Some weeks ago, my wife and I joined good friends to enjoy a production of Les Misérables. We’d seen the show before (who in North America hasn’t?), and I was struck by how much the audience has changed over the decades. Gone were the suits, and in their place I saw lots of jeans and open shirts. Every generation was represented. While some had dressed up—predominantly the women, if I’m to be honest—most came as they were.
And, in the middle of that familiar story, with all its conflicted and primal emotion, stands Jean Valjean, center stage, alone, asking, “Who am I?” It is a piercing question, in part because it is asked on behalf of us all. Only humans explore their own identities, and indeed the great themes of our literature spring from that impulse. “Who am I?” is not a new question. It has been asked throughout the millennia, and the answers we have given at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances have shaped human history.
The ancients were quite familiar with Jean Valjean’s question. In western civilization’s classical times (c. 500 BCE), the Romans had two words, ipse and idem, to help frame their understanding of the self. Ipse describes the self as an individual—unique, self-defined, and independent. Idem refers to a self that is literally “the same as.” Idem is the self defined in the context of others. Ipse says, “I am me, myself; I am an individual.” Idem says, “I am with you; part of us; in relationship to; I am a person.” Both, obviously, are essential aspects of our human identity, and the human condition compels us to embrace each in tension. However, much of human history has been shaped by the oscillation of preference for one or the other.
For many centuries the west answered this existential question with religion and in reference to a deity. For instance, the contemplative self of Augustine (c. 400 CE) and later Aquinas (c. 1300 CE) seemed to answer, “I am founded in and created by God, in whom I discover myself.” Indeed, for nearly two millennia, western civilization defined self in relationship to the divine, but then René Descartes, a French mathematician writing 400 years ago, coined a phrase that eventually changed the course of western civilization, setting it on a path to the present. Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—became the foundational concept of a thought revolution.
New answers came from the prophets of the enlightenment. Locke’s ideas suggested that “I am who I perceive myself to be.” Rousseau provided an answer rooted in the idea that “my uniqueness deserves autonomy.” Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch said, “I am the heroic great man, new, unique, incomparable, self-defined.” And at the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud added a new dimension: “I am neurologically founded and consciously sound, therefore I am.” All of these relatively rapid movements in the development of our shared concept of our selves have shaped present society.
There were competing voices, to be sure—the Romantics, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, and many others sounded warnings about the lionization of individualism set apart from the mutuality of community. But western civilization barreled on. We were becoming masters of our own universe. Technological man reshaped the planet, mastered nature (or so we thought), and became self-defined, self-sufficient and increasingly self-absorbed. The new science of psychology helped fuel the sense of an “empty self,” as Philip Cushman describes it—a self that could only be satisfied by filling its emptiness with the fruit of its own labor.
Perhaps the defining moment of this headstrong flight from the idem of “self in relation to others” came after the Second World War. The industrialized world needed some way to flip its manufacturing capacity from swords to plowshares. Since cities don’t seem to use many plowshares, a host of other manufactured alternatives were identified quickly, and so began our passion for consumer goods and its multitude of things that all previous human civilizations seemed to have been able to do without. Our self-made identity was ready for a new maxim: “I consume, therefore I am,” and its inescapable corollary, as author Philip Roscoe puts it, “I spend, therefore I am.” As we witness at present, this rogue wave of consumer spending is trailed by a sucking ebb tide of debt.
And now, society is showing signs of restlessness, lodging serious second thoughts about the centuries-long elevation of individualism and the unintended consequences of unrestrained self-indulgence. We’re starting to see that this way of things isn’t working. Business, as the most adaptable of human institutions, senses this disillusionment and hunger for collective self-identity. And business is responding.
Companies are beginning to reflect concern for broader social interests and needs, and not just as a way of ticking off the “Corporate Social Responsibility” box on their scorecards. They are starting to seek and offer new answers to the question “who are we?” Many of those answers involve serving the needs of others and show a tightening embrace of idem. After all, is it coincidental that the great growth in worldwide web access is happening in part because of social networks? The ability to connect to others is not just compelling; it is a basic facet of human identity and, therefore, irresistible. Tweet That!
As you may recall, Jean Valjean faced a paralyzing choice. He could remain a self-made mayor, his freedom and new identity secured by the impending execution of an innocent prisoner who had been mistaken for him. Or, he could confess his identity and suffer the consequences of his earlier misdeeds. Valjean, as the story goes, decided he could not condemn another in his place. We business leaders and corporate actors face a similar choice. If we continue with the current methods and assumptions of doing business, we will condemn posterity to a bleak and selfish future, as the tapering reign of the individual corrupts into the tyranny of egomania.
I am beginning to hear courageous voices wonder if there isn’t a different path we can take. Let us heed them and set to the task of learning, in life and in business, to reflect true personhood. We have created our corporations in our own images and even endowed them with the rights of people, but as we are rediscovering the importance of our own social responsibilities, so are they. Similarly, as we learn to embrace the individual uniqueness of ipse in tension with the community and connectedness of idem, so will our companies. As this shift continues, companies will come to exist not only for their self-preservation but also strive to take their places within the complex global ecosystem. So let us each, in our own way, encourage this positive transformation.