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The Stupidity of Self-Actualization And How To Get Truly Woke

The Stupidity of Self-Actualization And How To Get Truly Woke

February 4, 2022

Arrogance and stupidity often go hand in hand. I, for one, should know this better than anybody. Fortunately, from time to time, God reminds me of this dangerous dynamic. When He does, and when I listen, I turn back to those fundamental sources of humility and wisdom: the Bible and its divine Author. Reading good books, like this one, and communing with God's people (in prayer and worship) can also help in the process of being humble and acting wisely. However, these help only in so far as they further my understanding of God's words and of God. Anything we learn from or experience through others is only as good as it helps us know God more fully and to serve Him more completely.

As such, I at least have some method for trying to not be stupid and, consequently, avoid being arrogant. In this way, I can recognize my own tendency toward pride, given the massive gaps in my knowledge, and then I can do my best to be okay with the existence of gaps. This does not mean I must resign myself to the particular knowledge gaps I currently have, as if I cannot continue to learn. It just means I can be resigned to the overarching fact that there will always be gaps, even once earlier gaps have been filled. It also does not mean that I cannot bear convictions, and bear them with confidence, especially when it may cost me greatly to do so.

Therefore, I can find peace with my own finitude and rest in my own incapacity, yet do so without being complacent about my current ignorance or at ease with acting impetuously. I also can recognize ignorance or inability without being afraid to speak truth boldly. However, this entire attitude is precipitated by something more fundamental to itself, namely, the need to look outside myself to become what I am supposed to be. There is a desperate appeal to an external source as a necessary condition for both humility and knowledge. It is this appeal, however, that is especially distasteful to the current spirit of the age and its nauseating message to just "be yourself."

The Rise and Triumph of Self-Actualization

One of the most grossly arrogant and dumb ideas ever foisted upon modern man, and upon me being a modern man, is the idea of "self-actualization." Of course the idea of self-actualization was not "foisted" upon mankind in the strict sense. Theologically speaking there has been an unhealthy alliance between the will of men and of that of Satan since the Fall. This is an alliance that makes each individual as complicit in his or her own arrogance and stupidity as that dark power which constantly tempts us to mimic his original pride.

Thus, men and women invented the idea of self-actualization and, throughout history, it has been foisted on some by others as a type of anti-dogma. But neither is self-actualization really a new dogma. Like all other ideas, the idea of self-actualization is as ancient as rational thought itself. Aeschylus makes Prometheus the champion of the anti-dogma in his rebellion against tyrannical Zeus. Milton, having greater knowledge of spiritual things given the biblical revelation, fixes the Greek dramatists' speculations by ascribing the anti-dogma more precisely to Satan. In this sense, self-actualization itself is not a modern idea.

The greatest misfortune to befall the Western world over the last several hundred years, however, is the reversal of our appraisal of self-actualization. This, if anything, is the modern development. It is not the idea of self-actualization itself but the evaluation or estimation of the idea. For most of human history, and in most cultures, men considered the idea of self-actualization either arrogant or impossible, meaning, dumb. However, starting (roughly) with Rousseau and moving through de Sade, Marx, Wilde and Nietzsche, by the time we arrive at Disney, Oprah and Pride Month self-actualization is no longer the "anti"-dogma but the standard doctrine or received ethos in the Western world.

Like everyone else, therefore, I too am often tempted to entertain the idea that I can, through my own efforts and in my own power, actualize myself. Living in a culture dominated by the dogma of self-actualization, it takes tremendous effort to resist the teachings of self-creation, self-identity and self-expression. Or, even more arrogant and stupid than thinking it is up to me to actualize myself, is the idea that society itself exists in order to provide me with an easy pathway to that actualization.

In this second instance, any struggle I might encounter in my own journey of self-actualization cannot be "my responsibility." Instead, obstacles to my self-actualization must come from the culture around me. This, in turn, means that I must also work to ensure that not only do I change but also that the culture in which I find myself changes along with me.

One might even say that much of the crises today in the Western world exists between two warring factions, both with different approaches to this same goal of self-actualization.

