Peter Kreeft: Identity

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The human self is not a given, an object, an essence, whose essential nature is unchangeable and guaranteed, like everything else in the cosmos. Our nature is a task given to us to achieve. We alone can fail to achieve our nature.

By Peter Kreeft, Catholic Education Resource Center


This thing about identity — there’s more here than meets the eye, more here than most psychologists talk about, more here than we can understand, and what I’m going to present is more questions than answers. But I think it’s a profound point, so I’ll say it. This point that our very selfhood is by nature unstable and in question, this is a point that flabbergasts and discombobulates many people, something like Plato’s theory of forms in metaphysics. The point is that the human self is not a given, an object, an essence, whose essential nature is unchangeable and guaranteed, like everything else in the cosmos. Triangles can never be non-triangular, and rocks are always guaranteed to be rocky, and grass is always grassy, and dogs are always doggy, and cats are always catty, but humans can be inhuman. We alone can fail to achieve our nature. Our nature is a task given to us to achieve, not a fact given to us to simply receive.

Now it’s the existentialist philosophers who have emphasized that theme, and many of them, notably atheists like Sartre, have attached to this theme corollaries that don’t need to be attached to it; for instance, there is no human essence, and there is no meaning, and life is therefore meaningless, and we must create our own essence and create our own values, and that we are gods, and that all conformity and receptivity are threatening and dehumanizing to our freedom. The point does not require any of those corollaries. In fact, the point is very traditional, and it goes back at least as far as my friend Boethius again. By the way, I find that Boethius’s old classic, very traditional — and until he gets to Book Five and talks about predestination and free will is nothing at all original; it’s just copying ancient wisdom — I find that my students find that book amazing. It’s to them revolutionary, because the tradition is revolutionary. In an age when revolution becomes tradition, tradition becomes revolution.

So here’s the traditional point quoted from Boethius: “Whatever is must be good [ontologically good, he means, not necessarily morally good]. It follows from this that whatever loses its goodness loses its being. Thus wicked men cease to be what they were. To give oneself to evil is to lose one’s human essence. Just as virtue can raise a person above human nature, vice can lower those whom it has seduced from the condition of men, beneath human nature. For this reason, anyone whom you find transformed by vice cannot really be counted a man [or for that matter a Hobbit. Gollum is an ex-Hobbit, a failed Hobbit. And the Ringwraiths are ex-men, or ‘Un-men’, to use C. S. Lewis’s chilling term from Perelandra].” Boethius goes on, “the man who is driven by avarice is a wolf. The restless, angry man who spends his life in quarrels we should compare to a dog. The treacherous conspirator who steals by fraud may be likened to a fox; the man who is ruled by intemperate anger is correctly thought to have the soul of a lion. The fearful and timid man who trembles without reason is like a deer; the lazy, stupid fellow is like an ass. The volatile, inconstant man who continually changes direction is like a bird; the man who is sunk in foul lust is trapped in the pleasures of a filthy sow.”

Now those are not clever analogies. He’s not doing eisegesis, he’s doing exegesis. He’s looking at people who are addicted to a vice and saying: they’re losing their human nature. “In this way,” he concludes, “anyone who abandons virtue ceases to be a man, since he cannot share in the divine nature — becomes instead a beast.” “Cannot share in the divine nature” — what does he mean there? Well I think he’s thinking of the image of God. If we are made in the image of God, we are remote creaturely finite participations in the divine nature. We are something like God. What is God? I — the name of a person. So we are persons. Now, if you’re overcome by vice, what do you lose? You lose the divine image, you lose the holiest thing of all, your personality. C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams were both quite striking on this. Their picture of hell was a picture where you can no longer say I. You can no longer utter the holy word; you have lost yourself. And Tolkien shows us such a person in Gollum. He gradually loses the ability to say I; he says We.

Our nature is a task given to us to achieve, not a fact given to us to simply receive.

Tolkien, like C. S. Lewis, knew sehnsucht, this mysterious desire for something we-know-not-what, something beyond this world. And like Lewis, he thought that this leads us to our true selves, but it means forgetting ourselves. Sehnsucht is self-forgetful. It’s half of the paradox that if you lose your self you’ll find it. And vice is the other half. If you find your self, if you grasp your self, you’ll lose it. When the object that we desire by sehnsucht is really God, or divine attributes like truth and goodness and beauty, you can’t possess that object. The object is not possessable, it can only possess you. And paradoxically, only then are we fulfilled; only then is our essence stabilized: when we don’t possess the object we desire, but it possesses us.

