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The Narrow Confines of Identity

By Gilbert Meilaender
Valparaiso University

July 11, 2021


Living beyond oneself

By Gilbert Meilaender
Valparaiso University


Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

That opening sentence of Dickens’ David Copperfield suggests a modesty about self-knowledge and about the significance of one’s own identity that seems to be in very short supply in our culture today. “Identity” has become something one asserts over against all those who, we suppose, undermine our place in the world or fail to appreciate our significance.

This insistence on the importance of personal identity has in recent years given rise to an “identity politics” in which, as the political theorist Joshua Mitchell has noted, some claim to have been victimized because of their identity and point the finger of blame at others, the guilty victimizers. The very possibility of doing this depends, of course, on a prior confidence about one’s identity.  We know who we are, or so we think. Mitchell points out that the concept of identity was first used by thinkers such as Hume, Freud, and Erikson to mark “the instability of the self throughout the life-cycle.” No longer, however, does it suggest “something transitory and fragile, but rather something firm and irrefutable.” We know who we are, and we are prepared to assert that identity against all who would undermine it.

That sort of identity politics has been harmful to—even destructive of—our common life. Perhaps, though, the problem goes a little deeper than politics. We should look first not at the public deformations such identity politics produces but at the confidence upon which it rests—the confidence that we know who we are, and what the story of our life really means. There do not seem to be many David Copperfields among us.

Nor many St. Augustines. “I had become a great riddle to myself,” Augustine says in his Confessions, when recalling his reaction to the death of a friend. And later he returns to this riddle. “What then am I, my God? . . . I dive down deep as I can, and I can find no end.” Augustine was a man intensely concerned with his own identity; yet, the Confessions is, in the end, the story of how he was liberated from such a preoccupation.  When we first read the Confessions, we are likely to suppose we are reading an autobiography. But how unlike an autobiography it becomes by the time we reach Book 10. For it turns out that the more self-examination Augustine undertakes, the more he seeks really to know himself, the more he is eventually forced to admit that God knows him better than he knows himself. What began as a search for identity ends in confession. “So I will confess what I know of myself, and I will also confess what I do not know of myself.”  He is hardly in a position any longer to imagine himself as the hero of his life.

I am drawn to Augustine’s skepticism about self-knowledge in part simply because it seems to me to be true. Sometimes we just can’t figure out why we do what we do, and other times we only come to understand our actions days or even years after the event.  It’s also the case that we often don’t know what effect we’re having on others. Having taught undergraduates for roughly forty years—and having now retired—I have reached a point in life where every so often I get an email from someone I taught years, even decades, ago. They write because something has called me to mind for them, and they want to comment on an experience they had in my class long ago. Often, I can’t quite place them. I get out my old grade sheets, look them up, try to picture and remember them. Often, they may not even be the students I remember most vividly. Yet something I said or did or taught made a difference to them. For that, of course, I am grateful. But it stuns me to realize how little I knew what was really happening in a class that occupied so much of my attention at the time. And, of course, part of the reason that a former student writes is, in effect, to say that he or she has only now, belatedly, realized what was happening. It really was the blind leading the blind.

There are many obvious examples of our failure really to know and understand ourselves. We sometimes devote years of education and training in preparation for a career, only to find that it isn’t really what we want to do—that, for one reason or another, it cannot sustain our attention and effort over time.  We raise children, doing what we think is best for them, and sometimes getting it entirely wrong, perhaps because we fail to understand them, but also because we do not really know ourselves.

And yet, when it comes to public and political life, we seem uncommonly certain about who we are, and the only “confessions” that interest us are from those who have failed to recognize and affirm the person(s) we are. And sometimes one wants to say–or, at least, I want to say—that the chief vice of such confident folks is that they are rather boring.  This intense interest in asserting the self, this confidence that we know ourselves, makes for a rather narrow, constricted world. Of course, it can still be interesting on occasion.  Of course, it can sometimes direct our attention to ills that genuinely need attention and fixing. This only shows that even a narrow focus on one’s identity will not be without some saving grace. But it will lack staying power; for it cannot in the end do justice to the rich complexity of our world.

I expect, of course, that some will disagree with me about this. Augustine’s sense of the riddle of the self, and David Copperfield’s uncertainty about the meaning of his life’s story, are not for everyone. More than 1300 years after Augustine’s death, Rousseau penned his own Confessions, a deliberately anti-Augustinian assertion of identity and self-knowledge. “Let the last trump sound when it will,” he wrote in a famous passage at the very beginning of the work, “’I shall . . . present myself before my Sovereign Judge, and proclaim aloud: I have bared my secret soul as Thou thyself has seen it, Eternal Being.’” Surely the ultimate expression of confidence about one’s self-knowledge–and, for me at least, a rather terrifying confidence.

How different this is from what Augustine does in his Confessions. From the very start Augustine begins with a desire to praise: “man, this small portion of creation, wants to praise you.” Along the way, having come to see that he cannot fully know himself, Augustine finds in that confession enlarged scope for wonder at the mysteries of human life. The last two books (12 and 13) of the Confessions offer a long and complicated exposition of the opening verses of Genesis. Few readers have found them very enticing; indeed, many readers just skip these last two books. They hardly seem as gripping as the story Augustine has already told about his search for self-knowledge.

Interpreters have often been uncertain what Augustine is trying to do in those last two books. Some have even been drawn to the view that Augustine is simply “clearing his desk,” taking the opportunity to answer questions about the interpretation of Genesis that have been addressed to him. Perhaps so. Who can say for certain? But may it not be that, having been liberated from the task of never-ending introspection and concern for his own identity, Augustine has been freed to attend to something less narrow and restrictive than the boundaries of that self? The inquiry that began with “man, this small portion of creation,” finds its end in the whole creation, redirected to the One from whom it first came.

To be thus freed from the narrow confines of the self is a great gift. Were we to receive it with glad hearts, how much more interesting—and how much more genuinely beneficial—our public and political life might be.

Gilbert Meilaender is a Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, and an InStead Editor-at-Large