The "I" through history

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
October 28th, 2014

“… our Self is our operations centre, our consciousness, our moral compass.”— Gary Wolf, founder of ‘The Quantified Self Movement’

Selfhood in the Twenty-first Century

There is a high degree of consensus among writers about the past and the present that humans’ sense of self has changed markedly over time. Just today I learned about a movement called “the quantified self” that has apparently been around since 2007 and was “invented” in California by Gary Wolf. The Economist Magazine* has featured the movement in its pages.

Thanks to technology, each of us can record and measure a great deal of data about what we do in a day. Heart-rate, intake of food and other substances, sleep patterns, moods, are just a few of the multitude of facts about our bodies that now we can track with tiny devices, e.g., the earbuds we wear to listen to music – there are designs for these that can be used to gather data, as can your smartphone or a piece of jewelry or clothing.

The thinking is, this is how we gain self knowledge. And from self-knowledge, comes Self transformation, the goal of all therapy and self-help enterprises. A new, better you is at hand.

Today, this practice of self-monitoring is a “movement” among the relatively few people who have the drive to know such things about themselves and have the tech-toys to do it. Tomorrow a lot more of us may be part of this, and it will seem less like a movement and more like normal life — in the way it is normal to have your smartphone in hand and your eyes locked on it and talking to the air, for a pretty large number of people out in public.

Surely these new technologies will change how we conceive of the Self, the ego, the thing inside you that thinks, feels, knows, remembers, and decides. Who we think we are, inside, will surely alter as new instruments are created in the outside world.

Medieval Selfhood, and Modern

I will keep to my focus on human being in the Middle Ages that I began in recent columns. Being conscious in the medieval era was not like consciousness in our time. Because of the immensely different material conditions of medieval people, their shorter life-spans, their religious and political institutions, and the world they believed they lived within, their minds by necessity had to have been very different from ours. Yet, they were human. Their inner being must share common denominators with our being, no matter the differences of their external world. The inner monologue that I conceive as my Self must have been part of a medieval person’s being as well, with all the qualifiers necessary to account for cultural changes. A noble lord, a king, a pope, with the advantage bestowed by social status, had a sense of selfhood that would not be available to a commoner. A lord had a history in his family pedigree; he wore his family crest, a coat of arms, and troubadours sang epic tales of his noble ancestors. A lord had an ego. So did kings and popes. It was lordly to be an egoist. Commoners had none of that, lacking even a surname. Folk memory was collective, not individual and privatized.

Differences that make a Difference

First, medieval people lived in a quiet time. No machinery, other than a mill, would have disturbed the quiet of rural regions. Cities had no cars or factories run by energy other than wind, water and muscle. Church bells would be a notable feature of the medieval person’s soundscape. Sounds would carry a long way when no other sound competed with them. We know little of such peace and quiet today. Our minds and medieval people’s had to have been quite dissimilar due to this fact of noise-making technologies being so vastly unalike.

The lack of machinery, which vastly increases mechanical power at the command of humanity, meant people then experienced their bodies and the strength they had, and their hand skills, in ways we do not normally experience. They knew physical and material limitations as a reality we cannot appreciate, with our cars and our electric tools, airplanes and light-speed electronic communications. Ignorance then had an excuse, much less than in our present age.

Second, the medieval night was a dark time, not in the least like our age of electric-light utopia, “24/7” as we like to say. Time means less to us in this way, since all hours are available. Not so for medievals. We always know “what time it is” thanks to our “time-keeping” technologies, of which the Middle Ages had very few (e.g., marked candles, sundials). Yet they employed natural ways to track time, with the round of prayers (morning, noon, evening, midnight) in Church buildings, and the progression of the seasons and natural cycles like moon phases and the growth and harvest of domesticated plants and animals.

Third, the mental landscape of medieval consciousness was predicated on a lack of human power to control events. People then accepted powerlessness in a way we moderns would never tolerate. Life was known to be short and very dangerous. Childbirth killed many women; disease was a fact and few were surprised to lose several children in their young years, so parents felt less invested in the raising of children.

