What is the true self? Reflecting on the self through the eyes of Epictetus and Spinoza

By Henry van Wagenberg

On Saturday in the blue-sky summer sunshine I was out on the great lawn of Berlin's Tempelhof air field. I was with a friend and knows much more than me about philosophy, and Stoic philosophy, and Spinoza.

We talked about the self, and Epictetus's version of the self. 

Who are we, at our core? In one sense, we are our actions and our choices. Yet when we act according to the passions, when we are moved to act by forces external to us, or even internal to us, does it still count as us?

For example, a bully at school angers me, and I later take revenge. Now the bully has made me into an object passive before his action. I have become an extension of the bully and his activity. 

Or - to use an example of an internal movement - take hunger. An urge to eat floods through my mind. I act on it. In the moment I eat and I respond to my hunger, I am no different than an animal. There is nothing wrong with this per se. It is simply an observation that such an action is basically simply nature at work. I am a piece of nature. There is no "me" there.

Epictetus, and Spinoza, would argue that who we truly are is the small piece of ourselves that can step back and reflect on these movements - these forces external and internal that move us. After we are able to step back and reflect on them, we might be capable of modifying them. Therein lies our freedom, and our true self.

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