The concept of the self will be explored in this essay – where it comes from, what it looks like and how it influences thought and behaviour. Since self and identity are cognitive constructs that influence social interaction and perception, and are themselves partially influenced by society, the material of this essay connects to virtually all aspects of psychological science. The self is an enormously popular focus of research (e.g. Leary and Tangney, 2003; Sedikides and Brewer, 2001; Swann and Bosson, 2010). A 1997 review by Ashmore and Jussim reported 31,000 social psychological publications on the self over a two-decade period to the mid-1990s, and there is now even an International Society for Self and Identity and a scholarly journal imaginatively entitled Self and Identity.
The concept of the “self” is a relatively new idea in psychological science. While Roy Baumeister’s (1987) painted a picture of a medievally organised society where most human organism’s reality were fixed and predefined by rigid social relations and legitimised with religious affiliations [family membership, social rank, birth order & place of birth, etc], the modern perspectives adopted by scholars and innovative psychologists has been contradicting such outdated concepts. The idea of a complex & sophisticated individual self, lurking underneath would have been difficult, if not impossible, to entertain under such atavistic assumptions of social structures affecting an individual human organism.
However, all this changed in the 16th century, where momentum gathered ever since from forces such as:
Secularisation – where the idea that fulfilment occurs in afterlife was replaced by the idea that one should actively pursue personal fulfilment in this life
Industrialisation – where the human being was increasingly being seen as individual units of production who moved from place to place with their own “portable” personal identity which was not locked into static social structures such as extended family
Enlightenment – where people felt they were solely responsible for choosing, organising and creating better identities for themselves by overthrowing orthodox value systems and oppressive regimes [e.g. the French revolution and the American revolution of the late 18th century]
Psychoanalysis – the psychoanalytic theory of the human mind unleashed the creative individual with the notion that the self was unfathomable because it lived in the depth of the unconscious [e.g. Theory of social representations – theory invoking psychoanalysis as an example of how a novel idea or analysis can entirely change how people think about their world (e.g. Moscovici, 1961; see Lorenzi-Cioldi and Clémence, 2001). [See: Psychoanalysis: History, Foundations, Legacy, Impact & Evolution]
Together, these and other socio-political and cultural influences lead to society thinking about the self and identity as complex subjects, where theories of self and identity propagated and flourished in this fertile soil.
As far as self and identity are concerned, we have noticed one pervasive finding in cultural differences. The so called “Western” world involving continents such as Western Europe, North America and Australasia, tend to be individualistic, whereas most other cultures, such as in Asia, South America and Africa are collectivist (Triandis, 1989; also see Chiu and Hong, 2007, Heine, 2010, 2012; Oyserman, Coon and Kemmelmeier, 2002). Anthropologist Geertz puts it beautifully:
“The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated, motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgement, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”
Geertz (1975, p.48)
Markus and Kityama (1991) describe how those from individualistic cultures tend to have an independent self, whereas people from collectivist cultures have an interdependent self. Although in both cases, people seek a clear sense of who they are, the [Western] independent self is grounded in a view of the self that is autonomous, separate from other people and revealed through one’s inner thoughts and feelings. The [Eastern] interdependent self on the other hand, unlike in the West, tends to be grounded in one’s connection to and relationships with other people [expressed through one’s roles and relationships]. As Gao explained: ‘Self… is defined by a person’s surrounding relations, which often are derived from kinship networks and supported by cultural values based on subjective definitions of filial piety, loyalty, dignity, and integrity’ (Gao, 1996, p. 83).
From a conceptual review of the cultural context of self-conception, Vignoles, Chryssochoou and Breakwell (2000) conclude that the need to have a distinctive and integrated sense of self is “likely” universal. However from individualist and collectivist cultures, the term “self-distinctiveness” holds a set of very different assumptions. In the individualist West, separateness adds meaning and definition to the isolated and bounded self. In the collectivist & Eastern others, the “self” is relational and gains meaning from its relations with others.
A logic proposed by analysing historical conceptions of self with an account of the origins of individualist and collectivist cultures along with the associated independent and interdependent self-conceptions may be related to economic policies. The labour market is an example where mobility helped the industry by viewing humans as “units” of production who are expected to shift their geographical locations from places of low labour demand to those of higher demand, along with their ability to organise their lives, relationships, self-concepts around mobility and transient relationships.
Independence, separateness and uniqueness have become more important than connectedness and long-term maintenance of enduring relationships [values that seem to have become pillars of modern Western Labour Culture – self-conceptions reflect cultural norms that codify economic activity].
However, this logic applied to any modern human organism seems to clearly offer more routes to development [personal and professional], more options to continuously nurture the evolving concepts of self-conception through expansive social experience and cultural exploration, while being a set of philosophy that places more powers of self-defined identity in the hands of the individual [more modern and sophisticated].
Now that some basic concepts and origins of the “self” along with its importance and significance to psychological science has been covered, we are going to explore two creative ways of learning about ourselves.
Firstly, the concept of self-knowledge which involves us storing information about ourselves in a complex and varied way in the form of a schema means that information about the self is assumed to be stored cognitively as separate context specific nodes such that different nodes activate different ones and thus, different aspects of self (Breckler, Pratkanis and McCann, 1991; Higgins, van Hook and Dorfman, 1988). The concept of self emerges from widely distributed brain activity across the medial prefrontal and medial precuneus cortex of the brain (e.g. Saxe, Moran, Scholz, and Gabrieli, 2006). According the Hazel Markus, self-concept is neither “a singular, static, lump-like entity” nor a simple averaged view of the self – it is a complex and multi-faceted, with a relatively large number of discrete self-schemas (Markus, 1977; Markus and Wurf, 1987).
Most individuals tend to have clear conceptions of themselves on some dimensions but not others – generally more self-schematic on dimensions that hold more meaning to them, for e.g. if one thinks of oneself as sophisticated and being sophisticated is of importance to oneself, then we would be self-schematic on that dimension [part of our self-concept], if not then we would not [would not be part of our self-concept – unsophisticated]. It is widely believed that most people have a complex self-concept with a large number of discrete self-schemas. Patrice Linville (1985, 1987; see below) has suggested that this variety helps to buffer people from life’s negative impacts by ensuring enough self-schemas are available for the individual to maintain a sense of satisfaction. We can be strategic in the use of our self-schemas – Linville described such judgement colourfully by saying: “don’t put all your eggs in one cognitive basket.” Self-schemas influence information processing and behaviour similarly to how schemas about others do (Markus and Sentis, 1982): self-schematic information is more readily noticed, is overrepresented in cognition and is associated with longer processing time.
Self-schemas do not only describe how we are, but they are also believed to differ as we have an array of possible selves (Markus and Nurius, 1986) – future-oriented schemas of what we would like to become, or what we fear we might become. For example, a scholar completing a postgraduate may think of a career as an artist, lecturer, writer, philosopher, politician, actor, singer, producer, entrepreneur, etc. Higgins (1987) proposed the self-discrepancy theory, suggesting that we have 3 major types of self-schema:
- The actual self – how we are
- The ideal self – how we would like to be
- The ‘ought’ self – how we think we should be
Discrepancies between the actual, ideal and/or ought, can motivate change to reduce the discrepancy – in this way we engage in self-regulation. Furthermore, the self-discrepancy and the general notion of self-regulation have been elaborated into the regulatory focus-theory (Higgins, 1997, 1998).This theory proposes that most individuals have two separate self-regulatory systems, termed Promotion and Prevention. The “Promotion” system is concerned with the attainment of one’s hopes and aspirations – one’s ideals. For example, those in a promotion focus adopt approach strategic means to attain their goals [e.g. promotion-focused students would seek ways to improve their grades, find new challenges and treat problems as interesting obstacles to overcome. The “Prevention” system is concerned with the fulfilment of one’s duties and obligations. Those in a prevention focus use avoidance strategy means to attain their goals. For example, prevention-focussed students would avoid new situations or new people and concentrate on avoiding failure rather than achieving highest possible grade.
Whether an individual is more approach or prevention focussed is believed to stem during childhood (Higgins and Silberman, 1998). Promotion-focus may arise if children are habitually hugged and kissed for behaving in a desired manner and love is withdrawn as a form of discipline. Prevention-focus may arise if children are encouraged to be alert to potential dangers and punished when they display undesirable behaviours. Against this background of individual differences however, regulatory focus has also been observed to be influenced by immediate context, for example by structuring the situation so that subjects focus on prevention or on promotion (Higgins, Roney, Crowe and Hymes, 1994). Research also revealed that those who are promotion-focussed are more likely to recall information relating to the pursuit of success by others (Higgins and Tykocinski, 1992). Lockwood and her associates found that those who are promotion-focussed look for inspiration to positive role models who emphasise strategies for achieving success (Lockwood, Jordan and Kunda, 2002). Such individuals also show elevated motivation and persistence on tasks framed in terms of gains and non-gains (Shah, Higgins and Friedman, 1998). On the other side of the spectrum, individuals who are prevention-focussed tend to recall information relating to the avoidance of failure by others, are most inspired by negative role models who highlight strategies for avoiding failure and exhibit motivation and persistence on tasks that framed in terms of losses and non-losses. After being studied in intergroup relations (Shah, Higgins and Friedman, 1998), the regulatory focus theory was found to strengthen positive emotion related bias and behavioural tendencies towards the ingroup when in the context of a measured or manipulated promotion focus. Prevention-focus strengthens more negative emotion-related bias [haters] and behavioural tendencies against the outgroup (Shah, Brazy and Higgins, 2004).
The second way of learning about the concept of self is through the understanding of our “many selves” and multiple identities. In the book, The Concepf of Self, Kenneth Gergen (1971) depicts the self-concept as containing a repertoire of relatively discrete and often quite varied identities, each with a distinct body of knowledge. These identities have their origins in a vast array of different types of social relationships that form, or have formed, the anchoring points for our lives, ranging from close personal relationships with other professionals, mentors, trusted friends, etc and roles defined by skills, fields, divisions and categories, to relationships fully or partially defined by languages, geography, cultures [sub-cultures], groups values, philosophy, religion, gender and/or ethnicity. Linville (1985) also noted that individuals differ in terms of self-complexity, in the sense that some individuals have more diverse and extensive set of selves than others – those with many independent aspects of selves have higher self-complexity than those with a few, relatively similar, aspects of self. The notion of self-complexity is given a rather different emphasis by Marilynn Brewer and her colleagues (Brewer and Pierce, 2005; Roccas and Bewer, 2002) who focussed on the self that is defined in group terms (social identity) and the relationship among identities rather than number of identities individuals have.
They argued that individuals have a complex social identity if they have discrete social identities that do not share many attributes but a simple social identity if they have overlapping social identities that share many attributes [simple]. For example, when Cognitive Psychologists [cognitive psychology explores mental processes] study high-level functions such as problem solving and decision making, they often ask participants to think aloud. The verbal protocols that are obtained [heard] are then analysed at different levels of granularity: e.g. to look at the speed with which participants carry out mental processes, or, at a higher level of analysis, to identify the strategies being used. Grant and Hogg (2012) have recently suggested and empirically shown that the effect, particularly on group identification and group behaviours of the number of identities one has and their overlap may be better explained in terms of the general property of social identity prominence – how subjectively prominent, overall and in a specific situation, a particular identity is one’s self-concept. Social identity theorists (Tajfel and Turner, 1979) argued 2 broad classes of identity that define different types of self:
(i) Social Identity [which defines self in terms of a “particular” group membership (if any meaningful ones exist for the individual), and
(ii) Personal Identity [which defines self in terms of idiosyncratic traits & close personal relationships with specific individuals/groups (if any) which may be more than physical/social, e.g. mental [strength of association with specific others on specific tasks/degrees]
The first main focus question here is asked by Brewer and Gardner (1996), ‘Who is this “we”?’ and distinguished three forms of self:
- Individual self – based on personal traits that differentiate the self from all others
- Relational self – based on connections and role relationships with significant/meaningful others
- Collective self – based on group membership [can depend of many criteria] that differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’
More recently it has been proposed that there are four types of identity (Brewer, 2001; Chen, Boucher and Tapias, 2006):
- Personal-based social identities – emphasising the way that group properties are internalised by individual group members as part of their self-concept
- Relational social identities – defining the self in relation to specific other people with whom one interacts [may not be physical or social only] in a group context – corresponding to Brewer and Gardner’s (1996) relational identity and to Markus and Kitayama’s (1991) ‘interdependent self’.
- Group-based social identities – equivalent to social identity as defined above [sense of belonging and emotional salience for a group is subjective]
- Collective identities – referring to a process whereby those who consider themselves as “group members” not only share self-defining attributes, but also engage in social action to forge an image of what the group stands for and how it is represented and viewed by others.
The relational self [for those who choose to be defined by others at least] is a concept that can be considered a particular type of collective self. As Masaki Yuki (2003) observed, some groups and cultures (notable East-Asian cultures) define groups in terms of networks of relationships. Research also revealed that women tend to place a greater importance than men on their relationships with others in a group (Seeley, Gardner, Pennington and Gabriel, 2003; see also Baumeister and Sommer, 1997; Cross and Madson, 1997).
In search for the evidence for the existence of multiple selves which came from research where contextual factors were varied to discover that most individuals describe themselves and behave differently in different contexts. In one experiment, participants were made to describe themselves on very different ways by being asked loaded questions which prompted them to search from their stock of self-knowledge for information that presented the self in a different light (Fazio, Effrein and Falender, 1981). Other researchers also found, time and time again, that experimental procedures that focus on group membership lead people to act very differently from procedures that focus on individuality and interpersonal relationships. Even “minimal group” studies in which participants are either: (a) identified as individuals; or (b) explicitly categorised, randomly or by some minimal or trivial criterion as ‘group’ members (Tajfel, 1970; see Diehl, 1990), a consistent finding is that being categorised tends to lead people to being discriminatory towards an outgroup, conform to ingroup norms, express attitudes and feelings that favour ingroup, and indicate a sense of belonging and loyalty to the ingroup.
Furthermore, these effects of minimal group categorisation are generally very fast and automatic (Otten and Wentura, 1999). The idea that we may have many selves and that contextual factors can bring different selves into play, has a number of ramifications. Social constructionists have suggested that the self is entirely situation-dependent. An extreme form of this position argues that we do not carry self-knowledge around in our heads as cognitive representations at all, but rather that we construct disposable selves through talk (e.g. Potter and Wetherell, 1987). A less extreme version was proposed by Penny Oakes (e.g. Oakes, Haslam and Reynolds, 1999), who does not emphasise the role of talk but still maintains that self-conception is highly context-dependent. It is argued that most people have cognitive representations of the self that they carry in their heads as organising principles for perception, categorisation and action, but that these representations are temporarily or more enduringly modified by situational factors (e.g. Abrams and Hogg, 2001; Turner, Reynolds, Haslam and Veenstra, 2006).
Although we have a diversity of relatively discrete selves, we also have a quest: to find and maintain a reasonably integrated picture of who we are. Self-conceptual coherence provides us with a continuing theme for our lives – an ‘autobiography’ that weaves our various identities and selves together into a whole person. Individuals who have highly fragmented selves (e.g. some patients suffering from schizophrenia, amnesia or Alzheimer’s disease) find it very difficult to function effectively. People use many strategies to construct a coherent sense of self (Baumeister, 1998). Here is a list of some that we have used ourselves:
Sometimes we restrict our life to a limited set of contexts. Because different selves come into play as contexts keep changing, protections from self-conceptual clashes seem like a valid motive.
Other times, we continuously keep revising and integrating our ‘biographies’ to accommodate new identities. Along the way, we dispose of any meaningless inconsistencies. In effect, we are rewriting our own history to make it work to our advantage (Greenwald, 1980).
We also tend to attribute some change in the self externally to changing circumstances [e.g. educational achievements, professional circle, industry, etc] rather than only internally, to construct who we are. This is an application of the actor-observer effect (Jones and Nisbett, 1972).
In other cases, we can also develop self-schemas that embody a core set of attributes that we feel distinguishes us from all other people – that makes us unique (Markus, 1977). We then tend to recognise these attributes disproportionately in all our selves, providing thematic consistency that delivers a sense of a stable and unitary self (Cantor and Kihlstrom, 1987). To sum up, individuals tend to construct their lives such that their self-conceptions are both steady and coherent. A major element in the conception of self, is the ability to master language and its varying degrees of granularity that hold a major role in social identity [linguistic discourse].
[The remaining part of this essay will focus on the power and importance of language as the essence of the human being]
The Essence of the Modern Human Being: Language, Psycholinguistics & Self-Definition
Human communication is completely different from that of other species as it allows virtually limitless amounts of ideas to be expressed by combining finite sets of elements (Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch, 2005; Wargo, 2008). Other species [e.g. apes] do have communicative methods but none of them compare with human language. For example, monkeys use unique warning calls for different threats, but never combine these calls on new ideas. Similarly, birds and whales sing complex songs, but creative recombination of these sounds in the expression of new ideas has not occurred to these animals either.
As a system of symbols, language lies at the heart of social life and all its multitude of aspects in social identity. Language may be at the essence of existence if explored from the philosopher Descartes most famous quote, “Cogito Ergo Sum” which is Latin for “I think, therefore I am.”, as thought is believed to be experienced and entertained in language. In expressing his discourse, Descartes based the science system on the knowing subject in front of the world that it constructs and represents to itself – a system that would later also be the basis for many of the concepts of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis.
The act of thinking often involves an inner personal conversation with oneself, as we tend to perceived and think about the world in terms of linguistic categories. Lev Vygotsky (1962) believed that inner speech was the medium of thought and that it was interdependent with external speech [the medium of social communication]. This interdependence would lead to the logical conclusion that cultural differences in language and speech are reflected in cultural differences in thought.
In the theory of linguistic relativity devised by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, a more extreme version of that logic was proposed. Brown writes:
Linguistic relativity is the reverse of the view that human cognition constrains the form of language. Relativity is the view that the cognitive processes of a human being – perception, memory, inference, deduction – vary with structural characteristics – lexicon, morphology, syntax – of the language [one speaks].
