Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 97 (November 1999): 21-27.
An autobiography is a strange beast. While it offers unique access to the inner life of an individual from the perspective of the only person capable of assessing it, it is problematic precisely because the self-knowledge of first-person narrators is problematic. Autobiography also posits a coherent, defined self which occupies a position from which to look back and evaluate the life. Yet, if we think about it at all, we are aware, being strangers in the cosmos, that every lived moment is simultaneously slipping into past time and rendering the notion of a stable self questionable. Walker Percy’s observation in Lost in the Cosmos captures the enigma of self and self-knowledge:
A stranger approaching you in the street will in a second’s glance see you whole, size you up, place you in a way in which you cannot and never will, even though you have spent a lifetime with yourself . . . and therefore ought to know yourself best of all.
Augustine’s Confessions, which gave birth to autobiography as a genre, enunciated and simultaneously solved these problems. Describing its author’s life up until his conversion to Christianity, the Confessions grounds Augustine’s individual, mutable life in the unchanging nature of God: "I entered into the depths of my soul, . . . and with the eye of my soul, such as it was, I saw the Light that never changes casting its rays over the same eye of my soul, over my mind."
For several years I taught Great Books classes to college undergraduates, and the European focus of the four-semester sequence (the first part was called "Roots of Western Thought") illuminated issues of which Augustine made the first consummate exploration: personal identity, individuality, the inviolable and incommensurate self. The status of these has in the meantime become so naturalized for us in the West that it scarcely dawns on anyone that they are the legacy of a vast spiritual inheritance 2,000 years in the making.
To make this point is to disagree with the subtitle of Harold Bloom’s recent opus, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which credits Shakespeare with the creation of the modern self. Stripped of much of its miasma, the book argues that Shakespeare "invented us (whoever we are)," that he gave us an abundance of "inner selves," and that since Shakespeare we constantly have to "reconceive" ourselves. Before Hamlet, "being human was much simpler for us but also rather less interesting."
Oscar Wilde, in an essay called "The Decay of Lying," made the same point, suggesting that the world has grown melancholy because a puppet named Hamlet was sad. But unlike the artists of whom Wilde wrote—who see the world through the brushstrokes of other painters until, via their own brushstrokes, they compel the world to reproduce the types they have invented—Bloom wants to claim that Shakespeare’s invention of human types came from himself and himself only, from a "preternatural ability," without relying "on authority, or authorities."
That Shakespeare without any predecessors created human types who are themselves without precedent contradicts what we know about his work, namely, that nearly every line in it has its source in some other writing. Since Bloom knows this as well as anyone, his claim is part of a larger extravagance. To concede that Shakespeare stole from a hundred other writers, while managing to put his own imprint on that theft (Wilde’s claim), would be to deny that Shakespeare was self-created. For ostensibly this secular God, after engendering himself, then brought the rest of us into being.
Bloom’s purpose is to substitute art for the transcendent grounding that once gave coherence to the individual life, since "a universal and unifying culture, to any degree worthy of notice . . . cannot emanate from religion." As the postmodernists never stop reminding us, such modernist grounding is flimsy, being textual and artifactual. The Invention of the Human is laced with swipes at these spoilsports who, like Toto in Oz, would pull aside the curtain and reveal the chicanery of it all. I imagine that Bloom, like Augustine, is concerned with our ability to change and grow and maintain all the while an essential self. Yet his own language does not escape the baneful influence he decries. In speaking of the process of constant self-creation, of our continuing need to "reconceive ourselves"—a gift of the Bard to humans—he is echoing phrases that sprout from the lips of those who insist on a "multiplicity of subjective positions," "potential identities," and the like.
Self-creation, as David Novak argued in his review of Leon Wiesletier’s Kaddish (FT, March), is "a powerfully Jewish statement, because atheism (being without God) is never a simple absence but, rather, a substitution of the true God with a false god. It is idolatry, in its modern form a monotheism in which the self is just as ‘jealous’ a god as the Lord God of Israel." Bloom’s own review of Wieseltier’s book, in the New York Times, is revealing in this connection: "One parts from Wieseltier with gratitude, but confirmed in a conviction he does not share, which is that the God of Akiba [ben Joseph], and of all the orthodoxies, always exacts too steep a price for the Sanctification of His name." Shakespeare, Bloom might have added, never exacts such a price.
