“I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” – Michel Foucault
How do we become who we are? And how do we become something else entirely without knowing who we were, to begin with?
Know thyself, said the saying inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The same advice, not followed by Oedipus in the Greek myth, had disastrous consequences. The story of Oedipus Rex, even with its metaphors and exaggeration, alert us to the dangers of one not knowing oneself – if you don’t know who you are or where you came from, you can, at the very worst, end up marrying your mother and killing your father, like Oedipus, who ignored the inscription. The lesson: if you are oblivious to yourself, you are as well blind – perhaps not literally, but still with possibly damaging results.
Socrates also used know thyself as a foundation for his philosophy. Another philosopher, Heraclitus, on the other hand, said that “one cannot step twice in the same river, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. This means that our self – as everything else – is in constant transformation: what we were is different to what we are now, which is also different to what we will become in the future.
In other words, what one is, is a being, and is therefore mutable; something static would be, in contrast to ‘being’, a work-in-progress. In Portuguese, there are indeed these two different meanings to translate the verb to be: the state of being, mutable; and what is and, therefore, has a more stable character. This first state – being, as “fluid”, instead of be, “solid” – brings us closer to what Michel Foucault believed, that is, the radical transformation of the self as an ultimate personal and conceptual goal. The philosopher himself applied this to his own life.
There is wisdom in this indeed: if we were the same as we were before, we would be merely reproducing what came before us, as well as playing the role given to us by our family. And, as Max DePree said, “we cannot become what we want by remaining what we are”. Also what differentiates us human beings from other species is exactly the ability to think and create and, consequently, reinvent ourselves. Or, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself”. Although our first notion of identity may have been moulded through the relationships we had in our family of origin, the identity we create after that is based on the relationship we have with ourselves.
But are all ways of being desirable? Even if we think beyond the dualistic Christian morality of good and bad, there is still the ‘Good’ as an ontological category. In ethics, it is a fundamental normative concept, or a concept this is, per se, non-divisible. According to Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, “The virtue and happiness are the highest good.” This may lead us to think that there is indeed a desirable way of being. Thus, not all transformations of the self may befit us, because not all of them would lead us to virtue and happiness, if we take Kant’s definition of Good as a guide for our lives.
Some of these metamorphoses can even be noxious to the self. As Clarice Lispector once wrote (and lived in her own life, because she was herself a radical implementer of her own ideas, as was Foucault), even “to cut your own defects can be dangerous. You never know what defect sustains the entire building”.