“Hitler had won” — or so perceived the aged Holocaust survivor Kivas Rieff in his final days.1 The world had become graceless — the West was now contemptible on account of its cultural decay, and there was something tumultuous permeating the climate in the 21st century which Kivas sensed with perfect clarity — he had felt it before. The rise of Nazism in Rieff’s childhood infused a ravaging desire for purification into the nation. An all but annihilation of human dignity had emerged in Germany, but it was more than that: it was a philosophy that redefined the fundamental doctrine of Western society. A new philosophy of the self had opened the door to the crouching creature of destruction that sat outside.
The philosophical evolution of the self not only contributed to the rise of Nazism but has defined the history of human civilization. It is the basis of many cultural and political norms and a significant predictor of the tenability of a society. From antiquity to modernity, the concept of the self has been the rhythm to which Western history has marched. However, the philosophical foundation for the West has been cracked under the beating pressure of a new philosophical tide. It is unknown where it will lead, but the purpose of this investigation is to examine how it arrived at the place it is now.
The historical origins of the West have long been debated by historians. Even more so, the emergence of the West’s fundamental ideal, the self, is as mysterious as it is central to its history; but out of this enigmatic beginning, the Modern era has produced three distinct evolutions of the Western Self: the Jewish and Christian philosophers of the Medieval era, the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the rise of Postmodernism at the beginning of the 20th century. These three eras have formed the basis for the modern history of Western culture, but not only its success: it has also produced a growing storm of cultural change that has progressively shifted the essence of the modern West from its origins.
One of the many medieval philosophers who formulated the concept of the self was St. Augustine. In his prolific writings Augustine observed two thematic threads within human existence: first, the existential separation between God and humanity; and second, the intrinsic reflection of God’s image in the soul. Therein, the self, which is the human end of this divine relationship, is intellectually constrained by distance from God but all the while inexorably compelled to a relationship with God which is its design.2 This existential disparity produces a limited ability for humanity to comprehend itself, leaving no alternative but to acknowledge God as the definer of the self and pursue an understanding of the self, not through intellectual investigation, but through faith. This concept, one of faith, was the definition of the self pertinent in the medieval West. Augustine’s great declaration of the self demanded that humanity take on a process of personal reflection. It required an acknowledgment of the unpalatable horrors innate to humanity, and in so doing found the depravity of man so great and the complexity of human desires so incomprehensible that there is nothing left for man to do but lift one’s distress unto God. Through this expression of humility, one finds faith that God might define the proper meaning of human existence and grant knowledge enough to guide humanity into a more perfect relationship with Himself. It is through this process of critical introspection, the preponderance of being, that leads to a concept of the self beyond human intellect.
With the turn of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, a German Philosopher with a particular interest in ethics, emerged as a founding father of the age of Enlightenment, an intellectual revolution which instigated a countermelody to the Augustinian concept of the Western self. Like many of his fellow Enlightenment thinkers, Kant believed that knowledge through experience, a so-called “a priori,” was the best foundation for investigation into the existence of the self.3 But unlike many of his peers, Kant did not rely solely on this form of abstract empiricism. Rather, his practice of intellectual exploration was first based on inference, and only then tested by empiricism – a methodology not unlike that of modern science. In Kant’s view, the central aspect of the self was the unique way in which morality and humanity converged to produce what Kant sensed to be the essential definition of the self: a “moral agent.”4 Kant, however, defined the self more precisely in what he described as the “phenomenon” which is a thing as revealed through experience. This concept lends itself to a unique form of social constructionism as it diverged sharply from the Augustinian belief in objective morality found in God. Kant had placed a soaring chord in the middle of a great melody, and a new concept, “individualism,” was at its root. An era of definitive individualism was on the horizon, predicated on an evolved understanding of the self. Indeed, this was the age that formed the political language of individual rights as the preservation of the self became the responsibility of the collective society. The self had now become defined by a collection of strange amoral terms: life, liberty, property, dignity, and a pursuit of its own gains.5 No longer was the answer found in the preponderance of being — the embattled relationship between humanity and God; it was now found in the hands of society. Out of this sprung a state system, suspended by the will of its people, to defend the self — an enlightened Republic was born.
In spite of the bloody cost that the experiment of the Enlightenment demanded in the form of revolution, its success yielded tremendous prosperity for the West. It had emerged victorious on the battlefield of ideas but was soon to face a challenger which sought to pull on the fraying threads of Enlightenment thought until a new type of society emerged. The prominent philosopher Fredric Nietzsche was among the thinkers who formed a new concept of the self. Nietzsche and the Postmodernists pursued a study of comparative worldviews which deconstructed the most basic aspects of society. Their approach dealt with the very definition of the self and turned the soil through which 20th century cultural revolution sprang up. Seeing no reason to hold back, Nietzsche completed the presuppositions of Enlightenment philosophy which removed God from the definition of the self and proposed that the self is free from the constraints of objective morality.6 Nietzsche’s experiment, which he himself found terrifying, quickly soared among the intellectuals of his day as belief in God rapidly diminished in society. Reconsidering the basis for society under this presupposition, Nietzsche, in his prolific allegory The Parable of the Madman, produced an image of his Nihilistic philosophy which would so ingrain itself into Western thought that it remains implicit today.7 Indeed, under the conditions of a godless society all objectivity had lost its footing and slipped into a never-ending abyss of universal relativism. The world of The Madman had both light and darkness but no rhythm: truth had lost its objectivity and evil was indistinguishable from love. From the corpse of the classical idea of the Western self, a new definition emerged: to be the sum of all that can be desired — a creature ruled by the greatness of its ambition until all it perceives to be true and right is attained.
As the notion of the self has evolved from Augustine to Nietzsche so has the very foundation of Western society. This trajectory has found its contemporary form in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “expressive individual” which is more than a conflation of the self with personal identity: it has become a sort of cultural religion of modernity.8 Where to Augustine the self was a concept of unequivocal importance, identity – well… it was nothing more than a poor substitute for the vibrant objectivity found in the preponderance of being. Therefore, within the scope of pre-Enlightenment philosophy, the substance of the self was of highest importance. The Enlightenment produced the Individual, and on its back the West had blazed a new frontier and emerged from the archaic world of the Medievals.
The self-made man, the American dream, and the promise of a brighter future enshrined in government became a new god in the West. But as the Enlightenment drifted its gaze onto the horizon of human potential, the idea of Individualism gave way to identity, and identity had found an objective idea of the self unbearable. In this sense the self had become a political project under the ambition for human perfection. Indeed, it was no coincidence that a hunger for Nihilism, Marxism, and Utopianism became the focus of society in the 20th century. The Enlightenment had conceived that social progress in the pursuit of a perfected society could replace the moral strength of religion, but the Postmodernist, to their credit, saw no real rationality behind this. Why must the individual value the tradition of past generations, fulfill the role of their gender, or defend the integrity of the historically cherished truth of their fathers in exchange for the joy achieved by adhering to their momentary identity? This is the logic of the expressive individual: a world where identity is the measure of all things.9
The West has long endured a straining of its most sacred and fundamental ideal under the philosophical and cultural course of history. It has not all been detrimental to the West, but without a self, defined objectively, accepted socially, and free from the chaotic tyranny that is identity, the West is reaching the limit of its cohesiveness. The self is not its own project; no, it has been defined from creation and is the beautiful axis of all that is true in humanity.10 This is critical for truly understanding the self, which, by extension, affects the health of society as a whole. The idol that is expressive individualism must be forsaken for Western society to be preserved. The beautiful orthodoxy of the self is the answer.
1. Phillip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks (2006), 189.
2. Augustine, Confessions, 7 and 8.
3. See Stanford Encyclopedia,“Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of self” (2004)
4. See Stanford Encyclopedia, “Kant and Hume on Morality”, (2008).
5. See “Declaration of Independence”, (1776) 2.
6. Nietzsche “Beyond Good and Evil”, (1886).
7. Nietzsche “The Parable of the Madman”, (1882).
8. Charles Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity”, (1991).
9. Carl Trueman, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” (2020).
10. See Albert Mohler Interview, “A Conversation with Theologian Carl Trueman” (2020