When all is said and done, Shakespeare (or Goethe or Henry James or Proust—name your master) doesn’t offer a religion—much less a "universal and unifying culture"—of which most people would care to be members, even if it would have them. It excludes those who don’t have the right stuff, the right gifts, the right turn of phrase and wit and winking irony. Whatever the reason for the demise of elite culture, it was inevitable that modernism would collapse, like the paper house of fiction, into postmodernism. Postmodernism, in its attack on modernist hierarchies, is the reaction of barbarians—a contemporary acting-out of the sack of Rome.
Postmodernism also inelegantly reasserts what Augustine stated so eloquently sixteen centuries ago: that absent a transcendent grounding, the self never finds rest or, in contemporary terms, is torn between the Scylla of Tommy Hilfiger and the Charybdis of Ralph Lauren. In the world of texts (which, as Roland Barthes told us, includes our clothing), the status of the individual is uncertain. Such was the world depicted by Homer.
The Odyssey is a work I am fond of teaching. The ten-year journey home of its hero after a decade of fighting in Troy deals with important human themes, but the relation of man to the divine is at the very center of the story. The obstacles Odysseus encounters in returning to Ithaca are the result of having offended the god Poseidon, while his success comes only with the assistance of Athena, the gray-eyed goddess.
Odysseus’ individuality—his acumen, his wit, his audacity, his strength, his love for his wife and son—makes the gods love him and reward him. The gods love those who are lovable. His crewmen, on the other hand, scarcely individualized except by their failings, are so much flotsam and jetsam in the service of highlighting his eminence. This is a universe indifferent to the interests of most men and women.
Socrates initiates a radical departure from such materialism into a realm of spirituality: each human, he avers, is inhabited by a soul, a conduit to the realm of eternal truths. Socrates introduced the art of reflection on one’s character and even of one’s ordinary activities in order to plumb their spiritual significance. Still, as we get into the Phaedo, particularly its claim for the soul’s immortality, it dawns on several of my more thoughtful students that the body is merely the temporary repository of a soul that may go on to inhabit any number of other beings (even donkeys!) in the chain of transmigrations that Socrates describes. It is obvious that the unique personality that is Socrates is extinguished with death.
I recall the palpable relief an intellectually curious student named Rachel felt when we finally moved to the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle after all regards the soul as unique to the individual. But Rachel found something else in Aristotle, namely, a firm intellectual footing. She was clearly in no need of material footing: Rachel grew up in Vermont, the only child of a mother who was a doctor and a father who was a businessman. During school breaks she used to visit an uncle, a doctor employed by international relief organizations, in places like Guatemala. Rachel came from a very high-minded group of people, with the resources to accompany such high-mindedness.
For students like Rachel the Ethics is not a self-help book or a road map leading them in so many stages to achieving the good life. Rachel already lived the good life. What she lacked, like many of her contemporaries, was an intellectual articulation of her behavior. She is precisely the reader Aristotle had in mind, the person who already carries in her head a balance sheet of what is "right" and what is "wrong" and most always does the right thing.
The lack of a positive grammar with which to express ethical certainties applies equally to young people who are religious. Of those from the same social circumstances as Rachel, there is such defensiveness that, even if they are religious, they will seldom admit it. To follow Aristotle is one thing; but to be religious is tantamount to being countercultural, and never has there been a less rebellious group than today’s undergraduates.
Another small segment of the student body does provide an exception. They are not upper middle class or even middle class but students from the most accidental of families, many of them minority students, kids who grow up in environments where people typically make bad choices. Knowing what is right, people choose wrong. Aristotle, who had such faith in the power of reason that he could not imagine an individual knowing what is right and failing to do it, nevertheless invented a term to describe such people. It was akrasia (incontinence, i.e., moral incontinence), from which our English word "crazy" derives.