Rene Descartes (1596-1659) / Image: Université Paris-Descartes
Communication & Language
The study of communication is therefore an enormous undertaking that draws on a wide range of disciplines, such as psychology, social psychology, sociology, linguistics, socio-linguistics, philosophy and literary criticism. Social psychologists have tended to distinguish between the study of language and the study of non-verbal communication [where scholars agree both are vital to study communication (Ambady and Weisbuch, 2010; Holtgraves, 2010; Semin, 2007)]; with also a focus on conversation and the nature of discourse. However the scientific revolution has quickly turned our era into one hugely influenced by computer-mediated communication which is quickly turning into a dominant channel of communication for many (Birchmeier, Dietz-Uhler and Stasser, 2011; Hollingshead, 2001).
Communication in all its varieties is the essence of social interaction: when we interact we communicate. Information is constantly being transmitted about what we sense, think and feel – even about “who we are” – and some of our “messages” are unintentional [instinctive]. Communication among educated humans comprises of words, facial expressions, signs, gestures and touch; and this is done face-to-face or by phone, writing, texting, emails or video. The social factors of communication are inescapable:
- It involves our relationship with others
- It is built upon a shared understanding of meaning
- It is how people influence each other
Spoken languages are based on rule-governed structuring of meaningless sounds (phonemes) into basic units of meaning (morphemes), which are further structured by morphological rules into words and by syntactic rules into sentences. The meanings of words, sentences and entire utterances are determined by semantic rules; which together represent “grammar”. Language has remained an incredibly and endlessly powerful medium of communication due to the limitless amount of meaningful utterances it can generate through the shared knowledge of morphological, syntactic and semantic rules. Meaning can be communicated by language at a number of levels, ranging from a simple utterance [a sound made by one person to another] to a locution [words placed in sequence, e.g. ‘It’s cold in this room’], to an illocution [the locution and context in which it is made: ‘It’s cold in this room’ may be a statement, or a criticism of the institution for not providing adequate heating, or a request to close the window, or a plea to move to another room (Austin, 1962; Hall, 2000)].
Linguistic mastery therefore involves dexterity at many levels of cultural understanding and therefore should likely differ from one individual to another depending on their personality, IQ, education and cultural proficiency in self adjustment. This would lead to being able to navigate properly in the appropriate cultural context through language whilst knowing the appropriateness of the choice of words in term of “when, where, how and to whom say it.” Being able to master these, opens the doors to sociolinguistics (Fishman, 1972; also see Forgas, 1985), and the study of discourse as the basic unit of analysis (Edwards and Potter, 1992; McKinlay and McVittie, 2008; Potter and Wetherell, 1987). The philosopher John Searle (1979) has identified five sorts of meanings that humans can intentionally use language to communicate; we can use language:
- To say how something is signified
- To get someone to do something.
- To express feelings and attitudes
- To make a commitment
- To accomplish something directly
Language is a uniquely human form of communication, as observed in the natural world, no other mammal has the elaborate form of communication in its repertoire of survival skills. Young apes have been taught to combine basic signs in order to communicate meaningfully (Gardner and Gardner, 1971; Patterson, 1978), however not even the most precocious ape can match the complexity of hierarchical language structure used by a normal 3-year-old child (Limber, 1977).
Language has been called a human instinct because it is so readily and universally learned by infants. At 10 months of age, little is said, but at 30-month-old infants speak in complete sentences and user over 500 words (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006). Moreover, over this very 20 month period, the plastic infant brain reorganises itself to learn the language of its environment(s). At 10 months infants can distinguish the sounds of all languages, but by 30 months, they can readily discriminate only those sounds to which they have been exposed (Kraus and Banai, 2007). Once the ability to discriminate particular speech sounds is lost, it is very hard to regain in most, which is one of the reason why most adults tend to have difficulties with learning a new language without an accent.
Most intellectuals researching the evolution of sophisticated human languages turned first to comparative studies of the vocal communications between human beings and other lesser primates [e.g. apes / monkeys]. For example, vervet monkeys do not use alarm calls unless other similar monkeys are within the vicinity, and the calls are more likely to be made only if the surrounding monkeys are relatives (Cheney and Seyfarth, 2005). Furthermore, chimpanzees vary the screams they produce during aggressive encounters depending on the severity of the encounter, their role in it, and which other chimpanzees can hear them (Slocombe and Zuberbuhler, 2005).
A fairly consistent pattern has emerged in the study of non-human vocal communication: There is a substantial difference between vocal production and auditory comprehension. Even the most vocal non-human primates can produce a relatively few calls, yet they are capable of interpreting a wide range of other sonic patterns in their environment. This seems to suggest that non-human primates’ ability to produce vocal language is limited, not by their inability to interpret sounds, but by their inability to exert ‘fine motor control’ over their voices – only humans have this distinct ability. It also confidently suggests that human language has likely evolved from a competence in comprehension already existing in our primate ancestors.
The species specificity to language has led to some linguistic theorist to assume that an innate component to language must be unique to humans, notably Noam Chomsky (1957) who argued that the most basic universal rules of grammar are innate [called a “Language Acquisition Device”] and are activated through social interaction which enables the “code of language” to be cracked. However some other theorists argue for a different proposal, believing that the basic rules of language may not be innate as they can be learnt from the prelinguistic parent-child interaction (Lock, 1978, 1980), furthermore the meanings of utterances are so dependent on social context that they seem unlikely to be innate (Bloom, 1970; Rommetveit, 1974; see Durkin, 1995).
Motor Theory of Speech Perception
The motor theory of speech perception proposes that the perception of speech depends on the words activating the same neural circuits in the motor system that would be activated if the listener said the words (see Scott, McGettigan, and Eisner, 2009). Support for this theory has come from evidence that simply thinking about performing a particular task often activates the similar brain areas as performing the action itself, and also the discover of mirror neurons, motor cortex neurons that fire when particular responses are either observed or performed (Fogassi and Ferrari, 2007).
This seems to make perfect sense when solving the equation on the simple observation that Broca’s Area [speech area] is a part of the left premotor cortex [motor skills/movement area]. And since the main thesis of the motor theory of speech perception is that the motor cortex is essential in language comprehension (Andres, Olivier, and Badets, 2008; Hagoort and Levelt, 2009; Sahin et al., 2009), the confirmation comes from the fact that many functional brain-imaging studies have revealed activity in the primary or secondary motor cortex during language tests that do not involve language expression at all (i.e., speaking or writing). This may also suggest that fine linguistic skills may be linked to fine motor skills. Scott, McGettigan, and Eisner (2009) compiled and evaluated results of recorded activity in the motor cortex during speech perception and concluded that the motor cortex is active during conversation.
Since the unique ability of a high degree of motor control over the vocal apparatus is present only in humans, communication in lesser non-human primates are mainly gestural rather than vocal.
This hypothesis was tested by Pollick, and de Waal in 2007, who compared the gestures and the vocalisations of chimpanzees. They found a highly nuanced vocabulary of hand gestures being used in numerous situations with a variety of combinations. To conclude, chimpanzees gestures were much more comparable to human language than were their vocalisations. Could this simply suggest that primate gestures have been a critical stage in the evolution of human language (Corballis, 2003)?
On this same note, we may focus on the already mentioned “Theory of Linguistic Relativity” (Whorf, 1956) which states that our internalised cognitions as a human being, i.e. perception, memory, inference, deduction, vary with the structural characteristics, i.e. lexicon, morphology and syntax of the language we speak [cultural influence shapes our thoughts].
In support of of Sapir and Whorf’s position, Diederik Stapel and Gun Semin (2007) refer poetically to the “magic spell of language” and report their research, showing how different categories in the language we speak guide our observations in particular ways. We tend to use our category of language to attend to different aspects of reality. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that language entirely determines thought, so those who speak different languages actually perceive the world in entirely different ways and effectively live in entirely different cognitive-perceptual universes. However extreme this suggestion may seem, a good argument against this assumption would be to consider whether the fact that we can distinguish between living and non-living things in English means that the Hopi of North-America, who do not, cannot distinguish between a bee and an aeroplane? Japanese personal pronouns differentiate between interpersonal relationships more subtly than do English personal pronouns; does this mean that English speakers cannot tell the difference between relationships? [What about Chong, Khan, Balaraggoo, Tyrone, Vodkadinov, Jacob, Obatemba M’benge and Boringski – where would you attribute their skills in the former question?]
The strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is believed to be the most extreme version to be applicable to the mainstream, so a weak form seems to better accord with the quantitative facts (Hoffman, Lau and Johnson, 1986). Language does not determine thought but allows for the communication of aspects of the physical or social environment deemed important for the community. Therefore in the event of being in a situation where the expertise in snow is deemed essential, one would likely develop a rich vocabulary around the subject. Similarly, should one feel the need to have a connoisseur’s discussion about fine wines, the language of the wine masters would be a vital requisite in being able to interact with flawless granularity in the expression of finer tasting experiences.
Although language may not determine thought, its limitations across cultures may entrap those ‘cultured’ to a specific one due to its limited range of available words. Logically, if there are no words to express a particular thought or experience we would not likely be able to think about it. Nowadays such an idea based on enhancing freedom of expression and the evolution of human emancipation, a huge borrowing of words across languages has been noted over the years: for example, English has borrowed Zeitgeist from German, raison d’être from French, aficionado from Spanish and verandah from Hindi. This particular concept is powerfully illustrated in George Orwell’s novel 1984, in which a totalitarian regime based on Stalin’s Soviet Union is described as imposing its own highly restricted language called “Newspeak” designed specifically to prohibit people from even thinking non-orthodox or heretical thoughts, because the relevant words do not exist.
Further evidence over the impact of language on thought-restriction comes from research led by Andrea Carnaghi and her colleagues (Carnaghi, Maas, Gresta, Bianchi, Cardinu and Arcuri, 2008). In German, Italian and some other Indo-European languages [such as English], nouns and adjectives can have different effects on how we perceive people. Compare ‘Mark is gay’ [using an adjective] with ‘Mark is a gay’ [using a noun]. When describing an individual, the use of an adjective suggests an attribute of that individual; whereas a noun seems to imply a social group and being a member of a ‘gay’ group. The latter description with a noun is more likely to invoke further stereotypic/prejudicial inferences and an associated process of essentialism (e.g. Haslam, Rothschild and Ernst, 1998) that maps attributes onto invariant, often bio-genetic properties of the particular social category/group.
Paralanguage and speech style
The impact of language on communication is not only dependent on what is said but also by how it is said. Paralanguage refers to all the non-linguistic accompaniment of speech – volume, stress, pitch, speed, tone of voice, pauses, throat clearing, grunts and sighs (Knapp, 1978; Trager, 1958). Timing, pitch and loudness (the prosodic features of language; e.g. Argyle, 1975) play major roles in communication as they can completely change the meaning of utterances: a rising intonation at the end of a statement turns it into a question or communicates uncertainty, doubt or need for approval (Lakoff, 1973). Underlying emotions are often revealed in prosodic features of speech: low pitch could signify sadness or boredom, while high pitch could communicate anger, fear or surprise (Frick,1985). Naturally fast speech often reflects power and control (Ng and Bradac, 1993).
To gain further understanding of the feelings elicited by different paralinguistic features, Klaus Scherer (1974) used a synthesizer to vary short neutral utterances and has had individuals identify the emotions that were being communicated. Fig. A shows how different paralinguistic features communicate information about the speaker’s feelings.
In addition to paralinguistic cues, communication can also happen in different accents, different language varieties and different languages altogether. These are important speech style differences that have been well researched in social psychology (Giles and Coupland, 1991). From social psychology, the focus in language is mainly on how something is said rather than on what is said, with speech style instead of speech content; whereas discourse analytic approaches also place importance on what is said.
Social Markers in Speech
Most individuals have a repertoire of speech styles that is automatically or deliberately tailored depending on the context of the communicative event. For example, one would tend to speak slowly, use short words and simple grammatical constructions when dealing with foreigners and children (Clyne, 1981; Elliot, 1981). Longer, more complex constructions along with formalised language varieties or standard accents tend to be used in more formal contexts such as an interview or a speech.
In 1979, Penelope Brown and Colin Fraser categorised different components of a communicative situation that may influence speech style and distinguished between two broad features:
- The scene (e.g. its purpose, time of day, whether there are bystanders or an audience, etc)
- The participants (e.g. their personality, ethnicity, chemistry between them)
It is important to note however that individual differences have a major role to play in this objective classification of situations as different individuals may not define the similar “objective” situations similarly. For example, what is deemed formal for some may simply be common place to others; this subjective perception of objective situations has an effect on one’s chosen speech style.
One amazing point raised by Adrian Furnham (1986) is the fact that not only does one adjust speech styles to subjectively perceived situational demands, but one also seeks out situations that are appropriate to a preferred speech style. Contextual variations in speech style contains information about who is speaking to whom, in what context and on what topic? Speech contains social markers (Scherer and Giles, 1979). The most researched markers in social psychology are of group “memberships” such as society, social class, ethnicity, education, age and sex. Social markers are in most cases clearly identifiable and act as reliable clues to group membership. For example, most of the English can easily identify Americans, Australians and South Africans from their speech style alone, and (see Watson, 2009) are probably even better at identifying people who have been cultured in Exeter, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Essex! Speech style generally elicits a listener’s attitude towards the group that the speaker “represents” [at the exception of some non-mainstream individuals – as in any other group]. A mainstream media example could be the actress Eliza Doolittle’s tremendous efforts in the film My Fair Lady to acquire a standard English accent in order to hide her Cockney origins. This idea or concept is known as the match-guise technique, one of the most widely used research paradigms in the social psychology of language – devised to investigate language attitudes based on speech alone (Lambert, Hodgson, Gardner and Fillenbaum, 1960). The method involves individuals rating short speech extracts similar in paralinguistic, prosodic and content respects, differing ONLY in speech style (accent, dialect, language). All the speech extracts were spoken by the very same individual – who was fluently bilingual. The speaker is rated on a number of evaluative dimensions, which fall into 2 clusters reflecting competence and warmth as the 2 most basic dimensions of social perception (Fiske, Cuddy and Glick, 2007).
- Status variables (e.g. intelligent, competent, powerful);
- Solidarity variables (e.g. close, friendly, warm).
The matched-guise technique has been used extensively in a wide range of cultural contexts to investigate how speakers of standard and non-standard language varieties are evaluated. The standard language variety is the one that is associated with high economic status, power and media usage – in England, for example, it is what has been called received pronunciation (RP) English. Non-standard varieties include regional accents (e.g. Yorkshire, Essex), non-standard urban accents (e.g. Birmingham, North/South London) and minority ethnic languages (e.g. Afrikaan, Urdu, Arab, Hindi, Mandarin and other foreign minority languages in Britain). Research reveals that standard language varieties are more favourably evaluated on status and competence dimensions (such as intelligence, confidence, ambition) than non-standard varieties (e.g. Giles and Powesland, 1975).
There is also a tendency for non-standard variety speakers to be more favourably evaluated on solidarity dimensions. For example, Cindy Gallois and her colleagues (1984) found that both white Australians and Australian Aborigines upgraded Aboriginal-accented English on solidarity dimensions (Gallois, Callan and Johnstone, 1984). Hogg, Joyce and Abrams (1984) found that a similar scenario occurs in other linguistic cultures, for e.g. Swiss Germans upgraded speakers of non-standard Swiss German relative to speakers of High German on solidarity dimensions.
Language, Identity & Ethnicity
Matched-guise technique and other studies in linguistics have revealed how our speech style [accents, language, grammatical proficiency & voice] can affect how others evaluate us socially. This is unlikely to be due to the fact that some speech styles are aesthetically more pleasant than others, but more likely to be because speech styles are associated with particular social groups that are consensually evaluated more or less positively in society’s scale. Unless being acted, a person speaking naturally in the speech style of lower-status groups may lead to an evaluation similar to that of the group and their image [i.e. way of life] in society [for most mainstream cases & not expert assessors of individuality]. This suggests that processes associated with intergroup relations and group memberships may affect language and social behaviour among the mainstream crowd.
Howard Giles and Richard Bourhis and their colleagues employed and extended principles from the social identity theory to develop an intergroup perspective on the social psychology of language (Giles, Bourhis and Taylor, 1977; Giles and Johnson, 1981, 1987). Since the original analysis focussed mainly on ethnic groups that differ in speech style, the theory is called ethnolinguistic identity theory; however, the wider intergroup analysis of language and communication casts a much wider net to embrace all manner of intergroup contexts (e.g. Giles, 2012; Giles, Reid and Harwood, 2010).
Speech Style and Ethnicity
Although it is well know that ethnic groups differ in appearance, dress, cultural practices, and religious beliefs, language or speech style is often one of the most distinct and clear markers of ethnic identity – social identity as a member of an ethnolinguistic group (an ethnic group defined by language or speech-style). For instance, the Welsh and the English in the UK are most distinctive in terms of accent and language. Speech style, then, is an important and often central stereotypical or normative property of group identity: one of the most powerful ways to display your Welshness is to speak English with a marked Welsh accent – or, even better to simply speak Welsh.
Language or speech style cues ethnolinguistic identity. Therefore, whether people accentuate or de-emphasise their ethnic language is generally influenced by the extent to which they see their ethnic identity as being a source of self-respect or pride. This perception will in turn be influenced by the real nature of the power and status relations between ethnic groups in society. Research in England, on regional accents rather than ethnic groups, illustrates this (e.g. Watson, 2009) – some accents are strengthening and spreading and others retreating or fading, but overall despite mobility, mass culture and the small size of England, the accent landscape is surprisingly unchanged. Northern accents in particular such as Scouse and Geordie have endured due to low immigration and marked subjective regional pride of these respective communities. Brummie is slowly spreading into the Welsh Marches due to population spread, and Cockney-influenced Estuary English popular due to it being portrayed in mainstream middle-class films has luckily not influenced East Anglia and South East England – that have kept their grammar and granularity.
