Martin Guerre was a peasant in 16th century France. He left for the war, and was gone for many years—so long, in fact, that his family was certain he’d passed away. Then, one summer evening, an exhausted man in tattered clothes stumbled into his dusty southern France village. Guerre had returned! His four sisters rejoiced, as did his wife Bertrande, who had remained faithful all these years. The whole village welcomed the advent of its long-lost traveler. The whole village, that is—except for one man.
Pierre Guerre, Martin’s uncle, felt uneasy. Sure, the newcomer looked like his nephew. But his gait was just a little slower, or his mannerisms more emphatic, or his voice more husky. Something was a little off. Pierre brought up his suspicion to Bertrande; she, of course, responded with incredulity. “Ten years have gone by! Of course he’s changed a little bit. We have no idea what he’s been through!” For several years, though, Pierre remained unconvinced. Just as he was beginning to question his own sanity, he met a travelling soldier who had fought in the same war as Martin, and, in fact, had fought alongside him. Upon further questioning, Pierre learned that the real Martin Guerre had lost a leg in the war. The current one was a fraud!
With his new evidence, a furious and vindicated Pierre, along with a few skeptical villagers, took Martin Guerre to trial in the nearby city of Toulouse. Still, though, to most of the town, Pierre looked like a lunatic. What did the opinion of one soldier matter? It’s more likely that the soldier himself had mistaken Guerre’s identity, not an entire village. Further, Guerre eloquently and effortlessly answered questions about his life before the war. Finally, Bertrande stood by Guerre throughout the whole trial. Shouldn’t she know best? Guerre would certainly be acquitted.
That is, until a second newcomer climbed the Toulouse courthouse steps. He claimed to be Martin Guerre. He asked to see his family. And he walked on a wooden leg.
Bertrande had been sure that, for the last three years, she had been living with her husband. But upon seeing the new Martin Guerre, she testified with unequivocal certainty that this was the true Martin Guerre. Her four sisters agreed, and so did the rest of the village. Guerre’s impostor maintained his innocence, but he was sentenced to death.
The day of his execution, the false Guerre finally confessed. His name was Arnaud du Tilh. He came from a nearby town, and was once mistaken for his lookalike by two friends of Guerre’s. He then saw an opportunity for impersonation, learned everything he could about the real Guerre, and approached Guerre’s village. As he stood on the gallows, he apologized to Bertrande, and asked for her forgiveness. He was hanged in front of Guerre’s house.
What defines identity? Is it consensus? If it weren’t for Pierre’s suspicion, Arnaud du Tilh would have been Martin Guerre. If everyone believes it’s true, it’s true. Right? Well, our story certainly invalidates that theory. Consensus establishes truth, but only until that truth becomes false. We’re looking for an absolute here. So what does define identity?
Appearance defines identity. Sure, it was easy to mistake Arnaud for Guerre until Guerre arrived. But when both stood side by side, the difference was clear, even for Bertrande, who until then had been the hardest to convince. The senses solved the Martin Guerre case, and they could solve any other—if not by looks, then by the sound of one’s voice, or the touch of one’s skin. But wait—as an identical twin, I know the senses to be a poor arbiter of identity. Plenty of people mix up my brother and me, even if we’re standing side-by-side! Conversely, what about an accident that leaves one disfigured, or unable to speak? Sensory evaluations of people change, but their identities remain constant. We need a better definition than this.
Personality defines identity. Another way to put it might be that the brain defines identity. My twin brother and I may look alike, but we act differently, and people can tell. What’s more: it doesn’t matter who people think we are; we both know who we are. I know that I’m Josh; it doesn’t matter if everyone thinks I look like Ben. Similarly, Arnaud never was Martin Guerre, simply because he knew he wasn’t. Our brains contain the entirety of our memories, our genetic tendencies toward behavior, our desires, our skills. If identity’s not in the brain, where is it? This definition has problems too, though. What about an amnesic who doesn’t remember his own identity? He’s still the same person, isn’t he? Further: personality and one’s concept of the self is variable. Drugs can certainly change personality, as can traumatic brain injury. Just look at Phineas Gage, one of neuroscience’s most famous case studies. After a six-foot rail shot through his prefrontal cortex, Gage changed from personable and friendly to hostile, impulsive and short-tempered. As his wife said, “He wasn’t the same Gage.” (3) Fine, maybe he wasn’t. But does that mean that I’m not the same Dreyzen until after breakfast, since I’m cranky until I’ve had my morning coffee? If personality defines identity, we’ve got a lot of gray area to consider.
Legacy defines identity? A prominent (albeit somewhat fringe) group of historians known as the Anti-Stratfordians believes that Shakespeare didn’t actually author the plays we attribute to Shakespeare. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was just a front to hide the true identity, or identities, of the authors. Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and the 17th Earl of Oxford are among the many possible authorship candidates. (4) My grandfather scoffed at this theory, not because it lacks evidence, but simply because it was trivial to him. “The guy who wrote those plays that we attribute to Shakespeare? That guy was Shakespeare. ” He took a practical stance on the question: identity refers less to the person himself, and more to the set of achievements and characteristics we ascribe to that person. Martin Guerre was the man, married to Bertrande Guerre, who left for the war in 1548. The man who returned in 1556? The man who followed several years later, with a wooden leg? According to my grandfather’s definition, perhaps neither was Martin Guerre, since neither created his legacy. Of course, this definition is even more nebulous than our previous ones. I bring it up almost facetiously, just to demonstrate the elusiveness and perhaps the irrelevance of the whole identity question.
Nothing defines identity. The truth is that identity, above all else, is a construct. We associate our being with our looks, our personality, our accomplishments, and so on. But these things change all the time—every day in fact! As urban legend has it, it takes seven years for every cell in your body to be replaced (probably not completely true, but you get the point). How can we claim a permanent identity, when most of the cells in our body are only a few years old? Identity is a useful concept, but that’s all it is. It’s difficult to ground in actual truth.
At the same time, though, there’s no need to be nihilistic. Our concept of identity exists for a reason; let’s not be afraid to use it. Next time you see a close friend or dear relative, don’t be afraid to hug them. They’re almost certainly who you think they are.