In the second book of The Republic, Plato mentions a cast of different people necessary for the maintenance of an imagined city. He includes a husbandman, a builder, a weaver and a shoemaker. He goes on to include more people, but each person is defined by their position. Each person is to have one job where they can develop their skills. This account has always reminded me of Adam Smith’s explanation of the Division of Labor. Productivity increases through specialization.
But Plato is not an economist. He acknowledges this division of labor will improve productivity and quality, but this has never been his goal. The aim of The Republic is to discover the meaning of justice. For Plato this division is necessary to create separate identities within his city. Each person is defined by their job.
Today this has not changed. Identity is based on our actions. It is based on our behavior. This is why many people find a significant part of their identity in their job or career. So much of life is taken up at work, it is only natural we become our trade. This explains why so many people are angry about the loss of coal mining in West Virginia or the loss of manufacturing in the Rust Belt. It is not just a loss of jobs. It has been a loss of identity.
But Americans are natural chameleons. Many are willing to change their careers multiple times in their lifetime. This has been attributed to the new economy. But Alexander De Tocqueville describes the same phenomenon in Democracy in America. He describes how the same person will be a farmer, a lawyer and a storekeeper in their lifetime. Former President Abraham Lincoln made similar shifts in his career. For those who expect their career to change, there is a natural alienation. Their identity is not tied to their job.
But a person’s identity is not restricted to their job. Every aspect of a person’s life become a part of who they are. Still it is the behavior that determines identity. It is not enough to be a father or a mother. The act of parenting establishes the identity of a father or mother. A religious person does not simply believe in God. They actively take part in rituals like prayer or church attendance. The orthopractic religions like Islam and Judaism establish identity through ritual and behavior. The sacraments of Catholicism resemble an orthopractic religion rather than the orthodoxic Protestant faiths based solely on belief. It is not uncommon to meet a non-practicing Catholic. The religion remains a part of their identity because of their past participation in the institution. There aren’t non-practicing Methodists or Lutherans because the religious participation for many is limited to church attendance.
Yet identity is not an external classification even though it is based on external behaviors. A person’s identity is subjective. Each person establishes their own identity over their lifetime. It is not enough to know a person’s career, family or their religion to determine their identity. Nonetheless, institutions are essential toward the creation of personal identity. Because institutions are based on formal rules and expectations, they define proper behavior for those who participate within them. Over time we come to think of ourselves based on where we devote our energies.
I have devoted some time to sketch out some basic thoughts on identity because identity is essential to understand institutions. The centralization of power into institutions is possible because of personal identity. Because identity is tied into our role within institutions, it allows the organizations within those institutions to grow and expand. A decentralization of power into smaller organizations or new institutions is difficult because it requires a redefinition of our identity.
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org