I just read this piece by Anthony Esolen about the Australian Girl Guides’ new misguided oath. I started to write a comment, but it got long enough to be a blog post. So here it is:
The Girl Guides of Australia may be deplorably misguided, but there is something not quite right about this piece as well. It seems to set up a rigid opposition between God and the self such that we are left with one choice: God or self…which shall it be? It does this by supposedly revealing the true meaning of Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line from Hamlet: “Above all…to thine own self be true.” According to Esolen, Shakespeare did not himself give much credence to these words since he put them in the mouth of a fool (Polonius). The conclusion is that Shakespeare really meant that those who consider it important to be true to themselves are fools. And we are left to choose between those who strive to be loyal to God and those who strive to be loyal to themselves.
The problem is that there is a hidden assumption in the paradigm of God vs. self. The assumption is that the “self” is always something bad, something that can only exist in opposition to God, something that really has no positive meaning. If we understand Polonius’ line with this purely negative meaning, then we must agree that he was a fool to utter it. But the fact is that no one in his heart of hearts has such a simplistic notion of the self. We all know that in the self there is both good and bad, that we are neither dung-hills nor angels. The reason Polonius’ line has gained wisdom status is not because the masses are so selfish and hell-bent that they consider it wise to choose self in opposition to God. Nor is it because they are hopelessly ignorant of Shakespeare’s real meaning. These words strike a chord because–with or without Shakespeare–they contain wisdom. The wisdom is about integrity, the ability to be who one is without falseness or admixture. The person with integrity knows who he is (and who he is not) and remains true to it. Ultimately, he can view his own self as a gift from God that he must accept and live. In fact, the acceptance or rejection of this gift is the most important choice he has to make. We find an echo of this also in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” Indeed, it is. The choice of whether or not to accept ourselves as God has given us to be or to flee from that gift in favor of our own self-ideal is at the root of all history.