844 Vote

Self-knowledge and the practice of ethics

Self knowledge and the practice of ethics

Why does self-knowledge matter? How and why is it connected to the practice of ethics? Elie During, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department of the University of Paris – Ouest Nanterre, addresses these questions in an article published in a special issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences entitled “Perspectives on the Self”.

In the following excerpt, the author examines Ostad Elahi’s concept of the “imperious self”, emphasizing the importance of self-modeling in the process of self-transformation.

Source: Elie During, “Self-knowledge and the practice of ethics: Ostad Elahi’s concept of the ‘imperious self’”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1234, Perspectives on the Self: Conversations on Identity and Consciousness, pages 149–157, October 2011.

Spirituality and Ethics

[…] “Know thyself,” the Delphic prescription popularized by Socrates, was never meant to suggest that we should set about scrutinizing our individual selves through psychological introspection. Its purpose, as the Platonic dialogues make clear, was to bring us to realize that our true self reaches beyond the particular traits that make up our character or personality, and to act accordingly. To know ourselves is to realize that we are basically souls, rather than extraordinarily gifted animals, living organisms endowed with speech, reflective capacities and the like. When I speak to someone I care about, I have no doubt that I’m dealing with something more than a bundle of physical and psychological traits: I’m directing my attention to what I take to be the core of the person, its active principle. In Platonic parlance, “soul” is the word that captures this dimension common to every being.

Yet, more than a metaphysical insight into what constitutes the true nature of the self, the Socratic prescription was meant to foster a new awareness and concern. As Michel Foucault rightly emphasized, in the platonic tradition the process of knowing oneself is incomplete if one does not act upon that knowledge by attending to oneself in a very special way (Foucault 2005). Thus, “know thyself” naturally connects with another crucial message taken from Socrate’s lessons: “take care of your self.” The “care of the self” (epimeleia heauton) is a central theme in the ancient Greek tradition. It can be understood as a way of respecting oneself, of attending to oneself. The movement of conversion or introversion—detaching one’s attention from the outside and turning it instead to the inside, withdrawing within oneself—is essential but it is only the beginning. The care of the self involves a whole new attitude not only toward oneself, but more generally toward others and the world. Eventually, it may have less to do with knowledge of a particular kind—of a particular spiritual object, the self or the soul—than with a new form of activity. In the perspective opened by Socrates, self-knowledge indeed appears inseparable from the self-transformative action exercised on the self by the self. “Know thyself” asks us to take active responsibility for ourselves; it commits us to a new form of life, a life of self-realization dedicated to the flourishing of the self. Foucault stresses the concrete and practical dimension of the issue by observing that the care of the self was in fact intimately linked with a series of “spiritual exercises,” such as self-examination and surveying, the checking of one’s thoughts, along with practices of memorization and meditation. “Spirituality,” from this perspective, can be defined in a very broad sense as the practice and experience through which the subject carries out the transformations required to have access to the truth—a truth that in turn, can lead to a transformation of the subject’s very being. The idea is that, in order to gain access to the truth, the subject must be changed, transformed, and altered accordingly. This requires some work: an elaboration of the self by the self, a labor of self-transformation that enables the self to reach, through an ascending movement, a higher, more universal perspective on itself and the world as a whole, perceived as meaningful (Hadot, 1995: 211). Thus, devoting oneself to oneself, properly understood, is the expression of a profound desire for radical ethical change; it must not be confused with a form of narcissistic self-absorption.

One does not need to subscribe to Plato’s metaphysics of the soul—its relation to eternal, immutable ideas—in order to make sense of the proposition encapsulated in the Delphic formula. Self-knowledge is intimately linked with the prospect of self-realization, and hence self-transformation. What the various spiritual exercises have in common, precisely because they are exercises, is that the way they reveal the core self—or “personality,” as some philosophers would prefer to say—is nothing but a continuous effort to shape itself by confronting the various forces or tendencies that seem to work against it. It is a constant effort of vigilance, a tension of every minute. Leaving Plato behind for the modern philosophical context, we can say that the “soul” is akin to a creative force, transforming itself unceasingly by increasing and directing the intensity of a continuous impulse forward (Bergson 1972: 1051-1071)—that is, when it is not thwarted by all kinds of distracting, diffusive forces. It is through the resistance encountered on its way that the notion of agency, which we found to be at the root of our moral identity, becomes more palpable. Agency is not an abstract capacity to act on one’s own. It is first and foremost a capacity to act upon oneself, to reorient one’s motivation, to reprioritize one’s objectives, and finally to act against certain urges, drives, or imperious tendencies that somehow threaten to overtake the will and confine the self to being the passive witness of its own experience. At this point it seems necessary to make room for a distinct representation of that counterforce that seems determined to actively prevent us from achieving ethical goals or taking the steps required to develop moral habits. Striving to be a person involves, sooner or later, a confrontation with this antiethical power within us.

