June 9, 2011


The Caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland pauses from his high perch to ask the title character, “Who are you?” The question seems simple enough but when the answer doesn’t satisfy, the child is subjected to a lecture.

Like Alice many of us are daunted by the question, “Who are you?” We tend to take the easy way out and identify ourselves by our vocations: “I’m a salesclerk or an auto mechanic or and astrophysicist.”  If we are retired our answer will vary but only slightly. “I’m a retired salesclerk, retired auto mechanic or retired astrophysicists.” If pressed further, we might identify our role in a family: “I’m a wife, husband, mother, or father.” We might even list a social or religious group to which we belong.  


Eric Hoffer in “The True Believer says we must have affiliations because being an individual is the weakest link in the human condition: 

                 “…when the individual faces torture or annihilation, he cannot rely on the resources of his own individuality.  His only source of strength is in not being himself but part of something mighty, glorious and indestructible….the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal.”(Chpt. X11 “Factors Promoting Self-sacrifice”)

Despite its storybook setting, what the Caterpillar asks Alice is profound.  Centuries of intellectual thought have explored the schism between the internal and external worlds, between the individual and the group. What we saw in the American and French revolutions, and now see in the Arab Spring, is a rising passion for individual freedom which, oddly enough, is best satisfied within a democratic society. Mankind’s history, it seems to me, is a chronicle of the individual’s longing for a damn to burst… of a desire to see walls knocked down so we may form a single human tide.