Every time I hear Polonius’s statement from Hamlet: Act 1 Scene 3 quoted, i.e.: “To thine own self be true” I unequivocally frown as a way of saying 'say what?!', without actually saying it. I do so because Polonius is usually quoted decontextually. Polonius, let’s be real, was pretty much an officious, sort-of hysterical, well, ok, imbecile. In nuce, he was a follower, at best, who lacked the ability to think for himself. Polonius was, metaphorically speaking, a little man, one who never saw his daughter, the much deeper Ophelia - who must have certainly taken after her mother - for what and who she was: cerebral, observing, and analytical.
But back to the often decontextually quoted “to thine own self be true” which, apropos, came up in a conversation I was a part of this evening with a couple of people. I did produce a "say what?!" by way of the face but that might have been because I didn't have dinner till later. Anyway.
Back to the topic at hand, i.e., identity. We can’t be the same in every situation and with everyone. Judith Butler generally maintains that we tend to ‘perform’ the many versions of ourselves situationally. The sum of our performances of identy(ies) make up our very social make-up. Granted, her identity notions as found in her seminal work Gender Trouble (1990) mostly applies to Gender Theory but the concept could still be applied more broadly.
I tend to think that a number of core traits are with us all the time. However, other things are added and subtracted. Certain traits get exacerbated and others get nigh muted depending on the context, time frame, and the influences we are exposed to. And, everyone is around influences. Nobody is immune to them. What was the adage again? Ah, yes, no man is an island. Right. No person is an island.
I had a thought tonight about another conversation I had with my best friend the other day. Every time we talk he inserts one of his usual, ‘Seriously, that would have been your idea of hell,’ or ‘that’s when you would have adios-ed the conversation.’ By way of context and making a point here, my best friend and I met as freshmen in college when taking a Linguistics course. We were both bored out of our minds in it. One day, the professor asked me an Italian-related question, I answered it and then after class he came to me speaking in flawless Italian. His mother is Swiss Italian, hence the proficiency.
In Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates states that philosophy is: meletē thanatou. The phrase simply means — a diligent/educated practice of death. However what Plato means here, among other things, is that one of the ‘performances’ of philosophy is to helps humans better deal with their basic humanity. By extension, I would submit that philosophy/education or knowledge/information exist primarly to help us come to terms with the many versions of our fundamental humanity and why/how they actualize themselves they way they do.
My parents always say the following when we see one another during family events and vacations: “you’re the same you used to be.” And unequivocally I retort: “Who else would I be?!” Change, however, happens. It is bound to happen. And what counts is not what garrulous Polonius said i.e., “to thine own self be true,” but rather how the self can handle the many variables it encounters daily. The goal eventually is to stay afloat and not drown. The goal, as Plato’s Socrates points out in Phaedrus is to cope with mortality as well as one can. What else is there of more import, really? And if a version of self is not doing the job well enough, it can and should get laid off. There needs to be more where that, it, came from after all.
I’ve never been able to understand why anyone would take advice about life from Polonius of all people. It’s sort of like a priest going to Bill Maher with a Gospel of John question.