Newton, by William Blake (1795–c.1805)
When I was 18, I started for the first time to seriously write every day in my journal. It soon became a compulsion, a need to let language pour through me onto the page, even though I was a terrible and uninspired talisman most of the time. I eventually moved onto other forms of writing and soon my avid journal writing practice was lost for two years. A couple of months ago due to the isolation of the pandemic, I began anew. This then provoked me to begin thinking about the nature of private writings. Those scratches in my journal that are completely my own and that I wouldn't think of sharing because the language is so personal. These writings felt private both for them being confessions of the innermost passageways of my mind but also because of their immediate nature. These writings being complete as soon as they arrived on the page, still makes me embarrassed at their quality. With these scribbles now being an integral part of my day, I have been thinking more and more about the essence of private writings. What is the purpose of private writings? What does it mean to write but not to share? After reading Socrates account of the art of rhetoric in the Phaedrus, I feel I have been given clues to what it could mean to write privately, even though this is not Socrates' purpose at all with him being neither concerned with writing nor with privacy. There is also an obstacle in that the purpose of private writings is difficult to homogenize, as what it means for each person that engages with the practice obviously varies. Yet onwards I shall march in a contradictory way. I will put forward an open manifesto to what the purpose of private writings could be. I will share thoughts on the unsharable. I will write publicly about the confidential. In a way, I write this completely for myself, yet I share it to maybe tempt you to buy yourself a notebook and begin writing your own private archives.
When I write in my journal I find that I am pulling out thoughts and emotions from within myself to lay out clearly so that I can understand the workings of my mind. It is an intensely personal process where I have the sanctuary to acknowledge what usually cannot be said out loud. It is an act of self-recognition through ink. When I write in my journal, one could accuse me of being solipsistic- I do not hide that the world is filtered through the intense subjectivity of my consciousness. It is writing governed by the proverbial "I" and so cannot be removed from me in any way. And I practice this routine of self-exorcism every day as the notebook gently fills itself. It becomes a habit of self-representation.
However, the practice of private writings due to it being so attached to the intense subjectivity of a particular mind threatens with the problem of fantasy and delusion. Who is stopping me from writing fantastical ideas of myself in my journal? Who is going to check that I am keeping in line with the truth of things? If private writings are places of fantasy and delusion, where untruths are nurtured by distortion, then the potential of private writings to powerfully represent the reality of a mind is in fact lost. However, Socrates gives us a clue to how to escape this fate when he speaks about rhetoric:
Won't someone who is to speak well and nobly have to have in mind the truth about the subject he is going to discuss (259e).
Fantasy and delusion take away the good of private writings and instead make them dangerous. The danger of detachment from the truth can easily be imagined. If private writings did contain fantasy and delusion then their confidential nature would turn the secrets of self-deception into a powerful force within the mind of a person. Where the person is constantly at risk of falling into irrationality and the self-destruction that comes with untruths. And so this manifesto wishes to state that the fundamental value then for private writings is the truth. Private writings are not about stepping away from reality into a world of falsehoods. Instead, when not used shamefully, private writings are inherently committed to reality. Private writings in their commitment to the value of truth are then committed to an honest account of the thoughts contained in a mind. My journal should not hide the truth of my own mind no matter how painful or graceless the truth finds itself to be.
If truth is the fundamental value of the practice of private writings as well as the desire to resist fantasy and delusion, then private writings in order to uphold this value, requires the journal writer to engage with self-examination. Where introspection and an inquiry into the nature of reality in relation to one's mind is woven into the fabric of the writings. Private writings have the potential to unlock self-examination when, as Socrates states: "its questions are serious [rather] than when they a trivial" (261b). The questions that self-examination asks are questions that are fundamental to what it means to be a human being and these questions reveal themselves through the movement from day to day. Where truth is its fundamental value, self-examination is private writings' method. And so to understand self-examination of private writings is to understand the method required for the ideal of truth to be realized. Firstly, this is not an examination that is done in one day like a school project evaluation. Secondly, there is no particular rulebook of order, of how to arrange the questions, even in terms of what list of questions to ask oneself. The only method for private writings is that it is a practice that is engaged with often enough that the forms of examination unfold themselves naturally in the interrogation of thoughts, emotions, happenings and facts of reality that occur over days, months and years. The self-examination that is the method of private writings is an examination that extends through time. The method of private writings is that their documentation of the workings of a mind is continuous. In a way what matters is not how beautiful my writing is in my journal for some days beauty will not appear. What matters, instead, is that each day I sit down with a blue pen and write.
Moving forward with this manifesto, I would like offer a more specific path that this self-examination could take within the pages of one's own private writings. It is a path that I believe should be taken in the beginning of the process of self-examination. Again, Socrates views on rhetoric provide a clue to reveal what is necessary for private writings:
It follows that whoever wants to acquire the art of rhetoric must first make a systematic division and grasp the particular character of these two kinds of thing, both the kind where most people wander in different directions and the kind where they do not (263b).
