Imagine your spouse ran off with a houseguest, leaving you with the young child you had together. Imagine then that he/she returned, and you (somehow) agreed to take them back. Finally, imagine that many years later, your spouse relayed this tale at a dinner party you were hosting, and not only was no one shocked, the guests found the story entertaining. Even you congratulated your spouse for the “…excellent tale, my dear, and most becoming.” This unlikely sequence of events is precisely what happens in Homer’s telling of the Trojan War. The runaway spouse was Helen of Troy, the husband she left behind was King Menelaus, and the irresistible houseguest was Paris. How is it that Helen’s tale was so well-received by their guests, and why did Homer describe her in glowing terms after her supreme act of betrayal? (And what does any of this have to do with control?)
The Individual and Control Through the Ages
Everybody knows that the gods of the ancient Greeks were hardly beacons of virtue and moral excellence, spending their days as they did, bickering amongst each other and tormenting us mere mortals. However, aside from the misdeeds and mischief they are famous for in the myths, they also performed a more pragmatic and useful role in Greek society; namely, as handy scapegoats.
The Greeks accepted that people could at times be swept up in, and carried away by, ‘moods’ over which they had little rational control, causing them to do or say things that may be out of character. At such times, rather than laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of the individual, there was another possibility; a god or goddess temporarily intervened and caused them to go off the rails. Although it seems likely that the Greeks fully believed in their myths, I would suggest that their pantheon of troublemaker gods and goddesses also served as mirrors reflecting deeper truths about human life; including that we aren’t completely self-determining.
Although paganism was replaced by the very different monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam during the Middle Ages, these new religions retained the belief that we humans, far from being masters of our own destinies, are actually frequently at the mercy of forces beyond our control. For those in the Middle Ages, we lived in a magical world, and were surrounded by good and bad forces that could both bless and curse us, heal and harm us.
There was however, I would argue, a significant change in the atmosphere surrounding the nature of our lack of control. While I’ve already argued the Greeks did take their pantheon seriously, they didn’t take it too seriously. In other words, they weren’t possessive about their deities, and violently intolerant towards those of other beliefs. For the monotheistic faiths, however, whose myths were absolute truths that therefore couldn’t exist side by side with other myths, the forces which surrounded and influenced us tended to reflect this polarisation. As doctrines hardened and foolish superstitions multiplied, the healthier Greek approach to their myths took a back seat to a more literal, cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil in which your eternal soul hung in the balance.
This picture of humans as susceptible to forces beyond our control gradually faded as the rational humanism of the Renaissance encouraged a shift towards a more self-enclosed conception of the individual. After Descartes drove a wedge between Mind and matter in the 17th century, and superstitious/religious beliefs began to be openly challenged not long thereafter, we find ourselves in the Enlightenment, where the individual came to be seen as the sovereign, pre-eminently rational, controlling force in their own life. Gods and spirits no longer affected our behaviour because they didn’t exist, and as rational minds, we were vested with sole control over, and responsibility for, our actions.
In many ways our modern understanding of the control we, as individuals, have over our lives is the strangest and most absurd of all. We haven’t given up the Enlightenment notion that we are sovereign agents (more or less) in complete control of our behaviour, but we’ve added the contradictory notion that everything, including our thoughts and behaviours, is fully determined by the laws of physics. We have on the one hand, in an example of doublethink that would make even George Orwell blush, people like Dan Dennett claiming that our behaviour is both free and fully determined, and on the other, strict materialists like Alex Rosenberg asserting that no lump of matter can be about any other lump of matter even as he writes books supposedly about this very subject, and let’s not forget about the absolute determinists and deniers of the self like Sam Harris, who produces a podcast he (presumably) claims belongs to him (that is, an entity which doesn’t exist), and for which he asks us to pay (although exactly to whom we are supposed to send our cash remains a bit of a mystery).
The Modern Individual (External Factors)
I’ve claimed the modern (Western) conception of the individual sees us as sovereign masters of our own destinies while also fully determined collections of particles. The latter is undeniably the consensus view among the scientific community, but the former might strike you as a little more controversial. What exactly do I mean by “sovereign masters of our own destinies”? A useful way to think about the control we feel we have in our lives is by looking at how we are situated in relation to external and internal factors.
