A fews years back, in Dicken's England, there were a bunch of educated fellows known to us today as Philosophical Radicals. Radical for their time, I guess; today we know them as stodgy conservatives. But in their time, at the dissolution of the church and feudalism, they were on the side touting freedom and liberty. Their world issued the promise that every man was free to work for whomever he wanted; and any employer could hire and fire at will.
Whereas, in feudalism, the economy was organized according to location or ownership of the estate - so whoever was so located became part of the parcel - this freedom on the part of the employer was pretty radical, indeed. For he need have no guilt and was under no obligation to provide subsistence to anyone who did not earn it. .
But these guys were really optimists, you know. And they had a pretty ominous task. What could replace all these institutions which had previously dominated society, as that society began to loosen up in free wheelin' capitalism? They had to come up with something. And so they girded up their loins, so to speak, and touted self-interest. Yes, a whole bunch of individual self-interested entrepreneurs would save the day, they thought. Today, we call this trickle- down or diffusion theory in economics. These go getters, in go getting their own, would create jobs and spend money and everyone would be better off. Self-interest, then, would replace loyalty; desire would replace faith. They were really pretty courageous, these guys.
And they had a definite feeling about this individual self, the new king. Now, I do not wish to romanticize feudalism. Nor do I wish, really, to strengthen the state. To the contrary, I am going to do something even more radical than they, for I wish to dethrone even this king. I wish to question whether even such a king exists. This may seem pretty silly, a grown man questioning whether your or his self exists. And yet, it is important; because if this self is running the show, it may prove useful to really identify and come to know it, do you think?
So, it can't be that hard. Each of us has some sense about this - about who we are. We remember our childhood; we prepare for old age; and it is we who do this, right? But who is this we anyhow? If we really reflect back to our childhood and take each segment of our life and really examine it, where is the we that continues as a stable identifiable thing? We have undergone a lot of changes, haven't we? Gone are the days when we had acne; when our shoe size changed seasonally. Now, maybe it's our waiste size that changes. Our teeth turn yellow and our hair falls out. What a mess! We no longer hang out with the same crowd; we don't enjoy the same music; we don't think the same thoughts, each one rapidly replacing the last one like mental popcorn. Our likes, dislikes, beliefs, disbeliefs, everything changes. Our lover tells us, "You're not the same person I married." Face it sweetheart, neither are you. We hang onto a name like a label sewn in a frayed coat: while what it refers to is a little unravelly.
Within this continuous state of transformation, we may come to identify some patterns: propensities and inertia. And we - and especially our friends - may identify certain characters. But even so, as one notices a particular attribute, in that same noticing it is apt to disappear, replaced by something quite contrary, only to resurface later and far away. They are like waves rising and falling on a vast ocean of being. It is like sometimes we stand; sometimes we sit. If we ask who you are, you may say, "I am sitting." But then, you may stand up. These things change. People change. Friends become strangers and strangers, enemies. And even enemies can become friends.
We are quick to take credit, most of us, and very reluctant to take blame. If something is wrong, we will find excuses - it's my parent's fault; it's not me talking, it's the bourbon - but if we can put the blame on someone else, we're heading up the lynch party. Maybe we should think about this.
Many of us have some notion of an ultimate judgement. And we think, maybe if we're good in an ultimate way, we will ultimately go to heaven. And there we will find love ones who departed before us, waiting for us at the gate. But, in this meeting, how would we recognize them? Would they be wearing their Sunday best or casual attire; will they have blond hair or gray; will they be two-legged or eight-legged? It is reasonable to question these things. We buried their skeleton in a box and covered it with dirt; or burned it in a pyre; or threw it into the Ganges. What is left to recognize after this? And how will we, ourselves, be known?
After looking around for this self for some time, and looking back a little at what is looking, we may observe very vast composites of ideas and sensations. In the midst of this there does, and should, reside a discriminating wisdom - a rudder within the gale. This wisdom can examine the contents of consciousness and establish a proper path. But this is not the same as self or self-interest. To the contrary, it is only when we really find freedom - when we break the bonds of our rigid identities and narrow views - does this wisdom really show itself. It is when we examine and finally admit that this very self for whom we have struggled and slaved, worried about and defended for so many years doesn't really even exist in any stable identifiable way that we are really free. And we can see beyond our own narrow concerns to a vast interaction of being. This is wisdom.
And, far from becoming less responsible, we become infinitely responsible. Rather than self-interested, we become motivated in the interest of others. This is rather profound, don't you think? I didn't think it up myself, but I did think about it. And I can say that it can stand the test of scientific investigation.