On the other hand, the violation of the first and greatest commandment, which is idolatry, that is, making anything other than God our god, that’s making our goal possessable, and then you possess it, and then you’re undone. That’s what happened in Eden. Once we laid hands on the fruit we desired, the horrible effect took place immediately: it laid its hands on us. The self was “unselfed” — not filled or fulfilled, but emptied, devastated. The object, the apple, grew into a god, and we shrank into its slaves. We exchanged places; we became the objects, the its, and it became the subject, the I, the lord, the god. We found our identity in what was less than ourselves, in something we could possess. So we were possessed by our possession, or by our possessiveness. That’s precisely the psychology of Sauron and the Ring. We who began as the Adam (Man) became the golem, the “un-man”. I think it’s no accident that Tolkien chose the name Gollum for Smeagol; in the Jewish legend, of course, golem is the “un-man”. Gollum illustrates one half of the paradox; Frodo and Sam illustrate the other half. They attain themselves and save their selves only because they give themselves away — for others, for the Shire, for the world; not for some abstract cause but for each other and for the Shire — concrete things.

In contrast, Gollum is obsessed with his cause, with his possession of the Ring. He almost has no self left, he’s so selfish. He talks to himself more than to others. He makes no distinction between himself and his “Precious”. He’s confused about who he is. He speaks of himself in the third person: “Don’t let them hurt us, Precious!” Listen to that: “Don’t let them hurt us, Precious!” It’s the Ring that’s now the Precious, and Gollum has lost his preciousness, his value. He has become its slave; it has become his master. It’s fetishism. You worship the fetish. You let the object become your subject, your master. In fact, the object has now become the person, the self, the actor, and Gollum has become its object, its “it”. He put his soul inside the fetish, exactly as Sauron did when he made the Ring, so that without that thing his soul is literally torn in two. He’s nothing. He can’t distinguish himself from the Ring; he is the Ring. The person has become a thing, he’s lost his soul: that’s the psychology of damnation.


Tolkien makes a big point in a couple of his letters about the motive of Sauron, and implies that there’s a psychological and social parallel, a close parallel, between that and something we’re doing in modern Western civilization, although he doesn’t quite say it that clearly and preachily. He says when Sauron forged his Ring he put into it much of his power and therefore much of his self, since power is what he identified with, or found his self-identity in. Thus, for Sauron as for Gollum, to lose the Ring is to lose his self. And one who has lost his self, who has only emptiness and ashes for his self, will always demand to reduce all other selves to emptiness and ashes. And that’s why Sauron must reduce all Middle-earth to ashes, to his ashes, to himself. That’s the death wish. You find that, obviously, in tyrants like Hitler. But that’s what we do, when we identify with our stuff. George MacDonald says, “a man is enslaved to whatever he cannot part with that is less than himself.” That’s scary. Sauron is uncomfortably familiar. He’s only an exaggeration or an enlargement of us, or at least, of one possibility for us. Down that road we find the Lieutenant of the Black Gate of Barad-dur, who comes out at the Black Gate to meet the Seven Thousand in that last scene. Tolkien says, “His name is remembered in no tale; for he himself had forgotten it, and he said: ‘I am the Mouth of Sauron'”.

Your real self, your new self, will not come as long as you’re looking for it. It will come only when you’re looking for Him. Does that sound strange? It shouldn’t be. The same principle holds for more everyday matters.

One of the things that it’s almost impossible to talk about in modern literature is damnation. Tolkien does, without using the word. I think — just a personal suspicion — that even unbelievers are afraid of death not mainly because of pain, because most deaths are not painful, though some are, and not even because they love life so much, and they’re losing it, and they don’t believe they’ll ever get it back (that’s more serious). I think deep down they know that we don’t know what comes after, even though we pretend to be certain, we’re not. So nobody knows that there is no hell, and that they will not go there. And even the smallest ingredient of that absolute fear is terrifying, but we daren’t say it. So when Tolkien shows that in a work, it’s arresting. Once in a while you see that in popular art, like in the movie Ghost. Remember that scene where the black demons come out of the darkness and drag a bunch of juvenile delinquents who are killing somebody — they drag them out of time and space, obviously into hell? What an arresting scene.