Weather events could be catastrophic, and ruined crops meant famine, and famine meant epidemics of illness that struck down the malnourished. Death sat near at hand in medieval reality, in a present, even urgent, manner that we thankfully do not experience as “our reality.”

Violence of one person on another was rife then; kings and lords could casually hurt people and property, and their authority to make war was not challenged by medieval norms of right and wrong. To be a lord was to have the privilege of exerting force on one’s social inferiors, especially one’s serfs or the bourgeois in a town on your feudal land. Nobles were a breed of human far above the common; avoidance of force would bring one’s nobility into question.

Since the revolutions that have shaken England, America, France, Russia and so on, since about the year 1600, we do not have the same tolerance for aristocrats assuming their manifest superiority over us, the common run of folks. It has taken a long time to inculcate our habit of asserting ourselves against an elite of blood. Perhaps our inability to effectively challenge the global elite atop their mountain of material accumulation is evidence we have not moved us as far along the path of progress as we might like to believe we have.

Remember this statistic: in 2014, 85 individuals are “worth” as much as the “bottom 50%” of human beings on earth; the 85 own so much. Are we truly ahead of medieval social justice when so few people can lord it over billions? No, is my answer.

Mysticism, Matter, and God

Last, the medieval mind knew God in a way we simply do not. Everywhere, God was present – this is basic Christianity. Everywhere the War in Heaven between God and Satan was played out on Earth too. Evil was real, not an absence of good. Demons awaited opportunity, and meant ill to all human souls.

Much that was a mystery to medievals was understood as Providence, the will of God working its mysterious way according to a purpose no human mind could fathom. We moderns have a very low tolerance for mystery. In the modern view of reality, room for God has shrunk drastically from what was true for medievals. A small minority of Canadians spare any time to think about whether they will be “saved” by Jesus Christ and the Church supposedly founded by his life and teachings.

Medievals simply would not comprehend a modern attitude toward humanity; we seem to believe humans can be perpetually improved. Medievals understood the fallacy of that idea. Their faith taught, through the medium of the Church and its ubiquitous clergy, that Adam suffered a Fall in the garden of Eden; henceforth Man is defective, flawed, depraved, fallen.

We moderns simply will not accept unanswered questions of fact; we expect scientific materialism to find explanations for most phenomena. Even the answer to “what happens after death?” is being probed by our sciences now. Some confidently expect science will answer it.

Many previously-unanswered questions about how mind and consciousness operate, are being answered by cognitive neuroscience in its relentless mapping of our brain. Biochemicals and energies and DNA effects are explaining what makes thought and feeling occur. There are scientists who declare that materialism will solve the mystery of our sense of an “I” within our mind. The origin of consciousness growing out of, and emerging from, matter, will be proven. Materialism asserts that Matter comes first and consciousness emerges from it, that Mind is an effect originating from brain-matter-and-energy.

Conclusions: humans r’ us

I have noticed that when I teach medieval history to young students, teens and twenty-somethings, their attitude is judgmental – they know they are smarter and better than medieval people — as they know they are going to progress beyond their parents in some meaningful way. They condescend to medieval people, those ignorant, benighted humans of the past who were so manifestly inferior to present-day humanity in Canada.

But the same students are adamant that it is wrong to judge other ethnicities and other cultures. The young in Canada are vociferously outspoken about their better ideas regarding Natives, Asians, Africans, and people of variant sexual identities. They are proud and certain that they have not a racist (nor homophobic or sexist) bone in their bodies. Ah, to be young!

It is the privilege of the young to judge their parents and the generations that have just preceded them, but clearly, the principle of “ageism” is not different in quality from racism.

It behooves us not to take a patronizing attitude toward medieval people, their minds and consciousness, and their particular and peculiar notion of Self.

If perchance you run into a medieval who has been kidnapped from the past and set here in the 21st century, and supposing no language barrier, the kindest path would be to start teaching them about the insane world they have come to, in a gentle manner. I suggest taking this unfortunate victim of time travel to a church. There one might begin to build the slimmest of common ground under your feet and theirs. Or maybe the first thing one would want to do is give this person a bath. We all know that about medieval folk, right? Poor personal hygiene…


Charles Jeans is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Art Of The Cognizant can be found here.



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