Let’s look at external factors first. From minor inconveniences to major catastrophes, most external events we obviously have absolutely no control over. Indeed, this is, in large part, how we define factors as ‘external’ in the first place. Nevertheless, there has been considerable movement in our relation to this category of events. It is well-established that the Western mind-set is typically highly individualistic, placing a high value on personal freedom and autonomy, while the Eastern attitude is more collectivist, valuing social cohesion and family bonds. But it wasn’t always this way in the West. Go back only a couple of short centuries and you find external forces, like family, community, and the State immensely influential on an individual’s life. We have made a concerted effort to weaken the impact these forces can have over us.
———- Kierkegaard – Tragedy ———-
In Either/Or, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard looks at the topic of individual control from an aesthetic perspective as he discusses the difference between ancient and modern (early 19th century) tragedy. In ancient tragedy, the individual subject was not, as he puts it, fully conscious and reflective the way modern agents perceive themselves to be. Rather, the individual’s life was inextricably tied to externals factors, like the state, family, and destiny. It is this interplay between action (active) and event (passive) that yields genuine suffering. Modern tragedy, on the other hand, removes the external factors, transforming the immediate tragic into a reflective subjectivity.
Kierkegaard illustrates this with the notion of tragic guilt. Modern tragedy, in removing all ‘events’ from the narrative, makes a character absolutely guilty and fully accountable or responsible for his or her life. The effect of this is to transform aesthetic guilt into ethical guilt, making the character ‘bad’ instead of ‘tragic.’ Ancient tragedy was deeper than modern tragedy because there was genuine ambiguity in aesthetic guilt. Rather than bearing full responsibility him or herself, other forces (e.g. the gods, or the character’s family) could share this burden. This meant that, as Kierkegaard defined these terms at least, sorrow was greater in ancient tragedy, whereas pain is more central in modern tragedy.
The Modern Individual (Internal Factors I)
At the moment, I’m not really interested in whether the Western or the Eastern/old Western approach is good or bad. The point I am trying to make is that this movement towards the individualistic end of the spectrum is a clear attempt to realise the Renaissance/Enlightenment belief/goal that we are self-contained individuals in full control over our lives. Fine. What about those internal factors? Although there is still a large subset of internal factors over which we have no control, there is also a significant subset over which we do think we exert control. My argument is that we think we have more control over our internal lives than I suspect we actually do.
Now, in making this claim, I’m not talking about the determinist who says that our thoughts, personalities, beliefs, etc., are all outside our control because we have no control over our upbringing, our genes, or a hundred other factors, nor am I talking about the psychologist, who has shown that behaviour and thoughts can be subtly influenced in ways we don’t recognise by fairly trivial situational factors. Both of these groups of people are right; however, I think more has been made of these claims than they really warrant.
It is true that we don’t choose our genes or our parents, but these are more starting points from which we make decisions rather than implacable forces that absolutely determine who we are. None of us chose to have two arms and ten fingers either, or to be born a particular gender, and yet no one cites these contingent facts as things that ‘determine’ us. Why not? Because it’s obvious that once we are born with the body and gender we have, we are then free to make of them what we will. If you want to use your ten fingers to create sculptures, you can. If you choose to use them to steal cars, you can do that too. Likewise, once you have been raised a Christian, you are free to determine yourself (no pun intended) in relation to that upbringing.
———- Sartre – Presence to Self and Bad Faith ———-
One central component of 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy was the idea that consciousness is never merely what it is. Imagine you are feeling sad. You are sitting slumped in your chair, wearing a morose expression, feeling listless, and engaging in all of the other behaviours that come with feeling sad. However, no matter how sad you become, you are never, in your being, reduced to pure sadness, through and through. Rather, you, as a consciousness, always exist at a remove from that feeling. Yes, you are sad, but at the same time, you are consciousness of your sadness. This is part of what it means to be a consciousness. You can never be reduced to a thing; a sad thing in this case. More generally, it means that we are never a self; rather, we are presence to self. Another way of saying this is that our being never coincides with itself, we are always a decompression of being. Or again; we are what we are (we have to be something), but we are this thing, in the mode of not being it. All of these expressions are just ways of trying to capture the idea that consciousness can never be reduced to a thing; it always exists as consciousness of itself.
