Fellow Research: The Self and Fragmentation

Campion Senior Research Fellow and Professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion Gavin Flood, FBA, shares a previously published article entitled "Self Fragmentation in the Modern World" 

Self and Fragmentation in the Modern World

When we take our children to the dentist or text a message to a friend to arrange a meeting, we are participating in an advanced modernity in which medical and technological developments are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Never before in the history of the human experiment has there been such scientific and technological advances that have on the whole benefitted human populations. Yet alongside the nanotechnology that delivers anti-cancer treatments to particular cells we have war technologies for the more efficient ending human lives, the woeful failure of political regimes in many countries to administer justice, and a sense of alienation and fragmentation of communities experienced by many in global, late modernity. While some philosophers and scholars might claim that we are now beginning to enter a post-work world, the material constraints within which the human body operates, the need to feed ourselves, limits the viability of this optimism. Presenting an account of the problems of late modernity is, of course, a vast topic but it is in this wide context that my short essay needs to be read. I wish here simply to make an observation about human meaning through a contrast between a traditional religious understanding of the world and a contemporary understanding. But first let me tell a story.

Not far from Oxford in a monastery in the small town of Eynsham at the end of the twelfth century, a young monk named Edmund became ill, fell unconscious and awoke after three days. Upon recovering he told his fellow mendicants that he had been taken to another world by St. Nicholas, where he witnessed the pains of purgatory and saw the magnificence of heaven with crystal walls and throngs of angels singing around a glorified Christ. St Nicholas returned him to the world to teach a lesson about moral action and its consequences, for in his vision Edmund had met many people he had known including the previous abbot of the Eynsham monastery suffering because of immorality and mishandling community affairs, and an alcoholic goldsmith from Osney Island who owed Edmund money. This story was written down in Latin by his brother Adam and, in the course of time a couple of hundred years later, was translated into Middle English, French, and German. There are many other examples of this ‘vision’ literature: Dante before Dante. Clearly Edmund lived in a world where visions and dreams such as this were taken seriously and generally believed (although apparently even Edmund faced some skepticism). His story represents a complete vision of the world and the human place within it. The imaginaire that Edmund inhabits involves a hierarchical cosmos containing different worlds, experienced by people according to their purity of perception that reflects the purity of their moral life. Edmund, for example, is not permitted to ascend into the highest heaven because he does not have sufficient purity of heart to experience it. Edmund inhabits a total cosmos that, although vast, is nevertheless closed and the meaning of his own life must be understood in the context of this cosmology. The world is filled with invisible powers, with demons and angels who interact with us and in a sense form part of the community to which we belong. Texts such as The Monk of Eynsham express a religious imaginaire that is prior to theological reflection and is probably close to the worldview of the majority population of his time. Here the meaning of a person’s life is related to their place within a hierarchical cosmology and the goodness of act is related to the beauty of the created world. Meaning is given to communities as location in cosmic space and time.

This world that Edmund lives within begins to be eroded by the Renaissance as religion retreats from cosmology that becomes the arena for science, particularly from the seventeenth century, and is virtually gone in our modern world. The sense of self entailed by Edmund’s cosmos in which the person is part of a larger frame, is replaced by a view in which the self no longer participates in a total cosmos. The self is essentially outside the world, a theme developed philosophically by Descartes for whom the self is a distinct substance, and the human can perform the detached observation of, and experiment on, an objective world. There is a shift from a cosmological person to a private cogito, from a philosophy of being to a new philosophy of consciousness that is stripped of a cosmological subjectivity such as we find in Edmund. Although we mostly no longer accept a Cartesian view of the self, modernity is nevertheless characterized by self-assertion (to use Blumenberg’s phrase) in which the focus of value is self fulfillment, autonomy, and self expression. Charles Taylor in The Secular Age has contrasted a pre-modern view of the self, that he calls ‘porous,’ with a modern view of the self that he calls ‘buffered.’ The pre- modern self is porous in the sense that external cosmological influences and powers can enter through the boundary between self and world. Conversely, modernity has created a buffer between self and world and we no longer live in a cosmos as previously understood; the modern self is generally buffered against externalized conceptions of cosmological forces that affect us.

