Thursday 12 May 2016

The polarity of self and persona - an ultimate reality

If we use the nomenclature of 'self' to express our true, innermost and embryonically-divine nature, and 'persona' to describe the public, interactive aspect - the 'personality' which is a consequence of experience; then we can see that while they need to be distinguished, the two are bound together as a polarity.

We start-out as the self, interacting with nature (the environment, everything that is not-the-self) and participating in it. At this stage life is real and involving because our selves are interacting with it and we know, therefore, moment to moment; that everything 'out-there' is known only by the interaction with the self 'in here'.

But at this stage, 'nature' overwhelms us and drives us, because pretty much all of the self is used in this interaction. We do not feel separate from the environment (or hardly so) but the cost is that we are unfree - because we cannot separate our self, the self is swept-along by the environment.

(The environment is experienced as real, alive, conscious - but the self is unnoticed and has no distinctive role: life is lived, the self does not live life.)

So, the self develops the persona - the public mask - which serves the useful purpose of interacting with the environment using automatic algorithms. The persona is like a protective robot which does the routine work of dealing with nature (including other people) - and the robot leans from experience how to do this.

(In each life, a human moves - to some extent - from the naked self dealing with the environment in the un-self-consciousness of early childhood, absorbed in the mother and family, home and community; to the later childhood and adolescent experience of becoming self-conscious - when the self is experienced as distinct from, potentially set-against, the environment (both social and physical).

The self benefits from the persona (at least initially, potentially) by having the persona do much of the routine work, and thus the self becomes increasingly aware of itself, and aware that it is separate from the environment - because now the persona is interposed. The self has autonomy, time and energies to devote to contemplating its self, its condition and situation, and to considering strategy beyond the moment to moment interactions with nature. Philosophy becomes possible.

As the environment becomes more complex and demanding (for example with increasing complexity of society) so the self diminishes in significance, and the persona increases in importance; until the persona is doing almost everything, using the 'automatic' (robotic) processes it has evolved. The self begins to lose contact with reality, because it no longer deals with nature; the self - that was master - becomes a helpless prisoner of its slave, the persona  - the robot takes-over and imprisons the divine self.

(Initially the self was like an ideal manager who deals with strategy; while the persona was like the front-like workforce who mostly implement standard protocols to deal with the outside world. The manager knows about the outside world via the workforce and has a strong sense of the identity of the whole organization. But later the front-line workers imprison the manager and there is then no strategy at all, nobody has any knowledge of the overall situation of the organization in term of its own goals or the organizations situation in the environment: there is just the workforce, who are unconscious of everything except the immediate business of implementing predetermined protocols.)

So the persona is now doing pretty-much all the work and the self is no longer aware of 'nature' nor is the self directing the persona strategically; but is living in enforced idleness and impotence, having no direct contact with outer reality. Since we as individuals live ultimately in the self as the default to which we revert when not actively engaged with the outer world; insofar as we are aware at all, we experience our state (i.e. the state of the self) as alienation, impotence, meaninglessness, frustration - and indeed begin to doubt first our significance and then our reality.

Thus nihilism; when our self begins to doubt first its own reality (materialism, positivism), then - by a natural inference - doubt the reality of everything else (solipsism).

However, the relationship between self and persona is one of polarity; they cannot really be divided. The self can be overwhelmingly dominant, or the persona can be - as in modern culture; but they are both part of the same phenomenon (there must be an inner core and there must also be a periphery where this inner core interacts with what surrounds it - although the relative size of core and periphery may vary widely) and the reality is that the persona is generated continually by the self, and vice versa.

There are three possible futures:

1. We might stay as we are (and have been for more than two centuries in The West): We have a self that is unaware not just of the outer world but of its own reality - and therefore utterly unaware of the work of the persona: a self that simply takes for granted the persona, and since it lacks contact with environment it is unconscious of that too. So there is just a demoralized and self-despizing isolated self, for whom 'reality' is the product of the persona - and the self is alternately overwhelmed by this reality and doubting of its own reality; or doubts outer-reality and supposes that everything is a product of the self: the state of solipsism.

2. We might go back to the earlier stage of the self interacting directly with the outer world (unprotected by the persona), and unconscious of itself - the persona shrinking back to its earlier minimal state. This could probably only happen if the environment was greatly reduced in complexity (including size). This move to extinguish self-consciousness also amounts to a kind of death wish by which consciousness wills its own extinction.

3. We might go forward to a state of greater consciousness. The Self becomes aware of the persona, aware of the reality of the persona (and therefore of the outer environment with which the persona deals), and aware of the work-methods of the persona - aware that is, of the standard protocols of the persona in dealing with nature.

 This is metaphysics as an active process; it is awareness of our fundamental assumptions. Stage 3 is, indeed, primarily about increased awareness - new awareness of that which we previous took for granted hence were constrained by. It is therefore awareness that makes us ultimately free.

(It is as if we are currently sleepwalking, and have indeed been sleepwalking through all history - either unconsciously dominated by or unknowingly cut-off-from the outer environment. The evolution of consciousness is about increasing that of which we are aware, of bringing it to consciousness: a matter of waking-up!)

The self again becomes real - remains free and autonomous, because it retains the benefits of being protected by the persona. But the persona is no longer taken for granted nor assumed to be giving a complete and unbiased picture of the outer environment - rather, the persona is brought to awareness in its reality and qualities.

We will know that the outer environment is real, and we will also know that we are inextricably and necessarily involved in that outer environment - because everything we know about it comes from interaction. The division between inner and outer is therefore erased, and replaced by awareness of the distinction (but not division) between the self and the persona.

So, with the polarity of self and persona we reach an ultimate reality - beyond which we cannot go, because it makes no sense to try and do so. The polarity of self and persona is the conscious recognition and awareness that the two are different but make up a single process operating through time - indeed, operating eternally.

It is meditation on, contemplation of, the polarity between self and persona that holds the key to moving onto Stage 3.

(Beyond an ultimate reality of the polarity of self and persona, lies the ultimate polarity of God and Man - but that is already dealt with by Christian faith; within which the above schema should be embedded.)


David Balfour said...

Some clarifying questions:

Presumably it is the persona that is the seat of the ego (and therefore by extension it is the seat of the tendency to vices and attachments including greed, lust, pride, etc. that set out in error to satisfy and develop an attachment to the false self or persona but only strengthen them selves and are never truely sated) because we mistake this false self for our actual selves?

Presumably also the true self is the seat of real intelligence or g and free will or agency whilst the persona cannot react with anything more that rote, mechanical operations? So truely therefore the self is the 'ghost in the machine' that in this horrifying computer technology obsessed era the persona is not overriding as a fiction, so entirely and rigidly identified as we generally are now with the persona!

Bruce Charlton said...


Yes, the persona is the seat of vices - but the ego and attachments are not bad things as such; not for a Christian. For a Christian there must be a self (which at least overlaps with the ego) and the aim is love (which is an attachment) - the wish to extinguish the ego and attachments is a wish to annihilate self-consciousness and return to the original participation of young childhood.

This is not an evil wish, but it is certainly not what God most wants for us, and why we (and the rest of reality) were created - it amounts to a failure of creation, and pressing the reset button.

"the true self is the seat of real intelligence or g and free will or agency" - yes, but recognizing that our explicit public understanding of these things is as partial and distorted 'models' and not the truth - the truth of these things is available only to imagination and not communicable by perceptual means.