Ostad Elahi’s model of the “imperious self”

Ostad Elahi’s thought has developed on the soil of Greek philosophy, as mediated by the rich tradition of Arab and Persian commentators. Yet, in his model of the self, the dimension that was traditionally conceptualized—from Plato and Aristotle up to Aquinas—in terms of the appetitive or concupiscent part of the soul, the seat of unruly passions and desires, falls under the concept of the “imperious self” (nafs-e amârre in Persian). This concept, which as we shall see must not be confused with the sensible or terrestrial soul, nor with any proper “part” of the soul, is by no means peripheral in his work, as shown by the following quote: “The path of perfection can be summarized in two points: constant attention to the Source and fighting against the imperious self” (quoted in Elahi, 2005: 203).

At the conscious level, the imperious self manifests itself in an impulsive way through capricious, harmful, potentially disintegrative desires. Just like the id of psychoanalysis, it seeks immediate gratification and systematically opposes the orientation given by the rational part of our personality. (For more details on the mechanisms of the imperious self, see Elahi, 2005). This may sound a little too much like the personification of something that only manifests itself through its potentially destabilizing effects—to the extent that we’re aware of them—, something that exists as a functional—or rather dysfunctional—entity supervening on the overall structure of the self, rather than as a substantial entity. However, the personification is part of the game here; it is a pragmatic function. Picturing this aspect of the self as an agent in its own right serves the necessary purpose of self-objectification, which is in turn essential to the process of self-transformation, provided that the underlying mechanisms are properly understood. In order to grasp the practical as well as theoretical significance of the imperious self, it is important to view it as an active dimension of the actual self, rather than a mere representation of a potential or possible self. In that respect, and despite possible overlaps, it cannot be equated with what certain psychologists describe as the “dreaded self”—the kind of person one wants to avoid becoming (Oyserman & James, 2011; Hardy & Carlo, 2011: 499). The imperious self is not a feared possible identity: it is not substantially distinct from our actual self. Nor does it correspond to what is sometimes described as the “noisy,” “inflated,” or “wild ego” (Bauer & Wayment, 2008; Exline, 2008). These expressions refer to specific personality structures, while what is at stake here is a dimension fully active in every person, albeit in different ways and with varying degrees of intensity. If the struggle against the imperious self has something to do with taming or quieting the ego, it is in the very specific sense distinguished by Bauer and Wayment when they refer to “an ego that too readily capitulates to the id, resulting in self-seeking motivation, egotism, and conceit (as connoted by a big ego)” (Bauer & Wayment, 2008: 9). Yet again, if the imperious self embodies a principle of egoistic self-interest that can be counterbalanced to a certain extent by developing virtues such as humility, compassion or mindfulness, it remains a defining component of the human psyche as such. It should concern even people whose personality has developed along directions that make them more interdependent and less individualistic than others. Indeed, Ostad Elahi stresses the fact that the “excesses” of the imperious self can manifest themselves negatively, through the insufficiency of this or that quality. Thus a lack of commitment may develop into a state of pathological irresolution. There are such things as apathetic drives: they contribute to an unbalanced character just as much as the bursts of the “wild ego.”

The truth is that only an active engagement with the practice of ethics—and this includes, of course, countering one’s spontaneously selfish inclinations—is capable of revealing the full extent and many facets of the imperious self, beyond its most obvious manifestations. “It is in the daily tests of life that fighting against the imperious self takes on meaning,” Bahram Elahi writes (Elahi, 2005: 205). One has to watch the imperious self in action, as it actually operates, in order to understand the logic that binds together a host of sometimes indiscernible dysfunctional behavioral schemas, flawed beliefs, and deviant thought patterns. This can only be achieved by probing the self in a way that is not very different from what goes on in any experimental research. The self reacts to particular situations as a sounding board by producing more or less controlled responses (emotions, thoughts, and behaviors), which in turn bring about positive or negative results. The first step consists of collecting these cues and feedbacks, varying the situations, and trying new moves in order to identify dysfunctional patterns that may be indicative of a more general problem. The implementation of counterstrategies is the next step, provided that one finds the intrinsic motivation to change things. The working hypothesis underlying the very idea of imperious self is that its reactions do not play out in a random fashion but conform to a certain logic. As whimsical as it may be, the imperious self abides by the rule of egoistic self-interest: there is logic to its madness, and to the way it interacts with our personality as a whole. That is why it is reasonable to work upon a genuine model of its action, based on the hands-on information gathered through the attentive practice of ethics. It goes without saying that such operational self-knowledge requires a little more than the convenient image of the little devil within us.

