by Charles McCrary
In my first post in this series, I began a discussion of fitness instructor Shaun T, treating him as a lens through which to explore secularization theses, especially as he embodies an ethic of “human flourishing” at the individual level as an absolute good. In this post, I will expand on the first while emphasizing Shaun T’s particularly American context.
The “American self” is a concept with a distinct history and historiography. Many aspects of this overlap with themes of secularization—an elevation of humanity in general and individual human rights in particular, all the while held in balance with the rise of consumer capitalism. Given the broadness of American selfhood and self-culture and their historiography, a huge number of angles is possible. However, like last time, I will choose to stay broad, sketching patterns.
Selfhood and self-control have been intertwined in the (Euro–) American constructions of selfhood since the early Puritan settlements. Their souls, depraved and ever in danger of damnation, were to be monitored closely, by themselves and by the community. One unregenerate individual, especially if that individual were given to the things of evil—even, in some cases, dealings with demons and the devil—the entire community and its covenant with God were in jeopardy. Virtue, then, was a community-oriented endeavor; however, it was never to be understood primarily as such. Through relentless introspection, self-documentation, and private prayer and reading, Puritans aimed to transform themselves (or be transformed by God), and that self-fashioning was to work toward the goal of individual piety. However individual this process was, though, the community depended upon it. This delicate balance has received much attention, mostly from the two groups of people most interested in Puritans: Puritans and twentieth-century historians.
Sometime in the eighteenth century, though, this conception began to shift. Daniel Walker Howe narrates this story in his brilliant first chapter of Making the American Self (Oxford, 1997), “Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Problem of Human Nature.” The rational faculties and the importance of faculty psychology are central to Howe’s story. “At the beginning of the [eighteenth century],” he argues, “self-interest had generally been considered one of the passions, but by the end, moral philosophers had definitely promoted it to the rank of a rational faculty.” (28) For Edwards, self-interest was a “passion,” a dangerous emotional motivation easily corrupted. But for Franklin, self-interest was simply a fact of human nature, and thus it could and should be manipulated for the betterment of society. Likewise, virtue for Franklin, as opposed to the Puritan Edwards, was more importantly public than private. Private piety mattered, but primarily because it served public ends. David Brainerd, the suffering missionary whose diary Edwards edited and published, was Edwards’s prime example of a Christian life. The contrast between Brainerd and Franklin is important: “Franklin had thought personal religious practice could be useful as a spur to a life of public service, but Brainerd leads his life of service as a means to his personal religious practice” (40).
By the nineteenth-century, self-improvement, the conscious and intentional project of bettering oneself, was seen as a good in itself. At the same time, Calvinism’s dominance in America was receding, and fewer Americans understood humans to be naturally and basically evil. Liberal groups like Unitarians and Transcendentalists posited a good, inner self waiting to be realized. The project of self-improvement became also a project of self-discovery. These beliefs were further infused into American life by their incorporation into the common school movement.
Horace Mann believed that best means of education would encourage children’s morality by appealing to all their faculties and with attention to their minds, emotions, and bodies. This totalized human self, with a significantly material dimension (Mann was a strong proponent of phrenology and its application to education) was the object of Mann’s reforms. In this schema Howe and others have seen a precursor to later progressive “child-centered” education curricula of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Because of his belief in the proper nurture of all the faculties, it is not unreasonable to see in Mann a precursor of John Dewey’s concern with the education of the ‘whole child’” (160), Howe argued. (I think it is far from unreasonable. In fact, it might be reasonable enough to write a dissertation about. But that’s another issue.)
A secularization thesis, like those I described in last week’s post, is certainly at work here. As Talal Asad has described, the integrity of the body is a hallmark of modern secular society. It is this ethic, with the capacity for agency and choice enabling it, that drives contemporary legal conceptions of morality as well as much contemporary self-culture and self-help. This brings us, finally to Shaun T. On the main page, the “IntroducSHAUN,” to his website, Shaun T explains, “The fitness ain’t physical!” “I need you to understand,” he says, “This website is an expression of potential—YOUR potential. It’s about uncovering your ability to manifest your destiny and overcome your fear.” Your potential is inside you already. People are not inherently evil; they are not a bundle of sinful urges that needs to be curbed and corralled; they are individual and special and good. “I can’t teach you how to be YOU,” Shaun T admits. “Each individual has something special to offer in this world and I literally have learned a lesson from every person with whom I come into contact.” Making it even more explicit, he writes, “I want you to LIVE. And when I say live, I mean live for self…live for what you feel today.”
I’m painting with an exceedingly broad brush here. But we can see important patterns, a grand narrative within or against which to situate our more specific stories. The meandering story of the American self, with its historically contingent paradigm-shifters like Edwards, Franklin, and Mann, shows important movements regarding how Americans have thought about what it means to be good. This is bound up with discourse about the body and its integrity. The body now is an expression of your self, an indicator of your self-control and your “whole” health. But its maintenance should be for your own sake, not for the sake of the public, contra Franklin. All these ideas come to a head in Shaun T, a fitness instructor with a perfectly sculpted body who implores you—YOU!—to take control of your life, exercise agency. And, of course, by buying his products. But consumerism is the topic of next week’s post.
Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State. His 2012 MA thesis focused on autobiography and historiography among 19th-century Methodists, and his current research is on antebellum public schools, religion, and secularity. He also is finishing an article on disestablishment cases and specialty license plates. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.