The Modernist Approach to Self and Self-Actualization

The first of these we might call the "modernist" approach. The second we can call the "post-modernist." These terms seem historically and philosophically appropriate, even if they are hackneyed in their use. For sake of argument, I will keep the definitions short and only define them as they apply to this goal of self-actualization.

For the modernist, then, self-actualization might be understood as maximizing one's creative potential given what one is. The "what one is," is known primarily, if not exclusively, through the natural sciences. The natural sciences are our best, or only, source of knowledge about anything real in that they rely strictly on the instrumental use of reason. The modernist sees the human person as basically a highly functioning biological machine acting in a purely material world of stimulus and reaction.

However, this human machine is unique in that it can investigate the natural environment in which it lives and reflect upon how it should live in that environment. This is the heart of the modernist's enigma, for life certainly does not seem determined, even if, given modernism's main philosophical tenets, free will is essentially an illusion. Regardless of this enigma, the fact is that unlike other beings in the same natural environment, the human organism has attained, albeit surprisingly, this strange emergent property of self-reflexivity. Nevertheless, there is nothing beyond the natural environment and the self-reflexive human investigator that can tell the investigator how she should live. As such, only the what of life can be known.

Because of this basic set-up, one obvious way the modernist might choose to self-actualize is to maximize her use of reason given what she is. In doing so, she can achieve a place in society where she can most fully utilize her physical and intellectual abilities. The specific reasons for maximizing one's potential in a society are mainly up to the individual. That is, they are purely subjective both in their origin and in one's reasons for holding on to them. They are not derived from or obligated to some external or objective standard or principle.

However, two basic kinds of reasons that are very common are either to maximize pleasures of various types or to act in accord with some perceived universal ethic. We could label these two, somewhat opposing, motivations the Epicurean and the Kantian impulses. They are both standard kinds of reasons for many modernists to act the way they do.

In either case however the organizing principle for the actualization of the self is the assumption that reason is reliable and that there are facts about nature, a part of which is human nature. If one can maximize reason so as to align oneself with those facts, or control them, then one has the best shot at becoming a fully actualized person. Most modernists today will tend to be atheists with regard to religious belief. In the 18th and 19th centuries they would have tended to be something like deists. William Ernest Henley's poem might best sum up the modernist ethos.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.


Subject to the meaningless forces of random nature, the modern man can nevertheless hold his head high, knowing exactly what he is given his powers of reason and with that power he can forge on to victory (in-victus).

The Post-Modernist Approach to the Same Thing

The Post-Modernist approach resembles the modernist approach in that there is also only the material world and the human machine living in it. However, in contrast to the modernist approach to self and self-actualization, the post-modernist does not assume that reason is universal or reliable. Reason is neither. In fact, there really isn't anything to point to called "reason." That itself is a reifying act of the creative will. There are only reasonings or people who use a process we label "reason," but there is not Reason.

Consequently, because there is no real reason, there are also no "facts" about nature. There are only views about nature; as many views as there might be viewers. What are called "facts" are not actual deliverances of a common human process of reason, they are statements made by the powerful, or by the majority. As post-modernist par excellence Richard Rorty once said of truth, "Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with."

Because of this, the post-modernist cannot say along with the modernist that one should try to maximize one's potential given "what" one is. For there is no one and no thing to really say what it is that we are. The French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre summed up this notion fairly succinctly as "existence before essence." As such, to actualize oneself on the post-modern view is literally to define what one actually is. It is to create a self and, after creating oneself, live in accordance with what one has self-created. Critical race theorist, Angela Harris, described the post-modern self this way:

[W]e are not born with a "self," but rather are composed of a welter of partial, sometimes contradictory, or even antithetical "selves." A unified identity, if such can ever exist, is a product of will, not a common destiny or natural birthright. Thus, consciousness is "never fixed, never attained once and for all"; it is not a final outcome or a biological given, but a process, a constant contradictory state of becoming, in which both social institutions and individual wills are deeply implicated.

Harris, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory

The difference between Henley's modernism and Harris' post-modernism is quite noticeable. Henley is "master of his fate" and "captain of his soul." For Harris, one cannot have such confidence. But it is not just a psychological confidence that the white, 19th century Englishman happens to have that the 20th-century black woman does not. It is a confidence based on a very different set of metaphysical assumptions about the world. Henley really believes he knows what he is. Harris really believes she does not.

