Proprium: You Can't Live With It, You Can't Live Without It

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Lectures delivered at

Fryeburg New Church Assembly

Fryeburg, Maine
August 14, 2000

Heredity is an amazing thing. I recall reading about a study of identical twins separated at birth, which found that as adults, these twins had many habits and mannerisms in common even though they had been brought up in entirely different families--crucial things such as whether they snap their pants first and then zip, or zip first and then snap!

What I didn't realize was that lecture titles can also be passed on hereditarily. Both my father and I independently chose the saying, "you can't live with it, you can't live without it" as our subtitles. In this case, though, the first became last, and the last became first: I was given the first lecture for the week, and he was given the second. So I get to use the cute saying! Besides, my main title is shorter: "Proprium." And it needs more help.

All joking aside, although I don't know just what my father will be saying in his two-part lecture this week, I have a sneaking suspicion that he will offer you a solid doctrinal basis for the concept of proprium. So I am going to attempt not to steal his thunder by looking, in this first lecture, at some of the ways we experience proprium at various stages of our lives.

However, since this is the first lecture of the week, I'd like to briefly define this word "proprium." Using the word "proprium" is a holdover from the hallowed practice among Swedenborg translators of leaving Swedenborg's words in Latin when we're not sure how to translate them into English. Some possible real translations of this are: ego, selfhood, self-image. After connecting this Latin word with English, I intend to speak in English for the rest of the lecture. First, though, let's hear one of Swedenborg's own definitions of "proprium," using the traditional non-translation of the word. He writes:

What is the proprium? The human proprium consists of everything evil and false that gushes out of self-love and love of the world. It involves our believing, not in the Lord or in the Bible, but in ourselves, and our imagining that what we do not grasp through sensory evidence or through facts does not exist at all. As a consequence, we become nothing but evil and falsity, and so we have a warped view of everything. We see things that are evil as good, and those that are good we see as evil; we see things that are false as true, and those that are true we see as false. We imagine realities to be nothing, and things that are nothing we imagine to be everything. We call hatred love, darkness light, death life, and vice versa. In the Bible, people like this are called "crippled and blind." This, then, is the human proprium, which in itself is hellish and is condemned. (Arcana Coelestia #210)

Not a pretty picture. In these days of self-empowerment and taking pride in ourselves, Swedenborg's description of the human "proprium," or self-image, may seem old-fashioned and out of place. These days, the effort is to get away from that old concept of the human being as evil, sinful, and guilty from birth. Yet in doing away with the excesses of traditional Christianity relating to our supposed "hereditary sin," I believe that modern pop psychology has also done away with a critical concept: the concept of evil. We simply cannot face the realities of the human situation constructively without accepting the reality of evil both in our societal situation and in the human heart.

My plan for this hour is to trace some of the origins of evil, first as a race, and then in our individual lives, and then follow out some of the ways this works itself out in our own experience as we build our sense of self. For those of you who are staying through to Sunday, my sermon on "Building a Heavenly Self" will look more specifically at how we can put away the old, evil self and put on a new, good and heavenly self from the Lord.

Where does evil come from? This will be a bit of review for the Flames (teens) that were in my class last week. From the first chapter of the Bible, we learn that everything God creates is "very good" (Genesis 1:31) However, evil soon makes its way onto the scene. And it is highly significant that evil appears after humankind (Adam) is created. In the second creation story in Genesis 2, there is a subtlety that is missed in some of the new translations. For example, in the New International Version, Genesis 2:9 reads:

And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground--trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

That's not what the Hebrew says. The New Revised Standard Version mirrors the King James Version almost exactly in its translation:

Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This is much closer to the Hebrew. Did you notice the difference? In the first translation, both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil are placed "in the midst," or in the center, of the garden. But the Hebrew places the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and does not specify where the tree of knowledge of good and evil was planted.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil does find its way to the center of the garden. However, it is not God, but Eve who places it there. In chapter 3, when that crafty old serpent begins to tempt Eve by asking her "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" Eve replies:

We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, "You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die." (Genesis 3:2, 3)

Which tree is in the middle of the garden? God placed the tree of life there. But Eve placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil there. This helps us to understand the origin of evil.

