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Search for Self in Other in Cicero, Ovid, Rousseau, Diderot and Sartre


Mary Efrosini Gregory

Search for Self in Other in Cicero, Ovid, Rousseau, Diderot and Sartre examines how these five theorists recognized that searching for self in an idealized other can lead to a variety of perversions. Cicero warned against seeking friends whom we regard as being everything that we are not: he advised to first be a good person and then to seek other. Ovid showed that Narcissus, who had no close friends to reinforce his identity, was oblivious to his own assets and tried to live vicariously through other. Rousseau explained why modern man, while seated in a theater, feels compassion and is transported by pity, anxiety and fear for the welfare of fictional characters as if it were his own. Diderot showed how the absence of self can be exploited by the powerful to reshape the minds of the weak. He proves that given the right environment and length of time, any one of us, like the victims in The Nun, could just as easily have his life ruined. Sartre reminds us that it is impossible to be-in-exterior. We see ourselves according to the way that others perceive us based on conditioning and prejudices. Sartre untangles the snarled web of misperception of self that arises from «the look» of the other.
This book addresses man’s growing understanding of the death of self in the mirror of other across the corridors of time – from Narcissus’ ancient pool, to Cicero’s Roman forum, to Rousseau’s Parisian theater, to Diderot’s convent in The Nun, to Sartre’s twentieth-century hell.


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2. Ovid 37


Chapter Two Ovid I am he. I sense it and I am not deceived by my own image…Why court then? What I want I have. —Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 AD), 3.463–66 The notion of searching for self outside of self was expressed by the ancient Greeks in the myth of Narcissus (Greek Νάρκισσος). In this legend Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephisus in Boeotia and the nymph Liriope. He was distinguished for his very attractive looks and many fell in love with him, including immortals and mortals, males and females. According to Ov- id’s Metamorphosis, Book 3, the blind seer Tiresias told his mother that her son would have a long life only “If he does not know himself.” As usually happens with such prophecies in classic literature, the characters do not give them another thought, for years and years, until the cryptic words come true. There are several legends that recount what happened after that. Accord- ing to one, he was loved by the nymph Echo, but he, vain and aloof, spurned her love. Rejected, Echo was overcome by grief and wasted away to nothing, leaving only her melodious voice. According to an earlier legend, he rejected a young man by the name of Ameinias. In both versions, his rejection of those who loved him drew the gods’ vengeance upon him and as punishment, Artemis or Nemesis, depending on the version of the story, caused him to stop for a drink at a spring; he fell...

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