Where the rhetorician asks the question for others, the journal writer needs to ask these questions for herself. When do my understandings become torn by wandering in different directions and when do they not? Through the interrogation of a happening of life, a thought, a feeling, a fact of reality, all in the multiple sequences they present themselves in, one can figure out when one's understanding has been caused to wander in contradictory directions or whether one feels firm in one's conviction that this is the definite truth of an aspect of reality.
This is all to ask- what are the foundations of the truth of one's mind? What can one truly believe? What can one truly know and feel? And even more importantly what does one need to think about more? With self-examination being a practice, each event that happens, each thought and feeling that occurs becomes part of this greater web of examination ensuring the big questions are still massive but not infinitely huge and that what it means to be oneself as a human isn't something so impossible to try figure out. I am still in the early stages of this method of examination. Still realizing that most of my mind wanders in different directions, and that I am lost in the largeness of the contradictions. But I am slowly finding the convictions of my reality. This is a task of a lifetime. And so, this is a manifesto for what I hope to reach, what I hope to achieve just by being a dedicated inquirer into my own life through the art of private writings. However, it is important to say that we haven't left the realms of intensive subjectivity. I am unraveling, in my private writings, an inquiry into being human that cannot be removed from my own perspective.
So we have the fundamental value of private writings, which is that they need to possess the truth. We also have the method of private writings, which is self-examination- the uncovering of the truth of one's mind, the foundations of what we can believe through self-inquiry. But now what is the purpose of private writings? Why would someone, not even just a writer, engage in the practice of private writings? We can ask ourselves two more important questions: what truth is important to us as individual human selves? And, what is the hope of self-examination to uncover? At the intersection of these questions, we will find the purpose of private writings. To attempt to answer this is to look at Socrates again. He talks about how the nature of the soul is the focus of the art of rhetoric. In our case, we are concerned with the nature of the soul of the journal writer specifically. It is about the distinct nature of the soul who is carrying out these private writings. When I am writing in my journal I am writing from the proverbial "I", I am mainly concerned with the nature of my own soul. We can now say definitively that, for this manifesto, the knowledge of the nature of the soul is the purpose of private writings. But why?
Firstly, the knowledge of the nature of the particular soul that belongs to the journal writer is the obvious endpoint or ideal that self-examination will have to work towards. Self-examination through its interrogation of the components of a mind and a life, seeks to uncover what it means to live as a human, what it means to have these huge questions that one looks to one's life to answer. This self-examination is concerned with the details that make the soul of the journal writer her soul- what makes her soul unique. Self-examination is then the method of acquiring knowledge of the soul. Every happening, every emotion, every thought through self-examination becomes something known about the soul. And so written self-examination is then a means to acquire self-knowledge and self-understanding. When I write in my journal, my constant revisiting of difficult events like the end of my friendship slowly opens up new ways of seeing the cracks and wounds within my soul and to uncover what I know about my own values, principles, and non-breakable conditions. We can then understand that the truth fundamental to private writings, the core of what self-examination works towards, is self-knowledge.
The purpose of private writings is then the purpose of acquiring the truth of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge comes through the practice of private writings by practicing continuous reflection. Private writings are concerned with the nature of the self and the forms of the self in all its permutations. As Socrates states: "If... it takes many forms, we must enumerate them all" (270d). Every part of the soul must be interrogated and understood through writing in order for self-knowledge to be achieved. Private writings then possess the purpose of leading the journal writer to greater self-knowledge. Not in the way of a teacher leading a student because they have superior knowledge. Instead, the private writings direct the journal writer to self-knowledge by providing a path with which to reach self-knowledge. The purpose of private writings is to be able to reach the truth of the reality of who one actually is. The writing itself acts as a way to a greater form of awareness, a greater sense of knowledge of what it means to be this particular human being in this particular time. I am slowly finding this sense of awareness open up to me through my journal. My private unsharable writings have given me a way into grappling with the intricacies and complexities of just being alive.
I write in my journal to begin my travels into the realm of knowing myself. My manifesto expressing an ideal, a dream for myself that if I continue to document the many faces of my life and inner self, I will soon begin to understand myself and understand the world in relation to my soul. I evade the thoughts in my mind that tell me it is futile, that the ink will never show me the truth of myself even if it was placed on the page by my own hand. I run away from those thoughts that make me question why I fill a notebook with scratches and scribbles. However, I also know I have studied Socrates- how could I not crave the self-knowledge needed for virtue and wisdom? And I also know I am a writer- how could I not try to find a path to self-knowledge through ink? My manifesto is simple: to know yourself is to write the truth of yourself into the light to be apprehended and understood. To know yourself is to write a path into the truth of one's being. This is a responsibility of a lifetime. Whether my manifesto has been fulfilled is a question for much later on. However what I can know is that my pen is ready to fill out the pages of my days and within that I have found a sanctuary for my confessions, a written world where I can recognize the truth within me whether it is painful, wonderful or strange.