To Thine Own Self Be True But At What Cost? Multiculturalism and the Canon
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man”
--Shakespeare Hamlet (Act I, scene iii)
Polonius delivers these famous lines to his son Laertes shortly before the latter heads off to the university. It is a thought piled onto a litany of fatherly advice coming from one who has prospered in a stagnated court by being the ultimate of glad handers. It is a quotation often misconstrued as being Hamlet’s but instead is being delivered by one of Shakespeare’s more tiring and boorish characters, Polonius. Perhaps we want to attach these lines to Hamlet because they seem to be wisdom coming from one who struggles with finding his identity and his place in his brave new world turned upside down. They are words the Hamlet we believe in strives to discover about himself. They are words which can only have power after one has, in fact, found identity.
Finding identity is problematic for most of us and especially so for our students. The world that is too much with us crowds off and chokes the very tool we need most for finding that identity--solitude. We have chased off the very thing that might help us most through willfully chosen and culturally encouraged addictions. We have become a culture of the “posture” and the “appearance” but not the “self”. We are enamoured with the idea of being true to one’s self, but what’s forgotten are the final lines of the quotation: “Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
It is in being authentic that we commerce best among others and they among us. Identity and understanding of self allows each of us to that one trait so lacking in most conversations today: honesty. We make a herculean effort to be seen as we imagine others, or at least the others we care about, want us to be. And so we daily try on the garments others have woven to fit the appearances we feel are demanded of us. What’s lost is what Emerson referred to as the “transparent eyeball” where one can encounter truth but only through a process requiring absolute "solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society."
I want to make the case that one of the arenas available to all of us to find that solitude called for by Emerson is in the reading of great literature. There is not a set of specific prescriptive books to recommend for everyone, yet there are works which, when encountered and reflected upon, can be passageways into self-reflection and identity formation. Through such works we can begin to see and consider ourselves. We can try on proper clothes and accept or reject the garments that don’t properly fit the person we come to identify as self. In reading, we can take the time to think rather than to merely react.
Perhaps, we might see ourselves in the adolescent and forming self of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) suffocating in a phony or “fake” environment. Or perhaps we find communion in an admiring Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) looking through her child’s eyes at a world she did not create nor quite understands how to find a place in. Maybe we might see the inner strength we need to fight to attain personhood in Janie (Their Eyes Were Watching God). Or perhaps we too feel the “invisibleness” of Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist working in a system that has its own set of horrifically incoherent rules. It might be that, like Malcolm X (The Autobiography of Malcolm X), we see the power of words and the arranging of those words as the key. It might be the “I” we need to see is the exacting struggle Hector (The Iliad) faces as he is torn between the obligations of family and state and what obedience to either means. The value of a great work is found within the pages we closely read and more closely consider. It is a value that will be lost to us unless we take up the work needed to understand our inner being, a work that the world needs more of us to shoulder.
We learn as readers, or we should learn if literature is to have any value to us beyond mere entertainment and time passing. But to be effective and lasting it must be the kind of literature that helps us to see beyond differences and gain more than just the knowledge of a variety of perspectives. Such reading will give us no more than what is available already through observation and passive encounters with the world. When we read to take the risk of discovering our self and then make an honest effort to embrace that self, to judge it and to work on and to build it, then we are truly moving toward an education.
Knowing and respecting cultural differences has a powerful and community building value, a value that can be a barrier to exploitation and cruelty. But it is a value that in and of itself does not change things in the long term unless it is accompanied with knowing ourselves and being honest about what we discover. To learn only about the differences we have without understanding our inner beings--our drives, our judgments, our inward and outward reaction to outrage-- is to live with a void, a void that can easily be filled by the political or the commercial winds of the moment.