The Complexity Of Man

By Udeme Akpan. Udeme is an essayist and a creative writer from Lagos, Nigeria. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Who exactly are you?

Can you precisely say who you are?

Man has accomplished great feats in this world, even out of this planet Earth.  We have defined, described, analysed, evaluated, invented, created and modified innumerable concepts and ideas for man’s development and establishments; yet, we do not know exactly who or what we are.  The question on your mind right now would be: Why these questions?

Come along, let’s cruise into a whole new world of discovery!

I love great philosophers. Based on their great knowledge and insight, their numerous aphorisms are the epitome of motivation, enlightenment and a source of deep inner-thinking for mankind. One of such great philosophers is a French historian named Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Apart from his great achievements, he is also famous for one of his intellectually provocative quotes which says: ” 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 “.

Basically, if one does not look analytically and critically at some quotes, you might definitely misinterpret their true meaning or significance. You may eventually miss out from understanding the truth that subtly lies deep within its rich contents. Looking closely at the quote above, you will notice that I have emphasised ‘EXACTLY’. The synonyms of exactly are: precisely, entirely, absolutely, completely and totally. This is why I asked those questions at the beginning. That is why I am curious and inquisitive. No man can know EXACTLY (precisely, entirely or completely) who they are. Mankind are not the creators of themselves. Humans are intelligent enough to know some things about themselves, but definitely not all. A majority will brag about how much they know themselves, but if critically investigated, you will realise they only know a little.

I will therefore split this quote into two parts and adequately bring their significance into light. “I don’t feel it is necessary to know exactly what I am…”. Foucault’s historical exposure and psychological knowledge prompted him to make such a statement. He knows the complex nature of man. Therefore, he feels it’s not necessary to waste time and energy in discovering exactly who he was. Foucault understands that man contains so many details. Hence it is impossible to completely ascertain who he was. He did not mean man should not try or attempt to know who they are, only that he had an in-depth understanding that the real nature of man is far beyond just knowing what they want, desire or hope for, but much more. I need to enlighten you with other schools of thought that portray the deep and complex nature of man, which is far beyond our comprehension or wildest imagination. Let me state the reasons why Foucault thought it was unnecessary to know exactly who he was.

Great economists and social scientists like Adams Smith and Lionel. C. Ribbons stated that the human mind is difficult to study or understand. This is supported by the fact that human wants and desires are insatiable. Man continuously have wants, and when those wants are met, other desires arise. Sounds interesting right? The instability in satisfying our numerous wants makes it complicated to determine who we are. What a man desires tells us a lot about who they are to some extent. Consequently, this insatiable feature of man produces a ‘confused personality’. There are so many confused people all over the world.  They don’t possess a completely unchangeable personality. They are blue today, but become green tomorrow. They can choose to be an American today, but decide to be an African tomorrow.

Moreover, so many people try to be like other people.  They tend to imitate the lifestyle of their mentors, celebrities or models etc. They do not realize they have become ‘fake people’. They are a reflection of someone’s else nature and characteristics. These kinds of people cannot find their true purpose or essence of their existence, let alone talk of knowing who they are.

Furthermore, because mankind pretends to be ignorant about who they really are, Socrates, a great Greek philosopher stated: “Man, know thyself”.  Socrates sought after the mysteries behind man’s quest for knowledge and the essence of our existence. He therefore charged men to try to discover themselves as much as possible. Foucault was brilliant as a child, but was psychologically tormented.  He became academically established during 1960s, holding a series of positions at French Universities: he was a Professor of the history of systems of thoughts, active politically, the founder of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons, protested on behalf of marginalized groups (the insane, homosexuals and prisoners) and developed profound theories in medical sciences (mental illness). With all those aforementioned achievements, would you say Foucault didn’t have an idea of who he was, what he represents or what he stands for?  He may not have known EXACTLY who he was, but I think he knew a little of his purpose and reason for existing.

Conversely, every man needs to know his or her likes and dislikes, interests, passions and what motivates them. Our likes, dislikes, interests and passions are only a tiny fraction of the totality of our human nature. This incompleteness and uncertainty of the human nature would have inspired Foucault to make that first sentence in his quote. This little knowledge about who we are prepares us to face the future. It has been proven that man does not use more than a tenth of its brain capacity. How can we be able to intelligently and determine the complete nature of who we are? The act of trying to know oneself is called self-realisation. This is traced from Advaita Vedanta, which means to realize the truth of one’s existence.

Now let’s look at the second part of his quote: “…The main interest in life and work is to become someone else you were not in the beginning”. This is a part in which we should interpret sensitively. The important aspect in which he made more emphasis. The part he considered more necessary. Foucault knew his quest to know who he was as a young person made him psychologically tormented but he didn’t give up on himself.  He established himself years later and contributed to great works that are still referenced now. His experiences influenced his mind which influenced his thoughts and feelings not to see the necessity of knowing exactly who he was, but rather to expended his inner strength to becoming a better person. To be accomplished. To be fulfilled…

Nonetheless, the significance and interpretation of his second statement is broad. It also shows that man has visions, goals, ambition, foresight, aspiration and motivation. It tells of man’s drive to be better in the future. It speaks of man’s urge to excel and be successful at the end. These interpretations are termed self-actualisation. This, as denoted in Psychology, means man’s aspiration to achieve goals and fulfill his potential. According to Wiki, expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit for knowledge and the desire to give to society are all examples of self-actualisation.

Man’s thirst for excellence and success fuels their inner energy and capabilities to become someone else that they weren’t at the beginning. This demonstrates that because of man’s ambition, they express a quest for knowledge, education, skills, expertise and experience. All of these add value to a person’s life. I will call it TRANSFORMATION. This is what Foucault termed ‘necessary’. This is what is vital: self-development, self-empowerment and promotion.

There is a strong bridge between ‘knowing who we are’ and ‘what we finally become’.  Foucault saw that the latter was more necessary than the former.  The quest to know who we are may last a lifetime, while the quest to become who we were not in the beginning (achievements) depends on us. The little we know about ourselves is the foundation for what we will become. Who we are is a constant factor that doesn’t change. It remains innate no matter what we achieve or accomplish. We feel we have become someone else that we weren’t at the beginning because of our position, wealth, accolades and accomplishments whilst not knowing our true self lies deep within. Note that the destiny of man can either be positive or negative, happy or sad, fulfilled or unfulfilled.  Michel Foucault died as an early victim of AIDS in Paris on June 25, 1984.  What is left of him are nothing but his great works. I think we have learnt so much from his quote, as well as his story.  I will say he is fulfilled. What do you think?

I hereby declare: Know yourself!

Know the purpose of your existence!

Do not be psychologically tormented!

Live a fulfilled life!


16 comments on “The Complexity Of Man

  1. ihavepandaeyes on

    Wow, I loved your piece. You took a masterful and unique approach to this topic, by clearly dissecting each part carefully to convey what Michel Foucault meant to say. Thank you for the excellent reading experience and wish you the best of luck.


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