Transcript

Ego and Soul with John Carroll

Dr John CarrollDr John Carroll
j.carroll@latrobe.edu.au

You can also listen to the interview (MP3 11.8MB).

Matt Smith:

This is the La Trobe University podcast, I'll be your host, Matt Smith. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it does all depend on where you're standing. I'm sitting here today with John Carroll. He's a professor from the Department of Sociology. Thanks for joining me today, John.

John Carroll:

Pleasure.

Matt Smith:

You're here to talk about "Ego and Soul", you've got a new book out.

John Carroll:

It's a revised edition of a book that came out 10 years ago, "Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning". There are three new chapters. There's a fair bit of revision to the rest of it given 10 years have passed.

The book works by arguing five theses through the whole text and I've changed one of those five. And the book's caught up with the issue of we humans are meaning-creating, meaning-seeking creatures. Unless we've got a strong sense that there's some purpose for us being here, the question "What should I do with my life?", is it just absurd. And we're equally caught up with the question, and just seems to be part of the nature of being human, "What happens to me when I die? Is death just rotting and shrinking?"

But the core of a fulfilling life for humans is the meaning question, finding this meaning and this book is about the ways today in which people in their everyday lives and in their work and in their sport and family relations. Try and find some deeper significance to what they're doing because to a large degree we live in a world which is post-church.

We don't live in a world anymore, except for a very small minority, who find meaning in Christian doctrine God put us here for this purpose and that purpose, so on and so forth. I mean even most people I think who are practicing Christians or whatever other religion have uncertainty and doubt about the big questions. So this book is very much about arguing what we do in everyday life, you know, waking hours. To a very significant degree, we're attempting to find a significance and a meaning.

Matt Smith:

So what is it about humans that set us apart? Why do we have to ask these questions?

John Carroll:

There's no answer to that. I think it's constituted of being human. That's just how it is. Just as I think humans are born knowing a moral law, there are a series of important "thou shalt nots" which you find in all human societies. "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt protect the innocent", that all human societies admire courage and look down on cowardice. "Thou shalt not betray trust about important things."

I think at the end of the day all you can say is that just as we humans are born with two arms and two legs, we're born with an innate sense of a moral law, unless there's something wrong with us. And the small percent of people who don't seem to have this we call "psychopaths". And in a sense, we're signalling that they're not human in a fundamental sense, which I think is true.

Equally, and this is my main interest in this book, we humans are born creatures who crave meaning. We're not just reflexive animals who struggle to survive, struggle to reproduce. There's more to how we seek to live our lives. And if we don't find meaning or to use one of the themes of the book, a soul that fails to find its meaning goes mad. If we fail to find our meaning we become neurotic, suicidal, depressed, these sort of pathologies that we're familiar with today take over the individual who fails to find his or her meaning.

In the book for example, one of the…

Matt Smith:

These five ways to find meaning?

John Carroll:

Well there are five theses that work through the book. I mean to take an example in one area I go into, sport. It's telling that sport has become so significant in modern western societies. And in looking at sport, suggesting we in the west have inherited a lot from the ancient Greeks. The Olympic Games today is by far the most successful global event. It's the one thing that brings nations, huge amounts of money, spectators together. There's no other organization, United Nations or whatever else that has a fraction of the interest of the Olympic Games.

Now, I think underlying this attachment to sport is the ancient Greek concept of athletic religion. That in great sporting performances, whether in football or the games, many athletics, an individual or in a team is ideally rising above themselves. They're becoming more than their normal human self. There's a sort of transcendence.

In the beauty of great sporting performance, there's a higher meaning. It may sound irrational and absurd but there's a feeling of exhilaration and inspiration you get in a footy crowd, that's uplifting. That somehow I'm more than my ordinary sort of a bit bored, bumbling, everyday self in these great moments that sport enables.

Other people find it in their work or in going out into nature. There are many things that people do in modern life where there's an attempt to place myself as an individual, as more than just someone who gets hungry and wants to have kids or wants to kick the cat or whatever else you do.

