Personal Identity: A Brief Reflection through the Park

Some time ago, I walking through a park with a friend and his roommate, when the conversation fell to a dead end. Breaking the silence, my friend’s roommate asked if I had any questions. “I have one” I replied, “which is the same one I asked before and the same one that was not answered – what do you believe concerning personal identity?”

16996062_10154612696748073_6644034800623360760_nHe replied, “Identity is like a book, and our actions are like turning it into a journal. I can write whatever I desire. I can write the truth, I can write lies. I can write what I would want someone to read and I hide what I would not want anyone to read. But,” as he continued, “so is the defect of every journal: you will never know, truly, who I am no matter what I write.”

“Of course,” I said, “but I am not concerned with what you have written, I am concerned with the book itself – that which is enduring through your journaling.” Before I could manage a complete explanation, he retorted, “Yes, but to each person is their own perception of the book. The book itself, like personal identity, is subjected to the same limitations of the writing in the journal. I could throw away the book, like one could throw away their identity.”

We continued walking down the path in silence while I contemplated a way to craft my explanation into my example. I noticed we were approaching lamppost and so offered to explain of my concern by way of the lamppost. Eagerly they agreed.

“I think it is safe to suppose,” exaggerating my hand gestures over the contours of the lamppost, “ that here stands the lamppost. And, furthermore, allow us to grant that each of us has a distinct perception of this lamppost. Allow us to suppose that this lamppost inspires in us different associations: the lamppost Lucy found on the other side of the wardrobe in Narnia, or the lamppost under which the child was maimed to death by Mr. Hyde. Allow us to suppose we had the potential to gather around the entirety of the earth’s population around this lamppost. And allow us to suppose that all of them had differing inspirations: that they wrote plays, and sang songs, and dedicated their poem, ‘The Weary Lamppost’, to this very lamppost. Could we really remove this lamppost, this one in this park, and still agree that there is meaning in all of their perceptions? Despite all the differences in perceptions, the irregularities and regularities, is there not something fixed by which both “the truth” and “lies” may be crafted “about”? Could we really argue that identity, separated from any essential feature, is identity at all?”

We continued for some time in silence, breaking it now and again to reminisce some cruel event or witty comment. But what endured then, and will continue to endure well beyond this moment, writing from a Pennsylvania hotel lobby, is the question chewing at the heels of modern man: does  the identity of anything, a painting or a child or the image of God, bear within it the absolute limits of what we can change, and what can be changed and still call it the same thing? Does “being a human” necessarily preclude “being” in a certain way?

Reflections on The John Jay Institute – A Speech

“[We therefore must] find work that only a knight can do – to find a land of trouble and fear, someplace where little children cannot play in safety, where some woman may have been carried from her home, where perhaps there are dragons left to be slain.” – St. George and the Dragon

Throughout my term, and I hope to the amusement of my classmates, I have smuggled a thought or two from the insightful G.K. Chesterton in each of our classes. And so, quite naturally, I have wondered why I should break that habit now.

Chesterton writes,

It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.”

In reflecting over my time at The John Jay Institute, I am left in quite the same conundrum. I am left grasping for object after object. Why, there is that corpus of tried-and true books that serves the core of our curriculum; there is the community of Christianity, almost celestial, between Catholics of differing orders and Protestants of differing ranks; and the Alumni group which has, and has continued, to serve the needs of our Fellowship, be it in the capacity of alumni or professor.

But there is something more I’d like to share, something that spurs one to attempt, as Chesterton himself, a reply beyond the impossible. To give something greater than those afternoon teas when we laughed until we cried, or those evenings when we cried until we laughed. Something greater than merely our unique moments where our personal and spiritual and academic lives converged into community.

That something is the goal in which The John Jay Institute has been established to pursue. They have not merely formed a vision, but have turned that vision into something tangible: an object to be grasped, an idea to be applied, a virtue to be lived out in our contemplative and missionary lives. “It is said that physicians sometimes ask patients, ‘Do you really wish to get well?’ And, to be perfectly realistic in this matter, we must put the question of whether modern civilization wishes to survive.” (Richard Weaver) The John Jay Institute has given a corpus to that question, a voice to the flesh and blood, to go out into the world and proclaim that fateful question to our leaders and to our society. Do you want our civilization to survive, and are you prepared to make the necessary sacrifices?

To be a part of something such as that, something so vast and so impossible yet at the same time most valuable, I will always be thankful.