As with Rachel, these students provide valuable insights, particularly to instructors who feel that certain works are too difficult for students to understand. One day, a girl named Jessica made the connection between herself and a work of literature that most of us are fortunate enough to make in comfortable circumstances, as I did, say, with the novels of Charlotte Brontë in high school. Jessica said she understood Dante’s Inferno because she had lived it. She went on to tell about her childhood in the Bronx, about friends of hers who got hooked on heroin and other drugs, about the crimes people committed to feed their habits and other needs.
Jessica could have been just like them, but instead, as she said, Jesus found her, and she in turn found herself. She became not one of the lost ones, like the hapless and anonymous crewmen accompanying Odysseus, but the hero of her own story. Finding herself was not the rational process described by Aristotle but, like Rachel, she too "knows" what is right; she just can’t tell you why.
It was the juxtaposition of these two sorts of students, the Jessicas and the Rachels of my college universe, that led me to contemplate our Western notions of selfhood, one the outcome of a reasoned quest for the Good, the other of an intimate and personal relation with an all-knowing God. Despite the fact that ordinary men and women have never had more resources for self-cultivation than at present, a glance around will confirm that Aristotle’s program has failed to catch hold with most people. As my experience with students bears out, there is a danger these days that self-discovery is becoming the prerogative of the affluent and the otherwise advantaged.
Despite all that we owe to the Greeks and Romans, the ancient, pagan world seems not to have cared much about the individual as such. The greatest work of self-exploration in antiquity, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, shows the effects of this lack of interest. Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and a serious student of Stoic philosophy, was the embodiment of Socrates’ philosopher-king. He began to compose his Meditations in a.d. 172, during tours of military duty in the Roman provinces. Though he reigned in a period of unrest, including the refusal of Christians to offer sacrifice to the official state gods, there is not a word in the Meditations about these current events.
A vivid contrast—and one that points up the shortcomings of philosophy as a guide to life—is provided by the writings of Julius Caesar. Caesar, too, was on the move, subduing the tribes of Gaul in the first century before Christ, when he composed Commentarii de bello Gallico. From this work, we know Julius Caesar as a man of action and keen observation, but not one of reflection. His activity, however, revealing his ambitions, his character, his physical and mental gifts, tells us much about him, which may be why he has had such a long run in popular imagination.
Marcus begins his Meditations by situating himself personally, naming his parents, relatives, tutors, and those who contributed to shaping his character. This enumeration brings out a felt recognition of his uniqueness as a person, but beyond this the Meditations cannot go. The remainder of the most articulate expression of personality in the ancient world is a soliloquy of a man seeking to efface his personality. For instance, from his brother Severus he learned "never to exhibit any symptom of anger or any other passion, but to be at the same time utterly impervious to all passions."
Marcus seems to be a man going through the motions. G. K. Chesterton called him "an unselfish egoist," one who does "not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning . . . because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheater." The body being for Marcus, as it was for Socrates, a philosophical tomb, how could he conceive of himself as an agent for good? Or even as an agent at all? While his reason led him to a distant apprehension of a creator, Marcus lacked knowledge of what that creator wanted of him. From this followed the inconsequence of his own existence: "Realize of what Universe thou art a part, and as an emanation from what Controller of that universe thou dost subsist; and that a limit has been set to thy time, which if thou use not to let daylight into thy soul, it would be gone—and thou!—and never again shall the chance be thine." Got that?
How different from this godhead—or the capricious deity who barred Odysseus’ return to Ithaca—is the majestic God of the Jews! While Marcus encountered the deafening silence of the spheres, David addressed his Maker with intimacy and assurance: "O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether."
God’s will was not to be discerned in vatic pronouncements or the entrails of animals, and not, as with Marcus, in reliance on one’s own reason. Instead, it manifested itself in human action. While the Socratic self-examination was self-serving, the Bible reveals the larger importance that acts of individual men and women can assume. For instance, the book of Exodus opens with a series of actions by women—midwives, a mother, a sister, the daughter of a pharaoh—each of which contributes to furthering God’s plan for mankind.
In such circumstances, ordinary men became great men, all the while remaining manifestly human, with the many shortcomings such a condition implies. Though Homeric heroes seem also to be full-blooded individuals, Erich Auerbach, in his classic study Mimesis, makes this distinction between the Old Testament figures and Homeric heroes: the destiny of the latter, he writes, is clearly defined, and they "wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives." The life of each of the Old Testament figures, on the other hand, has a cumulative trajectory. While Odysseus on his return to Ithaca is exactly the same as when he left two decades earlier, "what a road, what a fate, lie between the Jacob who cheated his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast!"
