To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.
– Mouse, the Matrix, right after he is correctly identified as a ‘digital pimp’
The latest newsletter from Diablo Valley School ran a piece of mine that contained a thought perhaps worth expanding on. In it I observe that the classic admonition to Know Thyself, and the classic understanding that there is no freedom for those enslaved to their passions, are considered today, if they are considered at all, a mere truism and utter nonsense, respectively.
To the modern well-schooled mind, however, the first seems a truism – how could I not know myself? – and the second simple nonsense – what am I if I am not my passions?
The human being who knows himself and controls his passions is a very difficult creature to herd.
A wide variety of cultures have held these notions as central ideas under a variety of guises. To live a good life, one must always evaluate one’s own self, who one is, what one has done, and what are one’s goals. Are we being truthful to ourselves? We are, after all, the first target of our own lies. As Socrates put it: the unexamined life is not worth living. Second, the idea that what we want is not who we are, that our desires must be judged and moderated by the self-knowing person, frees us from easy manipulation, in modern times both the carrot of political and advertising pandering, and the stick of being defined out of social groups.
Yet the idea that Mouse expresses above is now the gold standard of self-awareness: our impulses, so current wisdom goes, are what define us as humans. To know yourself is simply to know what you want.
We are what we want. In the Matrix, this is the wild, defiant claim made in the face of the radical determinism of the Machine World. One after the other, the programs – the Oracle, the Architect, Agent Smith, the Merovingian, the Key Maker – tell the humans that choice is an illusion, all is cause and effect, that a program and a person both derive whatever meaning they may find in their lives from a purpose they did not make or choose.
This conclusion is inescapable if one starts from Materialism. In the material world, the only meaning we see is cause and effect* – and it’s a mere desperate word game that makes us call mechanical inevitability ‘meaning’. So, we’re slaves in a meaningless world.
Unless… Unless we can be saved by some mysterious outside force. In the same movie, the Oracle, a character who looks like a grandmother baking cookies, tells Neo, right after telling him he is fated to make a horrible choice:
Oh, don’t worry about it…As soon as you step outside that door, you’ll start feeling better. You’ll remember you don’t believe in any of this fate crap…you’re in control of your_own_ life…remember?
But as Mouse points out, if the workings of the world are such that everything is fated – determined by the laws of nature – the only way we can have any control is if we are somehow touched by something outside the mechanistic world: it is our impulses that make us human. not just another machine.
And, weirdly, this make a certain amount of sense. We can either accept that eved our impulses are merely a manifestation of materialistic determinism, or we can cling to them as, somehow, divine messengers, as things from outside, that make *us* both divine and outsiders as well.
It’s ultimately nonsense, but if it’s all you’ve got…So, in our day, which has rejected any idea that our purpose might be a freely chosen gift from God, the only meaning left in life is to be had by deification of impulse: we are what we want.
If it weren’t for the sickening human cost of this belief, it would be amusing to watch its logical impossibility being played out. What do we do when our impulses conflict? What about my impulses to destroy? To dominate? The shrill reaction to any attempt to challenge the rightness – righteousness, even – of a claim that anyone is whatever it is they say they are is just the first level reaction. It is getting worse. The bottom is very, very low.
* Of course, it must be mentioned that cause and effect, like math, logic and free will, is not something it is possible to derive from observations of the physical world, even in theory. Materialism turns out to be a very mystical belief system, built as it is on immaterial phantasms.