Who am I?

Our universe is not just a temporal-spatial dimension. On the contrary, for human beings the universe is not only physical, but also and primarily metaphysical. Ironically, even the most staunch positivist is entirely immersed in his own metaphysical matrix, even from which he draws his highest and most sacred, secular ideals. Hence, human beings are beings of religious considerations first. Anything called “reason,” “science,” or “rationale” remain only subsets of Religion, with a capital “R,” or that is to say, the metaphysical universe which always concerns itself with positions and questions of values, ethics, and relationships. (Admittedly, these definitions will upset or be denied by a great many people.)

The big “R” questions are the great and terrible questions. These are the questions which plague every thinking mind almost constantly. They require so much effort and suffering to answer that most people refuse to entertain even the questions, let alone attempts at the answers. Of course, at the top of the terrible questions is the ultimate inquisition: Who am I? This is the question of questions. It has been asked since the dawn of conscious time.

This question is not about a cultural, personal identity, but about the a priori self, the self before the material-social milieu fabricated the counterfeit of the You and I. As Harold Bloom writes in his introduction to Henry Corbin’s Alone with the Alone, “Acquaintance with your own deepest self will not come often or easily, but it is unmistakable when (and if) it comes. […] To be acquainted with what is best and oldest in yourself, is to know yourself as you were, before the world was made, before you emerged into time” (x). Such knowledge is true gnosis and involves understanding the metaphorical and metaphysical relationships between the nature of self and the nature of all things.

Parenthetically, an associated terrible question is “Is this all there is?” The topic of life, death, and especially life after material death is unavoidable and has always been essential in the gnostic traditions, but while religion seeks to answer this question it is but a subset of the original and fundamental idea of the nature of things, of the categorical tropos of man and his relationship to transcendent nature.

History books which declare that homo sapiens living in the “pre-historical” era could not engage in science or philosophy because they spent all their time obtaining food, clothing, and shelter, have essentially missed the point and nature of consciousness. For the question Who am I? is not only at the foundation of science and philosophy, but principally exists as the foundation of consciousness. Thus the question remains the central, terrible question as far back as one can go. Consciousness makes all men philosophers; though most check out before engaging in the examined life. Really, whether living in a glacial cave or in a New York City penthouse, the question of Who am I? never changes. It is the essence of this question that unites all humanity in every era. If there is a Heaven, then access to it cannot be restricted by temporal concerns. If a caveman and a stock broker were to meet at the judgement bar, neither could accuse God of favoritism based off the era in which they lived. Each person is equally positioned either to answer or deny the question of being, regardless of their material or cultural accouterments.

How does one encounter the authentic self, in the words of Bloom, the self “before you emerged into time?” Carl Jung would say that the eternal self is rooted in the unconscious. That is, consciousness is not just waking conscious thoughts, but eternal unconscious processes. In other words, consciousness is just the occasional manifestation of the unconscious. In this view, Jung’s collective unconscious is the source of true being in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Descartes’s declaration “I think therefore I am” has a compliment in Jung’s confession that might be phrased “I am therefore I dream.” The confrontation with the self, therefore, must be considered within the framework of all of one’s being, including one’s unconscious anxieties and especially one’s own psychological shadow.

How does one answer the question Who am I? Certainly one’s name does not describe the essence of an individual; nor does one’s skin color, social class, economic status, or religious views. All these things are identifiers describing external forms, but they do not necessarily describe internal being. In this case, modernity has vexed the question of being with colossal webs of obfuscation. Modern multiculturalism has become the politicization of the self. As a result, culturally and institutionally, the question of conscience has been replaced with the quizzing of covetousness, What do I deserve?

One of the best commentaries I have ever heard on this question of self identity comes from the operetta Les Miserables. As Jean Valjean finds a comfortable existence in the autumn of his life, his arch nemesis Javert enters his town and falsely arrests an innocent man whom he thinks is Valjean. Valjean is confronted with a terrible situation: do I confess my true identity and get sent back to torture and prison for the rest of my life? Or do I let this innocent man take the fall? Truly, the words are worth listening to and reading:

[Jean Valjean sees a man taken in his place]

He thinks that man is me!
He knew him at a glance.
This stranger he has found,
This man could be my chance.
Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong?
When I have come so far,
And struggled for so long?
If I speak, I am condemned…
If I stay silent, I am damned.

I am the master of hundreds of workers,
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them, how would they live if I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned…
If I stay silent, I am damned!

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery?
Pretend I do not feel his agony,
This innocent who wears my face,
Who goes to judgement in my place.
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago,
He gave me hope,
When hope was gone.
He gave me strength to journey on!

[He steps in front of the court]

Who am I?
Who am I?
I’m Jean Valjean!

[He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the number
tattooed on his chest]

And so, Javert, you see it’s true,
That man bears no more guilt than you.
Who am I?

The ultimate question Jean Valjean asks is only possible because he is able to frame the correct relationships involved. He states, “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned.” Questions of being always center around one’s relationships with the other. As it is, a great many people, denying the nature of the true self, would never frame the relationship in the way Valjean frames it. One might say, “If I speak, I am condemned, but if I stay silent than someone else will unjustly go to prison just like I did and that is only fair.” Even more telling, another might say, “If I speak, I am condemned, but if I stay silent, than all the people who depend upon me in town will be saved, and their children will have food on the table. Therefore, for the sake of God and conscience, I must not speak, for my silence is the greater good.”

There are always “religious” reasons to deny understanding the self. Indeed, religion is often used just for this purpose. The Priest and the Levite who pass by the broken man in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.29-37) are the very people who should render aid, but they do not. They are made to look like hypocrites, and they are. What is not said, however, is their easy justifications for doing what they do. One could hear either say “If I touch this man than I will be ritually unclean, and being that I am going to the temple to aid god and his people I therefore cannot touch this man.” The religious justification to avoid the moral good is often used because it allows one to escape the traumatic call to self-hood robed within the dress of righteous zeal. Nothing soothes a pained conscience better than a self-glorified one.


The Questions of Consciousness

Descartes’s radical statement, “I think, therefore I am,” was a recognition that human existence resides in consciousness. One exists as an independent being because one has thought. Consciousness is the great divide, and sentient consciousness magnifies the type of being humankind has become.

But thinking by itself is insufficient for a meaningful life; in the words of Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living for men” (Apology 38a). Descartes himself used his maxim “Cogito, ergo sum” as the basis for a methodology to turn opinion into knowledge, to turn an unexamined life into a meaningful one.

While Descartes used his proposition as the starting point for a rational methodology of logical discovery, the question of consciousness and a meaningful life remains the existential basis of being. The Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, remarks that every human being lives with three anxieties: the fear of death, the fear of guilt, and the fear of meaninglessness (42-54). These three anxieties can mold an individual worldview, and bend the examination of life into predetermined channels of denial and projection. In other words, one’s fears can lead one into thinking only of the self, fulfilling only self interest, and denying greater realities outside the self. In this state of affairs, not only is the self left unexamined, but also it becomes void and empty. It is a psychological paradox that a life lived only in service of the self is a life filled with meaninglessness.

How does one live an examined life? Socrates would not answer this question; in true Socratic fashion he would leave it for us to answer ourselves. In my view there are two essential questions of being–questions of consciousness. The first is the question of conscience: “Who am I?” The second is the question of suffering: “What is Good and Evil? And how can each lead to suffering?”

These questions are called the great and terrible questions of being. They are great, because they address the essence of one’s identity. They are terrible, because authentic answers require a full self-examination of one’s thoughts, actions, desires, and habits, with a full moral accountability to the other. The “other” is defined as the primary relationships whereby one conceives of the self. Paradoxically, the self is only defined whilst in relationship with something else. Literally, what kind of conscious being we are is defined by how we treat others. For some, the “supreme other” is the open question of the mystery of another being. For others, the supreme other is simply the self projected onto anything else in view. Martin Buber calls this the “I and Thou” relationship, where we treat others as an object, “Hello you, my ability to use,” or as a predicate, “Hello thou, my ability to serve.” In each case the self is defined. And in each case the self enters into a new possibility. In the former, the self ruminates only upon self-interest, and ironically the consciousness of the individual shrinks within the horizon of one’s own predetermined desires. In the latter, the self opens up new horizons of learning. These horizons do not always lead to happy endings. Indeed, the pain of discovering evil, for example, leads many to serving only the self. This is a truly self-defeating paradigm. And a self-perpetuating one.

In my next few posts I am going to explore these two questions of conscience and suffering. Nothing in a blog can be definitive, but I will attempt to ring the bells of awareness in my own soul; after all, blogging for me is part of my examined life.

The Celestial Ascent of Elijah

In 2 Kings 2.1-12, an account is given where the prophet of Israel named Elijah (meaning “My God is Yahweh”) ascends to heaven on a fiery chariot pulled by celestial horses. Elijah does not taste of death, but is translated into heaven.

Only one other figure in the Old Testament ascends to heaven without tasting death–Enoch. Enoch’s name means “The Initiated One,” and the only reference to this figure in the text is an obscure passage which states, “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5.24). In non-canonical texts associated with Enoch this prophet also ascends to heaven. In fact, the heavenly ascent appears to be the prerequisite of entering heaven without tasting of death.

In all the available Enoch lore thus found two things stand in common: 1) Enoch ascends to the heavens, learns their secrets, and enters the heavenly Holy of Holies or Throne Room. In some passages, Enoch is given the title “Son of Man,” a euphemism for divine heritage, and in the words of Margaret Barker, divine theosis or divinization. 2) All the imagery of the Enoch texts compare the heavenly ascent to a heavenly temple, and the ascent through the heavens can often be assimilated with the chambers in the earthly temple as they were modeled from a heavenly design.

It is this temple and cosmological context that frames the action of celestial ascent. The ascent of Elijah probably follows suit, as this portion of the Old Testament text probably follows a liturgical mise en scene associated with the old Hebrew temple cult. While Enoch and Elijah are the only Old Testament prophets to ascend to heaven without tasting death, other key prophetic figures also find themselves on a heavenly journey. Ezekiel is the most prominent figure, as he makes a tour of heaven. Ezekiel’s tour is also associated with the temple complex. The founder of Israel is Jacob who begins his journey towards kingship by seeing a ladder set in heaven. On top of the ladder was Yahweh, who gives Jacob the great covenant of the fathers during this heavenly vision. This hales back to a prior scene where God shows up to Abraham and gives him the original covenant, and does so while comparing his future offspring to the stars. In non-canonical sources, Abraham also journeys through the stars as part of this covenant.

The heavenly journey as part of the prophetic calling is not a creation of Israel or of Biblical tradition. The Israelite people inherited this tradition, they did not create it. In Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mediterranean traditions, kings, shamans, priests, and prophets all made this heavenly tour. Such a tour was essential to oral cosmology, which saw the source of all true being as emanating from the sky. In order to obtain the right to rule, such royal and august figures analogically journeyed to the stars through ritual to obtain their divine mandate. It is quite surprising to find that all the early Greek masters did the same thing. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclides, Plato, and Cicero all relate some form of the heavenly journey associated with their right to teach, obtain true reason, rule the city, or obtain the right to immortality.

The celestial ascent of Elijah is not biblical fantasy, it is oral cosmology rooted at the foundations of civilization.

Defining Myth

Defining myth as “the oral imprinting press of pre-literate peoples” has its problems. For scholars, the first thing to be argued is how does this definition differentiate itself from Folklore? Indeed, folklore is often defined as “any information” that is passed down orally from one generation to another. For some folklorists, who often blend myth and folklore together, they would consider my definition inadequate. Meanwhile, for the Campbell crowd, myth is wed to the autonomous productions of the psyche and the unconscious, and therefore is constant and eternal. My definition does not satisfy them either. Finally, my definition uses a literate metaphor for an oral category, and that is also problematic.

I will take my stand. Myth was specifically a product of an oral people. Furthermore, and here is the grand difference between myth and folklore, myth was always wed to the ancient cult systems of oral peoples. We have forgotten how oral peoples transmitted information from one generation to another. Their most prized information was always embedded and interred within the cultic festivals, dances, and esoteric philosophy and cosmology of the culture. Folklore, on the other hand, can be any information passed down orally. Myth was the information that was specifically tied to ritual, cult, and oral cosmology.