The philosophical categories, the fixedness of logic and nature, presupposed by Henley in 1875 are no longer accepted in 1975 when scholars like Harris are coming of age. Henley's confidence and Harris' sense of living in a "constant contradictory state of becoming" have nothing to do with their racially constructed identities, but everything to do with the metaphysical models of reality they assume as given.

The good news, however, is that there is a third way for man. In fact, there is a much better way for man to know both what he is and what he is made for than either the modernist or post-modernist approach can allow.

A Third Way?: Lessons From Pre-Modern Man

The 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus gives us a clue about what man really is. But, unlike his intellectual successors, he does not do this by speaking about man directly. Instead of starting with man, Plotinus describes, in part, the origin of man. Or, better said, he describes the activity of man's Originator, who Plotinus refers to simply as "the One:"

The One is, if we may say so, borne to his own interior, as it were well pleased with himself, the 'pure radiance,' being himself this with which he is well pleased; but this means that he gives himself existence..., supposing him to be an abiding active actuality and the most pleasing of things...But [he is] not of anything else; he is then an actualisation of himself. He is not therefore as he happens to be, but as he acts....And then, further, if he is supremely because he so to speak holds to himself and so to speak looks to himself, and this so-called being of his is his looking to himself, he as it were makes himself...and is not as he chanced to be but as he wills...

On Free Will and The Will of The One VI.8.16.13-33

Of course, what Plotinus is working out here is not the nature of man but the nature of God. God--the only self-actualizer that actually self-actualizes. God, who is pure actuality, or here energeia, in accordance with Aristotle's usage of the term. God, who is the only self-actualizer capable of actualizing all other things, and, through Whom, all potentialities that could be actualized--to include all human potentialities-- are indeed actualized. Self-actualization therefore is not an activity of men, it is the activity of God.

In starting with God instead of man, Plotinus avoids both the modernistic trap of nihilism and the post-modern trap of vicious circularity (and nihilism). Of course later Christian theologians would work out the kinks in Plontinus' theology proper given the revelation of Christ (like God's eternal self-creation being the eternal generation of the Son by the Father), but that is not my focus here. What Plotinus understood, and what we have forgotten, is that if man is to be "actualized" then he cannot start with himself, he must start with his Maker.

Self-Actualization and What It Means to Be Woke

Swathes of 20th-century existentialist literature and post-modern writings speak to the need for man to be liberated. Liberation from existential conditions or existential angst is a fundamental theme in modern philosophy. The Christian philosopher, Kierkegaard (often heralded as the father of existentialist philosophy) correctly saw the answer to that angst in the Christian revelation. Of course Kierkegaard also felt, and correctly so, that the vast majority of what was called "Christendom" in his day had long-since abandoned this solution to the problem.

Others, like Martin Heidegger, thought that liberation must occur in a more immanent frame, in a historical person, e.g., another messianic figure, or even a set of historical events. Of course Marx believed man's liberation would occur in the overturning of Capitalism and the culmination of the socialist state, while Sartre saw liberation in the individual experience of declaring one's autonomy from an oppressive power.

More recently, the Frankfurt school philosophers brought variations on these themes of human liberation to bear in America's post-war universities. These secularized visions of liberation have now dominated America's political science, sociology, history and legal departments for the last several decades. Only now are we seeing the full brunt of these visions that ensconce the idea of self as "self-actualizer" play out in our politics and on our streets.

Today, individual liberation and social liberation are thus considered one thing. The boundary between the personal existentialism of Sartre and the societal existentialism of Marx have collapsed into each other. To actualize oneself is to actualize one's culture and to seek individual liberation is to liberate the oppressive system in which one resides. This new, global aim for self-actualization and social actualization, a realization of the potentialities of the one and the many, has become known as "becoming woke."

"Wokeness" is, at bottom, the realization that we must both define ourselves and, in doing so, redefine the society in which we live to accommodate our new definitions of self/selves. This process takes place through changing our cultural images, to include everything from the logos of popular brands of butter to the names of professional sports teams, to more direct changes to the law itself. Wokeness is self-actualization writ large-- very large!

The Only True Woke One

Unfortunately, this will not work. Just as I cannot actualize myself any more than I can make a chunk of dirt appear in my hand at will, neither can individuals actualize the society they create apart from the One who made them. This is man at his greatest folly. It is little more than the Tower of Babel played out again but with virtual technologies and more participants. Before this tower collapses, therefore, we should once again heed the wisdom of the past.

Plontinus reminds us who the only truly Woke One is when he speaks of God's eternal activity:

If then he [the One] did not come into being, but his activity has always been, and is something like being awake, when the wakener is not someone else, a wakefulness and a thought transcending thought which exists always, then he is as he woke himself to be.

VI.8.16.13-33 quoted in Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 86

Of course, given the biblical revelation, like Milton correcting Aeschylus, we too can correct Plotinus' general speculations about the Woke One. We can knowingly ascribe this eternal Wokeness precisely to the God Who has revealed himself in time and in human culture. Not only do we know His name, Yahweh (Exod 3:14), but we know His activity through the incarnation of the Word (John 1:14) and the sending of the Spirit (Acts 2).

The Woke One is the God who made all things (John 1:1-3), Who came to live intimately within and with that which He made (John 1:14), and to whom all things must be reconciled should their potentiality be made actual (Col 1:19-20). He is the Woke One foretold by the prophets (Isa 9:5) and evangelized by the apostles (Acts 2). He is the Woke One who came down into a dark and slumbering world, a world ignorant to its own evil, and saved it by becoming part of it (Luke 2).

He is the Woke One who did not consider His Wokeness to be clung to for his own advantage but emptied Himself of His privilege for the sake of the non-woke (Phil 2:6-7). He is the Woke One who knows our true names and our real identities (Isa 62:2, Rev 2:17, Matt 10:30) and whose Wokeness has no limits (Rev 1:8). His Wokeness is the source of all justice (Deut 32:4), all goodness (Mark 10:18) and all truth (John 14:6) and it is His Wokeness that sets free (Gal 5:1), liberating us from the power of sin (Romans 5), death (Romans 6) and the devil (Rev 12:7-11).

It is this Woke One who took on a body in all its fullness, only to let it be scourged and bloodied on our behalf (Matt 27:45-56, Mk 15:33-39, Lk 23:44-49, John 19:16-37) and in spite of two nights in the tomb, became Woke again (1 Cor 15:3-8) and remains ever Woke to the end of time (and beyond).

Wokeness as Love

It is only when man and men are "awakened" to the only One Who is eternally woke that they can themselves be awakened in other things. Of course, the hindrance to this is our own inability to love. For the first, and most fundamental, virtue to be crushed under the weight of human pride is love (1 Cor 13).

In our post-modern culture, the attempt to define what we are turns into a bizarre, almost sadomasochistic endeavor as we live in a constant state of both admiring and despising that which we try to make ourselves into. The reason we never settle on one version of self but exist with competing or even contradictory selves, as per Angela Harris' view, is because we cannot really love any of the versions of self we wind up creating.

Bernard of Clairvaux commented on this truth, illustrating how our pride and attempt to actualize our selves without God is, at bottom, a failure to actualize love. In our failure to love God, God allows for various trials and sufferings so that we can put away our pride and truly learn to love, even love ourselves:

That we might not be ignorant of this [God's creative and sustaining activity], or vainly attribute to ourselves the beneficence of our Creator, God has determined in the depths of His wise counsel that we should be subject to tribulations. So when man's strength fails and God comes to his aid, it is meet and right the man, rescued by God's hand, should glorify him, as it is written, 'Call upon Me in the time of trouble, so will I hear the, and thous shalt praise me.' In such wise man, animal and carnal by nature, and loving only himself, begins to love God by reason of that very self-love; since he learns that in God he can accomplish all things that are good, and that without God he can do nothing.

On loving God

Bernard does not mean that without God we cannot or do not love things. There is a natural self-love. But it does mean that without God we cannot love things properly. And if we cannot love things properly, then we cannot love ourselves properly. And if we cannot love ourselves properly then we most certainly should not try to define ourselves nor change the world in which we live. That road is not the road to liberation and self-actualization, it is the road to bondage and self-destruction.

ANTHONY COSTELLO was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since.

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