It should be noted that almost all major societies have a multicultural component with ethnic groups, however all contain a single dominant high-status group whose language is the lingua franca of the nation with ethnic groups whose languages are subordinate. However, in major immigrant economies such as the United States, Canada and Australia some of the biggest variety of large ethnic groups occur. Unsurprisingly, most of the research on ethnicity and language comes from these countries, in particular, Australia and Canada. In Australia for example, English is the lingua franca, but there are also large ethnic Chinese, Italian, Greek and Vietnamese communities – language research has been carried out on all these communities (e.g. Gallois, Barker, Jones and Callan, 1992; Gallois and Callan, 1986; Giles, Rosenthal and Young, 1985; Hogg, D’Agata and Abrams, 1989; McNamara, 1987; Smolicz, 1983)
Social categories such as ethnic groups may develop and maintain or lose their distinctive languages or speech style as a consequence of intergroup relations. However, categories do not speak. People speak, and it is generally done with one another, usually in face-to-face interaction. As mentioned earlier, when people interact conversationally, they tend to adapt their speech style to the context – the situation, and in particular the listener. This concept is the foundation of the speech accommodation theory (Giles, 1984; Giles, Taylor and Bourhis, 1973), which invokes specific motivations to explain the ways in which people accommodate their speech style to those who are present. Motivation involved for such adaptations may be a desire to help the listener to understand what is being said or to promote specific impressions of oneself.
Speech Convergence and Divergence
Since most conversations involve individuals who are potentially of unequal social status, speech accommodation theory describes the type of accommodation that might occur as a function of the sort of social orientation that the speakers may have towards one another (See Fig. B). Where a simple interpersonal orientation exists (e.g. between two friends), bilateral speech convergence occurs. Higher-status speakers shift their accent or speech style ‘downwards’ towards that of the lower-status speakers, who in turn shift ‘upwards’. In this scenario, speech convergence satisfies a need for approval or liking. The act of convergence increases interpersonal speech style similarity and this enhances interpersonal approval and liking (Bourhis, Giles and Lambert, 1975), particularly if the convergence behaviour is clearly intentional (Simard, Taylor and Giles, 1976). The process is based on the supported idea that similarity typically leads to attraction in most cases (e.g. Byrne, 1971).
Consider a particular scenario where an intergroup orientation exists. If the lower status group has low subjective vitality coupled with a belief in social mobility (i.e. one can pass, linguistically, into the higher status group), there is unilateral upward convergence on the part of the lower status speaker and unilateral speech divergence on the part of the higher status speaker. In intergroup contexts, divergence achieves psycholinguistic distinctiveness: it differentiates the speaker’s ingroup on linguistic grounds from the outgroup. Where an intergroup orientation exists and the lower status group has high subjective vitality coupled with a belief in social change (i.e. one cannot pass into the higher status group), bilateral divergence occurs. Both speakers pursue psycholinguistic distinctiveness.
Speech accommodation theory has been well supported empirically (Gallois, Ogay and Giles, 2005; Giles and Coupland, 1991). Bourhis and Giles found that Welsh adults accentuated their Welsh accent in the presence of RP English speakers (i.e. the standard non-regional variety of English). Bourhis, Giles, Leyens and Tajfel (1979) obtained a similar finding in Belgium, with Flemish speakers in the presence of French speakers. In both cases, a language revival was under way at the same time, and thus an intergroup orientation with high vitality was salient. In a low-vitality social mobility context, Hogg (1985) found that female students in Britain shifted their speech style ‘upwards’ towards that of their male partners. Accommodation in intergroup contexts reflects an intergroup or social identity mechanism in which speech style is dynamically governed by the speakers’ motivation to adopt ingroup or outgroup speech patterns. These motivations are in turn formed by perception of:
- The relative status and prestige of the speech varieties and their associated groups; and
- The vitality of their own ethnolinguistic group
One important factor that may actually govern changes in speech style is conformity to stereotypical perceptions of the appropriate speech norm. Thakerar, Giles and Cheshire (1982) distinguished between objective and subjective accommodation. People converge on or diverge from what they perceive to be the relevant speech style. Objective accommodation may reflect this, but in some circumstances it may not: for instance subjective convergence may resemble objective divergence if the speech style stereotype is different from the actual speech behaviour of the other speaker.
Even the “Queen’s English” is susceptible to some accommodation towards a more popular stereotype (Harrington, 2006). An analysis of the phonetics in the speech of Elizabeth II from her Christmas broadcasts to the world since 1952 show a gradual change in the Royal vowels, moving from ‘upper-class’ RP to a more ‘standard’ and less aristocratic RP. This may simply reflect a softening of the once strong demarcation between the social classes – social change may sometimes be a catalyst for speech change. Where once she might have said “thet men in the bleck het”, she would now say “that man in the black hat”.
Speech accommodation theory has been extended in recognition of the role of non-verbal behaviour in communication – now called communication accommodation theory (Gallois, Ogay and Giles, 2005; Giles, Mulac, Bradac and Johnson, 1987; Giles and Noels, 2002), which acknowledges that convergence and divergence can occur non-verbally as well as verbally. Anthony Mulac and his colleagues found that women in mixed-sex dyads converged towards the amount of eye contact (now called ‘gaze’) made by their partner (Mulac, Studley, Wiemann and Bradac, 1987). While accommodation is often synchronised in verbal and non-verbal channels, this is not necessarily the case. Frances Bilous and Robert Kraus (1988) found that women in mixed-sex dyads converged towards men on some dimensions (e.g. total words uttered and interruptions) but diverged on others (e.g. laughter).
Bilingualism and second-language acquisition
Due to the excessive and culturally destructive waves of migration caused by the exploitation of diplomacy and corrupt politicians with their partners in the mainstream media to promote uncontrolled migration, most major countries are now bilingual or multilingual, meaning that people need to be able to speak two or more languages with a fair amount of proficiency to communicate effectively and successfully achieve their goals in different contexts. These countries contain a variety of ethnolinguistic groups with a single dominant group whose language is the lingua franca – very few countries are effectively monolingual (e.g. Portugal and Japan) anymore – which nowadays seems to be reflected in the lack of socio-psychological coherence and the clash of values and visions.
The acquisition of a second language is rarely a matter of acquiring basic classroom proficiency, as one might in order to ‘get by’ on holiday – in fact, it is a wholesale acquisition of a language embedded in a highly cultural context with varying degrees of granularity to reach the levels of flawless/effective communication (Gardner, 1979). Second-language acquisition requires native-like mastery (being able to speak like a native speaker), and this hinges more on the motivations of the second-language learner than on linguistic aptitude or pedagogical factors. Failure to acquire native-like mastery can undermine self-confidence and cause physical and social isolation, leading to material hardship and psychological suffering. For example, Noels, Pon and Clément (1996) found low self-esteem and marked symptoms of stress among Chinese immigrants in Canada with poor English skills. Building on earlier models (Gardner, 1979; Clément, 1980), Giles and Byrne (1982) proposed an intergroup model of second language acquisition. There are five socio-psychological dimensions that influence a subordinate group member’s motivational goals in learning the language of a dominant group (see Fig. C):
- Strength of ethnolinguistic identification
- Number of alternative identities available
- Number of high-status alternative identities available
- Subjective vitality perceptions
- Social beliefs regarding whether it is or is not possible to pass linguistically into the dominant group
Low identification with one’s ethnic ingroup, low subjective vitality and a belief that one can ‘pass’ linguistically coupled with a large number of other potential identities of which many are high-status are conditions that motivate someone to acquire native-like mastery in the second language. Proficiency in the second language is seen to be economically and culturally useful; it is considered additive to our identity. Realisation of this motivation is facilitated or inhibited by the extent to which we are made to feel confident or anxious about using the second language in specific contexts. The converse set of socio-psychological conditions motivates people to acquire only classroom proficiency. Through fear of assimilation, the second language is considered subtractive in that it may attract ingroup hostility and accusations of ethnic betrayal. Early education, individual Intelligence, personality and aptitude may also affect the individual’s proficiency.
This analysis of second-language acquisition grounds language firmly in its cultural context and thus relates language acquisition to broader acculturation processes. John Berry and his colleagues distinguished between integration (individuals maintain ethnic culture and relate to dominant culture), assimilation (individuals give up their ethnic culture and wholeheartedly embrace the dominant culture), separation (individuals maintain their ethnic culture and isolate themselves from the dominant culture) and marginalisation (individuals give up their ethnic culture and fail to relate properly to the dominant culture (Berry, Trimble and Olmedo, 1986).
While the most effective forms of adjustments that completely benefit a system remain “native citizens” [in terms of creating organisms equipped to be part of an inherited system from the lower to the upper scale of society], along with assimilation [i.e the culturally & educationally worthwhile & proficient organisms that manage to adjust themselves and become fully part of the dominant culture], the remaining could simply be qualified as burden to most systems, for example, unassimilated children deriving from labour and 3rd world migration who are being born in mass due to the higher fertility culture from their parents’ traditional origins, and who seem to want native-like treatment and consideration, which seem to be illogical demands and expectations if they are unable to interact, communicate, adjust their perspective and perception to orient and group themselves with native-like proficiency in order to fully identify with the dominant culture [i.e. cultural belonging and identity], find their place in the society and contribute like all the citizens to the development and continuity of the dominant civilisation. This unassimilated and ‘nomadic‘ generation whose parents initially moved from land to land simply for financial gains from a larger economy may unfortunately [at the exception of some mediocre college-educated extreme-leftist human rights activists] be a scenario fit to be described metaphorically as “parasitic“, while to others [e.g. another segment of the same crowd of mediocre college-educated extreme-leftist human rights activists], this could be what they describe as “cultural-enrichment” [See the Essay: Psychological Explanations of Prejudice & Discrimination].
In a sophisticated reality, from the perspective of the experienced scholar and intellectual drenched in literature, psychology, science and philosophy that I have grown to become over the years, I believe that the “parasitic” example may simply be described as a mass phenomenon that civilised society is not used to dealing with and has not been monitoring effectively since the 1950s to a point where confusion and desperation sets for both native citizens and authorities when thinking of a “rational” solution that seems to be constantly shunned by illogical laws and extreme-leftists global conventions that are generally unfavourable to civilised societies while unconditionally defending excessive refugee resettlement programs and cheap and unskilled migration originating from linguistically, culturally and economically atavistic systems [e.g. the third world, middle east, some areas of Europe & parts of Southern and Eastern Asia] to be relocated and transformed into our collective burden.
Thus, the consequences for second language learning can indeed be very dramatic and have a life changing impact. The major economies of Europe are still divided and unsynchronised due to linguistic barriers and psychosocial differences. Furthermore, language and discourse are refined, enhanced and cultivated from interactions and exposure; the lack of psychosocial and linguistic coherence may also play a role in the drop in cultural standards along with the appearance of a generation that does not seem to have any direction or to represent any concrete philosophical ideals or values, composed of nothing but a simple classroom proficiency in order to meet the basics of daily communication with hardly any granularity or refinement in the psycholinguistic and cultural context of a rich heritage built on and developed over centuries of human civilisation.
Majority group members do not generally have the motivation to acquire native-like mastery of another language. According to John Edwards (1994), it is the international prestige and utility, and of course widespread use of English that makes native English speakers such poor language students: they simply lack the motivation to become proficient. Itesh Sachdev and Audrey Wright (1996) pursued this point and found that English children were more motivated to learn languages from the European continent (e.g. French, German, Italian) than those from the Asian continent (e.g. Mandarin, Hindi, Russian, Urdu, Tamil, Arabic, etc) even though a fair amount of children in the sample were exposed to more Asian & African immigration [due to years of mediocre policies linked to cheap democratic governments & extreme-leftist agendas bent on promoting alien invasions – fragmenting societies & violently destabilising geographical compositions] than languages & cultures from Europe. A possible reason would be that English children perceive more prestige and desirability in mastering additional languages & learning about cultures such as French, German & Italian instead of far-flung incompatible foreign ones [e.g. African Third world, Middle-East, Asia etc].
Communicating without words
Speech rarely happens in complete isolation from non-verbal cues. Even on a phone, individuals tend to automatically use a variety of gestures [body language] that cannot be ‘seen’ by the recipient at the other end of the phone line. In a similar fashion, phone and computer-mediated communication (CMC) conversations can be difficult precisely because many non-verbal cues are not accessible [e.g. users may interpret some messages as ‘cold’, ‘short’ or ‘rude’ when a participant might simply not be proficient at expressing themselves on a keyboard]. However, non-verbal channels do not always work in combination with speech to facilitate understanding. In some cases, non-verbal message starkly contradicts the verbal message [e.g. threats, sarcasm and other negative messages accompanied by a smile; Bugental, Love and Gianetto, 1971; Noller, 1984].
Human beings can produce about 20,000 different facial expressions and about 1,000 different cues based on paralanguage. There are also about 700,000 physical gestures, facial expressions and movements (see Birdwhistell, 1970; Hewes, 1957; Pei, 1965). Even the briefest interaction may involve the fleeting and simultaneous use of a huge number of such devices in combination, making it unclear even to code behaviour, let alone analyse the causes and consequences of particular non-verbal communications. However, their importance is now acknowledged in social psychology (Ambady and Weisbuch, 2010; Burgoon, Buller and Woodall, 1989; DePaulo and Friedman, 1998), and doing research in this area has remained a major challenge. Non-verbal behaviour can be used for a variety of purposes, one may use it to:
- Glean information about feelings and intentions of others (e.g. non-verbal cues are often reliable indicators of whether someone likes you, is emotionally suffering, etc);
- Regulate interactions (e.g. non-verbal cues can signal the approaching end of an utterance, or that someone else wishes to speak)
- Express intimacy (e.g. touching and mutual eye contact);
- Establish dominance or control (non-verbal threats);
- Facilitate goal attainment (e.g. pointing)
These functions are to be found in most aspects of non-verbal behaviour such as gaze, facial expressions, body language, touch and interpersonal distance. Non-verbal communications has a large impact, yet it goes largely ‘unnoticed’ – perhaps since we acquire them unaware, we tend not to be conscious when using them. Most individuals acquire non-verbal skills without any formal training yet manage to master a rich repertoire of non-verbal behaviour very early in life – suggesting that huge individual differences in skills and uses should be noticed. Social norms can have a strong influence on our use of non-verbal language, for example, if one is delighted at the demise of an arrogant narcissist or foe, one would be unlikely to smile at their funeral – Schadenfreude is not a noble emotion to express [at least in most situations].
Individual and group differences also have an influence on, or are associated with, non-verbal cues. Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues (Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers and Archer, 1979) devised a profile of non-verbal sensitivity (PONS) as a test to chart some of these differences. All things equal, non-verbal competence improves with age, is more advanced among successful people and is compromised among individuals with a range of psychopathologies (e.g. psychosis, autism).
Reviews conclude that women are generally better than men at decoding both visual cues and auditory cues, such as voice tone and pitch (E. T. Hall, 1979; J. A. Hall, 1978, 1984). The explanation for this seems to be rather social than evolutionary (Manstead, 1992), including child-rearing strategies that encourage girls more than boys to be emotionally expressive and attentive. One major question remains whether women’s greater competence is due to greater knowledge about non-verbal cues. According to Janelle Rosip and Judith Hall (2004), the answer seems to be ‘yes’ – women have a slight advantage, based on results from their test of non-verbal cue knowledge (TONCK). A meta-analysis by William Ickes has shown that when motivated to do so, women can become even more accurate: for example when women think they are being evaluated for their empathy or when gender-role expectations of empathy are brought to the fore (Ickes, Gesn and Graham, 2000).
Most individuals can improve their non-verbal skills (Matsumoto and Hwang, 2011), that can be useful for improving interpersonal communication, detecting deception, presenting a good impression and hiding our feelings [when required in some situations]. Practical books have been written and courses on communications has always had an enduring appeal. Why not try yourself out on the TONCK?
Non-verbal behaviour differs among individuals since most have different attachment styles thus different relationships too. In the case of intimate relationships, we would tend to assume that partners would enhance each other’s emotional security through accurate decoding of their individualistic non-verbal cues and responding appropriately (Schachner, Shaver and Mikulincer, 2005). Although there are data dealing with non-verbal behaviour in parent-child interactions and how they relate to the development of attachment styles in children (Bugental, 2005), there is less research focussing on how adult attachment styles are reflected ‘non-verbally’ in intimate relationships.
Discovering the Self
In turning our attention to ourselves, we begin to apply the psychological concept of self to the individual’s consciousness of his or her own identity. What does the “mind’s eye” see when it looks into the self – into that special mirror that reveals one’s innermost thoughts and feelings, i.e. our own private world we so often hide from others. Ancient Greeks who travel to the Oracle at Delphi for answers to their problems, found this message inscribed on the shrine: “Know Thyself”.
Centuries later, it was William James who in 1890, set the stage for the modern resurgence of psychology’s interest in the self. In studying what he called “the mind from within”, James distinguished three aspects of the self: the material, the spiritual and the social.
The material self is our awareness of the physical world: our body and the people and things around us.
The spiritual self is the part that “thinks of ourselves as thinkers” – the inner witness to events.
And the part of the self that focuses on the images we create in the minds of others is called the social self.
While it was William James who pioneered the scientific concept of the self, many earlier philosophers and writers had also recognised this dimension of human nature. Some psychologists believe that the gradual separation of a young child from its mother, a process called individuation, is essential for developing a unique sense of self and a healthy personality – failure to acquire an independent self-identity may lead to psychological problems.
Today many psychologists are keenly interested in studying the self, however there was a time when psychology focused almost exclusively on behaviour – there was no place for anything as fuzzy as the concept of self. Even to Freud, the conscious self was little more than a weak, passive link in his triad of Id, Ego and Superego. Freud defined the Id as a primitive, unconscious part of the personality where drives and passions originate. The Superego restrains the Id. For Freud the Superego is a combination of the conscience and the ideal self. The ego, our conscious self of self-identity, moderate between the Id and Superego – between our primitive impulses and our sense of moral obligation. Freud was much more interested in the dramatic confrontations between the unconscious Id and Superego, than he was in the conscious processes of the ego [which we believe accommodates many basic principles of Cognitive Psychology, although not sufficient to explain a complete model of the mind, behaviour, drives and motivation as it tends to ignore the unconscious processes].
Carl Rogers in the 1960s placed a much greater emphasis on aspects of the conscious self [the conscious Ego]. Rogers led the humanistic movement, which was hugely responsible for psychology’s return to the self. In contrast to Freud’s view of a conflicted, impulse driven creature, Rogers offered a vision of psychological growth and health. There exists within the healthy individual, a capacity for self-understanding, for self-direction, for guiding behaviour in self-directed ways, which can be tapped if the right conditions [e.g. resources, education, commitment, training, etc] are provided.
