Term Paper: Changing Ideas of Identity and Self

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Changing Ideas of Identity and Self

The sixteenth through eighteenth centuries marked a period of changing attitudes and ideas. Ideas about one's identify and a sense of self were perhaps the most obvious ideals to find new meaning during this time period. By examining several period works, it is possible to track these changing attitudes. This essay will examine three works of the time and will use comparison and contrast to track these changing attitudes.

Montaigne and 16th Century Identity

The first work that will be examined is Essays, by Montaigne. This work was published for the first time in 1580. These essays were originally called Les Essais in French. In these essays, Montaigne discusses every aspect of human life imaginable. These works contain personal observations, as well as cultural and historical references from Montaigne's perspective. Montaigne speaks in first person, providing his readers a glimpse into his personal feelings and attitudes. In doing so, Montaigne provides the reader with a rare view of the attitudes that prevailed during his time.

Montaigne refers to himself as the subject of the book. Essays is about Montaigne's self-identity. Montaigne feels that every man is representative of the race. He states, "Each man bears the entire form of man's estate." In such, Montaigne's representation of self represents society's attitudes as well. He speaks about continual change in society and the ability to evolve.

What we can learn from Montaigne about definitions of identity and self in sixteenth century France are Montaigne rambles on about how the writing reflects his freedom to express himself. The focus of the work in on self-exploration and the need to experience some type or personal fulfilment from life. This unbounded sense of self-exploration breaks the chains of the Renaissance, where freedom of expression could be punishable by death or imprisonment. Not so fat into Montaigne's's past, the type of freedom of expression found in Essays could have meant severe punishment.

Such unbounded expression of self and concern with one's identity could be viewed as a type of rebellious casting aside of the ideals that shaped the latter Middle Ages. Montaigne makes it clear that he has the freedom to explore who he is inside, without fear of what others might think. This contrasts with the ideals of the previous century, where such minds had to be careful not to threaten the powers that be.

The Inquisition imposed a hierarchical sense of order onto society. Many may have wanted to indulge in self-expression, but they could not for fear of their lives. The Inquisition mandates that one's sense of identity and self began with their duties to the state and those that were in power. Montaignes's Essays is a direct challenge to the idea that one's image of self had to include one's duty to the ruling class and one's proper place in society. It was the beginning of an era marked by exploration and breaking free from oppression.

Identity and Self in the 18th Century

Richards Steele's Spectator was written in the 18th century, which was a time of rapidly evolving intellectual circles. The elite met in coffee houses and clubs to read, converse, and exchange intellectual ideologies. These meetings created an atmosphere that was ripe for societal change. Spectator shows us the world through the eyes of a fictional character, Mr. Spectator. This character observes the people in one of these clubs and describes their lives. This character is not a participant in the activities, but a spectator who serves as a narrator.

Through Mr. Spectator, one learns that he views the writings of Montaigne as running "out into the Wilderness." He viewed French writings of the sixteenth century as spontaneous rather disorganized. The Spectator sees his own writings as regular and methodical. Mr. Spectator criticizes the free-flowing style of 16th, century French essays, leading to the conclusion that this type of prose was out of style. The new identity of self included some form of rigidity and order.

Steele's criticism of Montaigne tells the reader that something has changed and that new attitudes have come into popularity. Society has undergone marked social change. Steele sees the rambling nature of earlier writings as inferior to those that he produces. This suggests a need for order, rather than complete, uninhibited freedom of self-expression. It does not suggest a return to the oppressive, authoritarian sense of self that was prevalent in the Middle Ages, but a type of middle ground. It represents a desire that is not as oppressive as the Middle Ages, but not as carefree and self-indulgent as Montaigne's time. There is a strong indication that society's sense of self had shed the need to rebel against authority.

Mr. Spectator gives us a view of society and clues as to the various social roles that existed during the time. For instance, Sir Freeport and Sir Roger de Coverley are merely pawns in Mr. Spectator's game. Their sense of identity and self stems from their role inside the community. It also stems from how they live and their ideas inside of the society. This society opposes Whigs, Torries, feudalism, and progress. They are seen for who they are and the ideas that they represent.

This contrasts to Montaigne's idea of self, which does not consider the thoughts and opinions of others. We can glean from these characters that the Eighteenth Century idea of self includes how one relates to others and how others see that person. The person is expected to be concerned with how they appear to others, including not being seen as going against societal norms of the time.

We learn from the writings of Joseph Addison that one's sense of identity now includes a sense of duty to society. It includes a sense of respect and concern for others. Addison writes,

Thoughts are at the same time more intelligible, and better discover their Drift and Meaning, when they are placed in their proper Lights, and follow one another in a regular Series, than when they are thrown together without Order and Connexion. There is always an Obscurity in Confusion,..."

Addison calls Montaigne, "the most eminent Egotist that ever appeared in the World." One would gather from this comment that it is now considered to be unseemly to promote one's own self-interest as Montaigne did.

Developing a More Refined Self

As we have seen, a sense of self-identity changed dramatically over a three hundred year time. It went from the extreme abolition of the Inquisition to a period of unbounded self-expression in the 16th Century. By the 18th century much of the raucous self-expression and self indulgence was beginning to give way to a more refined and ordered society. As such, there were new rules for expression of self.

During the 18th Century, the idea of self was tied closely to the society around the person. It was no longer acceptable to indulge in self-expression for the sake of self-expression, as in Montaigne's time. One's sense of self was limited by political and religious ideals of the time. Montaigne expressed his true feelings without regard to the impact that they would have on others. If others were offended, he demonstrated little concern. By the time of Steele and Addison, this was not acceptable and was considered bad form. One had to consider the feelings of others before speaking.

If one were to classify the change in ideas about self and self-identity, it could be viewed through the lens of the viewpoint of the person. During Montaigne's time, one's sense of self and self-identity stems from within. The pursuit of self-fulfillment and pleasure drove one's sense of identity. As time progressed towards the 18th Century, this focus turned to an external source of identity. One gained their sense of self in part from their sense of personal fulfillment, but also from how they felt that they were viewed by others in society.

The person of the 18th Century was still in pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfillment, but was willing to sacrifice this if it were necessary for the greater good of society. In the 18th Century, one had to be conscious of the impression that they were making. They had to repress their true feelings if they wished to remain accepted by society. They had to learn to balance when to express their true feelings and when to express them. The person of the 18th Century was in a constant struggle to balance their own true feelings and how others might see them if they expressed what was really on the inside.

An exploration of Montaigne, Steel, and Addison gives the reader three different extremes in viewpoint. Montaigne could be considered the most liberal of the three, with his love of total self-indulgence. Steel was a realist and viewed the society for what it was, a tapestry of people with different purposes and viewpoints. Steel saw a changing society and let the reader know them through the Spectator's colorful descriptions and interactions with them. Addison could… [END OF PREVIEW]

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