It could be argued that this abandoning of a cosmological understanding of the self might well be a good thing; modernity has left superstition behind. But in abandoning a sense of cosmology and the inwardness that it entails, perhaps something has been lost. If I might generalize, the standard worldview in western modernity is, to use the sociological jargon, de-traditionalised and the differentiations of tradition have given way to de-differentiation and fragmentation of moral discourse. One of the highest values of modernity becomes self-assertion or individualism and the free expression of individual meaning at the cost of more communal values and a shared subjectivity. We know well this account of disenchantment; we experience it daily in our lives and the advance of secularization that Taylor refers to. While the development of modernity and the growth of individualism that is accompanied by a rights discourse have brought advantages to human communities, such as legislation against discrimination and a more enhanced status for women, it has also brought isolation and a tendency of human communities to develop without a shared story and without shared values. I would not wish to advocate a nostalgia for a return to cosmological religion, but we do need to recognize that in spite of human advances, many experience a sense of cultural ennui. By this I mean that late modernity seems to be characterized by what we might call a horizontal worldview in which there is little verticality, little sense of higher, universal values and aspiration towards a shared good or what used to be called transcendence. I do think we need narratives that provide human communities with a sense of worth and that generate a new sense of cosmos within which we find meaning. Some scholars argue that such a narrative needs to be understood as post- human; that the future formation of humankind depends upon the integration of technology into the self (one thinks of Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’), the conforming of human activity to care for the environment, and the stronger development of gender equality. This idea of the post-human, and its correlative post- humanism, is built on the idea that we are mostly formed through language (and therefore culture) and that there is no essence to what the human being is.

While I have some sympathy with this view, I do think that, to use an old- fashioned language, we need to maintain the idea of a common human nature for the future human good. We all have a body, we are all constrained by the genes, by material causation, and share a world. We struggle with the sometimes competing goods of personal desire and public virtue and we all face death. Given who we are and what we inherit from the past, our modern task is to find meaning and to develop ways of enhancing human creativity, well being, and world-flourishing. This is a political task but it is also a religious task as religious authorities and communities negotiate their way through the complexity of modern life.

It is easy to throw stones at modernity, but the real task before us is rather a constructive one in which we can use the resources of tradition to overcome the aporias we face. There are different strategies here. In Psychotherapy there is one approach to well being that seeks to uncover the abuses of the past that have lead to the present condition of the patient, while another approach seeks to leave the past behind and construct a positive future on the assumption that it is possible through the enhancement of the faculties of intelligence and compassion that we naturally possess. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history tries to go back into the past, to heal the things that have been broken, while the wind of modernity blows the angel inexorably into the future. My own view is that we can be more optimistic than this and that a connection with tradition can enhance human well being and while not seeking to resolve the failures of the past, can move towards a common good. Christianity is an important voice in forming the human future. Human communities need the re- enlivening of practices, need forms of asceticism that militate against the satisfaction of immediate desire in the interests of a longer term human flourishing, and Christianity – and the Orthodox Church is one of its strongest forms – can contribute to this future orientated project. The non-identical repetition of the divine liturgy, the development of inwardness through prayer, and the unique moral act contribute to the formation of character and the shaping of broader political communities. While we cannot go back to Edmund’s worldview, we do need Edmund’s insight that human life only has meaning in a much broader cosmological context. For Edmund and for many fellow Christians, repeated practices of tradition have the potential to transform life. As wind over years shapes a stone, so the repetition of ritual and prayer can shape us. But while practice might be a necessary condition for change, in themselves forms of ascesis are not enough to reconfigure the future cultural field. We also need life enhancing stories to live by that show us how hope is embedded in the very structure of the world and we need our political institutions to articulate human aspiration beyond the merely economic. Life is a journey both shared and within my own subjectivity. Whether we like it or not, the story of my life is embedded within the story of our life and that is embedded in the story of our world.

Gavin Flood