In other words, the individual does have the capacity and a potential for self-development, change and integration [eventually leading to assimilation in various “cultural” contexts, i.e. linguistic, socio-behavioural, philosophical, geographic, etc] – which does not need to be supplied from the “outside world”, but rather learnt and developed from within the individual. As Jacques Lacan beautifully puts it in describing the mirror stage, one unfortunate outcome of the stage is that individuals tend to look outward and not inward in their search for identity – such external orientation toward individuals’ own identity is doomed to fail.
One great historical example of self-development, change and integration is Paul Léautaud, the son of an indifferent father and an absent mother, who never had any formal literary education and left school at 15, worked in all kinds of small jobs to live, and educated himself by reading all the great authors voraciously late at night. Eventually, he would become part of the literary crowd and be pivotal in the discovery of Guillaume Apollinaire, even if he would not publish much himself. He was an “Écrivain pour hommes de lettres” in his own words [French for: “Writer for men of letters”]. To have the freedom to write, something that meant the world to him, he accepted a badly paid job at the Mercure de France, where he was charged for a short time to be a drama critic under the name of Maurice Boissard; he would make himself known for his frankness, his mocking and subversive mind. Léautaud went through hard times financially but never allowed his problems to become an obstacle to his literary aspirations, stating “Quand je marque mes dépenses chaque jour, quand j’inscris 20 francs, il y a 15 francs pour les bêtes et 5 francs pour moi. Je vais avec des souliers percés, du linge en loques et souvent sale par économie, ce qui est une grande souffrance pour moi, je mange insuffisamment et des choses qui me répugnent, je porte mes vêtements au-delà de toute durée et toujours par économie ou impossibilité de les remplacer, je ne m’achète rien, je ne m’offre aucun plaisir, aucune fantaisie. Je vais même peut-être être obligé de cesser de m’éclairer à la bougie pour travailler, ce qui me plaît tant. Voilà ma vie à 52 ans accomplis ou presque” [French for: “When I mark my expenses every day, when I enter 20 francs, there are 15 francs for the animals and 5 francs for me. I go with pierced shoes, ragged clothes and often dirty by economy, which is a great suffering for me, I eat insufficiently and things that repel me, I wear my clothes beyond any duration and always by economy or impossibility to replace them, I buy nothing, I offer myself no pleasure, no fantasy. I may even have to stop lighting myself with candles to work, which I like so much. This is my life at 52 years or so.”] Solitary, collecting abandoned animals in his pavilion in Fontenay-aux-Roses and living in poverty himself, he devoted himself for more than 60 years to his Journal, which he called literary, where he recounted, day by day, under the direct impression, the events that affected him: « Je n’ai vécu que pour écrire. Je n’ai senti, vu, entendu les choses, les sentiments, les gens que pour écrire. J’ai préféré cela au bonheur matériel, aux réputations faciles. J’y ai même souvent sacrifié mon plaisir du moment, mes plus secrets bonheurs et affections, même le bonheur de quelques êtres, pour écrire ce qui me faisait plaisir à écrire. Je garde de tout cela un profond bonheur. » [French for: “I only lived to write. I only felt, saw, heard things, feelings, people only to write. I preferred this to material happiness, to easy reputations. I have even often sacrificed my pleasure of the moment, my most secret happiness and affections, even the happiness of a few people, to write what made me happy to write about. I keep a deep happiness from all this.“] He was also elitist, and in terms of the mind and the absence of prejudice, he puts himself above most of his contemporaries, declaring: “Sorti de l’école à 15 ans, mis aussitôt à travailler comme employé par mon père, ayant appris seul ce que je peux savoir, m’étant donné seul la culture que je peux avoir (je n’ai jamais cessé), m’étant perfectionné seul comme écrivain, cela n’a pas fait de moi un démocrate. Tout le contraire : un aristocrate. Je l’entends par mon esprit, ma façon de penser et de juger.” [French for: “Leaving school at 15, immediately made to work as an employee by my father, having learned alone what I can know, having alone given myself the culture that I can have (I have never stopped), having perfected myself alone as a writer, that did not make me a democrat. Quite the opposite: an aristocrat. I mean it by my mind, my way of thinking and judging.“] A great admirer of Stendhal, he readily acknowledged a taste for egotistical exploration: “J’ai un grand penchant […] à parler de moi, de mes souvenirs. Aussi, dans mes songeries, j’aurai passé ma vie à me revivre” [French for: “I have a great inclination[…] to talk about myself, about my memories. Also, in my thoughts, I will have spent my life reliving myself“]. He thought that good writing should have the qualities of tone, the sensitivity, of a certain personality and that the great brand is to write in complete relationship with the man we are and that it causes fire works. Léautaud’s last words before dying were, “Maintenant, foutez-moi la paix.” [French for: “Now, leave me alone.”] Marie Dormoy, whose lover he had been, became his universal legatee and executor and helped to publish and make known his Literary Journal after his death. The style of the journal is natural and spontaneous. Léautaud practiced, without vulgarity, a living French, a delicious mixture of writing and orality, through a stream of emotional, reactive and lively thought. For those who discovered Leautaud’s voice in his famous radio interviews, the reader has the impression, on each page, of hearing it. Few writers have been able to create the plastic dynamism of the French language as he has. A man of the eighteenth century lost in the first twentieth century, he had the dryness, naturalness and ease of the great masters of French prose before Chateaubriand. Paul Gilson, director of the Services artistiques de la radio would say: “Nous n’avons jamais eu d’entretiens aussi vivants, intéressants et qui aient un pareil succès.” [French for: “We have never had such lively, interesting and successful interviews.”] It seems that Paul Léautaud’s life can be resumed in one quotation from Adèle de Bellegarde, which is “Je n’ai réussi qu’une seule chose, vivre selon mon goût” [French for: “I only managed one thing, to live according to my taste.”]
Marcel Gauchet put it well by explaining that when one lives in a world structured by republican meritocracy and when one is a good student, one knows that there are paths to social ascension.
Hence, in the humanistic view, we find a self that is striving towards personal fulfilment – a guiding force that moves us towards positive actions and enhancements imbued with a kind of virtue that gives humans kinship with the angels. For psychologists, the next step after describing the properties of the self has been to explore just how this dynamic mental structure works in controlling behaviour. Researchers who study the self usually speak of the self-concept: the individual’s awareness of his or her continuing identity as a person. This self-concept is viewed as an internal regulator of thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It interprets and organises our ongoing experiences. It reflects on how our present actions compare with our standards and expectations, and it affects our performance by providing plans, scripts, goals and incentives.
We tend to organise our beliefs and information about ourselves in terms of schemas, or knowledge clusters. For example, to some people, gender schemas are all-important – masculinity and femininity dominate their thinking. To others, “weight schematic” may be more important, where they may be trying to lose weight and perceive others primarily in terms of being fat (out of control) or being thin (having it all together). Our self-schema or self-image can have a powerful impact on our behaviour. If our self-image is good, we try to live up to our standard: we try harder and succeed more often. If our self-image is bad, we tend to adjust downward, and end up failing more often. So, self-image can work for or against us. Along this line, Albert Bandura of Stanford developed what he calls the theory of self-efficacy, a new theory of how the self works which can help us understand how some people translate promise and passion into optimal performance. In this experiment, researcher Delia Cioffi would give one subject the task of improving production at the model furniture factory. She would tell the subject that his ability to make good decisions for the factory is based on innate intelligence and ability. The higher one’s basic capacities in the skills, the better one will perform. Nowadays however computer programs tend to ease this process. The next subject is told that complex decision-making is an acquirable skill, and that his performance can improve through his own efforts. In any new skill, one does not begin with faultless performance, but the more one practices formulating and testing decisions, the better one gets at it. The first subject who believes that decision-making is a measure of his intelligence proceeds cautiously and sets lower goals for himself and is frustrated by an increasing number of incorrect decisions. His confidence is measured by the number on the lower left of the screen which keeps falling, as does his sense of efficacy. The second subject, however, sees early mistakes as a necessary part of learning. He profits by them and his performance improves. He sets higher goals for himself, and his response to questions about confidence demonstrate an increasing sense of his own efficacy.
The issue is not what you have, but how you use what you have. From this point of view, we can see that we can have the same competencies and subskills and use them poorly, adequately, or extraordinarily, depending on our self-belief. So for this reason, we can often predict people’s accomplishments better from their self-belief rather than from just their past attainments.
Up to this point we have been focusing on the part of the self which focuses inward to assess its capabilities. But there is another aspect of the self that focuses outward to get an understanding on the impression being created in others. This outward focus, the awareness of the social self, asked the questions: “How am I coming across? What impression am I creating? Do you see me the way I see myself? Do you see me the way I would like you to see me?”
« Je suis officier de la Légion d’honneur, je n’en tire pas de vanité. Je vous dis ces choses parce qu’aux yeux de certaines personnes cet accessoire vestimentaire confère à ceux qui le portent un certain prestige. Cet attribut me donne le privilège d’être écouté respectueusement par les imbéciles. Les autres ne me prêtant quelque attention qu’à cause de mon talent, de ma carrière ou de mon passé. » [Traduction(EN): « I’m an officer of the Legion of Honor, I don’t get any vanity out of it. I say these things to you because in the eyes of some people this clothing accessory confers a certain prestige on those who wear it. This attribute gives me the privilege of being listened to respectfully by imbeciles. Others only pay attention to me because of my talent, my career or my past. » – Professeur Lambertin (joué par Louis Jouvet) / Un Extrait du film, Entrée des artistes (1938)
To better explain this part about self-presentation, we are going to explore the arts, particularly drama which addresses the nuances of self-presentation. As a former student of literature and drama, I will use the example of the drama teacher who trains young individuals and actors in self-presentation skills to help them convey an impression to an audience. How does this work? Well, we are going to use the concept of status, which has to do with how we manipulate the affect of our self to one another. The content in a given circumstance may be the same, however the way in which I choose to speak to you [the way I use non-verbal cues, i.e. body language] may affect my relationship to you.
These status transactions, come in different aspects, and here we are going to discuss some of them.
The first of these would be eye contact, as it is commonly known that eye contact is a useful device in asserting oneself.
The second variable is of course whether or not one’s body is moving in a sustained way or whether it has jerky movements. As soon as a person starts to move in jerky ways it also affects his or her speech, as it is hard to sustain sentences when for example one is moving there head up and down. Many people tend to speak uncomfortably while moving at the cost of their status [e.g. Uh, as soon as, um, I begin to move my body in, uh, jerky ways – it also affects my speech you notice, It’s hard to uh, sustain sentences when I’m moving, uh, kind uh… but, but it, uh…. At the cost of their status in some cases]. A third kind of jerky motion we notice often is people touching the face, their hair or their hands, which conveys a sense of nervousness – which again would be lowering their status as a speaker]. In other words, anything we might consider to be nervous gestures would be in the category of lowering one’s status. So, the prototype for high status would be someone who is basically calm and composed, and who speaks in complete sentences, breathes deeply, makes eye contact and [uh?] does not have any particular jerky mannerisms.
These factors in interactions are known as status transactions, and they take place all the time between all kinds of people. They are a form of interpersonal communication where individuals establish their degree of social status and power, and demonstrate as well as anything the social aspects of the self-concept. To manage the impressions we create in others, we all engage in what is known as strategic self-presentation – how we present ourselves to others so that they perceive us in the way we see ourselves. Society reacts to us according to the context our behaviour has created [e.g. profession(s), values, education, language(s), nationality(ies), etc], then we see the way they respond to us, which confirms our original belief about the kind of individual we truly are [have become through growth and development]. It is a closed circle – what researcher Mark Snyder has called “behavioural confirmation”. Our beliefs, our sense of self, create their own reality. That is why depressed people elicit negative reactions and tend to be treated as if, in fact, they are inadequate in most aspects of normal life. While extroverts create an easy-going social climate in which others tend to respond positively to them.
There is also an intimate connection between self and culture [please note that culture here may be related to many fields, e.g. language, profession, clubs, private circles, orientations, identities, musical circles, arts, etc] – culture can be defined objectively [scientifically] as behavioural patterns individualised to a particular select group.
When we talk about the self, we are referring to the way in which the biological organism/being becomes a person. Becoming a person [human being], is largely a social endeavour, and there is nothing more social than language [i.e. linguistic discourse]; language creates a social bond, as Jacques Lacan also pointed out, language [i.e. linguistic discourse] gives the Subject the ability to attain recognition from others [i.e. the rest of humanity]. We can be a biological being [a primate] all by ourselves but to become a person, to become a self, we must engage with or take on or incorporate the cultural meanings, cultural ideas and practices of a particular group or groups [for individuals who have the chance to be bi or tri-cultural] and all these are learnt by language in its different forms. We must use these to become a person as it would be impossible to be a self by ourself. We can be a biological entity, but to be a person with a sense of self, we normally do it in some set of culture specific ways.
Culture can be seen not as biologically based, but rather socially based. It is a set of behavioural patterns and attitudes that we adopt as a means of defining who we are depending of where we are and who we want to be.
Many tend to think of “culture” as an entity inside people, similar to some sort of essence. Taking myself as an example, I qualify myself as bi-cultural, being a Franco-British individual, and since the majority of people do not have the chance to receive the heritage of two European empires, I will focus on the French side. Many people tend to think about us French [yes, the heirs of the language of Hugo, Molière, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Lacan & Foucault] as having some kind of French genes, or French traits or some kind of French attributes that make us French. It is absolutely not true, as culture is “what we choose to do”. And so, as the French school of thought, which has always been avant-garde in structuring minds to the French family; if we take an individual and guide him or her to connect with and use French ideas/concepts, and French ways of perceiving, feeling, behaving and doing things [i.e. values], then eventually that person will become French. Similarly, if I took that same person and placed him or her in the British context, that person will then become British in that sense [at least the science of Psychology in 20th century has enough evidence that I have collected throughout the dpurb.com website, to show that such a scenario depending on the individual’s abilities should be scientifically and psychologically valid – the mainstream people at large are still to embed and share this principle to open new perspectives to their own lives and in doing so allow themselves to grow psychologically and culturally]. After studying intellectual humility, psychologists have found that individuals with this personality trait have superior general knowledge (Krumrei-Mancuso, Haggard, LaBouff and Rowatt, 2019). Intellectual humility has consequences for learning and styles of thinking; the process of learning itself requires intellectual humility to acknowledge that one lacks a particular knowledge and hence has something to learn in order to continue evolving. In the same study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Krumrei-Mancuso and her colleagues found that intellectual humility was associated with less claiming of knowledge that one does not have, indicating a more accurate assessment of one’s own knowledge. In the study, intellectual humility was also correlated with being more inclined to reflective thinking, and also possessing more “need for cognition” [i.e. enjoying thinking hard and problem solving], greater curiosity, and open-minded thinking. In the journal Self and Identity, the results from a study by Porter and Schumann (2017) suggest that intellectual humility can be increased in individuals through a growth mindset of intelligence; hence we could all benefit from intellectual humility in our lifetime development. The authors concluded that “teaching people a malleable view of intelligence may be one promising way to foster intellectual humility and its associated benefits.”
Culture is simply a set of common ideas and common ways of doing things – although each culture has its sub-cultures that may vary [e.g. geographically, linguistically, artistically and philosophically].
We can view culture and self as a collaboration where each has an effect on the other: culture shapes self and the Self also has the power to shape culture. This idea is known as mutual constitution and it is reflected in the artefacts of all societies through art, literature and languages of all societies. It also affects each individuals differently in their choice of identification, consumption and adoption of particular products of culture. For example, having been brought up in a society with a Franco-British heritage, it was my choice to shape my self with French literature, arts, journalism, music, heritage, along with Oxford English, literature and heritage as a foundation to establishing myself as an individual with a self of Western European origin, and to make the region a place that I call home. As Jacques Lacan beautifully placed it:
«…en disant que seule la perspective de l’histoire de la reconnaissance permet de définir ce qui compte pour le sujet.
Je voudrais, pour ceux qui ne sont pas familiers avec cette dialectique que j’ai déjà abondamment développée, vous donner un certain nombre de notions de base. Il faut toujours être au niveau de l’alphabet. Aussi vais-je prendre un exemple qui vous fera bien comprendre les questions que pose pour la reconnaissance, et qui vous détourne de la noyer dans des notions aussi confuse que celles de mémoires ou de souvenir…
…un refoulement est autre chose qu’un jugement qui rejette et choisit. » – Jacques Lacan
French for :
“by saying that only the perspective of the history of recognition allows the definition of what matters for the subject.
I would like to, for those who are not familiar with that dialectic that I have already abundantly developed, give you a number of basic notions. We must always be at the level of the alphabet. So I will take an example that will make you understand the questions posed for recognition, and that distracts you from drowning it in notions as confusing as those of memories or souvenirs…
…a repression is something other than a judgment that rejects and chooses.” – Jacques Lacan
Most of us are exposed to thousands of images in a given day, which many go by our conscious [not the unconscious] senses unnoticed. While these images discarded by our attention are deemed unnecessary, they collectively shape our thinking about how to be a person [a model to follow], how to be a self [the chosen self]. Take Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin or Oscar Wilde for example; it is quite clear that none of those characters would be qualified as the boy next door; they have been taken here as examples because, as myself, none of us with an English linguistic, literary and intellectual heritage [specially those with the educational elements to optimise their output in life] choose to be the “boy next door”.
A discussion published in the Oxford Journal of Applied Linguistics based on the emerging field of heritage speaker bilingual studies challenged the generally accepted position in the linguistic sciences, conscious or not, that monolingualism and nativeness are exclusively synonymous; from modern academic discussions, it is now being acknowledged that heritage speaker bilinguals and multilinguals exposed to a language in early childhood are also natives; they have multiple native languages, and nativeness can be applicable to a state of linguistic knowledge that is characterized by significant differences to the monolingual baseline (Rothman and Treffers-Daller, 2014).
