The New Year and Our Ideal Self

January 11, 2019 Updated: January 11, 2019

The New Year has come, and I am sure most of us are considering or have written those New Year’s resolutions through which we attempt to start again and achieve more than we did last year. A good idea, though fundamentally the whole concept is probably flawed, if well-intentioned.

The thing is: by setting New Year’s resolutions or goals, we are usually defining what we are going to do. But what we really need is to think more on what we intend to be. After all, as people often observe, we are human beings, not human doings. Unless we fix the “being,” the doing is superficial and largely superfluous, since nothing will have changed at the root.

People generally prefer to consider what they are going to do (run three times a week, only eat healthily, restrict their alcohol intake to only one glass of wine per day, set up a new business that will bring down Facebook) because it is relatively straightforward or easy. But changing who we are—who we are going to be—is considerably more difficult, not only to effect, but also to imagine how to effect.

The key to changing our being is what psychologists call our self-concept, and more specifically the part of the self-concept known as our ideal self. Basically, the self-concept is made up of three parts: our self-esteem, which is how we feel about ourselves, and links us to our past; our self-image, which is how we see ourselves, as in the now, the present; and then the ideal self, which is what we want to really be, or what we could become in our future. So, of the three time orientations, what we could be is in the future and is our ideal selves.

Our Ideals Selves, Our Role Models

With a simple thrust of his sword, Alexander the Great severed the Gordian knot and so fulfilled the oracular prophecy that whosoever untied the knot would become emperor of Asia Minor. “Alexander and the Gordian Knot” by Lorenzo de Ferrari. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In order to first imagine that ideal someone else, we need role models—real, or even fictional—ideal selves to whom we can aspire. I remember when my youngest son was growing up and “The Lord of the Rings” films had been recently released, how he wanted to be Aragorn and his best friend wanted to be Legolas, and they played games as these characters.

Of course, more importantly, for the welfare of our children and our civilization itself, children need their parents as their primary role models, so they can aspire to resemble them; and then they need teachers and role models in society, who enable them to grow.  The increasing “failure” of so many young men in our society today may be in part attributed to the lack of credible or even present male role models for them to emulate.

Some readers may be thinking that this is all rather academic or unimportant, but the fact is that the ideal self has consequences for society all out of proportion to our awareness of its existence. Indeed, whole civilizations depend on it, or fall because of it.

How Alexander Became Great

Alexander the Great was arguably the greatest military commander and conqueror in Western history. According to Robin Lane Fox in his magisterial book “Alexander the Great,” some 750,000 people died in Asia alone as a result of Alexander’s “progress.” For, of course, this is not to discount the fact that Alexander not only conquered and killed his enemies, but he could do so with savage ferocity. After the siege of Tyre, Alexander, to teach his enemies a lesson, had 2,000 men crucified.

But consider how he achieved what he did. Alexander was widely educated: Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, was his tutor; Alexander loved poetry, and indeed, he not only loved poetry but he also lived poetry. My all-time favorite story about Alexander was when a messenger, breathless and excited with some good news he was anxious to relay to Alexander, doubtless with the expectation of reward, was cut short.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great
Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, showing Alexander the Great, circa 100 B.C. (Public Domain)

“What can you tell me that deserves such excitement,” mocked Alexander, “except perhaps that Homer has come back to life?” “Except that Homer had come back to life.” The hairs go up on the back of my neck—to value the poet and his work so highly and in such a way that it seemed even more significant than news of his empire.

Alexander slept every night with two things under his pillow: a dagger and a copy of Homer.

Michael Wood in his epic TV documentary “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” commented on how lucky Alexander was. Time and again the ruler put himself in the very front line of the military action or of the danger. He should have died long before he did at the age of 32, but “luck” again and again was with him. But was it luck?

And so we come to the really interesting aspect of his story, the bit that all of us can take something from. He believed in himself, way beyond any measure of modern-day personal development where people talk about “believing in themselves” and nudge themselves into some false psyched-up state.

(Left) “Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria,” 1736–1737, by Placido Costanzi. (Public Domain)

No, Alexander believed really in himself: He believed he was descended from Heracles, the great son of Zeus; ultimately, he came to believe he was the son of Zeus-Ammon—a god. As such, and with such a belief, what would be impossible?