Perhaps my definition can be refined. A printing press has four major components: The press, the paper, the ink, and the finished product (a book or newsprint). While admitting the inadequacy of a literate metaphor, but acquiescing that we are all literate people arguing over these ideas and therefore a literate metaphor may be the best place to start, I will refine my definition using these essential components of the press.

The press is the machine which allows for the whole system to work. Our parallel would equate this image with the ancient cult. The oral cults of antiquity were comprised of the priests or priestesses endowed with the special knowledge of the group. They regulated this knowledge through their seasonal festivals, rites, temples, sacrifices, dances, songs, oracles, spells, and other things they were in charge of. The cult involved knowing the right information, but also performing this information in the right place (the temenos) and at the right time (celestially significant days throughout the year).

The paper of the press is the medium upon which all the information is imprinted. The paper “holds” the ink, and allows for its organization in a useful and transmittable manner. Using my metaphor, one might think that the paper would be the cult rituals. In a profoundly literate analogy this would be correct. But I think an oral people hold their information together by their fundamental ideas of the cosmos; how the grand natural cycle of the world around them imprints and reveals itself upon themselves and their culture. In an oral society, the paper is the cosmology of the culture that is the basis for the press and the receptor for the ink. The ink therefore wold be the rituals of the cult.

The finished product, the “book” of the oral press, would be the the final product of the cult, its cosmic understanding, and how it repeats this understanding in its cyclical rites. So where does myth come in? Myth is not so much the finished product created from the oral imprinting press as much as it is the “Introduction” to the book, the metaphor that describes the whole. Myths were narratives the transcribed the whole process of the culture. But without understanding their cultic life, their ritual systems, and their cosmological understanding, ancient myth becomes completely decontextualized and decosmologized. Like a dead language, myth is a scattered cypher of an oral language.

So to repeat:

  1. The press is the cult.
  2. The paper is the cosmology.
  3. The ink is the ritual.
  4. The book is the annual recitation of a culture’s rites and festivals, the fulfillment of its cult.
  5. Myth is the metaphor that describes the whole.

Folklore is different than myth because it is not explicitly tied to this cultic and cosmological system of thought. As for the psychological theory of myth, it is highly useful to describe aspects of the psyche, but is wholly metaphorical when dealing with the realm of ancient myth.

So a more refined definition of myth might be: “Myth is the metaphor encapsulating the most prized information transmitted by the sacred imprinting press of pre-literate peoples.”


Myth and Consciousness

I have a strictly functional definition of myth: “Myth is the oral imprinting press of preliterate peoples.” This definition is problematic, for it uses a literate metaphor for an oral category. Being that I am a literate person, and the people reading this are all literate people, perhaps this is the best we can do. At least this definition will have to do for now.

Myth is the product of the demands of oral cognition. When a literate mind wants to look up an idea, it goes to a book or encyclopedia. An oral mind has no such thing, and therefore uses its immediate environment as its mnemonic lexicon. Further, all important information that must be passed down to the next generation has to be encoded in a memorable format, linked to the environment, and layered in an oral information medium whereby important things can be remembered.

What are the important things that need to be remembered in an oral society? History, technologies (planting, hunting, calendar making, pottery making, etc.) social constructs and socio-biological roles, religious considerations, and ideas of ultimate meaning are the things all societies pass down. If our definition of myth is correct, then myth should contain aspects of each of these things. Below is a chart that shows these relationships:


How Consciousness Produces Myth

While the psychological school insists that myth is the autonomous production of the psyche, generally as fantasy or dream images from the unconscious or collective unconscious, this definition asserts that myth is a natural product of consciousness which seeks to organize its ontological cosmos in rational yet memorable ways. Myth is created in the manner of its heavy characters and episodes mostly for mnemonic purposes.

This definition does not exclude, however, the notion of the numinous or the power of individuation within the construct of myth. Oral lexicons wed to the environment will eventually address the cycles that the environment manifests, and especially the mysteries of birth, life, and death. Myth is filled with high philosophy, if one is willing to see it for what it is, and give credit to ancient minds for considering the most probing questions of human consciousness, which also happen to be the most ubiquitous questions of life.