Friday, December 11, 2015

Hic Ego Sum

"The Conversion of St. Augustine" by Fra Angelico
Mark Lilla cites a wonderful quote from Augustine’s Confessions “Mihi quaestio factus sum,” or “I have become a problem to myself” at the beginning of his recent review of Augustine: Conversions to Confessions by 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 to  understand 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.

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