This may also be said in the French realm for those who received a French linguistic, literary, and intellectual heritage like myself, with examples such as Jean Fanchette, Malcolm de Chazal, Voltaire, René Descartes, François-René de Chateaubriand, Honoré de Balzac, Napoléon 1er, Jacques Lacan, Pierre Bourdieu, Francis Cabrel or Florent Pagny, since none of these “héritiers de la langue Française” would also qualify as the “boy next door”. This is because none of us of French heritage with the intellectual capacity to optimise our output in life would choose to be the “boy next door”.
The French heritage is known for its philosophical values embedded in the “grandeur d’esprit et de l’être”, as Charles de Gaulle famously said: “Un peuple comme le nôtre accoutumé aux malheurs comme aux gloires, sait reconnaître les États qui forment avec lui, l’équipe de la liberté.” [Translation: “A people like ours accustomed to misfortunes as well as glories, knows how to recognize the states that form with him, the team of freedom.”] We can thus conclude confidently that intelligent and reasoning beings are unlike unchangeable lifeless objects such as stones, coins and pennies.
Unlike animals, humans have the ability to express themselves linguistically while using sophisticated and complex reasoning; we are bodies of flesh, blood and bones with a malleable brain and we know from anthropology and biological science that the morphology of our cerebral cortex is substantially less genetically heritable than in chimpanzees, the closest fossil and living relatives of humans, and this means that we, humans, have a brain that is highly responsive to moulding by complex environmental influences of various types; this specific anatomical property of increased plasticity which is likely related to the human pattern of development may underlie our species’ capacity for cultural evolution (Gómez-Robles, Hopkins, Schapiro and Sherwood, 2015).
Hence, we can conclude that individuals with a functional brain have the capacity to construct themselves based on their choices and abilities and are not absolute copies of their parents, siblings, or relatives [even if they may happen to share some personality traits such as for e.g. IQ, emotional intelligence, creativity, temperament, etc], neither are they simply products of exposure to their social circle, acquaintances, or “direct/initial” environment – as the reductionist and deterministic minds of pure cognitive-behavioural psychology wrongly assume [although a wide range of simple and basic vital behaviours can be explained from the cognitive-behavioural perspective in terms of Stimulus and Response, e.g. using the toilets, but complex thought processes of creativity and individuality in various aspects of mental life remain problematic to their branch of psychology]. This is because individuals are unique just like their finger prints, blood type and eyes, and this extends to their tastes, desires, direction, choices, field, creative influences, artistry, identities and parcours. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s father was not the productive and creative genius that his son was, but he may have shared some degree of fluid intelligence and reasoning that he passed to his son through his genes; Rafael Nadal’s parents cannot serve and destroy the world’s best tennis player like he does; Victor Hugo’s father was an imperial general and a military person, not the prolific writer and literary master that his son was; Napoleon’s father did not have the personality or imperial vision of his son but married his wife Maria Letizia Ramolino when she was 14 and was a man in law, however he may have had a good sense of judgement in matters related to the management of society that Napoleon inherited; Jacques Lacan’s father was a business man who simply dealt in oil and soap and was not the academically cultured and innovative theorist in psychology that Jacques Lacan was; the father of Sigmund Freud was a poor and unsuccessful wool merchant, and did not have Sigmund Freud’s theoretical creativity in psychology; the family of Carl Jung was very modest financially and were not the deep thinker and theorist that Carl Jung was; Pascal Picq, the author of “L’homme est-il un grand singe politique?” was born to parents who worked in the market, and whose father later worked in transportation while his mother became a factory worker, they were not affiliated to the prestigious “Collège de France” as their son would later be; and Pierre Bourdieu, the author of “Langage et pouvoir symbolique” was the son of a man who came from the the small peasantry of Béarn, a daily farmer who then became a postman without leaving his rural environment, and was not the gifted researcher, thinker and speaker that his son Pierre would grow up to be. And if we were to also extend these examples to the spiritual domain for Christians, we can also note that the father of Jesus Christ was a wood worker, not the prophet, messiah, philosopher and founder of Christianity that his son Jesus was, he also did not walk on water, turn it into wine and restore sight to the blind, perhaps on the same religious note for those who see science as the systematic study of God’s works, it may be perfect to quote Michael Langlois: « Si Dieu nous a créés avec un cerveau, c’est pour qu’on s’en serve ! » [which is French for “If God created us with a brain, it’s so we can use it!”]. These examples to show that individuals are unique and not absolute copies go on and on, and although they are obvious, it seems that reminding the masses of the reality of individual psychological construction in our world is the job [or burden] that destiny has placed on my shoulders. A lie will remain untrue even if the whole world believes in it, and the truth will always stay true even if noone believes in it.
L’heritage de Voltaire: a pioneer of individual self-conception and the liberation of the mind
We are now going to explore the life of one of the most enigmatic intellectuals of the enlightenment of the 18th century, Voltaire, because he is one of the pioneers of self-conception and the liberation of the individual. It is fundamental to understand that the society that we now live in was not simply given to us on a plateau. Many individuals have fought intellectually and dedicated their lives to justice and individual freedom and emancipation. It would be incredibly atavistic to remain ignorant about the intellectual heritage, the founding pillars passed on to us by men and women who have changed our world by the power of their mind and pen.
We all have heard of Voltaire, and today his name can be found on so many institutional buildings, monuments and places, not to mention paintings by some of the greatest artists and statues that adorn France and other countries. So, why do we do this? Why do we as a civilisation ensure that his name lives on throughout time? We do this in the hope that the fire that lived inside his mind is passed on to the next generation; we do this in the hope that the minds of the present and future generation may follow his example and choose a path of dedication, excellence, values, persistence and courage.
In France, Voltaire’s life is even taught to young children, his legacy has become part of modern French intellectual heritage, identity and education, and the majority of people with a French intellectual and/or literary heritage embody the values of Voltaire – both consciously and in many cases unconsciously. Voltaire’s life has become part of French educational heritage and is taught to the young in order to shape their minds, character and values at an early age, he is considered as a sort of prophet, and remains to French identity and heritage what Muhammad is to Muslim identity and heritage.
During the times of Voltaire, 18th century Europe was going through an incredible period of change through the intellectual revolution of the enlightenment, a change that would be permanent and that has since shaped the mind of human civilisation. In those times, the whole of Europe, shook by the enlightenment, spoke French, i.e. the Europe of the intellectuals, diplomats, bureaucrats, emperors and even cooks. As Stéphane Bern phrased it in 2019: it is in the calm countryside on the Franco-Swiss border, in the Auverge-Rhône-Alpes region that slept a strange volcano, uncontrollable, it was a volcano of the mind, of relevance and liberty, his name was Voltaire – the great, the immense, who would die in Paris at the age of 83 years old on the 30th of May 1778. However, it was in the village of Ferney that he had moved to a few years before, in his refuge residence that has recently been restored at the heart of a village baptised Ferney-Voltaire in order to honour his memory.
Voltaire’s initial name was François -Marie Arouet, but for the whole of Europe, he is Voltaire, the prince of philosophers, the passionate poet, the dedicated historian and the writer in his twenties of his first play, “Oedipe” which would open the doors of all the theatres to him. He was also a passionate lover, most famously of the brilliant Émilie du Châtelet, the « grand amour » of his life with whom he discovered true love for more than 15 years.
A man who considered himself the equal or superior to people in power and who was never intimidated by them, crowned or not, Voltaire constantly fought against hypocrisy, superstition, and for justice while always remaining loyal to God, whom he never denied, but he never stopped denouncing the abuses of the religious authorities of his time as an atavistic institution that persecuted people and condemned many to atrocious deaths.
Voltaire is known for his usual irony and intellectual ferociousness along with a courage without equal in the conservative and unforgiving climate of the ancient regime of his time in the 18th century. Eventually, he paid harshly for such a flamboyant and defiant character through a few trips to La Bastille prison, but Voltaire’s mind remains free and alive!
As Stéphane Berne perfectly phrased it in the 2019 documentary « Voltaire ou la liberté de penser » dedicated to the memory of Voltaire: « Un homme seul peut parfois changer le monde avec sa plume » [French for: « One man alone can sometimes change the world with his pen. »]
Voltaire never hesitated to defend causes deemed lost, such as that of Jean Callas, the unfortunate protestant from Toulouse who was unjustly condemned to death by the Catholic Church and whose name and honour would be restored by Voltaire. He was a dedicated intellectual, always connected with his era, never atavistic or living in the past, but was a passionate lover of the world with surprising originality who applied reason and philosophy to challenge all the irrational conventions of the social structure of the ancient regime and in doing so he is nowadays regarded as an intellectual who was always in advance over his contemporaries by a few centuries. Early in his life, he became a vegetarian, refusing to see meat at his table with this very Voltarian argument embedded with heavy connotations: « On ne mange pas ses semblables! » [French for: “one does not eat his similars!”]
Voltaire’s incredible parcours ends in apotheosis in 1791, when l’Assemblée National brings Voltaire into the Panthéon 13 years after his death – voilà, he reached immortality! That day was memorable because Voltaire’s body, before entering the Panthéon, crossed Paris by programmed stages; first it passed La Bastille where he spent some time, then Voltaire, homme de lettres (man of letters), homme de théâtre passed all the great Parisian theatres, the troops were there with texts that praised his memory. One of the moving parts was when the procession stopped where Voltaire died, l’hôtel de Villette which is on the quai des Théatins, which would later become the Quai Voltaire.
It is amazing to see how the French people treated a man who was not a noble, but through his mind and intellectual abilities rose to gain the respect and acclaim comparable to that of kings and emperors. This ceremony was so grandiose that a commentator had even said that it was a national ceremony, the ceremony of the nation who found itself around the remains of Voltaire. However, the remains arrived at the Panthéon at night and the bishop who was to consecrate Voltaire’s body was absent, since as a clergyman he did not want to receive the remains of a man who throughout his life had fought against the Catholic institutions. Yet, Voltaire’s remains entered the Panthéon and he has since been acknowledged as one of the greats of our civilisation; he entered a monument constructed to be a church and transformed into a pantheon for him. There is a funny anecdote from the obese Louis XVIII after the restoration when Napoléon I was sent to exile after his unfortunate last battle at Waterloo when at that point his regime was riddled with spies and traitors, apparently the monument was to be transformed into a church and there were debates about whether to move Voltaire, and the obese monarch said: « Laissez le, il sera bien puni d’entendre la messe tous les jours. » [French for: “Leave him, he will be punished by hearing mass every day!”]. So, Voltaire remains in the monument.
The tombeau of Voltaire constituted from the catafalque that crossed the whole of Paris is important for all the inscriptions that show the importance of the great man, historian, philosopher, poet, but it is also the recognition by the Assemblée Nationale of the immortal genius of Voltaire.
The intellectual also has a very special place, because he is in the front of the monument, hence all the great men and women have to pass in front of it before entering the Panthéon. In 1794, Voltaire will be joined by Rousseau, and although the two had some clashes in their life, they are considered as the two major philosophers who spread the mind of the enlightenment and carried its eternal spirit of freedom and justice.
It is to be noted that 11 years after Voltaire’s death in 1778, and 2 years before his remains were transferred to the Panthéon in 1789, a historical event would shake the world forever: France had for the first time in its history gone through the revolution, with the iconic takeover of La Bastille, but the Republic had not yet been proclaimed. To this day Voltaire remains the most ancient personality to remain at the Panthéon. The revolution was looking for modern heroes, men who were not saints, kings or men of war, and began to look for minds of the ancient regime who were already dead who in some way, announced the revolution.
Intellectuals debate to this day whether Voltaire could be seen as an artist and architect of the revolution. In some way it may be true, since the ideas of personal liberty and individual emancipation that he defended were the base on which the revolution was founded. But it can also be said that Voltaire was not a man made by the revolution, although in his times, he was aware of the English revolution of 1649 which sent shockwaves across Europe as Charles I was put to death in England after Oliver Cromwell, the English general and statesman had led the armies of the Parliament of England against the king during the English Civil War to then rule the British Isles as Lord Protector from 1653 until his death in 1658, also acting simultaneously as head of state and head of government of the new republican commonwealth. Voltaire in France was very close to many crowned heads, and although he was not of noble decent himself and despised the abuses of the church and royalty, he socialised with them and saw them as part of his circle; he was close to the monarchy and never thought that the monarchy in France could ever be overturned; however he wanted the monarchy to be constitutional, tolerant, humane and respectful towards individuals and their liberties. French historians argue that Voltaire was definitely not a republican, although this remains debatable since he is not alive to respond to the question and the world can keep on guessing.
Voltaire was a sophisticated man of words and a refined thinker who believed in the power of the pen, mind and intellectual discourse, hence he was not a grotesque brute and would have probably been disgusted around the majority of average, simple, nasty, infantile and petty animalistic minds who infest the political scene of the 21st century, who probably would not be able to interact with him linguistically at the level of language he would have expected and naturally functioned at psychologically; his discourse would not have reached optimal understanding among the mediocre majority of his audience and he would have had to slow down and simplify himself constantly, which would have been very frustating and painful for such a brilliant intellectual; and a struggle in maintaining his mind sharp.
The man was definitely one of the most talented intellectuals of the 18th century that the Assemblée Nationale has crowned. French historian Évelyne Lever observed that Voltaire had an enigmatic and powerful gaze that marked his presence and would say:
« Le regard chez Voltaire c’est essentiel. C’est un regard qui capte tout et c’est un regard qui rend tout ce qu’il a vu, et il a évidemment des possibilités intellectuelles extrêmement vastes, c’est l’homme des lumières dans tous les sens du terme. »
French for :
“The look in Voltaire’s eyes is essential. It is a gaze that captures everything and it is a gaze that gives back all that he saw, and he obviously has extremely vast intellectual possibilities, he is the man of the enlightenment in every sense of the word.”
For French writer Philippe Sollers, Voltaire was an adventurer who was very agitated, very clandestine, constantly fighting through his intellectual discourse, like being at war with the conventions of his time. The author of « L’invention de l’intellectuel dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle » and « Les Ennemis des Philosophes », who also co-directed « Inventaire Voltaire », Didier Masseau, saw in Voltaire, a character who had a great presence and who entertained some kind of tradition, with his large Louis XIV styled wig that was completely out of fashion in the 18th century; hence Voltaire was a very singular character. François Jacob, the author of « Voltaire », believes that Voltaire was someone who had always been conscious of his own worth, and knew that he was among the greatest – someone who could bring a tremendous amount to his contemporaries.
The recognition obtained at the Panthéon, Voltaire had been looking for it during the early years of his life. Voltaire from the very beginning entertained the spark of the self-made and self-defined man, since the man who was not yet named Voltaire is in fact François-Marie Arouet and does not have any aristocratic ancestry, and hence could not be considered as noble. While in the 21st century the educational cultivation or the discourse, views and ideas of an individual may lead to him or her being perceived as a noble man or woman of intellect or a noble mind, it was not the case in the 18th century, where there was a strong division between classes – where nobility was usually given by royalty or inherited by birth. Hence, Voltaire from a very early age worked to make the notion of “origins” meaningless in the emancipation and development of the individual – a task that was titanic in the old days of the 18th century.
Voltaire’s father belonged to the middle-class, i.e. the bourgeoisie. It was a relatively well-to-do bourgeoisie and they lived comfortably, but they did not swim in gold either. François-Marie’s mother passed away when he was only 6, and he was raised by his father and benefited of an exceptional formation. At 10 years of age, he had gained admission at the most prestigious institution of the kingdom, the collège Louis-le-Grand, where both the sons of the bourgeoisie and highest nobility were scholarised. So, there he experienced a social climate generated by the best minds of his generation who were destined for a prestigious future and of course, some of his alliances had allowed him to build a network in some of the highest milieus. Even if the young François-Marie was not treated as well as some of his comrades, he would very soon distinguish himself through his intelligence, personality and individuality.
Among the young aristocrats there, some had a room with their own domestics and their private prefect, while the young Arouet was condemned to share the room with 15 or 20 of his classmates. Among the subjects taught, at the college, there was dissertation in Latin, the writing of poetry and versification. Voltaire was particularly gifted in those linguistic and literary fields, especially in exercises of amplification, that put the emphasis on a sense of rhetoric [i.e. the ability to analyse, synthesise, respond and argue convincingly], this is how he would get himself noticed. Voltaire would get the best results in linguistic eloquence in Latin, and this was also the first time that he developed the confidence and pride of a writer or a thinker, since he had just proven himself by winning a contest of eloquence and that would finally be the birth of his career as a thinker.
During these college years, he also benefited from the teaching of the Jesuits which is characterised by a great open-minded view of the world, it was about forming a true citizen, i.e. a profoundly Christian mind but who is also open to the reality of his times, hence the importance of the voyages, history, and this constant open-minded view and of course the dramatic arts, such as the theatre. The theatrical arts after all is an opening on the city. The young Arouet developed a taste for drama and theatre, he did not play comedies, but rather tragedies, and from there Voltaire was already blossoming and was certainly thinking of a writing future.
The personality of the future Voltaire was also shaped by his godfather, a man of thought who was a member of the Société du Temple, a world apart that the young François-Marie was introduced to in his teenage years. That society had been a sort of microcosm in Paris, and Voltaire would develop a taste for its aristocratic and libertarian side and also for « le bon mot » [French for: the good word]. It is an epicurean society: a society that lives for pleasure as well as for the freedom of thought. There he had found people who were less conformist and who held different views about the social structure of his time, and the young Voltaire started to love this milieu as it opened new horizons to him. After his godfather had introduced him to one of his older female friends, the latter saw in Voltaire a young man with an exceptional intelligence and left him a small amount of money in her will. With that money, François-Marie, a lover of literature, would go and buy books since his choice had been made, he was not going to follow the career planned by his father since that notarial and legal bureaucratic bourgeois milieu would not have allowed him to fully explore and develop his literary talent, artistic and intellectual creativity, and would have been too narrow and mundane for his ambition and deep mind.
When the young Arouet left college, he was still not known as Voltaire, but in the logic of the future Voltaire, he already wanted to be an « homme de lettres » [French for: man of words or letters], an « homme de plume » [French for: man of the pen]. Of course, for his father that was truly scandalous, because from his bourgeois perspective and milieu, poets are considered as « crève-la-faim » [French for: someone who cannot afford to eat properly] – being a poet is not considered a job. Hence, Voltaire’s father had imagined him studying law and perhaps becoming a notary but he instead wanted to enter the domain of the “belles-lettres” [French for: beautiful words], and hence there the young intellectual’s choice experienced a first form of rejection by his father.
