The story of my life

Lindsay asked:

Did the ancient philosophers write about telling one’s own story as a form of activism and means to social change?

I’m working on my MA in Counseling Psychology and writing my thesis, which is a narrative inquiry. In a sense, I’ll be helping my participants tell their stories and writing/publishing it to help therapists better understand my population (those in polyamorous relationships).

One of my sources* claims that telling one’s life story as a form of activism dates back to the Enlightenment. I know just enough philosophy to wonder if earlier rhetoricians addressed this. I remember that Aristotle wrote of the pathos of storytelling but don’t know if the power of telling one’s own story was addressed. Are there works that speak to this topic?

This is a tiny part of my methodology. I ask this question out of curiosity and a desire to more fully understand the power of telling one’s story as a means of healing, social change, and other positive outcomes. I’m also looking at using narrative therapy as my primary theoretical orientation in my therapy practice. So, helping people “restory” their lives to emphasize their strengths, etc to build confidence and help them heal from past trauma, etc. Reading suggestions are welcome!

*Lenart-Cheng, H., & Walker, D. (2011). Recent trends in using life stories for social and political activism. Biography, 34, 141-179.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Someday I’m going to write
The story of my life
I’ll tell about the night we met
And how my heart can’t forget
The way you smiled at me…

‘The Story of My Life’ (Bacharach and David, 1957)

I have a distinct memory as a youngster humming this pop song to myself as I explored wooded land near my home in Finchley, London. According to Wikipedia, the British cover version of the original USA release by Marty Robbins was a number 1 Hit for Michael Holliday in 1958. So that would put my age at 7 or 8, possibly a year or two older.

If you thought you would get the real story of the lyricist’s life, — this was an early production from the genius pairing of Burt Bacharach and Hal David who went on to write some of the most memorable songs of the 60s — you are likely to be disappointed. It turns out to be a classic (or cliched) heterosexual love story: Boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated, boy and girl reunited. As we learn from the chorus, (preceded by the girl backing group singing, ‘Bum-bum, bum, bum’),

The sorrow when our love was breaking up
The memory of a broken heart
But later on, the joy of making up
Never never more to part…

Even back then — I am confident this is not just fanciful construction on my part — I remember pondering with a feeling of giddy vertigo the momentous fact that my life was still before me. There were multiple paths stretching in different directions. The song had a flavour for me that was close to mystical. At the time, the boy-meets-girl aspect hardly figured. With the benefit of hindsight, there is more than a little irony in the all-too pat ‘love story’.

The 1999 sci-fi spoof movie ‘Galaxy Quest’ depicts the cast from a TV series similar to Star Trek encountering an alien race who lack any concept of fiction or even lying, and think that the TV episodes are recordings of ‘actual historical events’. Misunderstandings abound and there are many comedic moments. But there is a serious point here. Human beings are story tellers. This is a deep fact about the human psyche, not simply something to take for granted. (Wittgenstein is often quoted as making a remark to this effect, but I would be very surpriised indeed if he was the first philosopher to take notice of this phenomenon.)

The way you frame your question (in terms of the made-up verb ‘to restory’) suggests that recounting ‘the story of my life’ has a loose connection to datable, historical facts. At the same time, presumably there are limits imposed by reality. I can imagine myself as ‘the Man who fell from Mars’ — in my disputes with ‘academic’ philosophy this is something I have been tempted to do on occasion — but the sober truth is that I was born a human being on planet Earth.

How did the notion of telling a story come about? Is it because we dream? Domestic cats dream, according to owners’ anecdotal evidence. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to ‘rehearse’ typical actions, like stalking or pouncing, can be seen as conferring a survival advantage over otherwise similar creatures that don’t dream. Then what are human dreams for? Why, supposing a connection here, do stories interest us or move us? Assuming that humans were not ‘designed’ by some higher being, it could just be an evolutionary accident, an unexpected benefit bestowed on creatures who had invented a language capable of converting subjective ‘memories’ into narratives.

The consequences of our having this accidental capacity, are indeed momentous.

Telling X’s story’ is something the Ancient Greeks did — for example, the contrasting pictures of Socrates by Plato and Xenophon. They also had a tradition of story-telling where the characters were presumed to be fictional. But who was Plato, what was his ‘story’? Why didn’t he tell us? The closest we get is Plato’s ‘7th Letter’ whose authenticity has been a subject of much dispute.

Aristotle notoriously argued that a ‘man’ (‘person’ if you prefer, although Aristotle had views about the differences between the sexes) cannot be called ‘happy’ until after he has died, and his achievements evaluated in a positive or negative light. The ‘happy’ cuckold whose wife has been deceiving him for years is a case in point. Or the terrible karaoke singer who is urged by his so-called ‘friends’ to demonstrate his ‘talents’ for their amusement.

You mention the Sophists. This suggests (to me) that you approve of the notion that ‘my story’ is mine and the truth, the real truth about me isn’t something that can conflict with my perception of how the events in my life string together. I am the best authority, regardless of what you say or how you perceive me. This seems to echo Protagoras, ‘Man is the measure of all things’ but arguably Protagoras was talking about differences between cultures — Greeks versus ‘Barbarians’ — rather than individual persons.

In Plato’s dialogue ‘Theaetetus’ Socrates offers an argument against what he takes to be Protagorean ‘relativism’, which makes the case that failing to distinguish ‘how things are’ from ‘how things seem to me’ leads to absurd consequences. If you go to a physician, you want to be told the truth about your condition, and you assume that you will get the right treatment for that condition. But I don’t think that this is something that Protagoras would have necessarily disputed. It was just some imaginary theory of Plato’s own concoction, a ‘straw man’ introduced into the dialogue to make a philosophical point.

I suspect that, as you say, personal narrative, confession is a ‘Modern’ idea, going back to thinkers like Montaigne and Rousseau. Yet even today, mainstream academic philosophers look askance at philosophical writing that departs from objectivity in the expression of the writer’s personal thoughts, feelings, recollections (as in, for example my ‘Philosophizer’ trilogy). However, I still believe in truth, the absolute truth — about the origin of the universe, or the nature of consciousness, or the whole panoply of unresolved problems and questions. The two modes of discourse can coexist, side by side, or even complement one another. I don’t see a conflict.

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