It was in a period of philosophical and religious ferment, when the pagan gods failed to offer answers to the problems of ordinary life, that Christ came into the world and revealed God’s salvific plan to all of mankind. In this new dispensation, the shaping of the inner life would not be limited by ethnic identification. Even though Jesus affirmed the law and the commandments, he called on men to abandon ties of family and clan (Matthew 19:29), even to abandon their natural inclinations: "For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?" In place of all this, Jesus asked us to be reborn.
For most of us, of course, the world works on us so early and so variously that, by the time we begin to reflect on ourselves, there exists already, in John Henry Newman’s words, a contrast between the promise and the condition of our being, a discrepancy that for Newman was proof that we are out of joint with the purposes of our Creator. The dilemma posed by Paul—"For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do"—is one we have all faced.
However much we succeed in acting in the spirit of love that Jesus asked of us, we can still be torn apart by temptations, as anyone knows who has been obsessed about anything. In becoming man, Christ made the link between matter and spirit that most of us feel to be the truth about ourselves, even the atheists among us: our spirit strives toward what is noble and good, yet finds itself mired in what is paltry and second rate when not destructive of self and others. Held back by inner conflicts, we fail to be all we can be. We don’t have to read Augustine to know that we enjoy feeling the pangs of sorrow and of being unloved.
Yet, in seeking to follow Jesus, in seeking to become all they could be, men discovered who they were. The depths of one’s inner life—one’s loves, hates, strengths, and weaknesses, all the obstacles one encounters in that search—became an object of interest. With that exploration we can begin to speak of the self-reflection of which spiritual autobiography is the preeminent literary expression. Spiritual autobiographies are accounts of the spiritual rebirth of which Jesus spoke. They tell of individuals, in their capacity as freely choosing beings, navigating their journey through a life of inferior rewards and temptations toward the discovery of who they were meant to be. Post-Homeric Greek culture, with its wealth of powerful artistic forms for the portrayal of human personality, never arrived at one that would explore the path to this intimate self-knowledge.
Jesus’ early followers became new men suddenly and seemingly without psychic preparation: "And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ And they straightway left their net and followed him."
Something similar must have happened to many men and women in those early years. Aside from St. Paul, however, none of them has left us a record of their conversion. The first person to do so at length was Augustine, whose Confessions, written in the late fourth century, is regarded as the founding document of autobiography, spiritual and secular. In a certain respect, Augustine’s presentation of his self-understanding merely extended the insights of the ancients, particularly the vital role of habit in psychic formation. As we grow into the world as infants, the exigencies of our physical nature lead us further and further away from the purity of soul suggested by baptism, while habitual responses gain the upper hand over our wish to follow the prompting of our higher nature. The self literally becomes divided, as Augustine recognized in trying to overcome his sexual compulsions: "The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted."
Through sheer force of will, Marcus Aurelius was able to suppress what were clearly vices. Yet in doing so, he suppressed any emotional vitality. His inability to achieve a felt, as distinct from a rationally understood, harmony with the divine resulted in a flatness of personality. Unlike Marcus, who hit on Stoicism and stayed with it, Augustine followed one intellectual or emotional chimera after another, including the philosophies of the pagan world. Augustine found himself turning in endless circles, falling deeper into despair, in his search for answers to his all-too-human condition. The way out of this dilemma occurred only after he realized that his will was so deformed by the strength of habit that, on his own, he did not have the power to change himself. Paradoxically, his freedom from his compulsions came only after turning to God, to Him who was outside of himself.
The Confessions describes a conversion experience, a radical turnaround. As Tolstoy wrote of his own conversion, "Everything that was on the right hand of the journey is now on the left." The encounter with God represents nothing short of a complete upheaval, a turbulent shaking down or even knocking down or breaking down of the self, accompanied by the emergence of a new and transformed self.
