Sunday, August 29, 2010

Self-Possession



Each man is a new power in nature. He holds the keys of the world in his hands... But he enters the world by one key...
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Lecture VI: ‘Self-Possession,’” Natural Method of Mental Philosophy

The natural second stop on this journey of ten-thousand virtues is Self-Possession, falling right on the heels of Self-Knowledge. It’s a close second; these two complement one another so obviously they are like fraternal twins (not identical, but close together).

Like Romulus and Remus, mythical wolf-child founders of Rome, Self-Knowledge and Self-Possession might be thought of as the founders of the City of Virtue. (Alas, Romulus ultimately killed Remus in a pique of rivalry. As an identical twin myself, I confess this is why we identicals semi-secretly look down on fraternals, like poor country cousins with mismatched socks and uncertain adherence to incest taboos.... No self-respecting identical would murder their twin! [At least not while sober...] I admit to jostling with my “monozygotic other” Kael esp. on “bad” a.k.a “no-coffee” mornings. But at those times I'd say it's a tossup as to which one of us truly qualifies as the “evil” twin. I digress...)

What is Self-Possession? The American Heritage Dictionary describes it as “full command of one's faculties, feelings, and behavior.” So, working the metaphor: If life’s journey makes a pilgrimage through the virtues, perhaps Self-Possession can be thought of as the steed we command to take us to desired destinations (and Self-Knowledge that which helps us direct it).

In his 1858 lecture on “Self-Possession,” American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson defined Self-Possession as speaking your mind, as opposed to parroting the ideas of those around you:

Your power in the world must be by and through your individualism. Opinions are organic. Every man who stamps his personality on his life is great and free.

As a child in the 70s, “be yourself” was an alembic in which I swam almost daily, and the Transcendalist fathers no doubt would have approved. (Imagine Emerson with braids, granny glasses, Jerry Garcia-esque tie dye, and beads. Kind of a homely hippy... no offense, Mr. Emerson!) Back in the 70s, the Sisters of the Presentation of a Very Special Mister Christopher Parish1 took us schoolkids to assemblies to see films like Free to Be, You and Me-- 
--paeans to the beliefs of Emerson and his followers. (Notice those 70s kids' horses are going in circles. Hmmm...)

A critic of Emerson at the time2 bashed his remarks for being 1) vague and 2) failing to give his listeners clear moral directions--in other words, mistaking the steed of Self-Possession as the map to the destinations of virtue, rather than the means of getting to them. The horse is not the rider, nor is it the destination.

Modern-day fairy tale expert Vigen Guroian, in his book Tending the Heart of Virtue, goes further, arguing that such thinking leads to a chaotic landscape featuring relativistic “values” of variable meaning, instead of virtues that are innate unto themselves. To work the metaphor: Imagine setting out on your faithful horse, Self-Possession, to attain a destination, say Valor, or maybe the Celtic virtue Iondracus (Truthfulness), or the Buddhist virtue Upeksha (Equanimity). And maybe you find it. Or, you can have such faith in your mount that after a full day of riding, you conclude that you have found the place you sought, wherever you wind up: “I now dub this pretty boulder-and-cactus Valor, property of the King!”

In other words, we’re not talking about “values,” a word that Friedrich Nietzsche invented3 to describe the behavior of his Ubermensch or “Overman” (an idea that found strong appeal among the Nazis). Chosen values may differ from person to person; virtues are solid qualities unto themselves. Mistake Self-Possession for the destination, rather than the way to get there, and Self-Knowledge transforms into Self-Delusion, and like the jealous Romulus, it kills its brother in a rage: Self-Possession is lost.

I give Emerson credit for one illuminating angle in his lecture: It is through the keys of individual people (mostly) that we find the gates to the virtues.4 Your mother’s Patience; your best friend’s Loyalty; the Joyousness of your pet dachshund--these are glimpses into Divine qualities. Some of these aspects shine out of us naturally, like cities found along the coastline. Others, if we are to discover and claim them, take a journey to reach and manifest. They are within our undiscovered country, and just like the invisible cities of Kublai Khan's far-flung empire, we can find them through effort. The marshalling of that effort is through our Self-Possession.

The image of the horse-and-rider, and even the term Self-Possession, makes me think of certain ceremonies in Vodoun in which a Loa (revered Spirit) can possess and speak through the body of a human being. This is literally called "riding the horse." (See the delightful Talking Heads song "Papa Legba" for a description.) (And because this is a happily ecumenical blog, I note that some Christian denominations similarly believe in ecstatic rites the Holy Spirit can cause a penitent's body to "speak in tongues"; in Reclaiming this is called "aspecting.") When we chose to take "command of our faculties," when we take possession of who we are in the world, it's a spiritual act. And I think it's only possible through the more fundamental quality of Self-Knowledge. 

This elevating effect of Self-Possession is seen in our living examples. If you ask people to describe someone with Self-Possession, often they will list world leaders, or famous historical figures who rose to greatness from humble beginnings--in other words, the lofty. But while we might not all have perfect Self-Possession, anymore than every horse can be the Lone Ranger’s Silver, we all have some serviceable amount of it, enough to move us forward. 

Today, spend a moment asking yourself, "Who represents Self-Possession to me?" Is it a famous general, a saint, a president? Is it a friend or co-worker or relative? How does their example inspire you to holler: Heigh ho, Silver! Away...

May we see the gates of Self-Possession and perhaps make a home there.

1 I’ll tell the story behind the parish name at a later stop, promise!
2 The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1871, Vol. 2. Eds. RA Bosco, J Myerson. p. 117.
3 in his work Beyond Good and Evil, for those interested
4 I believe there are certain virtues that pertain more to the behavior of groups rather than individuals; we will visit the idea of "group virtues" later this month.

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