Introspection is a skill that is undervalued these days. For the classical Christian philosophers, introspection was the ability to look within oneself, to meditate on one’s thoughts and feelings, and to separate one’s constructive and unconstructive reflections. To read their writings is immediately to encounter their impressive introspective powers. They had an astounding ability to conform their minds and behaviors to God’s will, down to the last cognitive detail. For many of them, introspection was a treasured skill that they had cultivated via years of practice.
Why did the classical Christian philosophers consider introspection to be so important? In part it was so that they could better love God. Introspection enabled them to identify their selfish and sinful cognitive habits. Sins like adultery, theft, and deception were for them the mere external and visible manifestations of an internal corruption. For them that internal world, whose sin is more intransigent than it is in its external and visible manifestation, needed Spirit-filled introspection. More generally, the classical Christian philosophers believed that their introspection needed to be guided by divine providence. Personal reflection was in their minds of no value unless and until it was informed by the Holy Spirit. They did not consider their sinfulness to be eradicable unless and until it was confronted by God’s indwelling presence.
Today, introspection has fallen upon hard times. It can be boring to sit quietly in the company of one’s own thoughts or feelings. There are things that one could do instead to entertain oneself. Personally, my iPhone is a constant companion which entertains, distracts, surprises, and satisfies my curiosity. I never have to worry about being alone with myself or confronting my thoughts and feelings. But the fact that I am a poor practitioner of introspection does not – and ought not – to make us think that it is not an important skill. It is no less important for us today than it once was for the classical Christians.
Why is introspection still so important? One reason is because it fortifies us against the excesses of our culture. I am a professor and I witness regularly the addictions of my students. Sometimes it is just a video game or sports addiction. But sometimes it is a more intransigent, appetitive addiction: an addiction to pornography or to sexual hookups, to salty and fatty foods, or to sleep and personal laziness. These addictions control their thought lives, and undermine their studies and relationships. What frequently keeps my students from overcoming their addictions is their lack of introspection. Cultivated introspective skills take years of hard work. Many of my students simply have not yet put in the years of practice that would enable them to look within and to identify their unconstructive thought patterns. They have spent precious little time cultivating their prayer lives or opening themselves up to the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
This is not necessarily their fault. In our noisy modern world there are many distractions, entertainments, and opportunities. The iPhone generation is never without its devices and it need never be alone with its thoughts. Endless YouTube diversions are only a few clicks away. One way of resisting these diversions, so I tell my students, is sometimes to step away from the technologies, and self-consciously to pursue a slower pace of life. In a world that lacked constant diversions, we would develop more acute psychological senses, and be able to acknowledge our character states for what they are. When was the last time you reflected on your motive for insulting your friend during last night’s conversation, or for medicating with food yesterday, or for lashing out after a business contract didn’t go your way? Or when was the last time you were outside and, pausing to listen to the natural world – the birds, the crickets, the frogs, the wind – you understood your own thoughts and feelings in a deeper way? Only in a quieter, slower world does it become possible for us to understand our own minds, to inspect our character states, and ultimately to improve our behaviors. Only in a world that is separated from the electronic devices that are so often externalizing our attention does it become possible for us to understand our motives in more acute ways.
‘Know thyself’ is how Socrates described the secret of his wisdom. The first step to knowing ourselves in the way that Socrates intended is practice. This means putting in the hours, stepping away from the ‘always-on’ technology culture, and taking up a quiet and contemplative stance.