What do these trees represent? We know that all life comes from God. So it stands to reason that the tree of life represents living from God: trusting in God's guidance, opening ourselves up to God's love and wisdom, living in the flow of the divine presence in our lives.

How about the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In understanding the meaning of this tree, it is helpful to know that the Hebrew word for "knowledge" here implies much more than intellectual knowledge as we understand it. Rather, it has the sense of knowledge through experience. Another way of translating the name of this tree would be "the tree of experiencing both good and evil."

When we eat from the tree of life--that is, live from the Lord--we experience good, but we do not experience evil, since there is no evil in the Lord, and the Lord will continually lead us in paths of righteousness. But when we stop listening to the Lord, and think we can figure things out for ourselves, then we spiritually "eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," and we begin to experience both good and evil.

The critical issue in the Bible story is not so much the tree itself, as the disobedience to God that eating from the tree represents. It is when we are disobedient to God, meaning we stop listening to God and start deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil, that we first begin to experience evil as well as good.

Eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then, is turning to ourselves to decide what is good and evil rather than turning to the Lord. Turning to the Lord means looking within and above ourselves, to divine and spiritual reality, in order to understand and decide what is good and evil. The alternative to this, is to look to ourselves and things outside of ourselves to determine what is good and evil.

So eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is deciding what is good and evil according to outward, physical appearances and our own self-derived understandings of those outward appearances. This, says Swedenborg, is the source of all evil: turning away from the Lord and toward self and material things. Turning away from the Lord in this way plunges us into all sorts of fallacies and falsities based on our own faulty perceptions of a physical reality that is, in itself, more appearance than reality.

Once we humans did this as a race, we began a long downward plunge from our early state of spiritual innocence toward the fallen humanity. The salvation of this fallen humanity is the subject of the entire Bible starting with these early chapters in Genesis. Although we as individuals do not inherit sin from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors before them, we are, as Swedenborg says, born into all kinds of evil. This we get both by nature and by nurture--both by faulty spiritual genetics and by being raised in an atmosphere that is a mix of goodness and evil, with evil often seeming much more attractive to us than goodness.

As troubling as the concept of being "born into evil" is to the modern mind, an understanding of it is crucial to understanding the human situation from birth onwards. First, let's be clear that we are not talking about so-called "original sin"--a doctrine that our church rejects. The balancing concept that we must understand is that although we are born into evil, we are also born in complete innocence. Sin, in Swedenborg's definition, is intentionally doing evil. An infant cannot possibly do this, since infants do not even know what good and evil are, let alone how to distinguish them from one another and make a choice based on that distinction.

If we are entirely innocent as babies, how can we be born into evil? There are at least two answers to this question. One of them I have already mentioned: we are born of imperfect parents into an imperfect society--"imperfect" being a euphemism for "at least partly evil." We inherit tendencies toward the evils that are in our parents and in our society, and we have a continual tendency to fall into these evils. This, plus hell itself, is the source all the evil we struggle against throughout our lives.

However, there is another, somewhat more subtle way in which we are born into evil. As I mentioned before, when the tree of life is in the middle of the spiritual "garden" of our minds, this means that the Lord is at the center of our lives. However, when we are born, we do not even know that the Lord exists; therefore we cannot possibly put the Lord at the center of our lives. Instead, what is at the center of our lives when we are born is our own comfort, pleasure, and happiness.

Although babies love to be around loving, caring people--and shine in their presence, giving smiles, reaching out to them, and later giving them hugs and love--what they care about most is their own comfort, physical and emotional. This becomes clear when they are uncomfortable. A baby that is hungry or tired or wet or hurt will express its discomfort in increasingly obstreperous ways no matter how the baby's mother or father or other caregiver is feeling at that point. When push comes to shove, babies don't really care about how their parents feel; they want to be taken care of, and they want to be taken care of NOW!

This is the beginning of the rule of self in our lives. When we are babies, it is entirely innocent. Babies mean no harm to their parents when they cry all night. There is no sin involved. They are simply responding to what is most important to them: their own comfort. This is where we start, and it is from this focus on self as the central reality that we must grow into beings who put the Lord and the neighbor at the center.

