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Becoming a Person
the point of all this
The other day, while sweeping the floor in the living room, my mother asked me if I regretted not going into tech or finance. “I was talking to some other mothers and they were all saying how much money their children were making,” she said, or words to that effect. I could hardly blame her for the question. I’m 31 and on my third master’s degree. I do not have anything resembling a traditional career. My current program, an MFA in nonfiction, is so embarrassingly expensive that I do anything I can to avoid the question when it comes up – even if it is the first I’ve paid for. There’s not even a job waiting at the end of it: the program promises a negative return on its investment. Each year MFAs around the US pump out hundreds of students into a market neither willing nor able to pay for their skills (such as they are).
High paying jobs in tech or finance or consulting or whatever are accessible enough to people who can spell and go to the right schools, so I can’t pretend I didn’t have the choice. The truth is I deliberately missed each turnoff as I drove along life’s highway. There were stories I told myself at the time that kept me plunging onwards. I’m a bit too embarrassed to repeat them all here. Enough to admit, I hope, that I simply thought those jobs were beneath me: too unethical, too boring, too lame. I don’t feel so strongly anymore. Some of that work turns out to be pretty compelling – some even makes the world a better place (some, I said!). Not that it matters. At this age I suspect the roads to a classical corporate career are all behind me.
I have regretted it, of course, many times along the way. The last five or more years have been spent in the wilderness, my road plunging deeper into dark forest and rocky terrain. This has not felt heroic or challenging. I have not, to my own mind, been having adventures, or growing, or learning. Mostly I’ve just felt lost and confused and stupid. And: unproductive and misdirected and under-utilised. Like a hammer trying to screw in a nail.
The MFA was a kind of hail mary thrown to get me out of this situation – or at least to get me a reprieve from it. If that sounds silly (perhaps it reminds you of the old line about repeating the same thing and expecting a different result), I can only plead guilty. Either way I have found myself returning, yet again, to education. And, specifically, to the humanities.
For better or worse I’m back here again, and I’m not surprised to find myself enjoying myself. My life once again primarily consists of reading, writing, and talking about ideas. What’s not to love? The reprieve has come. I’m spending all my time doing the things that give life – my life, at least – a sense of significance.
Back in undergrad I used to make this point in the most obnoxious way possible: I’d go around saying things like “Imagine you could cure cancer. Now imagine you could instead write a poem. Surely you should write the poem, right? One is a means to an end, the other is the end in itself.” Later, in a philosophy degree, I thought that we should be all directing ourselves to “getting to the bottom of things.” After a few years digging I didn’t quite get there (or, as Wittgenstein would put it, I hit bottom too quickly – my spade was turned up), and so my next big turn was towards the practical, to public policy and politics. For that I used Marx: “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world – the point is to change it.” After a few delays on that project, I’ve pushed my timeline back a bit.
These days I manage to more or less hold all these mantras in my mind at the same time. They don’t so much supplant each other as add to a deepening sense of what life is for. And lately, just on cue, just as I find myself on another educational adventure, just as I ask myself why I should write when the world will never value my writing, I find myself gripped by a new dogma. Now I find myself saying: the point of all of this is to become a person.
Astute readers will recognise the phrase from Carl Rogers, the humanistic psychologist, and his 1961 book On Becoming a Person. Though it’s likely that half of what I’m about to say has been indirectly and osmotically stolen from what’s in that book, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never read it. I just saw the title one day, a few weeks ago, just as my brain was whirring already with many of these thoughts, and felt a whole lot of loose matter begin to congeal between my ears.
So what do I mean? Well, to start, I think a person is a very different thing to a human. We are all already humans, after all. In my mind this is a rather inflexible category. Nothing, except perhaps death, can get in the way of your being a human. You simply are born human and you go out human, like a light going on and off.
In my thinking this category, like all categories, is arbitrary and political rather than natural. This is to say that it is we who carve up the world, not God, or Nature, and frankly I think much of the strife of philosophy has risen from the old Platonic expectation that the world can be neatly divided. Why should we expect that?
But categories have their uses. One of the uses of the category, “human”, is that it builds a capacious and unyielding wall around a group of beings whose dignity should be protected. And it’s my claim, though I won’t defend it here, that we ought to protect the dignity of as many beings as possible. Humans are a pretty good place to start.
The trick here is that, by virtue of being humans, we are all equally deserving of fundamental and inviolable human rights: rights that must come not from God or from Nature or from Reason but from you and me, exactly because we see them as good tools for protecting dignity. (And, if you marry this humanism with egalitarianism, as I reckon you should, you get my preferred variety of socialism. Every human deserves the same share of the economy. Why? Because they are human. Why? Because they are human. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.) Because being a human is not the sort of thing that can be altered or improved or lessened, the basic dignity we afford to humans should be immutable, too. Being human isn’t so special – it just gives you, or should give you, a VIP ticket to the realm of egalitarian political respect.
So that’s being a human. Being a person, at least in the way I’m using it today, is not like this. Where “human” is discrete and binary, “person” is continuous and fluid. You don’t start out a person, but, if you are lucky, you become one. We should be careful, though – I don’t really see “person” as an end state to be achieved, like evolving a Pokemon or getting your black belt in karate. I see it as asymptotic. A regulative ideal, as Kant says. We, if we do life right, just become more and more, um, persony.
A person is the embodiment of a suite of virtues. I have in mind virtues like self-knowledge; forbearance; humility; what the Buddhists have called lovingkindness; what I want to call unreactivity (though I suppose equanimity would do); detachment; irony (my own personal favourite); and crucially and necessarily, a tendency against solipsism, an ability to see the other as wholly and inviolably human. We have often called the sum of these virtues wisdom.
Implicit in the phrase “becoming a person” is a truth I want to make explicit: becoming a person is how we lift ourselves from the apes. A person is a being with a richer, more profound, less animalistic subjectivity. A person is someone no longer enslaved to the reactivity of the animal spirits (to misappropriate Keynes). In this way a person is a human who is free.
What you’ll see immediately, I think, is that I want to say some people have done a better job at this than others. Some of us don’t get quite so far from our primate pals. No - I don’t want to say this. I’d rather not. But it does seem to be the case. Some people are less thoughtful, less self-aware; more zombie-like, more narcissistic. It’s a fact that really insists upon itself: when I consider people in my life; when I turn on the TV; when I look in the mirror.
It doesn’t help, of course, that the world we have created seems to work very hard to keep us from becoming persons. A quick look at the billionaires list assures us that the incentives for becoming a person are not financial. The economy – where our social values manifest materially – is rather agnostic about, even hostile to, personhood. That just makes a tall order even taller. Becoming a person is hard – perhaps the hardest thing we are tasked with doing.
Despite all that, some people do seem to pull it off. All of us make it some of the way, anyway. And what follows from this is that there will come a day for each of us when we are more a person than we have ever been and ever will be again. This day, or moment, will be our high water mark of personhood. When this will be for you I do not know. But I’m old enough now to have seen many humans climb the mountains of wisdom, summiting their personal peaks in their 60s or 70s or even 80s, before the slow decline of the second childhood begins. Virtues decay with the mind. My own grandfather, who this week turns 100, exhibits his own peculiar mix. Increasingly a child, he occasionally reveals himself to bear the benefits of a century’s experience.
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Yes, some people do seem to pull it off. How? Well, I think it’s no coincidence that the moment I returned to reading and writing was the moment I started thinking about all this. For one, the gulf between literature’s apparent uselessness and our compulsion towards literature demands an explanation. Is literature really an end in itself, or might it have some instrumentality after all?
To prioritise the arts in your life is to confront that question. This is true for both producer and consumer. When you spend your time fixated on books you begin to fixate on the question: what is the point of reading? When you spend your time trying to become a writer, you can no longer ignore the question: what is the point of writing? And it’s only after you’ve faced down the fact that few people will ever care for your work – this isn’t self pity, it’s maths – that you can begin to acknowledge that you’re doing this for no one other than yourself. Yet you find yourself doing a third master’s degree. Why?
When I said at the start of this essay “the point of all of this is to become a person”, I was deliberately vague. I think we’re now in a position to be more specific. To the extent that life can have a point, I think the point of life might be to become a person. And I think that the point of reading and writing is that they help us get there.
This is really what I want to say: that the point of the humanities, of the arts, of reading and writing, is that these apparently non-instrumental cultural practices exist, were invented, to help us a little farther along the way to becoming persons. Banging away on my own pieces this year, I finally began to see that my difficulties had little to do with a lack of intellect and a lot to do with a lack of wisdom. A teacher helped me see that, but so, too, did the writing itself.
One way of saying this is to trot out the old cliche, battle-worn and undefeated, that the relationship between the writer and the pen is, can, or perhaps should be similar to the relationship between the patient and the therapist. While putting sentences on paper the writer is held to account by the pen. It gets harder to evade, dodge, deflect, and defend – as we are all so practised in doing – when one’s own self-justifications are made fixed and transparent in typography. And reading, as we have all been told, really does tend to make us wiser. In reading – especially fiction – we confront the interiority of the other; we gain perspective over our own small and insignificant role in history; we become less committed to the self-justifications that shield us from the world.
Given literature’s power, it’s tempting to write off those who don’t read. That’s a mistake. When we do, we reveal our own incomplete progress towards personhood. An engagement with the arts is not the only way to become a person. The media we writers like to champion – the novel, the essay, the poem – are a long way from necessary. They’re historically-contingent and rather recent social technologies: cultural practices that could just have well never have existed. For millennia, and still today, humans have done and do the work of becoming persons without the aid of those tools. They find other paths to virtue: alternative cultural practices; deep communal ties; self-reflection; psychoactive chemicals; and of course the most important and universal of all educators, experience.
Literature is no panacea, either. We’ve all known a fascist (fascism, for me, a kind of flight from personhood) who in fact reads plenty (Nietzsche, usually; or Dostoyevsky). Very often these types seem to read exactly to avoid becoming persons. They want to justify their anti-egalitarianism; buttress their narcissism.
Still, still. Still, it is my experience, and I think it’s yours too, that those we find stalled on the road to personhood aren’t known for their love of literature. When it was revealed Sam Bankman-Fried, the fraudulent founder of FTX, liked to insist “I would never read a book”, I couldn’t help but feel I knew that about him already. The fear of literature, I think, is really a fear of becoming a person, of being asked to confront oneself. That is the real sin of the philistine. Pick your own incurious villain – Donald Trump, say, or Scott Morrison – to see what I mean. To amuse myself, I sometimes like to imagine Elon Musk reading Middlemarch. That image would suggest an entirely different man, a man open to the unprofitable virtues, a man curious about the lives of others, a man curious about himself. It would suggest a man interested in becoming a person.