Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, February 04, 2011


Who am I? If someone asks who we are, our first response is usually to give our name. If they want to know more then maybe we’ll tell where we come from, or maybe what we do for a living. Telling someone who “I am” seems simple enough. And yet William James points out that the answer isn’t quite as simple as we might think at first. He writes that In its widest possible sense…a man’s Me is the sum total of all he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and his works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account. That pretty much sums it up. A man’s Me is the sum total of all that he has and is. But there’s also a clear division between some of those things that all add up to equal Me. For instance, there’s a material me: We all have a blind impulse to watch over our body, to deck it with clothing of an ornamental sort, to cherish parents, wife, and babes, and to find ourselves a house of our own which we may live in and improve. This is the “me” that’s plain and obvious to everyone because they can see who I am. But there’s also a spiritual me that isn’t obvious to everyone, maybe not even to myself: When we think of ourselves as thinkers, all the other ingredients of our Me seem relatively external possessions. So we’ve got this external world (the “material me”) and this internal world (the “spiritual me”). But there’s still a third “me” that James wants to concentrate on in this selection. That’s the “social me” and that’s when the internal and external me comes into contact with other people. Our relationships with other people are determined both by the outside world we share: our culture, our families, our friends and neighbors; and by the world inside of us that’s more personal and unique: our feelings, our moral duties, our sense of what’s right and wrong. The dual external/internal nature of this “social me” creates tension concerning how I should act or what I should do. That’s because we have different responsibilities to different people. James points out that We do not show ourselves to our children as to our club companions, to our customers as to the laborers we employ, to our own masters and employers as to our intimate friends. From this there results wht practically is a division of the man into several selves. As a practical matter this makes sense. Our job as a parent is to raise healthy children. Our job at the office is to produce a profit. Our job as a citizen is to make informed decisions about who to vote for. All these separate selves are all “me” in one way or another. But James also shows how this “social me” can pull us in different directions at the same time: As a man I pity you, but as an official I must show you no mercy. Or: As a politician I regard him as an ally, but as a moralist I loathe him. The question I would pose to James is this: is it healthy to act out these different “me’s” in isolation from one another, or is it better to integrate them all into one coherent personality? Can the official show mercy and still be a good official? Can the politician dump his ally and still be a successful politician? The way we answer those questions can be very important. The “social me” provides the key to understanding how we answer. For example, consider Thucydides writing the Melian Dialog. The Athenians felt like they absolutely had to make an example out of the Melians. The Melians felt like they absolutely had to preserve their honor. James says that a man’s fame, good or bad, and his honor or dishonor are names for one of his social selves… A soldier’s honor requires him to fight or to die under circumstances where another man can apologize or run away with no stain upon his social self. The heart of the conflict between the Athenians and the Melians were questions of social prestige. When should I stand up and when should I back down? When should I punish and when should I forgive? Who should I fight and who should I defend? These are questions the social me has to answer. No one can do that for you.


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