This unpleasant experience led him to even invent his own aristocratic origin, since ironically the future Voltaire would say that he was not the son of his father, and that his real father was an aristocrat who probably wrote verses and who was the lover of his mother; Voltaire said this openly without any shame, since he preferred to come across as a prestigious bastard born out of wedlock rather than a mediocre legitimate child. Of course, this was fairly petty, and could be attributed to a childish frustration, being a fiction that Voltaire created that allowed him to discard his own origin, but from a deeper look it showed how he was already being marked by the concept of the self-made and self-created individual governed by his own abilities and will-power.
Voltaire was already refusing to be a victim of the past and the random location where the fusion of a spermatozoid and an egg, i.e. birth, had placed him; we can take note here that it was what modern psychologists and psychoanalysts qualify as “the concept of self” , i.e. the individual is not dependent on anyone, is not simply a biological lump of flesh created by two primates who copulated, compelled to be defined by an imposed legacy and carry whatever burden it may include – that is an option of course, depending on the individual’s choice in relation to his or her desires but it is definitely not an obligation. We are who we are and who we choose to make ourselves through our own efforts, desires and choices – that is Voltairean heritage and the mind of the intellectual enlightenment! Coincidentally, this simple yet immense and fundamental concept aligns with my own reflections, scientific arguments and philosophical orientations based on the organismic perspective of the free organism that follows a constant evolution throughout its lifetime in a Piagetian style of cognitive growth. So in a way, it is like finding a partial form of synchronisation of my own intellectual thoughts with Voltaire’s, while Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mind, language and concept of symbolic chain and desires follows an almost similar line of thought – it shows that while most of my contemporaries missed the emphasis on the organismic perspective, one of the minds who changed the world in the 18th century shared my beliefs – this particular intellectual similarity is personally satisfying.
When later in his life Voltaire managed to acquire the château de Ferney, he had the old building demolished which he had qualified as atavistic in style, and had a new one built to his taste. It would also become the place where he received many intellectuals and also his friend, the mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet, along with the actor Lequin who would take part in many of the plays written by Voltaire. One of the other great intellectuals who never came to Ferney is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the solitary philosopher, since those two sometimes clashed on some philosophical issues without ever meeting each other, however they both recognised each other’s greatness which reminds us today that they have been two of the most illustrious [i.e. well known, respected and admired] homme de lettres of the century of the enlightenment. After his death, Voltaire’s heart was stored in a cenotaph in France at his Ferney residence for several years, with the inscription:
« Son esprit est partout et son coeur est ici. »
French for :
« His mind is everywhere and his heart is here. »
Voltaire also invited the most intimate of his guests at Ferney into his personal library where he would read them extracts that meant a lot to him and were connected to his intellectual fight against the problems of the society of his time, for example, against the rigid religious institutions of the Ancient Regime and the persecutions and horrors they orchestrated. The complete works of Voltaire can also be found at Ferney, where he first started writing and focussed on tragedy, a popular genre in his times.
It is with the literature, dramatic arts and the theatre that he was drenched in at college that Voltaire would create and build a name for himself. He thought that this would suffice to take his legacy to posterity, i.e. through his tragedies, however as we would see, it took much more to have Voltaire accepted among the greats of his time, since the division of classes was rigid in the 18th century.
At around 20 years old, the young Arouet had already become quite used to the Parisian salons and his personality and mind quickly made him popular – he became well-known and a habitué of the court at the château de Sceaux. The young Arouet had already risen in society through his intellectual and artistic abilities and original personality, and at that court he was a little boute-en-train (i.e. joker); he improvised clever rhymes and poetry and would say exactly what the great seigneurs wanted to hear. He was stunned by the early success he had found at Sceaux; and although he should have toned himself down in this milieu, he just could not resist the urge to be even more extroverted, flamboyant, defiant and outgoing – it seems that Voltaire was an early embodiment of a form of open-minded libertarian conservatism. During his time there he also enjoyed a wide range of literary, theatrical and musical pleasures.
However, he would soon go beyond his limits, and reveal himself as an extremely biting, facetious mind that could become nasty when provoked, according to French historian Évelyne Lever. In his poem, « Puero Regnante », he offended a man whom no one would have dared to insult, namely Philippe d’Orléans who was the man in charge of the French monarchy since the death of Louis XIV in 1715; d’Orléans was ensuring the regency of the kingdom until the young Louis XV reached the age to govern. The futur Voltaire’s verses in his poem came with heavy consequences since his dramatic poem accused the regent of having killed the grand children of Louis XIV by poison in order to get as close as possible to power while going even further to accuse the regent of having sexual relations with his daughter.
The poem was so scary that Voltaire found himself imprisoned at La Bastille. He was incarcerated on the 16th of May 1717 while in his twenties, and he would remain locked for almost a year. However, his conditions while in detention were far from terrible; the young Arouet was placed in the quarters that we could consider in today’s terms as those reserved for the V.I.Ps [i.e. very important person]. There he had lunch with the governor, where people would also visit and write to him; it was a place where you could serenely plan and prepare for your release.
If someone is imprisoned at the special quarters of La Bastille, it is because they hold a degree of importance and because they have the power over society, hence the writer used it as a formidable source of publicity to push himself at the front of the social scene. It is also during that period that François-Marie Arouet decided to bury his old name and transform himself into Voltaire; he thought that he should find himself a signature to match his size and to prepare for his future glory; he considered his old name, François-Marie Arouet, to have been a burden to him. French historian, Évelyne Lever noticed that the name, Voltaire, contained the term « Volte » which carries the connotation of one who danses and flies. On the name of Voltaire, the French intellectual, François Bessire said:
« C’est l’invention d’une marque, c’est l’invention d’un nom tout à fait remarquable, un travail de communication étonnamment réussie. »
« It’s the invention of a brand, it’s the invention of a very remarkable name, a surprisingly successful work of communication. »
Voltaire also made the most of his time in detention to finalise his first play, however after his release, his perfectionist approach and the numerous repetitions and modifications he made to the script caused conflicts among the troop of actors of the Comédie-Française who accepted to take part in it. One of the actresses, Miss Desmares, had categorically refused to receive new verses from Voltaire to repeat, but had quite an appetite. So, Voltaire ironically sent over small pâtés that she would open to eat and inside there were the new lines that Voltaire wanted her to learn, everyone of course laughed at this adventure, yet the verses were learnt and of course the small pâtés eaten.
The première of Voltaire’s play, Oedipe, opened on the 18th of November 1718, and the whole of Paris rushed to watch the spectacle of the young author with a sulphurous reputation. It was a triumphant success for the writer, and that would be the moment that Voltaire began to earn a living with his pen, and his desire for glory at the same time was satisfied. The success of his writing was fundamental to Voltaire because it confirmed that he was a great author of the classical tragedies.
After that event, Voltaire would start to build a network of acquaintances and friends among the nobles, and would visit Jean-René de Longueil at the Château de Maisons, today known as the Château de Maisons-Laffitte. It is there that Voltaire worked on his epic poem, la Henriade, and one time during a lecture in the great hall of the château, Voltaire did not hesitate to ask the opinions of the guests invited and they, who were not writers and never wrote a play in their life allowed themselves to a number of criticisms. As this went on, Voltaire began to lose his calm and in an abrupt gesture he took his manuscripts and threw them all in the fireplace in a raging gesture; one of the guests stormed to pick them up and gave them back to Voltaire.
Another unfortunate episode there was when Voltaire caught a potentially deadly disease: smallpox. However, Voltaire in a few weeks miraculously recovered but a fire spread from the chimney under his room, having been kept constantly lit during the weeks of his illness, the place was ravaged, but that blow of fate would not affect the solid friendship that bound him to Jean-René de Longueil.
After proving himself through his intellectual, linguistic, literary and artistic abilities, Voltaire in his thirties thought that he could finally consider himself as the equal of the nobles, him, a sort of aristocrat of the mind. However, an altercation with one of them during a soirée would cruelly prove him wrong. During that night, the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot had been joking unsympathetically about the name of Voltaire, trying to mock him, and Voltaire in an affirmative and insolent tone abruptly responded:
« Mon nom commence là où fini le votre! »
« My name starts where your name ends! »
A few days later, Rohan-Chabot had Voltaire beaten violently as he was leaving a house where he had had him invited. Voltaire was permuted with pain with all the blows he received from sticks. Voltaire asked for reparation and began to realise that his noble friends certainly pitied him, but would do nothing concrete to help him as the days went by. Voltaire eventually realised that he was being advised to remain silent and to get over this humiliation. That event likely marked Voltaire for life in his fight against the atavistic structure of the ancient regime because it brought him back to the condition that the 18th century of France imposed on individuals; hence, he could be a star on the intellectual, literary and artistic scene, he could be the great Voltaire, but in the 18th century, to the nobles, he would always be considered a « roturier » [note that this is an archaic term that is not used anymore in the 21st century as it used to mean someone who does not have aristocratic origins, it is a term that can very rarely be heard in a minority of social circles that still abide by the social structure of the ancient regime, for example, among some circles in England, the English term is usually “commoner”]; and this irrational concept allowed the nobles of the 18th century to hold the illusory belief that they were superior to anyone who did not have aristocratic origins and that the person could be given the stick by them, even if the individual was incredibly educated, cultured and intellectually superior to the nobles. That was of course something that Voltaire would not accept and towards the end of his life he would receive the acclaim only reserved for kings and emperors for changing the perception of French society and the whole of Europe about individual emancipation forever. But for the time being Voltaire’s humiliation would not stop there, since conscious of Voltaire’s relentless and daring personality and character, the entourage of chevalier Rohan-Chabot feared for the desires of vengeance of the prolific author and so, they arranged for Voltaire to be sent once more to the Bastille prison. He would be freed after only 2 weeks on the condition that he left Paris.
For his exile, the man of letters chose to go to England. It was 1726 and Voltaire would end up staying in the neighbouring country for almost 3 years. It is important to note that in those times, England had already gone through the English Civil War and had shocked Europe by putting King Charles I to death, the latter was beheaded publicly after Oliver Cromwell had defeated the Royal armies. France on the other hand had not yet gone through the revolution, something that would take place 63 years later in 1789, 11 years after Voltaire’s death in 1778, with the iconic takeover of La Bastille on the 14th of July 1789. So, when Voltaire went to England, the power of the ancient regime there was already weakening through the socio-cultural change brought by the English civil war. Hence, in some aspects regarding the structure of society, England at that time appeared slightly in advance to Voltaire in matters regarding the personal liberties of the individual where the organisation of society was different compared to the strict climate imposed by the Ancient Regime of the monarchy in 18th century France, that caused Voltaire to be victimised and jailed for a simple vocal retaliation.
It was Voltaire’s curiosity that motivated him to go to England and also his personal circumstances; that trip would calm down the tension in France by allowing Voltaire to be forgotten for a few years at least. Once in England, Voltaire who was especially gifted with language quickly learned to master English, which is much simpler than French. Being a believer in the values of the intellectual enlightenment, a man who fought for individual freedom and self-conception, and also a proven man of words, intellect and a sort of aristocrat of the mind in France, it seemed logical to expect that Voltaire would work on a similar mastery of language in England and create his own individual identity, and so he did not learn English by socialising, but rather through Shakespeare. He would visit the theatre at Drury-Lane where it is believed that he took the prompter’s manuscripts to learn English through Shakespeare.
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France still conserves a collection of his courier that shows his incredible mastery of the English language but also the affinity he developed for some English customs. The fact that Voltaire took pride in writing in English while in England was not insignificant, because Voltaire in England had felt at home, and very quickly started to see himself as an Englishman, during his voyage he slightly toned down his French identity. Charles Eloi-Vidal, a curator at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France suggested that it seemed that Voltaire during his time in England gave the impression that he had fallen in love with the country and its people. Voltaire was seduced by the atmosphere of freedom that his anonymity may also have contributed to in England. The writer stated that in England, no mode of life seemed strange, we see men who complete 6 miles daily for their health, who feed on only roots, who never eat meat, who wear a lighter outfit in winter than your ladies’ costume on the hottest days. Voltaire thought that all that in England was perceived as a singularity but was not taxed by anyone as ridiculous or insane.
In reality, the French still mock the English for their eccentricity but what Voltaire saw in some aspects of the English society of the 18th century was the freedom to be anything we wanted, an opinion that seemed slightly exaggerated by Voltaire who only lived in England for about 3 years, since nowadays in the 21st century England is far behind modern day France in terms of individual social mobility, although it is encouraging to see that gradual progress is taking place through the contribution of dedicated intellectuals at major universities [e.g. the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford] who are changing the atavistic minds of the Anglo-Saxon masses through the propagation of modern psychological, scientific and philosophical works about development, conception, individuality and identity.
What also stunned Voltaire in 18th century England was the religious tolerance. When in France the rigid institutions firmly controlled and regulated by the Catholic church would persecute people for their beliefs and practices and even send them to horrible death sentences, in England Voltaire saw Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists all somehow living together. However, in the 21st century when we scratch the surface, we find that underneath the illusion of this “living together” in a secular society with the vague concept of « political correctness », there is a passive and silent yet constant competition between each group, all desiring supremacy over one another; this even applies at a global level from the basic population count, to the geographical hold of living space of each group with different languages on our planet; and each group would be ready “diplomatically” to defend their borders with guns, tanks, fighter planes and even nuclear weapons if necessary, and of course, not to mention the periodic violence that traumatises society at large, especially from Muslim jihadists. It is also fair to note how each group – under the illusion of “living together” and “political correctness” – still “indirectly” fragment the population by organising events that celebrate and promote each group’s identity and characteristics within their own geographical population, and that does not seem to be a genuine sense of living together as a singular community but rather a politically correct form of hypocrisy.
We can observe that that the idea of « living together » can be associated with the modern-day phenomenon known as « globalisation » that portrays the society that Voltaire saw in 18th century England. Unfortunately, the “living together” of globalisation is simply focussed on labour and migratory movement and financial motives, whereas true harmony in a genuine community of sophisticated, educated and enlightened minds relies on the construction of a united society and is closer to post-revolutionary French philosophical values of « Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité », which is not simply a question of living side by side with each other, but involves getting all individuals – besides their personal tastes as unique humans beings – to also honestly agree on identity, belonging, values and goals; feel, understand and synchronise their lives with each other as a genuinely united community that supports and helps one another, while also working and building harmoniously together at every level of human life – not simply economically. After all, we are living in pivotal times where the human civilisation is evolving at breakneck speed in so many ways and changing era right before our eyes in the 21st century; with a generation that has the chance of having access to the wide range of accelerated learning technologies available. The world’s societies have evolved beyond recognition from their « primitive » past, and are today interconnected and inspire and influence each other in so many ways [e.g. science, sport, medicine, cuisine, arts, literature, philosophy & education]. We can only imagine what a brilliant mind like Voltaire would have achieved if he lived in our time with all the tools available to us in the 21st century.
Even if nowadays, in the 21st century, after centuries of imperfect democratic parliamentary regimes we have begun to see the lack of organisation, the corruption, the greed for money, the unethical financial motives, the apathy and lack of sophistication and sensibility from the average financial workers crowding the political scene along with their simple binary minds and outlook, the illogical concepts of political parties dividing people by orientation, and the badly organised departments of the state; in the times of Voltaire in the 18th century, this less than perfect parliamentary regime was considered as the only solution and represented a step towards defying the abuses of the Ancient Regime of hereditary traditions and undisputed domination of the crowned heads. So back then, when the parliamentary regime was in its early days in England, Voltaire was fascinated with it, since he thought of it as a movement that kept the King in check, since whenever the crown would try to abuse its powers, it could instantly be stopped by the parliamentary regime – that to Voltaire created a King that could only be kind. Since it was 1726, 63 years before the French revolution, hence this to Voltaire was quite another world – he would most certainly have much to write about if he was alive today to see the horror show of the majority of mediocrity in modern politics in the 21st century.
It is almost certain that if a brilliant, perceptive and volcanic mind like Voltaire lived in the 21st century he would have ferociously criticized the current democratic parliamentary regime, and would be engaged in a fight like ourself to crease out the imperfections, being just like ourself focussed on the liberation of the human mind through reason and science, individual liberty, meritocracy, order, love and justice for all, along with a concern about a harmonious, ethical, intellectually enlightened and a sophisticated society devoid of alienating irrational superstitions, political abuses and unnecessary suffering.
During his English séjour, Voltaire had maintained a journal that he completed once back in France, those écrits, packed with explosive content, would later become his « Lettres Philosophiques ». Those would have two objectives. Firstly, it was an expression of gratitude towards the English society that welcomed and hosted him for almost 3 years. Secondly, Voltaire wanted to point out the problems of the society of pre-revolutionary France in the 18th century where he castigated the French monarchical despotism along with the climate of intolerance towards individual liberties – such as religious beliefs – that it imposed on individuals with heavy consequences to those who chose to deviate from the Church’s rigid outlook [e.g. the persecution of other forms of Christianity such as Protestantism].
