Constituting selves: Augustine, Sartre, and the role of religion in structuring the relationship between self and other
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It is commonly held that Augustine’s Confessions provides an early source for the modern “turn to the self.” But as many critics of modernity note, along with this accentuated sense of self has come a decreased sensitivity to the value and significance of the other. Perhaps the thinker credited (or blamed) for being the source of the modern notion of the self can also be a source for the postmodern retrieval of the other. This dissertation examines the understandings of the self presented in Augustine’s Confessions and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness to highlight and challenge structures latent in standard modern conceptions of the self derived from these very works. Despite their many similarities, these models differ fundamentally due to the fact that one arises from within an ideology of radical autonomy and freedom while the other arises from within an ideology of radical heteronomy and givenness. Sartre rejects givenness and leaves us with a system which asserts that the human self “is a useless passion,” and “Hell is other people;” Augustine assumes givenness and presents a model in which a fully-integrated self is possible only in becoming inseparably bound to the other. By examining how their contrasting ideologies contribute to constituting the stark difference in their conclusions about the similar selves they detail, I explore how structures of a religiously constituted self can preserve the possibility for communion in human relationships that are precluded by a worldview based on an atomistic and autonomous self as exemplified by Sartre. Closely examining the ways in which the self is experienced, expressed, and actualized in these two works, I highlight the fact that their opposing modes of engaging alterity are in fact entailed by their respective religious and modernist orientations. In exploring the role of religion in holding open possibilities for integration and communion between self and other, this work contributes to the contemporary conversation about the “turn to religion” as being a potentially productive response to the failure of modern and even postmodern notions of self to secure a basis for meaningful human experience.
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