As Ostad Elahi explains through many concrete examples, the main problem remains that the imperious self is so shrewd and deceitful that most of its work goes unnoticed if we do not commit ourselves to fighting it actively, especially as its moves are accompanied with pseudo-justifications that make them seem innocuous or even ethically commendable. The “flesh” is not at issue here. Desires by themselves are not to be blamed. They are not a problem as long as they do not directly harm us and others. They represent a threat when, acclimated by thought patterns developed by the imperious self, they tend to infringe upon the rights of others without our being aware of it. More generally, the mechanism of self-deception illustrates a notable difference between the operations of the imperious self and the crude desires traditionally assembled under the heading “appetitive part:” the imperious self is as intelligent as it is imperious. Left to itself, it can colonize our entire reason. And therein lies the main difficulty, for it is through reason alone that one can actually come to detect and identify the imperious self’s relentless assaults. More precisely, it is the rational sense of justice, the perception of the rights attached to the various beings we interact with—objects, plants, and animals included—that serves to gauge our intentions and motivations and contributes to giving shape to the imperious self.

At root, the imperious self is indiscernible from the desires emanating from the impulsive nature of our lower, animal self. And it gradually takes shape by resisting the ethical project of reforming oneself. Ultimately, the pragmatic definition of the imperious self seems to be: whatever diverts us from our duty, and whatever runs counter to an ethical stance. Synthesizing all the actual and potential antiethical manifestations of our self (active vices or mere weak points), it may be compared to a photographic negative of the moral self, which alone is in a position to discern its existence by viewing it “from above,” so to speak. Not so much a wild animal to be tamed, nor a raw material upon which reason strives to impose its form, the imperious self is rather like a virus that must be isolated and whose modus operandi must be analyzed with great scrutiny. Paradoxically enough, it is something to be cultivated and worked upon, rather than subtracted.

This brings us to the second main difference with the traditional conceptions of the governance of the passions by reason. The imperious self is indispensable in its own right, for it contains basic psychological ingredients that are necessary to the formation of the virtues themselves. These ingredients, which generally manifest themselves through unbalanced character traits, can only be assimilated through a steady confrontation aimed at establishing the right balance. For instance, the virtue of courage cannot be developed unless one has actually been confronted in a very concrete fashion with the overwhelming power of fear, as well as with its most subtle manifestations. Being courageous is not ignoring fear, as Plato acknowledges; it is about overcoming it by a resolute decision to keep at it bay. The same is true of benevolence, which supposes that one feels the sting of stinginess and strives to counter it by deliberate acts of generosity. Then again, there are many ways of being cheap or petty-minded. This may all sound familiar to those who have read Aquinas: the Stoic view according to which passions must be obliterated and extirpated in order for moral virtue to exist, cannot be sustained. In general, there is an intrinsic relationship between virtues of character and the active passions. Not only can moral virtues be accompanied by passions but in a certain sense they cannot do without them. Thus, the perfection of such powers as fortitude and temperance cannot be attained without the corresponding passions: “It is plain that the moral virtues which are about the passions as about their proper matter cannot exist without passions”. (Summa Theologica, I, II, 59, art. 5). In the same way, Ostad Elahi strongly opposes the idea that the “appetitive part” be weakened, deactivated and left unemployed. The business of the process of perfection is precisely to enable the self to grow by assimilating the indispensable characteristic psychological ingredients present in excess in human nature. But the underlying scheme is much more dynamic than what can be found in Aristotle (the “golden mean”) or Aquinas (passions as the proper matter of virtues), who both rely on a fundamentally static form-matter scheme. The spiritual principle that underlies the whole discussion is in fact the exact equivalent of the biological concept of immunity. Even the character traits and tendencies on which the imperious self capitalizes should not be repressed or annihilated; they must be decreased to a minimum in order to be assimilated in homeopathic or vaccinal doses, so to speak. Bahram Elahi writes: “The desires of the imperious self are analogous to bacterial toxins; if the toxins are strong and in large quantities, they will be harmful and perhaps even fatal for the celestial soul, but if they are weakened and in small doses they help vaccinate the soul against the imperious self and enable it to gradually control the impulses of the imperious self.” (Elahi 2005: 205).

