In my book, I use the first quarter to give a short history of “self”. I postulate that until the Renaissance, the common man had no sense of self. His life was as Hobbes said, “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short…” I think it is likely that royalty, and what few wealthy people existed beyond royalty, did have a sense of self which they considered. But here, I would like to revisit the more common man. While his life did not provide any matrix in which to consider him or herself as an individual, they did consider the well-being and nature of their souls.
As ugly and dead-ended as their life was, they were likely religious and thus worried about their soul and its afterlife. Self is connected to the real world. They had no control of that. For the masses, prior to the Renaissance, there was no concept of the word “self”. But they did understand the word, “soul” and attended to it as assiduously as do we moderns to our current concept of self. The soul is connected to an unearthly spiritual world, and that they could grasp in whatever terms their religion taught them. The betterment and improvement of that soul was something they believed they could accomplish. They could not change their daily or future earthly circumstances, but they could administer to their souls. They could enhance their likelihood of achieving Heaven by attending to, and cultivating their souls. That is very close to what in modern times we think we can accomplish with our individual selves. To the extent that pre-15th century man sought to improve his soul, and modern man seeks to improve his self, there may be little difference except in terms, and when to expect results.
Our current assiduous pursuit of authentic self is perhaps evidence of the slide of our culture from sacred to secular. The reward of a cultivated and improved soul is long delayed. The rewards of an improved self can be immediate.
Thus, I would suggest that today we have two tasks before us. Having differentiated between soul and self, we must now attend to both. One exists in the sacred and spiritual domain; one exists in the now and the immediate. The latter is in discussion in these pages. The former is of no less importance, but not of issue here. But I would say, that refinement and improvement in the search for an authentic self, certainly should have a “spill-over” effect for the well-being of the soul. A dividend not to be lightly overlooked.
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