Amy Mandelker has drawn attention to the term "reverse perspective" as used by Russian Orthodox theologians to describe the unusual dimensions of icon paintings, with the gaze of the viewer drawn to the level of earthly events and yet given a peculiar perspective, as from a heavenly seat, so that people and objects do not have their expected everyday appearance. Similarly, Augustine prays, "O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself. You were setting me before my own eyes."
An odd thing about the Confessions is that it was not imitated in the centuries immediately following its composition. Though it was copied and read in the Middle Ages, no one felt called upon to model his life story on it. In a period in which much emphasis was placed on the imitation of models, the absence of imitations of Augustine strikes me as extremely salient in our consideration of modern notions of individuality. After all, it was Augustine’s narrative of spiritual blindness followed by illumination that became foundational for nonreligious self-presentation. Secular autobiography and the classic novel are unimaginable without the superior point of view of a narrator looking back on a life of errancy that will lead to a transformative experience, which will in turn produce self-understanding. The novel, drawing on Augustine’s insights, transformed the individual’s reliance on God into self-reliance and staged the hero’s growth through a series of life-transforming experiences.
Thus we encounter an enlightened narrator, as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (consciously evoking Augustine in the title) or in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, who reviews the past in order to show the events that have led to the present moment of wisdom. Literature aside, this is the point of view with which we, as moderns, also look upon our pasts as, say, a series of missteps that are constantly being corrected. In this, it is a case of "discovering" the self—a formulation that, in much attenuated form, can be heard among young people: who am I? what am I here for? To postmodern critics, such concerns suggest that life has a "plot," as in a well-crafted novel, but of course what they are really pointing out is that such issues have no meaning in the absence of a transcendent grounding.
One might conclude that Augustine had grasped and articulated an awareness of individuality that thereafter went underground for centuries. Yet as Caroline Bynum has pointed out, personal exploration in the Middle Ages followed the powerful model provided by religious orders. Thus, in the twelfth century, spiritual growth strove toward likeness to a chosen model, e.g., Franciscan poverty. By the sixteenth century—the age of Shakespeare—a well-established tradition of self-examination existed, as is evident from the many guides to the spiritual life for those who would assay it. Amid these splendid fruits, some are programmatic (Ignatius Loyola), some are personal (Teresa of Ávila), some are literary, philosophical, and meditative at once (John of the Cross, Sor Inés de la Cruz).
That century seems to represent the culmination of a process that began with the first fishermen to follow Jesus. It was at this moment of common faith and common baptism—akin to the union of spirituality and ethnicity in Judaism—that the ecclesiastical unity was fractured. At the same time, the Reformation struck a blow to the corporate religious life and the personal exploration encouraged within its structures.
This was the same period in which Europe was startled awake from centuries of economic slumber. The multiplication of religious denominations in successive centuries can be viewed as the first products of commodification, in this case of the spiritual life. In turn, the social mobility arising from the new market conditions—both upward and downward or across the seas—presented people with unprecedented life challenges. And, with increasing literacy, ordinary individuals began to have what had once been a more restricted prerogative, the exploration in writing of the inner life. Soon we see an eruption of spiritual autobiographies, mainly written by Pietists, Puritans, and Quakers.
They portray a life of inner blindness leading to illumination and conversion. They situate their stories in settings as vivid as were Carthage and Rome in the Confessions. Their narrators struggle with a variety of worldly lures and intellectual fashions not unlike those with which Augustine wrestled in the vibrant world of the late Roman empire but that were unknown to those going through their daily rounds within the cloister walls of medieval Europe. Indeed, one cannot help but feel that these writers are "individuals" in a sense with which we are very familiar. By the eighteenth century, Europe is also a decidedly familiar place. However central religious discourse and habits of life remain in the surrounding culture, alienation and isolation begin to characterize the spiritual seeker. This alienation is reflected in the existential uncertainties of a man as deeply pious as Samuel Johnson; or it can be seen in Mary Margaret Alacoque, immersed in a cloistered religious life. As we approach the nineteenth century and the marginalization of religious discourse, individuality and isolation increase.
