Personality or Mirror?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
We tend to think of a person’s personality as something quite fixed and unchanging. While minor details might change over time, in general, genes, culture, and personal history determine who we are, what we care about, and the kind of behavior we are likely to display.
We also tend to imagine that people in other cultures could not have been all that different deep down. The fact that societies in history were less materially capable, could only mean that individuals were more brutal, selfish, and focused on their own survival. It may be difficult for us to imagine cultures where people cared for each other much more than in our own culture. (Historians might not be very reliable about this detail, since researchers can only interpret the few facts that they do have using the lens of their own beliefs and attitudes. They will tend to assume people then were more similar to us than they were in reality.)
However, perhaps our values, beliefs, and behavior are not very fixed at all. Perhaps the most consistent component of human personality is the ability to adapt. When another person treats us badly, we assume that the rules of the game call for bad, selfish behavior that prioritizes self-protection. When someone is kind to us, we tend to change our view of society, and start seeing it as being cooperative and based on mutual help.
This alternative view sees change as potentially happening very fast. The changes can even depend on whether the person who hurt or helped us is present or not. The reason we rarely see radical change in any one person’s personality, is because each of us tends to stay with the same kind of people for extended periods of time. As people get older, they may tend to surround themselves even more with the same people they have always been with. A larger group of people tends to stabilize the behavior of the group, pulling any one change back into its original state.
If you plucked one person out of one society and suddenly placed him or her in another society with very different values, one wonders how fast his or her behavior would have started to change.
If our values are strongly shaped by what we observe in others, it may be necessary to question the importance placed on the concept of personality. Perhaps we are simply mirrors of the people around us.