The Self, Collective and Impersonal

This condition of division is one that we suffer from and complain about, yet it is a condition that we promote by our ambitions and desires and justify by our jargon of “self-fulfilment”. Each of us, we say, is supposed to”realize his or her potential as an individual.” It is as if the whole two hundred million of us were saying with Coriolanus:

I’ll never

Be such a gosling as to obey instinct, but stand,

As if a man were author of himself,

And knew no other kin.

…The problem, of course, is that we are not the authors of ourselves. That we are not is a religious perception, but is also a biological and social one. Each of us has had many authors, and each of us is engaged, for better or worse, in that same authorship…We may collaborate either well or poorly, or we may refuse to collaborate, but even to refuse to collaborate is to exert an influence and to affect the quality of the product.

Wendell Berry, ‘Men and Women in Search of Common Ground’, Home Economics.

The human being can only escape from the collective by raising himself above the personal and entering into the impersonal. The moment he does this, there is something in him, a small portion of his soul, upon which nothing of the collective can get a hold. If he can root himself in the impersonal good so as to be able to draw energy from it, then he is in a condition, whenever he feels the obligation to do so, to bring to bear without any outside help, against any collectivity, a small but real force.

Simone Weil, Human Personality, translated by Sian Miles.


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