Clearly, such a notion of self-control involves a radical departure from the conception of asceticism as a systematic weakening of the animal side of human nature. On the contrary, Ostad Elahi insists that one should aim at strengthening this nature, while simultaneously strengthening one’s willpower. In other words, the imperious self must not be crushed; it must be held under tension in order to serve the purpose of self-transformation in the best way possible. Reorganized around the axial struggle between “sound” reason (or moral self [1]) and the imperious self, the “psycho-spiritual organism,” as Bahram Elahi calls it, appears as a dynamic structure that must itself be mapped, charted, and constructed as a reflective object as we go along. The basic recipe is to systematically aim at the opposite of what the imperious self seems to want. The imperious self appears in finer resolution as we become more aware of the points of resistance. The impediment, the antagonist forces, are absolutely necessary here, and it is crucial that we develop an attentive familiarity with the inner antiethical personality nested within our self. The first and most important task is to devise a proper model of the imperious self, one that grants it enough visibility to be properly operated, controlled and regulated. Blaming our fallen nature will not be of much help.

The active task of self-modeling, of consolidating and sharpening an ever more adequate model of an evolving imperious self, is monitored by our core self, the seat of sound reason and moral conscience. Yet in order to achieve this, the deep self must itself be extracted from the surface ego where it ordinarily lives a shallow, barely conscious and residual life. The problem, of course, is that our spontaneous identifications tend to consolidate a self-image that is generally “flat,” even when it seems complex or contradictory. The multilayered texture of the self, its vertical organization in terms of surface and depth, does not clearly appear to us except in the rare moments of crisis where alternative selves seem to emerge, and a deep restructuring of our overall personality may take place. Yet the truth, as William James abruptly puts it, is that “by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again” (James 1950: 121). In terms of self-transformation, this means that the best we can expect from the practice of ethics is not a radical, spectacular shift but the slow and progressive awakening of a heightened level of awareness, achieved as a result of relentlessly pitching our moral intuitions against the moving, slippery texture of the imperious self. Thus, ethical practice comes down to a continuous experiment with oneself, whose natural reward consists in the expansion of our mental field of perception, together with the satisfaction gained from an increased sense of understanding and self-mastery.


Bibliography :

  • Bauer, J. & H.A. Wayment. 2008. The Psychology of the Quiet Ego. In Transcending Self-interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego. J. Bauer & H.A. Wayment, Eds.: American Psychological Association. Washington, DC.
  • Bergson, H. 1972. “The Problem of Personality” (Gifford Lectures, 1914). In Mélanges. Presses Universitaires de France. Paris, France. 1051–1071 pp.
  • Elahi, B. 2005. The Path of Perfection. Paraview. New York.
  • Exline, J.J. 2008. “Taming the Wild Ego: The Challenge of Humility”. In Transcending Self-interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego. J. Bauer & H. Wayment, Eds.: American Psychological Association. Washington, DC.
  • Foucault, M. 2006.The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Picador. New York. 1–19 pp.
  • Hadot, P. 1995. Philosophy as a Way of Life. Wiley-Blackwell. Somerset, NJ. 211 pp.
  • Hardy , S. & Carlo, G. 2011. “Moral Identity”. In Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, 2 vols., S. J. Schwartz et. al. Eds. Springer, New York.
  • James, W. 1950. The Principles of Psychology [1890], Vol. 1. Dover, Mineola, New York.
  • Oyserman, D. & James, L. 2011. “Possible Identities”. In Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, 2 vols., S. J. Schwartz et. al. Eds. Springer, New York.

[1] ^“Sound” here also means educated by appropriate moral principles. What are those moral principles is another matter that cannot be dealt with here. The answer lies in Ostad Elahi’s metaphysics of human nature, which he conceives in relation to a divine element. Suffice it to say that the education of thought is a fundamental dimension of the process of spiritual self-realization. The moral self that engages in the activity of self-modeling must itself be cultivated and strengthened in order to even detect the manifestations of the imperious self.

© This work is protected by copyright. Copyright reserved. All rights reserved.

Go to top

1 comment

retrolink url | Subscribe to comments on this post

Post a comment

All comments are moderated and will become public once they are validated
Terms of Use

e-ostadelahi.com | © 2024 - All rights reserved | Terms of Use | Sitemap | Contact