Voltaire’s writings were seized and burnt in front of the palais de justice in France; the power of the ancient regime understood that this was a bomb that could seriously cause a storm in France where unlike anywhere else in the world the people are sophisticated, highly receptive and reactive, and always in the constant quest to refine and cultivate themselves intellectually through fresh philosophical discourse. Hence, as soon as Voltaire returned from his exile in England, the enigmatic thinker and writer had once again become persona non grata in Paris and would have to remain discrete and keep a safe distance from monarchical power for some time. Besides, Voltaire using aspects of the English society of the 18th century as examples to criticize France was not going to be well perceived. Although French society acknowledges the pivotal works of some hardworking individuals who dedicated their lives to particular fields [e.g. medecine, science, literature, music, etc] and who have been translated into French, for example, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, just like many other hardworking and dedicated minds across the globe, it certainly does not consider the English heritage or the Anglo-Saxon world as superior, a model to follow or something to be envious about; that is an opinion even shared by a great amount of English intellectuals and people themselves and even the former English King, Henry V, who used the French language to write « Dieu et mon droit » on the coat of arms of the British monarchy. If anything, French society has always considered the Anglo-Saxon world as rough, mesquin (i.e. petty), cold, mechanical, calculating, ruthless and much less refined and sophisticated emotionally, philosophically, artistically and linguistically; while lacking sensibility in human affairs, with the tragedy of Jeanne d’Arc embedded in the hearts of the French people along with the Hundred Years War, not to mention Waterloo. Even the iconic English writer, Oscar Wilde, was persecuted by the society that produced him and ended up seeking refuge and spending the last days of his life in France; a fairly similar fate was imposed on the English mathematician, Alan Turing, who dedicated his life to saving his country and whose contributions were decisive in shifting the outcomes of World War II – he would be persecuted by his own country treated like a criminal and was left to die as a recluse in a room in almost complete anonymity. Hence, a tremendous work of cultivation remained to be done in the Anglo-Saxon world in order to reconcile and build a firm bridge between these two environments and create a genuine sense of trust and respect from the French – a work involving the cultivation of the masses to sophisticated French values that is still ongoing up to this day. The great way to put this could be by saying: « We are from the same planet but not from the same world. »
In the room of Voltaire at Ferney we still find an immense portrait of empress Maria Theresa of Austria and the inscription shows that it was given to Voltaire on the 15th of July 1770, historians do not know the circumstances of the arrival of the portrait here but its presence is quite surprising since Maria Theresa did not have a high esteem of Voltaire, she had in fact forbidden her son Joseph II to visit such a miscreant. To Voltaire, exposing such a portrait was nothing more than a way to show his familiarity with crowned heads even if his relations with kings were very complicated because of his intellectual and philosophical orientations.
French historians observe that Voltaire was an elegant man with incredible style who took great care of his body and cultivated his appearance and looks, however in private he sometimes received people in his night gown. In his residence at Ferney we can also find a portrait of the most meaningful woman in his life, Émilie de Châtelet, who according to the French painter Marianne Loir was among the first women to dedicate herself to science with whom Voltaire finds true love for more than 15 years Voltaire met her in 1733 when he was almost 40 years old while she was in her twenties and fell immediately under her spell, she had an impressive physique and a mind that was no less. Émilie was undoubtedly one of the most brilliant women of the 18th century, a true woman of science, but that did not prevent her from knowing literature admirably – there was a reciprocal coup de foudre between those two geniuses who acknowledged each other’s greatness. Their love story would blossom at the château de Cirey where Voltaire found refuge in 1734 after the scandal provoked by his « lettres philosophique » right after his return from England.
At first, Voltaire did not plan on settling at Cirey, and only intended to spend a few months, just enough time to be forgotten and for things to calm down in Paris. However, when he arrived at Cirey there was an instant feeling of love at first sight with the place and he decided to settle. In the beginning, he would restore an existing part and later decided to enlarge it to install a wing with his own apartments. What is striking is that Voltaire added his unique touch to the architecture, for example, a sculpted door that is still present today dedicated to the arts and to the sciences where we find a tribute to astronomy, painting, sculpture and of course the art of writing and literature.
Voltaire hated to waste time and was always busy and mentally drenched in a project. The days at Cirey were shared between philosophical discussions, the pleasures of love that of course should never be neglected and a range of experiments. The couple were 2 dedicated hard workers, each working in their office and they would meet over lunch. There was a real atmosphere of joy, both physical and the joy of being together while not being burdened by the surrounding society and intellectual crowd. Voltaire would say to a friend in one of his letters that they were very voluptuous philosophers. Once, the couple took part in a competition at the Académie des Sciences, and while they did not win, Voltaire had insisted for the memory of Émilie to be printed by the Académie des Sciences, which would have been a great honour – he never asked the same treatment for himself; a gesture that historians nowadays believe to have been a genuine proof of sincere love.
Émilie du Châtelet also signed the first translation of Newton’s mathematical principles of philosophy, one of the major works of the 18th century regarding universal gravity. However, it is important to note that Voltaire cannot be considered as purely and simply a man of the mathematical sciences; he definitely took a genuine interest in the pivotal scientific discoveries of his time such as universal gravitation but only to meditate and extract philosophical meaning about the implications of scientific discoveries, i.e. to explain how all the scientific discoveries will impact the way society and humans function, such as the impact on the education of the individual, society at large and the values to be taught in relation to them.
Modern day French historians believe that Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet were unquestionably the leading couple of that particular century, the 18th century, the century of the enlightenment that gave way to an open-minded view of our world and our wider environment, and that also motivated intellectuals worldwide to take the world out of the claws of obscurantism and into the light. It was the century enlightened by reason where men and women were encouraged to rely on their own experience and knowledge to apprehend the world around them [i.e. to work on their understanding and perception] – this was a turning point in the evolution of mankind! From then, the individual did not feel that he had to respect or abide uncritically to any form of hierarchy whether it was religious or political but was instead encouraged to learn to use intellectual and logical reasoning to understand the world instead of simply believing without thinking.
The 18th century was also the period where we almost completely mapped the terrestrial globe; where we had begun to get a deeper understanding of the inner mechanism of the human body since the early works Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. All this new knowledge led to a turning point because it allowed the emancipation of the individual; now we were no longer subject to the traditional obligation to play our role, to take our place quietly in a society that was regulated by religious authorities and that was patriarchal, because now we finally had the sensible and thoughtful knowledge and hence we had the ability to get out of our former conditions and follow a different chosen path, find our way and ourself.
During all those years at Cirey with Émilie, the main entertainment would somehow remain the arts, namely drama and theatre. Between his intellectual endeavours, Voltaire would not give up on his creative writings dedicated to the theatrical arts and his plays would be performed in a small home theatre that was under the attic, it would become an iconic place since many afternoons and evenings would be spent there and sometimes the only spectator would be the cat and Émilie. Sometimes the couple would also have arguments that would end up in disputes.
Émilie displayed an excessively authoritarian nature and would choose how Voltaire should dress, she would even choose the wine that he should drink, and would even forbid him from showing some texts that she had locked away; she knew of Voltaire’s explosive personality and that he would write special and subversive texts; conscious of the nature of those texts and the possible legal consequences that could be even more violent, Émilie kept a close eye on them along with Voltaire’s correspondence. All that would generate moments of tension when they already had disputes, and when those occured they communicated in English so that prying ears across doors and walls would not understand the content of their exchanges. Voltaire would often leave the table in anger when he was annoyed and would sulk, then after they would reconcile with each other and open dialogue through messages on small pieces of paper that they would send to each other through the domestics.
When Voltaire reached the age of 50, his relationship with crowned heads had already been complex, he looked for their favour but remained true to his intellectual perspectives that were not always favourable to the powers of the ancient regime. Voltaire never regarded the king as the representative of god on earth, hence it became incredibly hard for him to display the signs of adoration that the conventions expected. He was fairly insolent and impertinent and at the same time he had already built the solid reputation of a man of words who mastered the pen with incredible efficacy.
Hence, he was perceived as a scary revolutionary mind, so the royal powers in France would remain very wary of the ingenious writer permanently. Louis XV never accepted Voltaire, who for him was a profoundly unsympathetic man with subversive ideas that he did not want to hear anything about.
But even if he was not regarded highly by the monarchy in France, there was a sovereign in Europe who had boundless admiration for him and his avant-garde ideas. That man was Frederick II of Prussia, the one who would be known as Frederick the great, who had already been known as the philosopher king. It had been a while already since the two man had maintained a passionate correspondence which was initiated by Frederick himself when he was heir to the throne.
The future Frederick II wrote to Voltaire so that the prolific intellectual could correct his verses and help him with his French. The Prussian heir swore by the French language and only spoke German with the horses; to him the French language and the mastery of it was higher than everything else. So, he wrote to Voltaire as a sycophant, qualifying him as the greatest writer of all time and the man he admired the most in Europe. Voltaire was so flattered to find himself celebrated in this way by the future king of Prussia that it made him dizzy with pride. The form of complicity would eventually develop between those two, on the topics of the freedom of mind and ideas. Voltaire on the other hand saw in the future King of Prussia the possibility to hold a very particular role; the role of the one who thinks for the Prince and who participates in the elaboration of political reflections – he had imagined this as a great duo, philosopher and king.
When Frederik II was crowned, he continuously invited Voltaire to join him in Prussia. At around the same period, on the 10th of September 1749, Voltaire was struck by the most demoralising news of his life: Émilie de Châtelet had suddenly passed away. He would be utterly devastated by the death of the woman whom he had loved the most in his life, it was a very painful period for Voltaire who went mad with grief; and it is following this irreparable mourning for him that he left for Prussia.
In July 1750, Voltaire arrived in Potsdam near Berlin where the court of Frederick was located. Once there, his main task consisted in correcting and embellishing the verses of Frederick II. There however, he found many other philosophers and intellectuals united around Frederick II and hence did not feel like the greatest or the most important anymore. Voltaire thus found himself as a token among others of a king whose writing and verses were incredibly mediocre. The king however could be unsympathetic as Voltaire would later discover when a conversation was reported to him where apparently it was said that we squeeze the orange and we discard the core. This seemed to showcase the monarchic mentality about using talented people to further itself and to discard them when they were no longer needed.
That moment had Voltaire realising that he was to Frederick II someone considered as some kind of buffoon that could be disposed of when his services would not be required. Voltaire knew that his situation had changed and that he was not respected by Frederick anymore; so, he concluded that it was time to escape after having spent 3 years there. So, in March 1753, Voltaire left and turned a page on the king but a rocambolesque event will delay his return to France. After arriving at Francfort, he was stopped by Frederick’s men and assigned to residence until he returned a number of documents that he had kept; these were the drafts of poems that Frederick had written along with all the corrections that Voltaire brought. When the King found that out he realised that it would be a catastrophe for him since the world would find out the immense contribution of Voltaire who was almost the co-author of his originally mediocre writing.
Voltaire would be held for several weeks as a form of humiliation from Frederick, someone that the writer had previously flattered. It was a sinister farce, but Voltaire eventually got out of it after returning the drafts. The two would not see each other again, however their epistolary relationship would resume. Before leaving the court in 1753, Voltaire had also made a series of scathing attacks on the head of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, and Frederick ordered that a satirical pamphlet written by Voltaire be publically burned. It is believed that when Voltaire left the court, he told a friend that he had been enthusiastic about [Frederick] for 16 years, but the latter had cured him of this long illness.
Back in Ferney, France near the Swiss border in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Voltaire thought that a tiny church nearby was hiding the perspective of the residence, so he took it upon him to move the church and had a central alley drawn. He started this modification without any authorisation which was of course not to the taste of the ecclesiastical authorities; hence Voltaire had to renounce to it and rebuild the facade. However cheekily, he had his name on it written much larger than that of god which was of course frowned upon.
In those times, Voltaire was often sick and he knew that death could come knocking at any moment. Since he had wished to be buried at Ferney, he would have a tombeau constructed in the shape of a pyramid that was leaning against the wall of the church, adjoined to the outside; Voltaire envisaged that clever people would say that he was neither inside or outside of the tomb. Voltaire had a particular liking for his garden and had a bower made for walks with his intimate guests sometimes; the talented writer’s influence was not limited to his residence since the whole village profits from his presence and saw its popularity rise. After all his adventures with the kings of France and Europe, it was in a way Voltaire’s own time to become the little king of Ferney. However, Voltaire’s independent and volcanic mind and intellectual orientations never allowed him to build strong links with those who held institutional powers, so he sought refuge to establish himself firmly. It would be in Geneva before finally ending up in Ferney that Voltaire’s last and perhaps most pivotal legacy would be forged.
In his sixties, Voltaire fell under the charm of a quiet and bucolic place near the Léman lake, a peaceful property in Geneva from where he had a view of the mountains. He would name his residence there « Les Délices » and had the place enlarged to live slightly more comfortably. It is to be noted that at that time, Geneva was independent and was not part of any kingdom, it was outside of the French and the Prussian borders and so Voltaire had settled in a completely neutral territory for a while. Voltaire would take many reflective walks in his garden there but his main activity remained writing, his eternal true love.
Les Délices to this day conserves a range of Voltaire’s furniture and other gadgets. We can find the iconic Louis XV styled desk with floral and musical motives. It was on that very desk that Voltaire wrote a great number of his literary and intellectual works.
Even in the 18th century, he seemed to have an affinity for gadgets as we can also find a small écritoire [i.e. writing case] which allowed him to write during his voyages, inside we can find a pen holder, and two small objects in silver with the coat of arms of Voltaire [i.e. the three flames and the two greyhounds] which are in fact a travel ink pot where the writer would draw the ink to write his letters and on the other side a powder case with sand that Voltaire would sprinkle over a page as soon as it was written to act as blotting paper in order to absorb the excess ink from the document; which in the 21st century could be the equivalent of a portable computer.
Voltaire wrote his poem on the Lisbon disaster there after the terrible earthquake of 1755 but most importantly it was the location where he wrote his most famous work, the one that is still the most read in the 21st century, his philosophical tale that summarised and covered all the great themes of the movement of the enlightenment: Candide. The book would go to become a best-seller of the second half of the 18th century which surprised Voltaire himself to see his book sales reaching 20 000 copies; for that time, it was an incredible amount and considered as a planetary success with a range of smaller formats also released: pocket editions, luxurious editions and others.
However, soon Voltaire would lack the breathing space he needed in Geneva and return to Ferney. In Geneva, theatre was not allowed and the writer found this unacceptable when he made arrangements to have small theatrical representations at Les Délices. He would get into problems with the Geneva pastors who were not content with the fact that he was organising theatrical sessions and attracted the daughters of Calvinist pastors to take part and feature as characters in them, that was unacceptable to those pastors. So, he went back to Ferney which was located in a strategic place since it was in France but on the Swiss borders. He would turn Ferney into a living utopia, a world where the earth was celebrated, where one lives comfortably and safely. He would also take the opportunity to transform the village of Ferney which was in a miserable state and launch himself in a variety of enterprises; which shows that Voltaire was not only a pure mind but that he could also take actions and contribute to the benefit of society around him, and that would have an immense impact. Under Voltaire’s reign in Ferney, the village saw a spectacular development. It is also there that Voltaire’s fight against religious fanaticism amplified gloriously.
In a France where the Catholic institution occupied a dominant position, it is very important to understand that Voltaire’s perspective did not insult or deny the existence of a god as the creator, but he took a firm combative stance and spoke out against all dogmatisms. Voltaire has never been an atheist, he is a deist, he states that in the incredible complexity of the natural world there must be a godly power that governs it all. What shocked him are the institutions that claim supremacy over god: the weight of those institutions that tells us what we have the right to believe in or not, and that classifies us in different groups, among the heretics, and that even had the powers to send us to the stake to die a painful and horrible death. Voltaire fought against all the abuses of the religious institutions that declared to have been revealed, namely the 3 most popular monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
In 18th century France under Louis XV, tensions had been persistent between Catholics and Protestants. Protestantism was not a recognised religion and its adepts faced repression and even severe persecution.
What Voltaire had observed in the years 1750-60 was a resurgence of tension between religions and it was the letter of the contemporary world then: religious fanaticism. Voltaire could never accept that in the name of religion, in the name of a God that is supposed to be good and merciful, men have such atrocious practices and persecute one another – always in the name of their God. To Voltaire, religious fanaticism associated with power was still present and would always be a threat to civilisation, and as from 1760 he intensified his fight with the shocking formula: Écrasez l’infâme [French for: crush the infamous]. This expression surfaces again during the correspondence he exchanged with his friend, the philosopher, d’Alembert.
We have records at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France of those exchanges where he spoke of his lectures, philosophy, life in Paris and concludes his letter by saying: « Adieu mon grand philosophe. Écrasez l’infâme. » What was that « infâme » [French for: infamous] that he wanted to crush? It was the superstition that clouded reason, it was the institutional power of religious authorities over justice and the management of society by enlightened minds.
Another incident that motivated Voltaire to be even more engaged in his fight took place on the 10th of March 1762, when Jean Callas, a merchant from Toulouse is sentenced to the torment of the wheel and killed by strangulation in the public square.
Jean Callas had been an old protestant accused in Toulouse to have assassinated his son because the latter wished to convert to the Catholic religion. In fact, the son perhaps wanted to convert but committed suicide by hanging. In the beginning of this affair, Voltaire showed no interest and even asked himself if Jean Callas could be guilty. He only really became aware of the reality behind through the visit of a reformed person who would tell him the story and how it had been an obvious injustice. Voltaire would study the case at length and denounce a quick and incriminating investigation. For him, there was no doubt that Jean Callas had been executed because he was a Protestant.
For 3 years, Voltaire would attempt to rehabilitate the memory of Jean Callas by relying on his network. He wrote to all the people who were the most influent and tried to show that there had been a horrible misunderstanding. Today, when we simply look at Voltaire’s correspondence made of numerous letters to convince each of them to join the fight for Callas, we realise that hours and hours of his life were given to the memory of Callas, a man with whom he had no direct links and never even knew personally.
It would take several years for the judgement of Toulouse to be first adulated and for Jean Callas to be subsequently rehabilitated, but Voltaire would succeed; the King’s council would make this return which was quite exceptional for the conservative religious climate of the 18th century. Voltaire would also get involved in many other issues of the society of his time, however the story of Jean-Callas remained the fight of his life. It is in fact the major catalyst that led him to write his timeless treaty on tolerance, a work that remains until this day a reference on the subject.
In 2015, the working premises of the popular satirical and “over the top” newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, known for its defiant, exaggerated and limitless comics, was assaulted by Muslim Jihadists, Chérif and Said Kouachi and 11 people lost their lives brutally: the cartoonists, Jean Cabu, Stéphane Charbonnier, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Verlhac, Georges Wolinski; the psychoanalyst, Elsa Cayat; the economist, Bernard Maris; the corrector, Mustapha Ourrad; a maintenance worker, Frédéric Boisseau; and Michel Renaud, the cofounder of the festival « Rendez-vous du carnet de voyage », who had been invited to assist the editorial conference. The following day, another Muslim Jihadist who claimed to be of the Islamic State, namely, Amedy Coulibaly, stormed a super market and killed 4 people, fuelled by his Islamic jihadist teachings and Jew hatred. The whole of France and the world were in a state of shock. Parisians manifested in mass the following day, and it is to be noted that when they did, they brandished the writings of a man known as Voltaire who lived 250 years ago, and it was his « Traité de Tolérance ». Spontaneously, people and even the youth looked for Voltaire’s mind, since he remains the man who best embodied liberty “à la Française”; meaning a form of freedom for all that is superior to every other belief whatever it is and wherever it comes from – that proves how avant-garde and ahead of his time Voltaire was.
