Rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture.
Friday, December 11, 2015
Hic Ego Sum
"The Conversion of St. Augustine" by Fra Angelico
Mark Lilla cites a wonderful quote from Augustine’sConfessions “Mihi quaestio factus sum,”
or “I have become a problem to myself” at the beginning of his recent review of
Augustine: Conversions to Confessionsby Robin Lane Fox (NYT, 11/20/15).
The quote could be looked at as solipsistic, as an act of what those
who were more interested in social than individual change used to term “belly
button gazing.” But what is extraordinary is not only its modernity, but the
pithy way in which it defines consciousness. We might think that true change
like trickle down economics only occurs at the top, but essentially the
awareness of one’s own thought process, which the quote underlines, is an
ineluctable attribute of thinking and something which all of mankind is
strapped with, whether we are millenarians or not. What defines humanity is
precisely the fact that we have all become problems to ourselves and indeed
treat ourselves as if we were perceiving separate people rather than simply
unthinkingly pursuing our untamed instincts and desires. You could say that
“mihi quaestio factus sum” sounds a little like the Cartesian “Cogito ergo
sum,” but the difference lies in the word “problem.” There are many
philosophers who believe that certain animals partake of phenomena in a way
that approaches what we call thinking to the extent that they intake sensations
and even experience memory. Have you ever seen a dog for instance
who appears to be having a bad dream?Augustine’s problem adds the extra element of what we might call
“self-reflexive” consciousness, the thinking about thinking that creates at
least one degree of separation from creatures who are simply at the mercy of
their appetites. And perhaps the truth is that you can’t change the world until
you develop the ability tounderstand
and change yourself. Ovid presents a similar problem from a more ontogenic point of view when he says “Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis,”“in this place I am a barbarian, because men
do not understand me.” But “Hic ego sum,” “Here I am,” is where it all begins.
Francis Levy's debut novel, Erotomania: A Romance, was released in August 2008 by Two Dollar Radio.
His short stories, criticism, humor, and poetry have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Village Voice, The East Hampton Star, The Quarterly, Penthouse, Architectural Digest, TV Guide, The Journal of Irreproducible Results, and other publications. One of his Voice humor pieces was anthologized in The Big Book of New American Humor (HarperCollins). He is presently the Co-Director of The Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination (philoctetes.org), where he supervises roundtable discussions on topics as varied as “The Psychology of the Modern Nation State” and “Modern Traffic Theory, Behavior, and Imagination”.