Matt Smith:

So you have five theses that you focused on. So sport was one of them?

John Carroll:

No, sport is one of the substantive chapters on an area of modern life. Work is another one. I look at universities, I look at high culture, I look at motorcars, computers, do it yourself renovation. Democracy is a very important theme in the modern world.

Now the theses, to give one example, it runs through the book. One of the theses is that in the western tradition we seek to balance ego and soul. The ego, in the every day sense, is the self that likes to succeed, to attract beautiful women or handsome men, or likes to become rich, likes to win sporting medals. Becomes insecure if it's criticized, worries if it's overweight. The self that's caught up in everyday pleasures and ambitions.

The soul is the part of us that's metaphysical or the fragment of divinity, whatever language you want to use. And in the western traditions, say unlike Buddhism, in Buddhism basically the ideal is to get rid of the ego as much as possible so that the divine part of the human can take over. In the western tradition, I think we believe in strong ego and a balance between the two and that is one of our distinguishing features.

So the book runs right through its substantive chapters. This sense of strong, not insecure ego but balanced by something that doesn't really believe in ego, the soul.

Matt Smith:

So do you think that that's the best way to go though? That the western way of thinking is the best way to go?

John Carroll:

I think it's our way. I think cultures vary; you're born into a culture. I don't think you can do anything about that. It's in the genes, your culture is in the genes. And so you're actually disposed, western is predisposed really towards this. Actually, I don't think there's any choice. You're born into the west, you're born into the west.

Matt Smith:

And you said there's been a move away from religion to find the answers that we need in our lives.

John Carroll:

Once formal religion declines, which has happened in the west. I mean fewer and fewer people go to church. In Australia, I think it's something like 7% of the population goes to church regularly. That's a very small minority.

So people are not receiving answers today except in very small numbers. They're not receiving answers to the big questions from priests and ministers because they're simply not going to church. But they still need, we still all need those answers so we have to find another way of answering those questions. We're stumbling along in our everyday lives, in what we do, in the sport we play, in the families we build. We're struggling along to tease out layers of tissues of meaning in what we do.

It comes back to the thing that we're born meaning craving and meaning finding creatures. If we're not finding the meaning in our churches, we've got to find it somewhere else. Morality is not the problem, meaning is. And meaning is an issue of culture. It's culture that provides the answers to the big questions. It's culture that provides the stories through which we imagine what the good live looks like. And it's in this area of meaning not morals that the modern west has got a real crisis.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that the level of tolerance and acceptance in the western world is going to affect how people find meaning in their life?

John Carroll:

We're more and more tolerant.

Matt Smith:

We are?

John Carroll:

Yeah.

Matt Smith:

We're more tolerant, more accepting.

John Carroll:

It's a big achievement of the modern west, the belief in universal human rights, that all humans are equal irrespective of sex, race or religion. I mean this is very unusual in human history. Most humans have been tribal which means they favour members own tribe and they don't mind treating members of other tribes pretty unjustly.

So this is very recent in the west. Obviously, we all hope it continues. It's come out of very strong and old western traditions. I mean it's partly the Christian belief in love thy neighbour. In the Australian case, it's tied very much to the English or the Anglo tradition of fairly easygoing common sense politics in which you distrust fanatics of any sort. And I think Australia has benefited from the fact that it's institutions are basically English because that has brought with it a democratic, political system of to use the Australian language giving everyone a fair go.

And I think this is important today but this is really more a background or a context in which then people try and find significant themes or significant readings for their own lives. That in itself doesn't provide strong meaning. And it provides a sort of open-mindedness towards discussion. If we're not sure about things about policies, about ethical judgments, then you can go out in public and you can talk on talk-back radio, you can write to the newspapers. There's a sort of public discussion in a democracy, which I think is very helpful for this quest for meaning.

Matt Smith:

Professor John Carroll, thank you for your time today.

John Carroll:

My pleasure.