To this day, we can find a painting known as « Le Triomphe de Voltaire » [French for: The Triumph of Voltaire] at his former residence in Ferney, which was realised 3 years before his death that Stéphane Bern in 2019 pointed out to be very interesting for its biographical value, because in the centre we see two faces of Voltaire: one that shows a mortal man like all human beings on our planet, and a second that shows Voltaire as the immortal creator; at the bottom of the painting we see the Callas family who are portrayed as protégés of Voltaire, then we also see the bust of Voltaire that is going to be installed in a temple on the right next to the those of Sophocle, Euripide, Corneille and Racine; the temple also strangely resembles the Panthéon where Voltaire’s remains are, as if it was written in the books of destiny that Voltaire would have an incredible homage or that Voltaire knew that his memory would be celebrated by those who inherited, feel and stand for his values and philosophy.
During the last years of his life, Voltaire had become the best-known personality in Europe, so many people made the trip to meet him in Ferney. Voltaire called himself « l’aubergiste de l’Europe » [French for: Europe’s innkeeper], simply because his residence at Ferney would receive so many personalities from all over Europe. When visitors arrived daily, everyone was received by Voltaire himself; sometimes he would drop kind words, other times he would greet by nodding his head. His visitors could be writers, aristocrats, intellectuals from so many domains, for example, some of them worked in Italy on the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
It is also important to remember since we tend to forget, that the whole of Europe, the Europe of the aristocrats and of the bourgeoisie of the enlightenment spoke French, and in Europe no one was Voltaire’s equal because he made people laugh and also cry, and also because he had a mind with extraordinary agility – everyone read Voltaire!
Some women would even respectfully come and kiss Voltaire’s hands. To travel to such a place in order to meet a man of letters and bowing down before him as if he was a religious messiah remains a remarkable phenomenon – Voltaire is an 18th century star like that century would not have any other. This would also be one of the most fruitful periods in Voltaire’s correspondence at Ferney; he wrote nearly a quarter of his 25,000 known letters which is an integral part of his legacy and work.
Being a prolific communicator in the days where people wrote letters: official letters and clandestine letters, we found out how he dealt with those in power and the authorities; French writer, Philippe Sollers thought that Voltaire sliced and reigned with his words – just like Napoléon. To this day, there are very few correspondences that can be read and enjoyed as masterpieces.
Voltaire spoke of everything in his correspondence, his own life and the life of others along with a number of extraordinary thoughts that emerged and that completes his work in a sense. French philosopher, Elizabeth Badinter considers the compiled volumes of Voltaire’s correspondence as the most exciting reading of all, arguing that one can read his correspondence over and over without ever being bored.
Another extraordinary achievement remains the fact that Voltaire was entitled to his marble statue during his lifetime when such a privilege had generally only been reserved for kings. The statue realised by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle is exposed at the Musée du Louvre, an iconic work of sculpture that represents Voltaire naked, with nothing but a small drapery, sitting on a tree trunk and we can also see two accessories: a mask which symbolised comedy, a dagger for tragedy, but also a phylactery which is a piece of paper that is usually attributed to prophets and Voltaire is represented with it, barefoot as a prophet, because he is seen as the prophet of the republic of letters who announced the time of the liberation of the individual.
That extraordinary statue was funded through a subscription launched to all men of words, and we can find the names of the subscribers on the base of the statue: King Frederick of Prussia, the King of Denmark and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau his great intellectual rival.
The sculptor, Jean-Baptise Pigalle was inspired by the great philosophers of antiquity and hence realised a naked and natural Voltaire without exaggeratingly idealising him and that led to scandals. Pigalle wanted to portrait Voltaire in the reality of a man, that is, an old man, but a handsome old man. However, the statue would generate a lot of irony. King Gustav III of Sweden who was passing through Paris would say that he was willing to subscribe but for clothes, so we can conclude that Gustav was ignorant and did not understand anything of Pigalle’s artistic message and perspective. Many sarcasms will follow, minor sonnets that ridiculed Voltaire and the statue. Voltaire then understood that it was time to calm things down and put a stop to all the nonsense around the shock and perhaps jealousy of a man getting the accolade of an emperor with a statue in his living, and declared that he found Pigalle’s statue to be a masterpiece. Voltaire stated that he himself had suffered so much from censorship and if Pigalle perceived and conceived it like that, he is a great artist and should be free!
While Voltaire enjoyed a formidable recognition in Ferney, he still dreamt of a last séjour in Paris in his eighties, which was an exceptional age to reach in the 18th century when medicine was almost prehistoric without vaccines and antibiotics, and where people of various segments of society and all walks of life died of diseases such as tuberculosis, that would have been considered as minor and curable in the 21st century that we now live in, or they would sometimes be killed by the unscientific and barbaric surgical practices of the times when bacteria and medical hygiene were unknown; modern medicine would only begin in the 19th century with the invention of the stethoscope by René Laennec. Voltaire did not have much to fear from the power held by the young Louis XVI who had no idea that he would be the last king of France of the period known as the Ancien Régime and during the unstable reign of terror before the proclamation of a republican constitution, would be sentenced to the guillotine in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution in Paris along with his wife Marie-Antoinette of Austria, sadly even the pioneering chemist, Antoine Lavoisier, who is considered as the father of modern nutrition, would suffer the same fate for having worked as a tax collector for the monarchy.
In February 1778, Voltaire made his great return to the capital that he had left 30 years earlier. He was cheered by thousands of Parisians and would not be able to leave his house since his carriage was constantly surrounded by crowds of people. People wanted to touch him as they wanted to touch relics, some even proposed to uncouple the horses from his carriage to put themselves in their place in order to have the honour of transporting this modern-day Apollo to his home. There were crowds clustered on the rooftop balconies which was something surprising for the times. During his time in Paris, Voltaire stayed at his friend, Charles de Villette’s place at the Quai de Théatins also known today as Quai Voltaire. That would be the place where he completed his last play, Irène. Historians would later find out that in 1777, Voltaire tried to make the play, Irène, seem like a piece that he had just completed, but his correspondence revealed that he had been working on it and minutely crafted that story for more than twenty years before it came out.
When Irène was played, the spectators were hardly interested in the show because everyone was interested in Voltaire and his presence. Yet, it was a success and after the play, Voltaire’s bust was brought in. The man of letters was crowned and the French actors sung verses in honour of the great man. Voltaire stood up while being crowned with laurels and said:
« Vous allez me faire mourir de plaisir. »
« You are going to make me die of pleasure! »
That was Voltaire’s apotheosis! That same year, 1778, Voltaire died on the 30th of May at the age of 83 years old. The body was opened and embalmed by candlelight on the kitchen table of Charles de Villette; the heart and the brain were extracted to be conserved and the entrails would be thrown in the latrine. His skull was covered with a cap to hide the opening where his brain was removed, make up was applied on his lips and cheeks to give the illusion of life and his body was strapped upright in the carriage and all that jolly entourage would leave in complete discretion. Since, to the displeasure of his religious enemies, he remained true to his beliefs and never confessed to a sworn Catholic priest who could have given him the last rites of unction, people were worried that his remains would not be buried in Christian soil. To avoid the common grave, the transfer of his body out of Paris was hastily organised and sent to the Abbaye de Sellières.
There are tales that suggest that loud thunder manifested when Voltaire’s body was in the church, the weather was so bad that the doors slammed open and the candles were blown out and Voltaire’s body fell, the monks started to pray in panic in complete darkness and balls of fire were rolling on the grass. Voltaire was inhumated at Sellières where his remains stayed until 1791 when they were transferred to the Panthéon. The heart of Voltaire, which had been removed during the embalmment was first placed in the room of Voltaire at Ferney where a mausoleum was specially fitted out, it would then later be given to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France where it would be stored in the base of the famous statue of Voltaire sitting sculpted by Houdon between 1780 and 1790.
In 2010, during renovation works to enlarge the BNF, Voltaire’s statue had to be temporarily moved and during that move, the base was opened and the workers found a shiny heart-shaped metal box with the inscription, « Coeur de Voltaire, mort à Paris le 30 Mai 1778 ». The heart has since been put back in the base of Houdon’s statue as we would have treated that of a Saint, which is ironic, and would have definitely amused the man who during his whole life fought the rigid religious institutions of the 18th century.
« Je meurs en adorant dieu, en aimant mes amis, en ne haïssant point mes ennemis, en détestant la superstition ! »
« I die worshipping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, hating superstition! »
Those were the last words uttered at the end of his life which perfectly summarises his faith, personality and vision of the world. After the philosopher’s death, Ferney lost a great part of its economic activities but the memory of Voltaire continues to animate the little town. Iconic writers such as Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas père would come to pay homage to the great master of French letters after his death. The town has since been renamed Ferney-Voltaire to honour the man who will remain as the master craftsman of the Age of Enlightenment.
The modern individual is unique and makes choices in self-conception
It is important to understand that an individual will never be what others believe or want them to be, whatever the size of the crowd, because individuals are creative and adaptive organisms with the ability to make conscious decisions about their lives and identities, and can leave their initial enviroment for new locations, adapt and recreate themselves to be part of a new society [there many illustrious examples in the 21st century to cite] depending on their desires and abilities, or they can also simply visit places for the sake of exploration without adapting or being part of them.
In most modern and enlightened societies of Western European intellectual and philosophical heritage, we are a culture of individuals, a society of unique people who besides their individual characteristics and differences manage to synchronise and work together in matters of national importance without it being restrictive to our personal liberties and choices from one person to the other. To be a person generally means to be connected [even indirectly, e.g. through arts and literature] to others. However, taking the metaphor of a golf competition to explain the picture, we cannot all win the contest. Clearly, one person will win and others will still perform well while some will need training to reach a decent standard although not within competitive categories. However, in an advert promoting golf, no company would only show one golfer by himself on all its adverts, but rather they show and promote many golfers, happy to be together. Hence, the way to be a person in modern society seems to be a part of it [directly or indirectly, all representatives of the society but with varying degrees of skills and abilities].
As with myself, having pushed the limits of my Franco-British heritage to the academic stage globally, more and more people are slowly getting the opportunity to be bi or tri-cultural. It is not a simple thing to do or accommodate, but it will be the task of more and more people in the world if individuals are to overcome their limitations in perception, feeling and understanding, and experience the world from the finest socio-linguistic lenses to explore their different senses on a planet that is more accessible in its depth through the magic of modern media [e.g. internet, multimedia experiences, high definition packages, distance learning, virtual reality, audiobooks, and even university lectures online [e.g. Les cours de Michel Butor] that is changing the processes of learning at a speed never seen before.
The reasoning person, being the intelligent being who has infinite worth and dignity would logically try to assimilate into the best heritage / linguistic-culture(s), knowing that the world is not flat and that we have natural masters and natural slaves, where intelligence is the only thing that distinguishes them – as Immanuel Kant also concluded. Like the analogy of humans, who being more intelligent than other living creatures, have become the supreme beings at the top of the food chain to rule over our planet. If we also side with this evolutionary logic, the best and most sophisticated society or societies [in terms of language, education, philosophy, heritage, etc] should by the laws of meritocracy have the privilege to guide and/or inspire the human civilisation to create a singular society/human empire in synchronisation with itself in the future as our civilisation evolves and comes to terms with its insignificance as a mortal bunch of organisms on a small, depleting and lonely planet in the universe without a spare planet to colonise that could still be wiped out and never remembered like the dinosaurs with an asteroid at any moment.
Modern psychological research has shown that we are reflections of all social interactions that mark us throughout our life and these interactions do not only come in the physical form, but also through arts, film, modern media and literature, all these create symbolic desires that affects each individual differently. And those who choose who and what shapes them, will tend to be inspired by those they admire [this extends beyond minor interactions such as the fishmonger at the market place or the coconut seller at the beach, but reaches as far as the mind goes up to the highest level of culture through exposure directly or indirectly (modern media) and breaches barriers once thought impossible]. As Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic writings also suggest – relying heavily on linguistic theory and intellectual trends in late 20th-century France, such as the structuralist movement – our sense of self is a tissue of identification with people we have known [directly or indirectly exposed to, e.g. mentors, fictional characters, authority figures, artists, etc], and the only wholeness we imagine ourselves to have is a fiction, a comforting and self-deceiving way of narrating our personal story, since our “selves” are profoundly “de-centred”.
The greatest child psychologist of all time, Jean Piaget argued that all forms of social interaction [which also includes artistic exposure] in the process of learning play an important role in “cognitive growth”. Bernard Lahire pointed out that differences in cultural education [e.g. various forms of artistic exposure] have an impact on the developing child and leads to inequalities early in life, i.e. the child exposed to finer artistic experiences (e.g. literature, music, film, digital experiences, etc) has a better chance of developing a sophisticated mastery of language early in life than the child who is not. This does not mean that all individuals are doomed for failure because of their inadequate early development, as some gifted or dedicated individuals do catch up on their linguistic development later in life.
However, one of the greatest challenges to individual cultural identity remains the overcoming of bigotry. The prejudices of a superior heritage can eat away the self-regard of inferior cultures, languages and heritage. Prejudice is a form of psychological genocide that works across generations and contributes to the despair, drug abuse and violence we see in communities whose cultural identities are under siege. This can be seen through high levels of depression, alcoholism and suicide among Native Americans for example. Hence, an agreement that respects the achievements, strengths and individuality of others would likely ease the tensions with inferior cultures who may have more to gain in assimilating into superior ones. Diplomacy and empathy will also help in the transition to adopting new patterns of living if we [as a group of organisms on planet Earth] take the direction that leads to a synchronised civilisation/empire in the future, looking into space for new planets to ensure our existence and continuity as a space race.
In the face of adversity we have seen another side of the self that creates new realities, transforming life into art. This is what Alfred Adler called the creative self. Throughout history, men and women have put their creative imprint on anything that can be shaped, coloured and re-arranged. Even in the depths of despair, Jews who were imprisoned in German deportation camps [that had been heavily damaged by allied bombings, and cut off from receiving rations due to bombed train tracks while the lack of sanitation led to outbreaks of typhus which killed thousands], still managed to create art on whatever scraps of paper they could get their hands on to give meaning to the incomprehensible horror of their lives at that time.
However, research from Brandeis University that explored the creativity of two groups of girls aged 7 to 11 from the community centre of an apartment complex has found that people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest and enjoyment, the satisfaction, the challenge of the work itself, and not by external pressures (Amabile, 1982).
So, now, you have learnt some of the ways in which intellectuals, academics and psychologists try to follow the Delphic Oracle’s exhortation to “Know Thyself.” We have explored a number of aspects and dimensions of the self, some of which may be known readily – although not accurately – through empirical investigations [e.g. using basic constructs for variables such as traits in questionnaires of quantitative empirical research that remain questionable in terms of construct validity and internal consistency], while others [such as the impact of art on the mind and implicit learning] can only be explained theoretically [since traits too can be modified, affected or changed through an individual’s desires or external influence (e.g. arts) and evolve into different behaviours through cultural evolution as we move further into human history]. We have also seen how we differ in our self-concepts from one individual to another, and how our behaviour differs as a result [e.g. the choices we make as unique organisms/individuals with unique fingerprints and brain chemistry].
The concluding thoughts are logically the fact that men and women who make the choice and who have the necessary education and intelligence to guide them, build themselves and gain the ability to change cultural and national registers & identity, when they have the capacity for development, the linguistic heritage and the genetics of intellect with a mastery of expression and speech. It is only then that they manage to represent a nation or an empire [or two?].
In the 21st century, as far as ‘The Organic Theory’ [which focuses on the singularity of the individual organism] is concerned, there is no debate between intellectuals in psychology, but simply the discovery of the new mechanical / scientific perspectives that it introduces to explain the psychological and philosophical conception of the individual – as Carl Sagan phrased it, ‘Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge’.
Construction [training], which ‘can be’ mechanical and structured in its application [e.g. distance learning by text / video / audio], develops indirectly to create and give a socio-cultural dimension to the individual once the desired skills have been fully adopted, mastered, and deployed in life. The term ‘social’ is also far too vague to be important as such… the term ‘social’ can simply be defined as the interaction [of all types] between organisms. So the term ‘social’ is not really valid scientifically and it lacks precision itself since it may refer to a wide range of variables. What we are left with then is only the individual’s choices, language(s) & abilities of personal development [e.g. cultural & psycholinguistic synthesis]: the major factors in the psychological & philosophical explanation of his/her singular conception [to note that each conception is unique to the individual human organism such as his/her fingerprints, skull shape, or body structure: singularity]. Thus: training, meritocracy, order and love [simple… in theory].
However, the concept of self is not an overnight process but a gradual, systematic and intelligent process involving calculated, precise and minute adjustments to one’s inner thoughts, thus, over time [this depends on individual abilities], changing one’s cognitive schemas, personality, identity and linguistic proficiency. It is a process hugely dependent on individual motivation, education, dedication, capability, IQ and socio-psychological proficiency. This is also reminiscent of some of the writings of Diogenes Laërtius, which is likely a stoic interpretation that compares athletic training to psychological and moral training which consequently highlights the idea of a form of asceticism in construction which implies a “Ponos“ [a labour and/or a challenge].
Fundamental to the concept of self, language(s) is the essence of identity because it creates a social bond and it is also fundamental to all forms of social activity and discourse which lead to cultural belonging, and thus, cognitive schemas related to internalised emotions and thoughts that allow one to navigate efficiently within the particular cultural theme and become part of the societies related to the languages. Together, psychology, linguistic culture, personality and intelligence are the core foundations of individual conception – to sum it up beautifully for colleagues in innovation, science and psychology out there, “It is not what is in the book and brain that counts, but the ability to turn it into a believable logical reality and promote psychologically valid human concepts/identities.”
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