By Jin-yeong Yi
“Indeed it is very difficult, if not impossible to prevent man from making himself the sole model of his divinity. Montaigne says ‘man is not able to be other than he is, nor imagine but after his capacity; let him take what pains he may, he will never have a knowledge of any soul but his own.’ Xenophanes said, ‘if the ox or the elephant understood either sculpture or painting, they would not fail to represent the divinity under their own peculiar figure that in this, they would have as much reason as Polyclitus or Phidias, who gave him the human form.’ It was said to a very celebrated man that ‘God made man after his own image;’ ‘man has returned the compliment,’ replied the philosopher. Indeed, man generally sees in his God, nothing but a man. Let him subtilize as he will, let him extend his own powers as he may, let him swell his own perfections to the utmost, he will have done nothing more than make a gigantic, exaggerated man, whom he will render illusory by dint of heaping together incompatible qualities. He will never see in such a god, but a being of the human species, in whom he will strive to aggrandize the proportions, until he has formed a being totally inconceivable.”
—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature
“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.”
“I do not need to pretend that I am anyone other than myself. I do not need to feel insecure about my perceptions. The self-cultivation that I undertake is to perfect who I am, not to become someone other than who I am.”
—Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao
Surely most of us can name at least one individual, living or dead, real or fictional, who we view as a role model. The gods and saints in various religious traditions specifically serve this function. The problem is that, as a unique collection of opinions, experiences, abilities, tendencies, preferences, standards, etc., we can only go so far in emulating those we regard as role models. Chances are, you don’t have an ideal that is tailored specifically for the unique individual that is you.
Remember that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the tribe of Australopithecus awaken one morning to find a massive black monolith outside of their cave? I don’t know how exactly a motionless, monochromatic mass of matter inspired these hominids to invent tools, thereby entering the next stage of evolution, but I surmise that the answer lies in this feature of the monolith: perfection. Unlike the crude rock formations of the African desert, the monolith was without flaw–it was perfect in both shape and composition. Perhaps the tremendous contrast between the two taught the hominids the difference between that which is undesigned and that which is designed. The monolith taught them what it meant to have a goal to pursue, an ideal to work toward. It taught them the meaning of inspiration and ambition, and the possibilities that emerge therefrom.
Don’t have a God to revere and look to as a perennial source of inspiration? Then consider creating one. What to use as your template? Yourself. Take the person that is you and idealize him or her. Make this idealized you worthy of the Greek pantheon. Think about everything you regard as your shortcomings and flaws, about everything that you would change if you could. Subtract them, then add all the attributes and abilities that you wish you had, while maximizing the ones you already have. Don’t hold back. Godlike intelligence, creativity, strength, beauty, you name it. But make sure that the Being who emerges from your imagination is essentially recognizable as yourself. It should still be you–only an incomparably superior version of you, the highest you. You as a God or a Goddess.
By doing this, you’ve given yourself a specific, concrete ideal to be inspired by, an ultimate standard to strive toward–to evolve toward–each day of your life. You now have your own Monolith.