Here’s how Lewis expresses the point of the volatility of a self, or the fragility of a self — again, in Mere Christianity, which I think, by way, is an absolute masterpiece, one of the most important books of the twentieth century, and if you were to say what aspect of Christianity stands out in the twentieth century as making the most progress, I would probably say ecumenism, and if you were to ask me what single work or author has done the most for that, I’d say this book. I think Lewis’s other great achievement is something, incidentally, that no other author in the entire history of human literature has ever succeeded in doing: presenting Jesus Christ as a compelling fictional character; he did it in the Chronicles of Narnia. Countless people who are caught off guard, children especially, fall in love with Aslan, and they often say, “I love Aslan more than I love Jesus; is that bad?” And Lewis’s answer, of course, is No, Aslan is Jesus. How can I love Aslan more than I love Jesus? Well, I’ve caught you off your guard. You feel towards Aslan, spontaneously, the way Jesus’ contemporaries felt towards Him. What other book about Jesus can do that? I don’t know of any. It’s an astonishing achievement. He does it, of course, only by dipping it in myth: Aslan’s a lion, not a man, and he’s in Narnia, not in Earth. So taking it out of the familiar is the only way to make it more familiar — well, here’s how he explains in Mere Christianity, the other great masterpiece, the point about the self not being stable: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses [he means the I], into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into either a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing towards the one state or the other.”

And of course you’ll think, if you’ve ever read The Weight of Glory, of the greatest paragraph Lewis ever wrote, that last paragraph of that golden sermon, about there being no ordinary creatures: Every time you interact with another human being, you are helping to turn yourself and that other creature into either something so heavenly that if you saw it now you would be strongly tempted to fall down and worship it, or else something that’s so horrible that you can meet it only in a nightmare. And we’re always helping each other to one of those two destinies in every little choice we make.

One other quote from Mere Christianity about this point about the volatility of the self (this is the very last paragraph of the book): “Until you have given up yourself to Christ you will not have a real self. . . . There must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether.”

He says elsewhere that’s the definition of humility. Humility does not mean to have a low view of yourself. It means to have no view of yourself. Having a low view of yourself is miserable; psychologists know that. And that’s also the solution to the problem of introspection. If I ask myself “How am I doing?” I come out with one of three answers: “well”, “terribly” or “so-so”. If I say I’m doing well, I’m a proud, self-righteous, arrogant, self-satisfied priggish Pharisee; if I say I’m doing lousy, I’m a miserable worm with a guilt complex and I need some psychiatry; and if I say I’m sort of fair to middling, then I’m dull, wishy-washy Charlie Brown. So what’s the solution? Don’t look at yourself. Take your temperature when you’re sick; otherwise, look at other people and God. They’re much more interesting.

The first step is to try to forget about yourself altogether. Your real self, your new self, will not come as long as you’re looking for it. It will come only when you’re looking for Him. Does that sound strange? It shouldn’t be. The same principle holds for more everyday matters. Even in social life: you can never make a good impression on other people, until you stop thinking about what sort of an impression you’re making. Even in literature and art: no one who bothers about originality can ever be original. Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth, without caring two pence how often it’s been told before, you will nine times out of ten become original, without ever having noticed it. This principle runs through all of life from top to bottom: give up yourself and you’ll find your real self. Lose your self and you’ll save it.

Submit to death — death of your ambitions, your favourite wishes, every day, and the death of your whole body in the end; submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died can ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you’ll find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. Look for Christ and you’ll find him and with him everything else thrown in. Or, as the most practical man who ever lived once said, and this is my candidate for the most practical sentence ever uttered in the history of the world, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own self?” People hear that and resist it because it’s direct and challenging because it’s familiar. They read Tolkien’s story and see it, and they can’t resist it.



Peter Kreeft. “Identity.” a lecture at the Trinity Forum Academy (June 6, 2005)

Transcribed and reprinted here by permission of Peter Kreeft.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: You Can Understand the Bible, How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a SaintFundamentals of the FaithThe Snakebite LettersThe Philosophy of JesusThe Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern PilgrimsPrayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About PrayerHow to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in CrisisLove Is Stronger Than DeathPhilosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato’s ApologyA Pocket Guide to the Meaning of LifePrayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 Peter Kreeft