Character is the adventure of personal identity.
Here's a maxim I can stand on. And kick against. Because maybe it isn't. The problem with a maxim is that it locks its truth inside it and loses the combination. Or rather, that combination becomes the truth. It is as though a safe became the treasure for which it is designed to be the receptacle.
So to start over…
Locke’s chapter on Personal Identity was added to the Essay in 1694, the scholarship says, at the request of William Molyneux, the Dublin savant. Indeed, in the famous letter in which Molyneux propounded the problem that has been named after him – that of a man born blind who suddenly receives his sense of sight, and whether he would know shapes and colors – Molyneux also suggests that Locke expatiate a little more largely on the principium individuationus, the seed of the chapter on personal identity. Locke replied with some reference to Malebranche, and Molyneux in turn advised on engaging against the fantasies of Plato and Malebranche.
So much, then, for the intellectual history. We have philosophical topics and philosophical names, and it would seem, as we con Locke’s chapter, that we should remain within these bounds.
Yet the afterlife of this chapter on personal identity has certainly moved beyond those bounds. It is not for puzzling out the question of metempsychosis (or as Mrs. Bloom, another Dublin savant, puts it in Ulysses, met him pike hoses) that the chapter draws our attention, but instead, it is because we seem to touch, here, on a piece of code. The code for the new individualism. The code for a new secular perception of the self, bounded and founded in the consciousness, which is an odd physical thing – sometimes no bigger than the light snore of the dozer, sometimes a giant claim on cultural continuity going back millennia.
Consciousness, as Locke recognizes, is a precarious foundation for any kind of order. And one way of looking at the various perspectives on the continuity of the person that he unfolds is to think of how personal identity is about identifying persons. This, of course, is one of the great programs of the enlightenment, but in 1694, Locke surely could already see the need for it.
We have a fictional example in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders of this problem of identifying persons. Moll’s adventures have barely started – two husbands, two children left with their grandparents, one dead – when Moll decides to start over. Her second husband has fled to France; technically, she is still married to him, but she assumes their separation is for good. This means that her status in England is in suspense:
“Upon these Apprhensions, the first thing I did, was to go quite out of my Knowledge, and go by another Name: This I did effectually, for I went into the Mint, took lodgings in a very private Place, dresst me in the Habit of a Widow, and called myself Mrs. Flanders.” [ 77]
And so it happens that the anonymous author of the Life of Moll Flanders, Defoe’s fictional figure, tells us that she is also an imposter. She assumes, as it were, another dimension of fictionality. Is it possible – such runs the idle ontological question – for a fiction to develop a fiction? The ontological question abuts in romanticism – where the fiction and the encyclopedia converge – and is mined throughout the twentieth century, where from Pirandello to Flann O’brien, fiction is an entrance to the infinity of bluff.
In the early 18th century, however, Moll Flander’s renaming is the entrance to adventure. Locke of course was familiar with adventure under the guise of enterprise. According to Fox Bourne’s Life of Locke, he invested in an adventurer’s company that proposed to settle the Bahamas –and by that investment became an “adventurer”. Adventure befalls not only persons, but properties – for money has the peculiar quality of adventuring in the world. In the eighteenth century, this commodity fetishism generates a rich sub-literature of commodity erotica – sofas, pillows, coins and other baggage that recount histories of seductions and sexual adventures that occur in their proximity, or with their aid.
Locke, however, comes to a more puritan and less rococo conclusion:
“Let any one reflect upon himself, and conclude that he has in himself an immaterial spirit, which is that which thinks in him, and, in the constant change of his body keeps him the same: and is that which he calls himself: let him also suppose it to be the same soul that was in Nestor or Thersites, at the siege of Troy, (for souls being, as far as we know anything of them, in their nature indifferent to any parcel of matter, the supposition has no apparent absurdity in it), which it may have been, as well as it is now the soul of any other man: but he now having no consciousness of any of the actions either of Nestor or Thersites, does or can he conceive himself the same person with either of them? Can he be concerned in either of their actions? attribute them to himself, or think them his own, more than the actions of any other men that ever existed? So that this consciousness, not reaching to any of the actions of either of those men, he is no more one self with either of them than if the soul or immaterial spirit that now informs him had been created, and began to exist, when it began to inform his present body; though it were never so true, that the same spirit that informed Nestor's or Thersites' body were numerically the same that now informs his. For this would no more make him the same person with Nestor, than if some of the particles of matter that were once a part of Nestor were now a part of this man; the same immaterial substance, without the same consciousness, no more making the same person, by being united to any body, than the same particle of matter, without consciousness, united to any body, makes the same person. But let him once find himself conscious of any of the actions of Nestor, he then finds himself the same person with Nestor.”