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Self-Realization

In response to:

Back to Utopia from the May 12, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

Keith Thomas in his review of Ivan Illich’s Gender [NYR, May 12] makes an elementary but interestingly myopic mistake when he asserts that “the concept of self-realization is essentially modern. It was developed in recent centuries by such highly educated theorists as Rousseau, Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill, who reacted against what they saw as the drab uniformity of the world in which they lived, but whose own belief in the profound importance of individuality would have been inconceivable in earlier times, when social roles were strictly prescribed and when the freedom of human action was infinitely more limited.”

In many parts of the pre-modern world there have been advocates of self-realization (some of them “highly educated”) who reacted against social constraints of various kinds (rarely on account of their presumed “drab uniformity”). Examples are found in Europe among Greek philosophers and among the Italian “universal men” characterized by Jacob Burckhardt in the chapter on the development of the individual of his Kulturgeschichte der Renaissance in Italien (pages 81-103) of the “beautiful little Phaidon edition published in 1944 and pressed into the hands of thousands of English schoolboys during the next decade” [NYR, August 12].

Most Western admonitions to self-realization were elitist in practice and intent. It is doubtful that the same could be said of the Taoists, whose cult of self-realization has been regarded as the matrix not only of Chinese science (by Joseph Needham), but also of chiliastic movements preaching specific eschatologies and utopias (by Michel Strickmann). In India, around the seventh century BC, when social roles were constrained by ritual and birth, a reaction arose which sought to replace this traditional duo by the new ideals of knowledge and renunciation. Even in the heyday of Vedic ritual, the ceremonies had been performed by the priests for the benefit of an individual. Now the ideal of self-realization promised individual freedom and independence to thousands and soon millions of people. The idea was developed by the sages of the Upanishads, by Mahavira, founder of Jainism, and by the Buddha. With the spread of Buddhism during the following millennium, these Indian concepts took root in Kashmir, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Tibet.

Rousseau, Tocqueville, and J.S. Mill were perhaps responsible for the latest flurry of the concept of self-realization in Europe, but very similar ideas are of widespread occurrence. As denizens of a small and endangered planet we are under no obligation to strive for self-realization, or to embrace or advocate utopias. But to limit ourselves to the narrow conceptual confines of modern Europe is a regrettable form of intellectual isolationism.

Frits Staal

University of California

Berkeley, California

Keith Thomas replies:

I am puzzled by the censorious tone of Mr. Staal’s letter. The passage in my review to which he takes exception was intended to amplify my suggestion that Ivan Illich was mistakenly “looking to traditional societies for the realization of his ideals of autonomy and authenticity.” Of course, every society has had at least some implicit conception of what constitutes human fulfillment, but these infinitely varied notions are not to be readily equated with the European post-Enlightenment concepts of autonomy and authenticity to which I was alluding. I agree that the intellectual history of those particular concepts is a long one and that it reflects the influence of classical ideas, particularly perhaps those of the Stoics. But another look at the beautiful little Phaidon edition of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy which was pressed into my hands long ago reminds me that Burckhardt found it “hard to say” whether fifteenth-century Italians “had before them as a conscious object the harmonious development of their spiritual and material existence” (p. 84, my italics).

The Eastern systems of thought to which Mr. Staal refers do not seem relevant to the point at issue. As I understand them, they are, for the most part, quite indifferent to romantic Western concepts of individual self-realization. Instead, they offer men the prospect of attaining inner peace by suppressing material desires, curbing worldy aspirations, and seeking an intuitive knowledge of the invisible world. The Jains, for example, “think of the higher state as attained by those who have completely stultified their personality, and who are not perfect characters but perfectly characterless beings who touch life on as few points as possible” (Mrs. Sinclair Stevenson, The Heart of Jainism [Oxford University Press, 1915], pp. 171-172). This seems a long way from J.S. Mill’s belief in the importance of cultivating spontaneity, originality, and “the individuality of desires and impulses” (On Liberty, chapter III). But perhaps Mr. Staal and I mean different things by “self-realization”?

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