State of the University Part 2
by Adam Naphta
Some concepts appear to us to be eternal. The categories of time and space don’t seem to be historically conditioned. They are truly grasped, and our notion of space does not seem relative to a moment in history. The notion of the Self appears to fall into the same ahistorical group of notions as the notion of space. However, as Allan Bloom discusses, this is not so. The inexhaustible Self, in which one must come to know its dark and infinite complexities lying underneath our conscious, is a fairly recent phenomena.
The integration of ourselves into one term, the Self, is strikingly different to the original division of the human into the body and the soul. Instead of souls, Allan Bloom writes: “we are selves, and everything we do is to satisfy or fulfill ourselves.” He continues to demonstrate that we have replaced the notion of soul with the self. Why is this shift so important? It will allow us to understand the replacement of the virtuous, the traditional, and the divine with the therapeutically well managed, Self.
Division of the Person in Antiquity
The division of the person into body and soul allowed us a sharp demarcation of our higher and lower parts. We had the body concerned with vice, beastly habits, and physical necessity, and the soul concerned with virtue. Even the bare mention of virtue makes the infinitely impotent student let out a weak and dismissive chuckle. The sentimentality of such notions disappears when the human person is no longer a tragic combat between how he is and how he ought to be.
What remains is how he is and how to order the viscerally chaotic human nature he has been saddled with. What strikes me as most odd amongst university students is the notion of dignity. As David Berlinski remarks, what makes us good and worthy of dignity? The whole of human history points to a definite answer, nothing. Nothing makes us good. We in fact are terribly evil as human beings. The only dignity to be found is in our souls that can align themselves with God.
So, we have an odd conjunction among the university student. He is self-conscious of his own nature’s unending inability to be evil, yet he presume an answer to his ills will be found in an enlightened self-interest coming from a therapeutic knowledge of how to manage himself. It is not that being a desiring machine is wrong, it is that on first glance we desire the ‘wrong thing.’ As Bloom writes, “man is self, and the self must be selfish.”
What is new is that we are told to look more deeply into the self, that we assumed too easily that we know it and have access to it.” In disposing of the ancient distinction of body and soul in which one part of us explains our evil and one part explains our dignity, we instead must understand ourselves as unsatisfied selfs that need to be fulfilled. First we must find the correct desire through therapy, then ruthlessly pursue it.
Body and soul let us know that those aligned with the body, how we are, are far from the good life, how we aught to be. But, the therapeutic self instead gives us a singular maxim, live self-interestedly. Public good will most assuredly follow from private vice. It turns us away from, as Bloom writes, “trying to tame or perfect desire by virtue, and towards finding what one’s desire is and living according to it. This is largely accomplished by criticizing virtue, which covers and corrupts desire.” In short, live according to the Self by first coming to know the Self. Anything higher or any bifurcation of the human will prevent you from your own fulfillment.
The Historical Shift
I only mention this change to highlight exactly the historical shift in the view of the human. The alignment of whole to higher was replaced with the alignment of person with Self. The jargon of authenticity must come from the corpses of souls.
So then, what does this have to do with our university student. Where is he in all of this? For it seems to me that this is a civilization-wide problem. However, it hits the university student hardest, for the university at one moment was indeed directed at knowledge of alignment with the soul. At a Lyceum one would learn the proper alignment of the person to the virtues, virtues that were agnostic to the Self.
Implicit was two ideas: the good life could not be purely individual and one must be trained into the good life. On the other hand, the therapeutic says maintains that each individual is the author of his or her good life. One can go astray only by not knowing the proper selfishness. We must abandon the self to the intrinsic desire, but only after a greater excavation of that pure selfishness.
And but so we arrive at a university student with therapeutic techniques to become whatever he wishes. There is no constraint on what a university student can become and there is also no reason to become anything. It should be fairly obvious that a determination of one’s individual desire is fairly arbitrary. The Camus-Sartre plunge into the absurd remains meaningless due to its baselessness.
One plunge into the absurd is as good as any other and it is a thoroughgoing narcissism to claim otherwise. And so the university gives us an assemblage of technical trainings devoid of any moral or virtuous content. Any problems should be directed over to the therapy department where one can be cleansed of any false-conscious attempts at anything other than an alignment with desire.
The Negative Self
And so let us finally attempt to answer the question: what is the therapeutic view of the self? First it is a view of the person as a Self and not as a body and soul. It is to cleanse the person of any internal strife between higher and lower, divine and base. It does not offer a new solution to the religious question: how do I live in the face of suffering? Therapy provides no answers. Therapy provides an attack on the answer: stop asking the question and you will be happy.
So the therapeutic student, armed with an intrinsic youthful desire to answer the question, takes the answer in one of a few ways. Usually they establish the doctrine as a new religion. The anti-religion of therapy in which man rejects any specific purpose or telos takes its own religious character in which its negation of the religious answer becomes meaningful. We are not religious.
The therapeutic student is the Batman to the religious Joker. Without his enemy, he does not exist. The therapeutic student, in his displeasure with the therapeutic answer, redefines his self-castration as a form of martyrdom against the repressive forces of the dualist picture of the human. The meaningless character of the Self fulfilling the desire of the Self becomes the object of religious worship. It becomes like God in that we know little of its content or being except that it is the most perfect being. The knowledge of the Self through therapy becomes like the knowledge of the ontological God through philosophy.
The therapeutic student is given a parochial education without any content. He is given platitudes of self-care in order to direct a cosmic libidinal energy towards something. However, because the something could be anything it ends up being nothing. To find any meaning it usually takes the idea of authenticity of the Self as a sort of cosmic protagonist over and against the religious antagonist.
To him, the therapeutic Self is unbearable and only gains its content in pure negation of the forces he sees as oppressing the possibility of the authentic Self. So, the therapeutic Self, unlike the divinely divided person, can look inwardly and be confronted with the absolute arbitrariness of his decisions. The only way to escape this unbearable truth is to deify the very notion of the authentic soul as a negation of the divine. In which we now have the basis of a pseudo-religion.
We see that the therapeutic self has a horrible fork. Either your education is meaningless because it teaches you to choose between a whole platter of nothings; or your education must be directed at a pure negation in which you will continually define yourself in terms of the religious self.