I frequently view, and sometimes enjoy and learn from, the videos published by the School of Life, a philosophical organization that claims to derive inspiration, in part, from the Epicurean Gardens of antiquity. In recent weeks, I viewed one of their videos titled Who Am I?, and as I watched it, I realized that it sometimes presents content in a wishy-washy manner that is of little use. Perhaps it’s the lack of commitment to a particular doctrine. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of Platonic or idealist views. There frequently does not seem to be a clear over-arching philosophical outlook that informs their videos. The video on personal identity just discusses in general terms various different notions about human identity.
On the other hand, a curious and useful conception 0f personal identity is offered by materialists. Will Durant said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” Habitualization is a central subject in the Cyrenaic tradition, and the entire process of Epicurean therapy is meant to uncover the beliefs underlying our habitual thoughts and behavior, so that we can more consciously steer our sense of self.
This materialist conception of self, with its connection between habit and identity, is a useful way to consider our art of becoming, of fashioning our identity. It also encourages us to make our philosophy tangible by considering philosophical questions in terms of how they find expression in our habitual behavior.
If we say we are hedonists, then in what ways do we have a lifestyle of not postponing pleasure? If we call ourselves Epicureans, then do we gather with friends on the twentieth of every month? Do we relish bread and cold water on serene summer days? Do we frequently seek to blend our minds with friends we are endeared to? If we say we strive for self-sufficiency, then does this imply a frugal or simple lifestyle? Or a steady financial plan that will lead to greater autonomy in a few years? In what ways are all of our identities made concrete?
Thinking critically about identity and habits might also help to expose us to honest criticism of ourselves. Are we habitually angry? Do we have procrastination issues? There are labels we can attach to these bad habits that, if we assume them, might encourage us to change our lives around until those labels no longer apply. If we accept that habits translate into identity, then we have to be harsher with ourselves and our bad habits in terms of naming them without reserve.
If we accept that we are what we repeatedly do, then authenticity begins to require more than introspection, and we begin to realize and articulate the long-term projects that we choose to identify with, in habitual terms.