This is as true of believers—say, John Henry Newman or Christina Rossetti—as it is of a nonbeliever like John Stuart Mill. In Mill’s case, one also senses a strong element of sheer will, almost as intense as in Marcus Aurelius. Mill, like Marcus, viewed history as a play of vast forces, marching onward forever, though Man now occupied God’s superior vantage point and was channeling those forces in a progressive direction. This more optimistic assessment speaks to the major difference between the two: Mill inherited a well-developed tradition of thinking and writing about the self, one that, by his time, took for granted the coherence of personality and world. This tradition had become so naturalized that Mill was willing to jettison the laboriously accumulated repository of spiritual capital on which his brand of liberalism depended for its continued existence.
Perhaps the best way to understand what spiritual autobiographies do is to contrast them with recent first-person autobiographical narratives. What the former make evident—and here the parallel with Aristotelian cultivation of the inner life is illuminating—is how arduous is the path of the spiritual seeker. Not for nothing did John Bunyan speak of the "Slough of Despond" and "Doubting-Castle." The obstacles, even when depicted as outward ones in such allegories, are nevertheless understood as internal. Like Augustine, these narrators regard deformation as self-chosen and the liberation from it as transformative.
While spiritual autobiographies appeal to deeper truths, contemporary autobiography dwells on what Freud termed the "manifest" content of things. In this, individual shortcomings play little role, not to mention the need for inner effort in overcoming or transforming them. Instead, what began with Rousseau has become a fixed tendency, with the focus on travail imposed from outside, by parents, environment, and so on. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has written, in place of the "confession (à la Augustine) of one’s own faults and sins," it is today "more often a ‘confession’ of the faults and sins of others—of parents, lovers, friends, associates, or, if need be, of society at large." Blame is correspondingly harsh, suggesting the subjective judgment of a child who has no faith in a parent who loves, deals with mercy, and is just. In their employment of considerable fantasy—I am thinking now of those that expose childhood sexual abuse and the like—these narratives resemble fairy tales told in the first person. But while fairy tales may help children to resolve inner conflicts and to mature, contemporary autobiographies document the failure to achieve human wholeness. Hence the postmodern decentered, fluctuating vision of man.
To describe a work as an autobiography merely because of the first-person pronoun effaces what distinguishes autobiography: the belief in the existence of a stable self and the meaningfulness of human action. As humans we are caught in contingencies of all sorts. We juggle in ourselves a host of contradictory tendencies. Yet it was once believed—certainly when Mill wrote his Autobiography—that, whatever our familial, religious, racial, or physical limitations, our actions have meaning because they are embedded in a scheme of things larger than just our immediate bodies. Now, meaning is said to reside in our wardrobes, and is just as disposable.
Edith Wharton, in a 1934 essay on Marcel Proust, wrote that his "traditional world was still essentially a Christian and a Catholic one; the moral and intellectual conflicts arising in such a society alone seemed to him worth recording. It is this which divides him from his successors in the pathetically shrunken field of his art." Proust, she went on, is "all in depth; and he will have to wait for full recognition till the surface of life is once more discovered to be of interest only in proportion to its inner significance." Wharton’s perception of the crucial import of Proust’s Christian inheritance for his analysis of character goes to the heart of things. There can be inner significance only when a human life is felt to be, well, significant.
The first articulation of this significance is found in the Old Testament—the ideal of personal holiness, the concern for the poor and the needy, the equitable relation that was to exist in criminal matters. Nothing of the sort exists in any previous body of law, say, the Babylonian code. The observation of the sabbath, referred to numerous times in Exodus, solemnizes a profoundly new order of human relations. Christ came into the world to extend this order to all people. Heeding the words of Paul—"in Christ there is neither bond nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female"—generation upon generation, impeded often by formidable circumstances, succeeded in strengthening in men’s minds the significance of the divine order of the world and, within that order, of the individual.
Great minds since the eighteenth century have sought to make the self free-standing or to anchor it to art or to a variety of political theories. In doing so, they have succeeded in squandering an immense spiritual inheritance, arduously accumulated since antiquity, that gives substance to the self and makes it whole. Is it any wonder that this legacy, the source of which can be traced back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, should now be anathematized as "patriarchy" by those hoping to usher it off the stage of history?
Elizabeth Powers is most recently coeditor, with Amy Mandelker, of Pilgrim Souls: A Collection of Spiritual Autobiographies, just out from Simon & Schuster.