However, there is a very literal sense in which, as babies, we can't live without this assertive, dominant selfhood. It would be nice to think that all parents would always be so attentive to their babies and so perceptive of their babies' needs that they would continually take care of their needs without prompting throughout their babies' period of helplessness and dependence. But we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people who make imperfect parents--parents who are dealing also with the incessant demands that an imperfect society makes upon them. If babies did not continually cry when there was something wrong, many parents would badly neglect their babies, sometimes leading to literal death. Even for parents who are doing their best, their baby's crying may be the only way they become aware that their baby needs to be taken care of.

So at the start of our life, a focus on self ("proprium," in the old Latin terminology) is vital to our survival. We can't live without it.

Yet as time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to live with that infantile focus on self. We put up with it in babies because they are so cute and innocent. As they grow into toddlers and beyond, both their cuteness and their innocence begins to wane. When a baby cries and flails around because it is hungry, it tends to draw out our sympathy. When a three year old or a five year old does the same thing, it is more likely to elicit annoyance and exasperation! And whereas an infant's flailing around is usually harmless, a three to five year old can do real damage with those flying feet and fists!

When this same infantile self-centeredness lasts into the teenage and adult years, we have a selfish, mean, and often violent person who draws little sympathy from anyone, but is universally condemned. What was once cute in a little child has now become "childishness." No one likes a "big baby."

If we were to peel away the layers of socialization that most of us learn to put on as we grow up, I suspect we would find that infant ego still kicking and screaming away inside of us. However, it is also tempered by something more than socialization. As we leave infancy behind, we begin to develop new images of ourselves. Even toddlers consider it an insult to be called a baby. Toddlers are beginning to develop a sense of themselves as people who are competent and can make choices for themselves. What is the most popular word in the vocabulary of toddlers who are just learning to talk? "NO!"

That popularity can last for a long time. When Chris (5) or Caleb (3 1/2) is in a grumpy mood, you can almost count on getting "no" as the answer to any question you care to ask. Even if you ask a question and ask its exact opposite, you'll get "no" in answer to both. (Occasionally we can break the spell by asking, "Do you want to say 'no'?") This "no" phase is a way for little people to assert themselves; to assert their ability to control what they will or will not think, feel, say, and do. As frustrating as it can be to parents, it is a necessary phase in the building of individual character and a sense of self in a growing person.

Toddlers also love to say, "I can do it myself." Even if the parent could do it in one tenth the time, woe betide the parent who tries to cut in and expedite things! The usual result in my family is an incensed and crying child, with the only cure being to undo what I just did "for them" and let them do it all over by themselves! This, too, is part of the building of the new sense of self that takes over from the instinctual self-centeredness of infancy.

As hard as it can be for parents to live with this new assertion of self, we cannot live as human beings without it. The Lord created each one of us as a unique individual so that we could contribute in our own particular way to the human community. Much of our life is spent in discovering the unique "self" that the Lord created us to be. All the stages of self-discovery in childhood and youth are a part of this process of discovery--a process that continues throughout our lives.

In toddlers and young children, as long as the environment in which they are raised is reasonably stable and loving, the process of self-discovery and self-assertion is almost automatic. In fact, it's regular enough for child psychologists to name various phases according to their favorite human personality scheme, and attach those labels to fairly specific ages.

The farther along we go in life, the less regular it becomes. Yes, there are events later in life that do bring about specific changes. Puberty. Arrival at adulthood. Marriage and child-raising. The empty nest. The physical changes of middle age. The physical decline of old age. The approach of death. However, although these life changes do force us to redefine our sense of self in relation to the material world, they do not necessarily or automatically bring about changes in our spiritual sense of self. We can remain emotionally and spiritually infantile, or childish, or adolescent all the way through our lives if we do not make conscious choices to move forward in our sense of self.