Should you deny your own consciousness, and try to assert that you are what you are, and can do nothing about it, Sartre has a term for this too; bad faith. Once you’ve been made aware of bad faith, you start to hear people committing it all the time. Anytime someone asserts something about themselves as if they had no say in the matter, they are in bad faith. Some examples might include: “I’m Japanese, and we believe family is important,” or “I’m American, so my career is important to me,” or “My parents are religious, so I am a devout Christian.” All of the assertions the individual is making about him or herself in these examples are preceded with what appear to be explanations or reasons for why they hold those values or beliefs. You may be Japanese, and you may have been raised to think family is important, and that you and your spouse should live with your grandparents, but the truth is that none of this determines your beliefs about family the same way that a swung bat determines the trajectory of the ball it hits. Even if you do believe all of these things to be true, your beliefs are never ‘belief things.’ Rather, you are always consciousness of those beliefs, and able to change (or keep) them if you wish. It is the denial of this last that throws one into bad faith.
The Modern Individual (Internal Factors II)
So much for determinism ruling the day. What of psychology then? The psychologist’s experiment that showed that people give more generously if they have just smelled freshly baked bread is also less momentous for us here than it might at first seem. The takeaway is that we’re more likely to assent to something if we feel good, even if we aren’t explicitly aware of feeling good. This is basically just an extension of what every ten-year-old knows; don’t ask your mum if you can go to your friend’s place in the weekend as soon as she walks in the door from work. Wait until she’s relaxed, unwound, maybe had a glass of wine… then pounce. She will be more likely to say yes, but it would be a bit of a stretch to claim that her control over herself has been impaired in some way.
Neither the claims of determinism, nor those of psychology get at the way I think we have less control over our internal lives than we typically believe. What I’m angling at is our more general sense that we can do anything we want if we just set our minds to it. The story we collectively tell ourselves (and our children) isn’t that the idea for that best-selling novel you want to write won’t come from you, or that the motivation to make your business thrive isn’t something you control, or that success in general isn’t really up to you. Instead, we tell ourselves we can do it. We say if we want it, it’s up to us. We think if we believe in ourselves, we can do anything we put our minds to. This attitude implies (at least, implicitly) that we can force success, by strength of will as it were, to bestow her riches upon us. We can demand that creative idea, or will the motivation we need to write for days on end. This is what I mean when I say that we see ourselves as the sovereign powers over our internal domains. We have lost all respect for the hand of destiny, we no longer court the muses, and we’ve forgotten how to pray to the gods.
As someone who writes quite a lot, I speak from personal experience when I talk about the importance of courting the muses. Since the age of about fifteen, I had wanted, and tried, to write a novel. I made a number of aborted attempts through my late teens and twenties. A couple of times I even managed to get to about fifty or sixty pages, but could never manage to fully nail an entire book down. I would lose interest, the story would start to seem uninspired, I couldn’t figure out where to take the plot next; whatever it was, something always prevented me from finishing… until one summer. I had just gotten married, started a new job, moved into a new place, and spent a couple of weeks planning my latest idea for a novel. The next three months flew by, and somehow, after more false starts than I care to remember, at the end I had a 90,000-word novel sitting in my computer. It is tempting to get a little carried away here and say something like, “The novel just seemed to write itself,” but this is almost always nonsense. I wrote my novel and it was three months of freakin’ hard grind.
The point of that little exercise in self-indulgence was that it wasn’t totally “up to me” when I would actually write my first novel. If it were, I would have finished it when I was fifteen. Even today, sometimes when I sit down to write, I can spend two hours and barely get anything useful done (yesterday, for instance), while on other days (tonight, for instance) things seem to fall into place with comparatively little effort. Now, obviously when I talk about muses, I’m not talking about beings floating around in some nether-realm deciding when to sprinkle their bounty upon me and when to withhold it. The ‘muses’ are really just certain situations or events that create conditions within me which are conducive to writing. The problem with these writing-inducing situations is that they are notoriously hard to create, and what seems to deliver one day may not do so the next. In other words, they aren’t entirely up to me. I can do certain things which I know tend to help me write well; spend a couple of days mulling over what I want to say, picking a good jazz playlist, ensuring I won’t be disturbed for a few hours, and so on; but even following my ‘process’ is no guarantee that when I’m actually ready to write, the words are ready to be written. This unknown (and unknowable) ingredient is what I call my muse.
