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Anekāntavāda and the shadow
> If he exalts himself, I humble him; if he humbles himself, I exalt him; and I go on contradicting him until he understands that he is a monster that passes all understanding.
The self is not a thing to be defined so easily, truly all we say is somehow empty. There is, in some sense, no self; hence all ascriptions flounder without true foundations. Yet we may nevertheless seek to ascribe attributes to ourselves and others, and we may further find that these ascriptions are effective, or rather affective; thus it is not in an epistemological but an emotional sense that they may carry truth.
We can think of ourselves, most plainly, as good or bad; or we may identify aspects aligned with this valence. There are parts of ourselves of which we are proud, which we easily accept into our self-concept. The remainder, that which we would disregard, is our shadow:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.1
Here we may pause to note an interesting aspect, albeit tangential to the above, for it seems that we operate not according to fundamental principles in the relation of ego and shadow; rather these seem to emerge from the particular logic that we have imbibed, so to speak, by way of our cultural milieu. One may well plausibly, rather than having a positive self-concept and a negative shadow, have a negative self-concept and a positive shadow. We see this in those that, as in depressive states, are unable to conceive of anything at all in their character that might be positive. Such individuals find themselves entirely worthless and focus alone on negative ascriptions. They simply cannot see any positive traits or worth in themselves, and here the necessary movement is the same as that of the ordinary shadow-work; though the valence may be distinguished, from positive to negative rather than negative to positive.
Of course, that our worth could ever be grounded in such an ascription is, as stated at the outset, impossible: they are all equally empty, positive and negative alike. There can be no sure foundation here, though we may try to draw one up into a positive self-concept by placing in the hands of a depressive such ascriptions which we deem socially valuable. Often this may be a necessary first step before the individual is amenable to any further psychological work; yet it may as much also be harmful.
If we build ourselves upon a foundation which is ultimately empty and hence can be washed away at any moment, then we will grip tightly to illusory reeds. A miracle of mankind is that this may, for a while, give the appearance of an act of levitation; thereby we may well remain aloft a duration, for some this may even be sufficient to live out their lives. Yet we must note that this is, indeed, an illusion; that come a sufficient deluge then all this will be washed away, and ourselves along with it. There can be no true foundation on either side of the equation, though that of a positive self-concept certainly seems the better way.
The risk, however, is that we may then cling so tightly to our positive self-concept that we hold fast frightened all the while unable to risk a glance behind us. There, hidden by our own person, we may well find an ever-growing shadow. In a similar vein Marx mocks Perseus: “[who] wore a magic cap down over his eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters.”2 In hiding from ourselves, we may do much the same, but here we are ourselves the monster. Of course, this seems an emotionally salient ascription: that we are monsters, or may be. My belief is that we all have this capacity within us, and this all the more so for where we deny it outright; it is only by light that we may clear out that which hides in the darkness. The initial sight may well frighten us, we may well recoil in horror, and yet it is all the more necessary for this very reason. The man that rejects outright the possibility that he may be a monster risks all the more becoming one unaware.
Yet here we return to a topic raised earlier, namely, the logic of this ascription and our encounter with the shadow. The idea, broadly speaking, is that the ‘shadow’ emerges not from any innate aspect but from the logical principles, inherited from our cultural milieu, which we apply implicitly in our self-understanding. This is the stark logic of this or that, of the principle of bivalence and the law of the excluded middle; yet these are insufficient for our purpose. Somehow we are this, somehow we are that, somehow we are both, somehow we are neither, somehow we are inexpressible. This is the way which Pascal outlined: “If he exalts himself, I humble him; if he humbles himself, I exalt him; and I go on contradicting him until he understands that he is a monster that passes all understanding.”3
To borrow here from Jain logic, this is the way of anekāntavāda: that we are many-sided; both good and bad alike, angelic and demonic are shared within a single form. There can be no absolute, exhaustive ascriptions, neither good nor bad; yet as against the Jain realism—namely, that each of these sides is equally real; yet we must emphasise instead that while we may say we are good and also bad, or we are bad and also good, that there is no single word which can simultaneously ascribe both qualities at once. Here Jainism provides a solution of sorts, that the necessity of such a term despite its impossibility may be satisfied by avaktavya—that is, inexpressible.
Whatever we are is something well beyond words, but here we find that to walk the moral path requires certain ascriptions, especially those which our apparent interests oppose. We must nonetheless be willing to look into the shadow, and if we are to go this way then it is proper that we are prepared with the knowledge that nothing found defines us; indeed, at most such as we find defines us only if it remains unchallenged. Of course, this knowledge—that we are not thus defined exhaustively as either/or—is merely rational for now. Myself, I am no saint; still I cringe to see my shadow and my immediate reaction is to deny that which hurts me, as if this were a candle from which flame I could merely withdraw my hand. This is nothing of the sort, however, and if I withdraw my hand then I will merely transfer this pain to others. Instead the energy in this suffering must be redirected to impel our overcoming of the shadows seen; that thereby affect may be brought under the yoke of intellect. We cannot war with ourselves outright, must instead use our own momentum; thus we wrestle all the while with our ruts and seek daily to transmute the lower into the higher—that thereby the heart may be crowned again our rightful lord as was once before the fall.
“If I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before, and therefore I will not urge anyone to accept this invitation.”