(Today I’m posting an excerpt from my thesis which is rotting in the university library with thousands of others. I was thinking of publishing my thesis on some journal, but then only a few scholars and research students would read it. Since my blog has worldwide exposure, i decided to post some portions of my thesis on the blog for the benefit of the public at large. Moreover, by posting it on the blog, i can also address all those people who have been eagerly awaiting for it.)
Humans are endowed with the capacity of reflecting upon the nature of their actions, feelings, and thought processes. Although it’s difficult to locate the self physically, every individual has a sense of the ‘self’ located at the center of their consciousness which is also the subject of all experiences of that individual. An individual is always in a dual conflict: with the society and with his own self. Being a component of the society he lives in, the individual is expected to observe societal norms and liabilities. The human individual often finds himself in a dilemma whether he should endeavor for the pursuit of one’s self or carry out the social responsibility of collective goals.
The study of the self is an essential part of psychological, philosophic, and religious studies. Self may be seen as one’s innermost nature or true essence, the referent of “I” – the ultimate locus of one’s identity. In psychology, the self is the representation of cognitive and affective aspects of one’s identity. In Jungian psychology, “The self is the master archetype . . . in a constant process of development which became fully realized when all aspects of our personalities are equally expressed” (Stokes 141). The self is both the agent and the knower involved in each person’s actions and cognitions.
Other terms closely related to and substituted for self are being, identity, personality, individuality, ego, soul, subject, and consciousness. One’s search for self may be seen as one’s search for personal identity. Since one’s self is a unique feature of one’s personal identity different from all ‘others’, the quest for self is also seen as an individual’s quest for his distinct individuality. Similarly, one’s assertion of individuality may also be seen as the assertion of one’s unique self. Thus the quest for the self is an individual’s quest for his uniqueness that makes him different from all others.
In the Hindu philosophic system, the Atman is an individual’s essence or soul, or an individual’s innermost or true self. Knowing the nature of one’s true self or Atman has been one prime goal among the practitioners of Hinduism. This Atman or true self remains constant while everything else remains in a state of flux. The goal of a seeker would be to discover how one’s individual Atman dissolves into the Universal Self or Divine Self, the Brahman.
Another idea regarding the self in the spiritual traditions is the idea of self-transcendence. The suffering an individual undergoes in the course of life results from their ego or self. Hence, to get rid of the suffering, one has to get rid of the idea of having a separate and constant self. Buddha through his doctrine of Anatta or non-self denied altogether the Hindu philosophy of the existence of a permanent unchanging self or Atman. The spiritual traditions focus on transcending the self or self-transcendence as an art of mastering one’s self. As Frifjof Capra states in his The Tao of Physics, one of the highest aims for their followers whether they are Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists, is to “transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and to identify themselves with the ultimate reality” (24).
In the Western philosophic traditions, Plato defined reason or Intellect as the true self of a being, while Aristotle took soul or the self not as a separate entity but as an activity of the being. Similarly, another Greek philosopher Diogenes preached a doctrine of mastery of the self or self-sufficiency. In the modern philosophical tradition, Descartes and Locke are credited to have begun the discussion on the idea of self. Since the Romantic period the erstwhile religious and theological concept of self became secular and the idea of “unique personal self became fundamental to aesthetics, religion, philosophy, social sciences, and to the general construction of identity” (Hess 1031).
The literary works too are accounts of the protagonists’ quest for self. The quest for self in literary works may be in the form of identity, individuality, or finding one’s unique existence in the society. The characters in quest for their self take an inward journey within and discover the true essence of their self based on their own intense reflections. The protagonists in quest of their self seem highly individualistic, thus take a bizarre path to self-discovery rather than following an ordinary social life. Often such individuals seem to challenge existing social norms, belief systems and authority while asserting the inner calling of their own self.