There are two sorts of philosophical questions that, though related, are actually separate, with the first question gaining unwarranted authority over the second. One is: how can I improve myself? The other is: how can I understand myself?
When I ask, ‘How can I improve myself or my life,’ I am thinking in some such terms:
- How I could perform some task better;
- How I could be more excellent at some craft;
- How I could achieve what I set out to do;
- How I could have what I presently lack.
All these as well as unnamed others are instances of what John Passmore, in his book The Perfectibility of Man (1969), calls ‘perfectibility.’ Each essentially involves, by human effort alone, my fulfilling some standard of perfection (e.g., immaculate perfection: being wholly without flaws or defects) or my making progress (gradual, incremental, or sudden) toward it. Within certain bounds, the project of perfectibility is a reasonably good human endeavor aimed at being a more excellent or outstanding (arete) human being.
If one devotes oneself solely to answering this first question, however, one is bound to lose sight of, neglect, or overlook the second question, which is concerned with self-understanding. Yet without truly examining oneself in order to understand oneself, the very project of perfectibility may turn out to be futile, may spring from the wrong motivations, or may prove successful yet empty or flat.
When I ask, ‘How do I understand myself?,’ I am looking for
- the reasons I have for acting in the ways I commonly do;
- the right ways of acting as opposed to the wrong ways of acting;
- an elucidation of the beliefs I have about myself and others;
- the reasons I have for believing the basic sorts of things I do about myself and others;
- and all the means I may employ in order to avoid looking my life closely.
Plainly, the project of self-understanding must come before, even if it goes hand-in-hand with, the project of self-improvement. This is because I act on reasons (when I lead a considered life) and base my true beliefs also on reasons. So that coming to understand my reasons gives me grounds for asking the right, specific question–‘How specifically would it be best to improve my life, given that I have so often acted out of fear of being in error?’ This investigation into my understanding gives me the conceptual lucidity I need to pour my efforts into the right endeavor and, while doing so, to continue to examine how well I am committing myself to this endeavor.
But suppose we put the first question before the second. Then my desire to become an outstanding athlete may founder just because I incorrectly assumed that being an outstanding athlete is identical to leading an outstanding life. Thus will my successes, however notable, prove minuscule since they were based on an unexamined assumption about the nature of a good life. Earlier, I called this ’empty,’ ‘flat,’ that which in the grand scheme of things amounts to little or nothing. Then there are cases in which I may, say, seek to cultivate love yet for the wrong reasons: out of fear, out of grasping, out of possessiveness, owing to some other personal defects. Finally, there are futile actions or futile lives because they are out of character, beyond the limits of human endeavor, or impossible for someone with my given talents or capacities. Had I known about emptiness, motivational springs, and futility, I would have been wiser and thereby the better for it.
The conclusion is that self-understanding must come first.