It is when we reach adolescence that rational choice first begins to be a major factor in the progress--or lack thereof--in our sense of self. As teenagers, we are not yet entirely responsible for ourselves, since we are usually still dependent on our parents for many of the necessities of life, and for our primary emotional support. But we have entered into the "trial run" phase leading to full adulthood. We can generally take care of ourselves quite well if we have a mind to. As we move from the early teen years to the later ones, we become capable of most, if not all, of the things that our parents can do. Yes, we still have more to learn. But unlike pre-adolescents, we could provide for ourselves if we had to.

This is the period in which our sense of self is maturing into its adult form. Once again, there are literal ways in which we can't live without this sense of ourselves as capable individuals who can take care of ourselves. Our parents are not going to support us forever. As we reach adulthood, that responsibility is moved from their shoulders onto our own. If our sense of self is too weak or too distorted by the physical or emotional circumstances of our childhood and youth, we will have great difficulty making it physically and financially in the world. Instead of pulling our own weight, we will fall back on our parents or on other individuals and institutions who will take us under their wing like substitute parents. Or, in the worst cases, we may drift out into the streets, perhaps meeting our physical death through addiction, criminal activity, or other destructive circumstances.

As we enter adulthood, then, a strong sense of self, or "proprium," is necessary for our physical and financial survival. It is also necessary for our spiritual survival. As I said earlier, the Lord created each one of us as a unique individual in order to add our specific gifts and abilities to the greater whole of the human community. Our discovery of our unique loves, talents, and gifts--our "self"--is a necessary part of becoming the person and the angel that the Lord created us to be. Without that sense of self in us, there can be no connection with the Lord or with one another--a connection Swedenborg likens to a marriage. He writes:

In the heavenly marriage, heaven, and so the church, is united to the Lord by means of the self (proprium), so much so that it exists within our very self; for if there is no self, the union does not exist. And when the Lord from his mercy instills into this self innocence, peace, and good, it still looks like the self, but it is now something heavenly and richly blessed. But the nature of the heavenly and angelic self gained from the Lord on the one hand, and the nature of the hellish and devilish self deriving from self on the other, is beyond description. The difference is like that between heaven and hell. (Arcana Coelestia #252, emphasis mine)

I'm sure other speakers will be dealing with the "heavenly self" as the week goes on, and as I mentioned, that is the topic of my Sunday sermon. For now I want to highlight Swedenborg's statement that "if there is no self, the union does not exist." If we do not have a clear sense of ourselves, we have no basis on which to make a connection with the Lord or with other people. We know the truth of this on the interpersonal level. If we do not know what we love and what our interests are, how can we form a strong and healthy relationship with a friend or marital partner who shares our loves and interests?

The Lord does not want a relationship with undefined fluff balls, but with distinctly individual human beings who can love and understand in specific ways. That is why the Lord allows us to have a sense of self, a sense of having qualities that are "our own," even though in reality everything we have is the Lord's in us. This is the "necessary illusion of self-guidance" that my father will be talking about in the next lecture.

As adults, we get into trouble--into the kind of self-image that we can't live with--when we take that illusion of self-guidance for the reality. When we truly believe that we are self-sufficient and able to guide and control our own lives without any outside help, including the Lord's help, then we have a hellish selfhood rather than a heavenly one. When we are in this state of mind, we do plunge ourselves into all kinds of illusions, and put ourselves onto a selfish and materialistic track that leads only downward.

We can't live with this kind of selfhood. We may be able to live with it physically for a while--though the changes and "accidents" of life tend to destroy that unrealistic sense of total self-reliance. In any case, we certainly won't live spiritually unless we gradually chip away at that hell-derived sense of exclusive self-sufficiency and replace it with a sense of self based on a living relationship with the Lord.

If we have built up a "healthy" sense of self through our childhood and youth, then as we arrive at adulthood we believe that we can take care of ourselves. We can't live without that sense of self. Yet it is the difficult and painful task of the remainder of our lives to tear down that very belief in our own self-sufficiency, and replace this dead and illusory sense of self that based on our own ability with the true, living sense of self that God gives us when we are willing to let our own self die so that we can be reborn from the divinely human self of the Lord.

I expect we will return to this theme over and over as the week progresses.

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Music: Fragments of My Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer