My dear reader, forgive me for what is most likely a projection. I am loath to admit it but often when poetry begins some prose piece that I am to read, I do little more than skim it. I have never even read through all of the poems that begin Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. Please do not gasp too loudly—I know I’m a terrible human being. So, please do not be like me. Please read these selections (and ideally the whole thing sometime) from Walt Whitman‘s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” carefully, tasting the words in your mouth, experiencing the poem in your heart. The effects of poetry are subtle—as Gary Snyder notes to Wendell Berry, “… The place we do our real work is in the unconscious, or myth-consciousness of the culture; a place where people decide (without knowing it) to change their values” (Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder)—and I fear that the philosophical points that I want to make are less likely to robustly come across if you do not linger a while with Whitman’s words.
“When the water is deep, the boat rides high. When there is much mud, the Buddha is large.”
—Dōgen, “The Indestructible Nature in Deep Muddy Water” in the Eihei Kōroku
“Know thyself” is the fairly famous injunction inscribed overhead at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. The meaning of this may be less obvious than it seems, but regardless of how it was intended, we can read it in different ways depending on what we understand by “knowing” and what we understand by “self.”
I originally became interested in thinking about different conceptions of self in the context of death. Consider the original reasoning that got me interested in philosophy: “If there is no God, then there is no soul. If there is no soul, then there is no afterlife. If there is no afterlife, then the self ceases to exist upon death. Ceasing to exist is not good. Thus, death is not good. Thus… fuck.” But that conclusion depends on a very particular conception of self. To use a turn of phrase from Walt Whitman, it presupposes a conception of self where the self is contained “between one’s hat and boots.”
It seems to me that this idea strikes us as obvious (where the “us” in question is quite Western). That is, if I am not a self-contained, independently existing soul, then I must be this flesh and blood that “I” haul around everywhere. Mustn’t this be true? How could I be anything else? Even if I, or even an entire culture, were to say that what myself is is something other than this flesh and blood, this lump of flesh, how can that make it so? It’s obvious, isn’t it? It couldn’t. After all, consider the most extreme case: if the entire earth were to be destroyed, I would certainly still survive entirely intact if I managed to get away on, say, a spaceship. If not a soul, then I am necessarily this lump of flesh. An analogy: Calling my cat a “dog,” giving it dog food, a dog bone, and making it sleep in the doghouse, does not make him into a dog. I cannot make my cat something he is not by my treatment of him.
I believe that one day in the next sixty years I will cease to exist. I will die. I don’t believe I’ve got a soul, immortal or otherwise. Perhaps a soul is possible—though the notion doesn’t make sense to me—but we shouldn’t confuse possibility with probability. My ceasing to exist one day causes me a fair amount of unease. It’s rather untoward of life to do such a thing as cease—human life, anyway: my life and those I love, anyway. But whence this unease? Well, I value my experiences and much else besides. Upon bodily death, those experiences (my consciousness and memories) will cease and I will exit the stage of my relationships.
But what if I am wrong to value my continued consciousness so highly? What if there was some other aspect of me that was more valuable and which might continue on in some fashion upon my bodily death? What more could I be though, besides my conscious body, which will expire? I have long given pride of place to my consciousness when thinking about death. No consciousness = no me = sad/terrified/uneasy me prior to death. But since the death of my former wife, Jennie Wrisley, I have been intensely interested in achieving a better understanding of what it is to be a person, to figure out whether I am contained between my hat and boots—whether any one is (though not between MY hat and boots). My anxiousness about death and my drive to understand personhood is why I am teaching a class called “Death and Awe” this fall. I plan to use it as an opportunity to get clearer on these issues.