It isn’t just creativity where we have less control than we might prefer to believe. Virtually anything we do can go so smoothly you barely notice you’re doing anything at all, or so terribly that it drags out like a bad film that just won’t end. We even have a name for those moments of peak performance; ‘flow,’ or being ‘in the zone.’ That isn’t new, but what you may not have thought about before is the fact that we never deliberately choose those moments. ‘Flow’ isn’t a tap you can turn on at will. Some of us are better at getting it than others, but even those who seem to access this state relatively easily, don’t make it happen. They open themselves up to it, arrange themselves so they can receive it, and wait for the gods to visit…
———- Merleau-Ponty – Sleep ———-
Maurice Merleau-Ponty was an early 20th century existentialist philosopher, and contemporary of Jean-Paul Sartre. In his main work, Phenomenology of Perception, there is a passage where he talks about sleep in terms very similar to those I am using in this article, making the observation that no one puts themselves to sleep. Rather, we prepare ourselves as best we can, go through our ‘process,’ and then… wait:
I lie down in my bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes, breathe slowly, and distance myself from my projects. But this is where the power of my will of consciousness ends. Just as the faithful in Dionysian mysteries invoke the god by imitating the scenes of his life, I too call forth the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper. The god is there when the faithful no longer distinguish themselves from the role they are playing, when their body and their consciousness cease to be opposed to their particular opacity and are entirely dissolved into the myth. Sleep “arrives” at a particular moment, it settles upon this imitation of itself that I offered it, and I succeed in becoming what I pretended to be: that unseeing and nearly unthinking mass, confined to a point in space and no longer in the world except through the anonymous vigilance of the senses. (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, pp. 166-7)
Beyond our Conscious, Directing Minds
Now we can see why Helen of Troy’s story of infidelity was so well-received by her guests and her husband. It’s not because she had an ace up her sleeve: “Don’t blame me honey, it was that damned Aphrodite again.” Rather, it was because the religion of the ancient Greeks wasn’t principally an elaborate cosmic system of salvation for the faithful. Instead, it was (at least, in part) a mirror the Greeks could hold up to understand what it meant to be human. As with all religions, the Greek pantheon was created in the image and likeness of humanity, but unlike most religions, they didn’t completely lose sight of this important truth.
When Helen ran off with Troy, she was, in a sense, “out of her mind,” as we might say, or “temporarily insane.” It was as if she had been possessed by a god. Let me stress again, this isn’t a get out of jail free card for immoral behaviour. It is simply a recognition that part of being human (perhaps even part of being conscious at all) means not being in total, conscious control of yourself at all times.
Given all these aspects of our lives over which I am claiming we lack direct control, am I getting nearer to the assertions of a Sam Harris or an Alex Rosenberg? Must we now disown our achievements and give credit for them to mysterious forces beyond our control? Hardly. As I said, I wrote my novel; I planned the story, I made the commitment, and I forced myself to sit in front of my computer for at least two hours a day and write even when I really didn’t want to. The point of this article isn’t that we are at the mercy of situations and events we don’t control, hapless leaves tossed about in the wind, slaves to our genes, upbringing, or muses. On the contrary, the point is that we are more than our will, more than our directing, conscious minds.
The muses, or gods, aren’t somewhere out there separate from us; they’re within us. But they’re within us not as an unconscious Other lurking beneath conscious awareness infiltrating our dreams when our guards are down, and inducing Freudian slips at the most inopportune moments; rather, they’re a metaphor for states of being which allow us to operate at our maximum; whether that be writing a novel, painting a watercolour, designing a company logo, or kicking a ball. Like sleep though, we don’t, and can’t, force these states at will. Instead, we have to call on the muses, appeal to the gods; they don’t visit the non-believer, after all. But that is the extent of our conscious, willing involvement in the process. After making our petition, we simply assume the position; adopt the posture of a great writer, build the muscles of a great athlete, imbibe the sugary pseudo-drink of a great computer programmer… and wait for the god to appear.
 You might think the charge of impiety, for which Socrates was given the death penalty, undercuts this point, but that charge was largely trumped up and more of an excuse, as opposed to a reason, for getting rid of a perceived troublemaker. Xenophanes was already famous for having mocked the anthropomorphism of the Greek gods and goddesses, and Socrates himself pointed out that Anaxagoras had argued the heavenly bodies were lumps of rock, not gods.