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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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4. Diderot 71


Chapter Four Diderot Man is born for society; separate him, isolate him, his ideas will become disjoined, his character will change, a thousand ridiculous affections will arise in his heart…1 —Denis Diderot, The Nun (1760) What is reality? How do we perceive it? Do our five senses tell us the truth as to its nature? If we are drawn to another person, is it because we see our- selves in that other? If we do, is this mirror image true or false? Could we find ourselves inextricably enmeshed in an image in a false mirror [faux mi- roir] from which there is no escape except for death? Diderot recognized that people are often similar to one another in mind and heart. He felt that his mistress, Sophie Volland, was similar to himself, and moreover, that she was similar to her sister, Mme Le Gendre. This sub- ject of similarities fascinated him because he saw that it is the basis of all human relationships—we relate to others precisely because we, as humans, all share certain qualities that are universal. However, in the case of close friendships, these similarities may be even more pronounced, so much so, in fact, that friends seem to mirror each other. In his correspondence to Sophie, he mentions the similarity that he has seen between two women: “Those two women resembled each other so much in mind, in character, that it was hard for one not to recognize herself in the other…”2 Thus, Diderot...

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