February 19, 2005

My Philosophy of the Idealisation of the Self

I was asked some time ago why it was specifically the English Channel which I wanted to swim. It was a very interesting and thought-provoking question, and I began my reply with what I suspect is a common reason- the established nature of a challenge. It's a well known and respected physical endeavour, with an established industry surrounding it which appeals to someone who wishes to do a one-off event but not make a career out of outrageous physical stunts. It allows the amateur to pursue his quest without too much distraction of logistics, infrastructure, co-ordination and without having to break any new ground, only follow in the footsteps of giants.

On a rather more personal level, however, the historical nature of the English Channel appeals to me as a student of history. Since 1066, no invading army has ever successfully crossed the channel to conquer the British Isles. For almost a thousand years, this narrow 21.8 mile (34 km) strip of water has been all that has stood between Britain and often far superior armies.* The unique geography of Britain allowed Britain to rule the world on the back of the Royal Navy, such was the effectiveness of water as a boundary and deterrence.** So to swim from one country to another is to feel the weight of history and commune not only with the spirits of those who swam before, but to experience a major factor in a thousand years of European- and even world- history.

Another question I was asked was, why do I wish to challenge myself in this way? I'm not a religious person, but I do hold deeply certain personal philosophies which govern the way I approach the world. I am proud to consider myself a Confucian, and the ultimate goal of the Confucian is the rectification of the mind, the improvement of the self with the goal of becoming a Gentleman. Relentless self-improvement is an aspect of the Way. Thus, the need to challenge oneself constantly to pursue improvement.

However, crazy physical and mental challenges are not the usual way. It is more important to devote oneself to learning, cultivate civility, lead a good and harmonious life and seek to positively influence one's family and friends. In my case, the crazy physical and mental challenge is a reflection equally of a second philosophy which I'm not sure where I picked up from, but which may be termed the 'idealisation of the self'. If Heaven, or an afterlife, is eternal bliss, and Hell, or oblivion, is eternal damnation or the complete absence of existence, then we can only know if we are alive if we can feel both pleasure and pain in the same moment. It follows then that to approach the ideal of life is to challenge ourselves as much as we can to achieve the greatest satisfaction of achievement. My guess is that if we really do have a Creator of some sort, then the greatest way to serve Him or Her would be to seek to challenge ourselves physically and mentally, by overcoming both our physical and mental limitations and seek to stretch the boundaries of the human experience.


*- One might quibble about William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but you must remember they were invited by a Parliament which had decided to strip James II of the British crown.

**- For a tremendously fascinating look at the Royal Navy, I highly recommend N.A.M. Rodger's "The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815". A fascinating and brilliantly written book, highly readable and very enjoyable.

Posted by pj at February 19, 2005 07:15 PM

"One might quibble about William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but you must remember they were invited by a Parliament which had decided to strip James II of the British crown."

1688 was hardly glorious! Parliament had no right to 'strip' James II of the crown - the power of a monarch comes from God, not Parliament!

Yes, I'm a Jacobite, in case you didn't already guess...


Posted by: InfernoXV at February 24, 2005 11:14 PM
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