What Are We, After All?

I was recently reading some of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, and came across this sentence in one of them:

Quid enim sumus, aut quid esse possumus?  Domis an foris?

[Epistulae XIII.10]

And this means, What really are we, or what can we be?  At home or outside the home?  Cicero’s statement is made in the context of his shock over the death of a man he knew–named Marcellus–who had been murdered in Greece.  The murderer was someone Marcellus believed was a friend; and yet things turned out as they did, where one friend was slain by another.  Many centuries later, Petrarch voiced the same sentiments in the following words:

Quid sumus? inquam; quam gravi, quam tardo, quam fragili corpore, quam caeco, quam turbido, quam inquieto animo, quam varia quamque incerta volubilique fortuna!

[Letter to Socrates, c. 1349]

This means, What are we?  I ask.  How heavy, how slow, how delicate is the body; how blind, darkened, and turbulent is the mind; how various, uncertain, and volatile is fortune!  Can anyone who has lived past the age of forty doubt for one second that this is true?  Yet the variability of fortune is not the subject that I want to discuss here.  I prefer to comment on something else, something derived from Cicero’s sentence I have quoted above:  What really are we?  Do I know who I am?  Do you know who you are?

Consider the experiences you have in foreign lands.  Have you ever noticed that the people who know the least about a famous city are those who have lived their lives in that city?  Is anyone more ignorant of Roman history than the Romans themselves?  I am ashamed to say it, but in many cases you will find this to be true:  ask a denizen of some famous city about some historical event or place in that city, and observe the gaping, blank stares from the other party.  You can almost hear him thinking, Oh, here we go, another one of these foreigners.  Don’t they know we have to earn a living?  Who cares about things that happened fifty, one hundred, one thousand, two thousand years ago?  Well, I certainly do not sure I agree with this view.  They should know their past.  They should never stop thinking about the past; none of us should stop thinking about the past.  Who would want to put out his own eyes or ears, or amputate one of his limbs?  Even the Romans have lost their sense of identity, and all the world slides into somnescence.

But forget cities:  consider ourselves.  What do we really know about who we are?  I know my thoughts and actions at the present time.  And I believe I know my actions that took place ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago.  Maybe even farther back.  But here is the problem:  when we recall past events, we are recalling them now, in the mind we have now, in the imaginative capacity we have now.  But doesn’t our mind change over time?  Doesn’t our personality change and evolve over time?  I submit to you that I cannot have an accurate recollection of past events for this reason:  I cannot grasp how my mind worked many years ago.  I can recall events, but I cannot recall the workings of my mind.  I will never be able to project my present mind back through time, across the years, to understand what I was like, say, in 1993.  I cannot do this.  Our memories are not reliable.  I have tried to do this, but it is not really possible.  It is not a matter of trauma; it is a matter of evolution.  An organism hurtling through space and time cannot force itself backwards in time, to learn about its own thoughts.  At best, it can catch glimmers of those thoughts, suspended like ghostly fragments in time, perpetually subject to obliteration through the encroachments of time’s swirling mists.

And if you are being honest with yourself, you will also find out that you cannot do it, either.  It is very frustrating, but it is true.  Our personalities change over time; the very structure of our minds changes.  Try it and you will see.  Have you ever noticed that that is is almost impossible to think back many years ago, and try to remember what you were really thinking or feeling at that time?  You cannot do it.  This is because your current mind, your present mental composition, always gets in the way.  I cannot reconstruct my mind from 1993, because my mind has changed.  Therefore I can never really, truly remember what was going through my mind decades ago; that is, what I was thinking or feeling.

You may think you can do this, dear reader, but I am convinced that this is only your present mind speaking for your old mind.  The old mind is gone, and gone forever.  It has been irretrievably replaced.  If you want proof of this, you can easily prove it to yourself.  Begin to keep a journal, and record your observations in it year by year.  Then go and read it after five or ten years have elapsed.  You will be disturbed at your own observations, your concerns, your various thoughts.  Why is this?  Because you have changed:  you are reading something written by someone else.

So, if this is so, we must ask:  who are we, really?  Am I the man of 1993, 2002, 2010, or 2019?  Or am I a composite of all of these?  The answer is that you are the you of the present moment; but your present moment stands on the shoulders of all those moments that came before.  You have evolved and developed, and you will continue to do so.  This reality presents us with a conclusion that should inspire hope.  For if it is true that there is no fixed “us,” and that we change dramatically over time, then it must be true that we can, through the power of the will, remake ourselves as we wish.  The iron can be recast, reheated, and forged into a new and different implement.  Man has the power to remake himself in the image he chooses.  Can there be any more inspiring knowledge than this?  The dissatisfactions of the past can be swept aside, if only we can summon the strength to do so.  And so I would say to my friend and companion Cicero:  “Consul, you ask who are we, really?  I say that we are who we make ourselves to be.”

Let no man ever say he is trapped by the past, that he is a prisoner of fortune’s fickle dictates; for he always retains within himself the power to break the Chain of Fate, and cast a new metal, a hardier metal of a more resilient composition.


Read more in On Moral Ends: