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The Ambiguity of Self-Reflection in Contemporary Thought and History

It is telling that the supreme ethical commandment of Christianity— “Love thy neighbor as thyself'—is formulated self-reflexively. Self-love is assumed and presupposed as model for love of other. This formulation follows and formally completes the commandment to love God: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matthew 22:37-39). The injunction enjoining to seemingly exclusive love of God, the Transcendent, asserts its supremacy and yet, at the same time, is echoed in a second commandment which is “like it” and which is based on a reflexive structure of self-love enjoining love of neighbor in the likeness of love of self.

Self-love is thus bound into love per se, even into love of the absolutely divine. The indispensable sources of Matthew 22:37-39 are to be found in Leviticus 19:18 and in Deuteronomy 6:5. We can trace an ambiguity in self-reflection as it evolves from classical Hebrew to Christian thought and then continues to develop in some of its revolutionary aspects throughout the Middle Ages. Self-reflection persistently shows up as the means of affirming—but also eventually of surpassing—the self in and through love. Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls (Le Mirouer des simples âmes anienties et qui seulement demeurent en vouloir et désir d’amour} contemporary with Dante in the first decade of the fourteenth century offers a crucial parallel to his work in opening especially lyric insight into this dialectic of courtly love. Comparable in this regard is another work by a late thirteenth-century female mystic, Metchthilde of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead (Das fliessende Licht der Gottheit}.' Both works combine poetry and prose fluidly in elaborating a courtly discourse by a self-reflective empirical “I,” an “I” who is

1 Peter Dronke, Verse with Prose from Petronins to Dante: The Art and Scope of the Mixed Form (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 95-114. Metchthilde gives her own title more exactly as “A flowing light of Godhead”: “Dis buoch heisset ein vliessendes leiht der gotheit” (140, n.47).

Self-Reflection and Contemporary Thought 247 thereby heightened to a higher, universal instance speaking with a prophetic voice and revealing divinely inspired visions.

The cult of the image of the beloved, who morally improves and in other ways betters the lover, raising him above himself and purifying him as in a refiner’s fire, is constitutive of the Troubadour service of fin amor. It develops against a background of the Gnostic-influenced Cathar heresy in southern France and in the kingdom of Aragon in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Relations between Cathars and Troubadours were complex, and there was tension between the cult of exalting the senses and that of their strict refusal, yet these two cultures developed together in the same medieval courts, where they reinforced each other’s emphases on seeking spiritual refinement and perfection. The ambiguity of woman and of sex in the spirituality of Christianity and its heresies might be resolved to some extent by distinguishing between this world, in which life is, after all, material and sensual, and the next, as entirely spiritual and free from material constraint. However, ambiguity remains endemic to the nature of self-reflection as anchored in—yet also as destabilizing—the self that is reflected and reflecting. Self-reflection opens upon an infinity that relativizes all determinate codes and worldly standards.

The present Part (IV) examines some underlying reasons for the ambiguity of “speculation” in philosophy by describing how the speculative tradition of the West produces it formally and linguistically. This ambiguity is concentrated into the ambivalent figure of Narcissus, which will be taken up again in the final Part (V). The core of the present Part—in the following subsections—is constituted by an original critical reflection that is very much of our own historical moment. It looks at selfreflection in its two different and sharply contradictory guises as: 1) a structure of thought characterizing conscious, reflective persons educated in the traditions of the humanities; and 2) the mechanism driving technology all the way to our present digital age and its upheavals. These two world-historical manifestations of self-reflection together display its divergent and apparently incompatible propensities. The momentous tensions between them are played out also in our every thought and action. Phenomena of thought can be broken down into a circuitry of neurological loops folding back on themselves—or else the latter can be reflected back into the inexhaustible mysteries of consciousness.

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