For, more amazingly still, Alexander had an ideal self that the poetry bequeathed him: Of all things that Alexander aspired to be, first and foremost, his ideal self was Achilles: the horse-tamer, the man-slayer, the fleet of foot, the one who knew no fear, ferocious, implacable, invulnerable until the gods decreed his fate to be otherwise. And all that he knew most about Achilles was contained in Homer’s “Iliad.” That was his measure; that was his ideal self to which he aspired and by which he judged himself, and really did judge himself.

What is breathtaking is how deeply the belief he was the son of a god and how profoundly the ideal self of Achilles permeated his consciousness and his whole being. With that ideal as his core, he became—he achieved—what the world can still scarcely believe: dominion and conquest of a kind not seen before and probably not equaled since. He was never beaten in battle, and he faced and defeated overwhelming odds time and time again.

Alexander_Consulting_the_Oracle_of_Apollo, by Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée.
Alexander invoked and consulted the gods at every opportunity, even when the oracle was closed, as he is depicted here, dragging a priestess to the temple. “Alexander Consulting the Oracle of Apollo,” by Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. (Public Domain)

And the luck? Ah, the luck. Was it luck? There was another corollary that went with the power of such extraordinary belief: Namely, if you were a son of a god, then gods exist. Call it superstition if you will, but I won’t: He sacrificed to the gods at all times, prayed to them at all times, and invoked their power and support. For him they were real, and as Christ once said: Wisdom is vindicated by her children.

Was Alexander lucky, or did the universe itself respond to his devotion, his belief in the divine ultimate reality?

Who do we believe we are: accidents, random collocations of molecules, or sons and daughters of the divine spark? And who is our ideal self? To what height are we aspiring, or what is our default mediocrity? On such questions and on such answers hangs our own capacity for greatness, whoever we are and whatever we do.

Finding Our Ideal Selves in Modern Times

It may be thought that such an ideal self couldn’t be emulated in the modern world, that such strength coming from a role model is a thing of the past, but one would be wrong to assume so. Why, the great American general George S. Patton, who achieved so much militarily in World War II, had as his ideal self, who? Why, Alexander the Great! How, he’d ask himself, would Alexander the Great deal with his situation? What would Alexander do? And from that model, he drew inspiration and strength.

portrait of General Patton
General George S. Patton had Alexander the Great as his role model. Portrait by Boleslaw Jan Czedekowski. Gift of Major General George S. Patton, U.S.A., Retired, and the Patton Family; the frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

This, of course, is all focusing on great military heroes, and I am doing so because they are so prominent in our history and understanding of the world. But even more significant than great military conquerors are the truly staggering human beings who really have turned the world upside down. These are the great religious leaders: Lao Tzu, Buddha, Moses, Jesus Christ, and others too. Indeed, within most religions there are “saints” who are nearest to the founder.

St. Francis of Assisi at Prayer, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
“St. Francis of Assisi at Prayer,” between 1645 and 1650, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (Public Domain)

In Christianity, we have the Apostles, but centuries later we have many more, including St. Francis of Assisi, and down to our own recent time, we have Mother Teresa. The point is that these people have become their “ideal selves,” those few whom we admire, whom we really want to emulate, and who can help us become who we can be if we focus on them.

In the 1990s (although it could arguably trace its origin back to Thomas à Kempis’s “The Imitation of Christ” in the 15th century), in the United States, the WWJD movement gained traction. The WWJD movement? Yes, the What Would Jesus Do question that could determine the morality of any action that one decided to undertake.

This question is exactly analogous to what Alexander the Great and George S. Patton were doing as they developed their ideal selves. And the question is tremendously powerful because it bypasses the human will and instead helps us conform to a new reality through the inspiration of our own imaginations.

As the great poet W.B. Yeats once wrote: “The imagination has some way of lighting on the truth which reason has not, and that its commandments … are the most binding we can ever know.”

Thus, the great question for all of us as we face the new year is: Who are we are going to be? Who is our ideal self?

In this series, Myths: Mapping Our Way Home, James Sale revisits why myths—all but discounted today—remain crucial to understanding our place in the universe, if not to our very survival.

James Sale is an English businessman and the creator of Motivational Maps, which operates in 14 countries. He has authored over 40 books from major international publishers, including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge, on management, education, and poetry. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition.