the reasons for and the effects of the change of attitude toward one's concept of one's self in the "new" eighteenth-century attitude toward history, biography, travel literature, pornography, and the novel, Lyons finds, first, that the term self is deceptively vague. It evolved, he notes, to fill the vacuum created by doubt about the existence of the soul.

Second, Lyons finds that without a concept of the self- that ineffable something in a human being that to its inventors and their followers was an abstract of pure and intuited natural laws- the revolution and romanticism of the modern age would have been very different from what it has been. More importantly, Lyons concludes that the concept led to monumental error and to bitter disappointments rooted, as his illuminating history shows, in the impossibility of defining that which never was.


Now, as everyone knows, it has only been in the last two centuries that the majority of people in civilized countries have claimed the privilege of being individuals. Formerly they were slave, peasant, laborer, even artisan, but not person.

-- Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet

It is a common assumption that man has always been essentially what he is. Physiologically this is true, for ever since man has dropped from the trees or emerged from the caves the differences in cranial capacity, or race, or height and weight have not made significant differences in his basic social organization or his ability to adapt himself to his environment. His use of the wheel, fire, and language has marked significant steps in his history, but nothing has altered his basic physical need for food, shelter, and clothing. the variety of the solutions to these needs -- both through history and at any point in history -- is astonishing. This variety may even be thought to set man off from the other species, but the needs remain the same, and his choice of a thatched hut or a prestressed concrete skyscraper is in a sense incidental. the strangeness that we find in cultures other than our own is always fascinating, but beyond the shock or amusement is the rediscovery of the arbitrariness of our customs and gestures, and we nod in agreement that beneath the others' oddity man is universally the same. the audience is expected to laugh when one stage Englishman warns another who is going to France that all the people there speak French.

This sense of the essential sameness of mankind is reenforced by technology and science. Culture, no matter how "primitive," is no barrier to the mastery of modern gadgets -- even the most destructive ones. the emphasis in the study of ritual and myth has been for half a century on the curious sameness under the variety of practices and beliefs, even in the case of completely isolated societies. Three centuries ago Milton found confirmation of the Biblical story of Noah in the Greek tale of Deucalion and in the Flood of Nordic sagas. His theory was unitary and based upon the analogy of a single and linear descent, as in a single family. Now we may be more sophisticated, but the implications . . .

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