‘Just be yourself’. We’ve all been advised in this way, when we’re feeling nervous about something, or facing a new challenge. It’s worse than useless, as a piece of moral advice. It’s as futile as the teacher who tells her pupils to ‘use your own knowledge’. The teacher’s role is to impart knowledge that pupils did not previously have. It is also to instil self-discipline so that her pupils will not be stuck in the circular trap of ‘being themselves’.
The conceited, pompous Polonius offers this advice to his son Laertes as he returns to university: ‘To thine own self be true’. Having promoted such licence, he sends spies to check up on his son’s behaviour. That’s our situation. Fatally weakened by the widespread idea that freedom means following the whim of the moment, we are at once licensed to do whatever we please, and placed under close surveillance by the government, which has to deal with citizens who cannot be trusted to act responsibly.
Telling people that freedom means following the whim of the moment betrays a deep pessimism about the human race, a pessimism perhaps expressed most eloquently by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, where every character follows their predestined path in the urban hive: ‘We can never cease to be ourselves’. Somehow, the Romantic proclamation of individual freedom had turned, a century later, into the modernist proclamation of social, psychological or evolutionary determinism. We had become gods, only to be relegated soon afterwards to rats in a laboratory maze.
The descent from the divine to the animal was inevitable, because the Romantics had rejected the traditional understanding of human nature, which is at war with itself. ‘I have quelled my passion, as I must’, says Achilles to his mother Thetis, reflecting on the way he had allowed himself to be enslaved by his anger following his quarrel with Agamemnon. Achilles had not been master of himself. He had not fought against the selfish inclination to sulk petulantly, and his friend Patroclus had died as a consequence. Because he had not done his duty and fought with his comrades, but had become the slave of his emotions, he had become a ‘useless burden to the earth’.
The traditional understanding is far more optimistic, because of its faith in human freedom, based on the possibility of self-mastery. Our pupils are rational, and capable of mastering their emotions. They can be trained in doing so, under the caring authority of teachers who do not want them to become the slaves of their whims. Then, when it comes to challenges such as job interviews, they won’t be doomed to ‘be themselves’. They will be able to do battle with laziness and get up early, then do battle with anxiety and remain calm, presenting themselves in a confident, professional manner, and thereby proving to prospective employers that they are masters of themselves, and ready to take on responsibility.