‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’ This popular quip, often misattributed to Oscar Wilde, appears without any apparent irony in self-help books and blog posts celebrating authenticity. Understandably, they take the dictum to ‘be oneself’ as a worthy, nearly unassailable goal. Our culture is saturated with authenticity: we’re forever ‘finding ourselves’, ‘self-actualising’, ‘doing you’, ‘being real’, ‘going off the beaten path’, ‘breaking free of the crowd’. We spend our youth trying to figure out who we are; our later years trying to stay true to ourselves; and the time in-between in crisis about whether we are who we thought we were.
But ‘Wilde’s’ quote, inauthentic though it might be, suggests something foolish at the heart of authenticity. All this introspection can seem gratuitous. Why expend so much effort trying to be something we can’t help but be? ‘In the end,’ as the author David Foster Wallace put it, ‘you end up becoming yourself.’
And there’s a deeper absurdity to authenticity, too. Everyone else might be taken, but the effort to be ourselves is the surest path to being just like everyone else, especially in the context of a highly commodified and surveilled culture where we always seem to be on stage. If some person or organisation claims to be concerned with authenticity, you can be almost certain that they’re conformist posers. As Wilde actually did write: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ (Or misquotation.)
Where did all these dead-ends and paradoxes of self-creation come from?
Despite its ubiquity, there’s nothing necessary about authenticity. First of all, it’s a luxury: only those comfortable enough to take the necessities of life for granted can turn their attention to authenticity. Secondly, authenticity has a history. Other cultures and times haven’t given the self nearly so much weight, nor have they frowned so much upon conformity. Self-actualisation is often subordinated, if not completely subsumed, by service to the family, to tradition, or to God. Thinking about the history and contingency of authenticity – as with any concept – can help us understand how best to approach it.
Authenticity seems, at least initially, to have had a religious component. Indeed, Western authenticity can’t be understood without reference to that peculiar Christian God who decided to become a man. One way to understand authenticity is as the inheritance we’re left with after God passes away. In personalising God, Christianity foregrounded the inward struggle of the believer. In the form of Jesus Christ, whom Wilde called ‘the first individualist in history’, God wasn’t just a lord to serve, but ‘one of us’, a human being with a personal narrative that holds lessons for his humble servants. Jesus’ struggle with temptation, his rejection of hypocritical dogma, and his willing self-sacrifice parallels every Christian’s own struggle: ‘What would Jesus do?’
To see what’s new here, consider the difference between Moses’ 40 years in the desert and Jesus’ 40 days. Moses’s struggle is external: to subordinate himself to God, follow his (quite demanding) instructions, and lead his chosen people to the Promised Land. By contrast, Jesus’ struggle is internal and psychological: left alone by God, he must resist temptation through an inner strength that becomes an example to his followers. Jesus isn’t just man and God in one. He endows human life in general with a touch of the divine. His story puts in stark relief a whole inner world, dramatises it, and elevates it to a realm of utmost spiritual importance. A long history of tortured self-scrutiny follows.
Sign up to our newsletter
Updates on everything new at Aeon.
Perhaps the most important early tortured soul was that of St Augustine, a philosopher and priest in 4th-century Roman North Africa who is often credited with originating the modern sense of inwardness. The hedonist son of a pious mother, Augustine searched for meaning in sex, heretical Manichaeism, and the Classics before his come-to-Jesus moment, a drawn-out period of personal crisis and conversion that serves as the pivot for his autobiographical Confessions. In the Confessions, one finds the searching, longing introspection and even the self-centred and ironic detachment that characterise modern authenticity. ‘O Lord, help me to be chaste,’ Augustine writes in the voice of his younger self – ‘but not yet.’
Augustine’s aim is not so much to celebrate, actualise or find a self as to narrate the process of transcending it. He’s trying to go, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor puts it, ‘inward and upward’ – or, to put it another way, upward by way of inward. Augustine’s conversion involves a great deal of discipline and self-abnegation. Taylor, who chronicles the emergence of the modern self in his bookSources of the Self (1992), writes that Augustine ‘makes the step toward inwardness … because it is a step towards God’.
To be properly anxious in Kierkegaard’s sense is to see clearly the pure possibility of human life
Similarly, centuries later and after the Reformation further foregrounded the Christian’s personal struggle with conscience, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard also identified inwardness as a primary path to God. Kierkegaard shared with Augustine a sense that somewhere in the confusing depths of inner life – the problem we have all become to ourselves, to use Augustine’s language – was the road to God. What’s more, Kierkegaard recognised the enemy of authenticity in the pressures of conformity in a newly ‘massifying’ society. Not unlike some ambivalently Twitter-addicted writers today, he was drawn into controversies on the pages of 19th-century Copenhagen newspapers and deeply aware of the pressure and distortion that the dawning mass media could apply. Kierkegaard saw in the social world – ‘the city of man’ as Augustine called it – a challenge to Christian awakening and his own authorship, both of his books and his life, so much so that he broke off an engagement to a woman he loved.
For Kierkegaard, the characteristic mode of self-exploration, and the alternating forays into the city of man and back into the city of God within, was anxiety. Not merely worry about this or that event, Kierkegaardian anxiety is an awareness of the terrifying groundlessness of all human action. To be properly anxious in Kierkegaard’s sense is to see clearly the pure possibility of human life and face down the ordeal thereby imposed on us. Embracing, rather than evading, this anxiety through a kind of ‘leap of faith’ was for Kierkegaard, as for the existentialist philosophers who followed him, the essence of authenticity.
One such existentialist was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who, writing at the end of Vichy France, understood very well that the inauthentic evasion of this responsibility to ourselves was the norm. Sartre called this indulgence in the pretence that we’re not free ‘bad faith’. Bad faith is comprised of the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, to co-opt a phrase from Joan Didion. At its worst, it’s Vichy officials telling themselves that they have no choice, but most of us indulge in bad faith to some degree, even if we’re usually able to steer clear of Nazi collaboration. We take the easy way out by turning a blind eye to the minor corruptions of the bureaucracies in which we are enmeshed, letting hypocrisy and vice pass when opposing them could be costly, or pretending to be victims of circumstances beyond our control. Authenticity, for the existentialists, became the essential component of ethics. It’s the opposite of ‘bad faith’. It’s accepting the burden of freedom and circumstance, looking inward to determine how best to act, and then doing so.
But bravely making baseless decisions can’t be all there is to authenticity. Paradoxically, one of the primary vehicles of bad faith in our own time has become the ‘jargon of authenticity’ itself. That phrase is the title of the German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno’s mid-20th-century book criticising existentialism. Adorno, whose work has been marshalled to help understand our current crises, saw in existential philosophy a fetishisation and atomisation of the self that could drive consumer culture, on the one hand, and provide perfect subjects for irrational mass movements such as fascism, on the other.
Adorno’s book questioned a central premise of existentialism: that of a completely free subject responsible to no one but itself. To Adorno, existentialism was simply replacing one absent, mystical abstraction – God – with another: the authentic subject. ‘Religion has shifted into the subject,’ he wrote. In this process, ‘the living subject is robbed of all definition, in the same way as it loses its attributes in reality.’ Instead of going ‘inward and upward’, the existentialists reached ever further inward, seeking a self so withdrawn and occluded it hardly had any contours at all. Kierkegaard’s existential ‘leap of faith’ is completely emptied out, according to Adorno, and becomes no more than an attempt to escape all the ways our sphere of action is determined and mediated by our individual conditions, history and other people.
This emptied-out existential subject does, however, make for a good shopper. Today, one of the primary ways we deal with the anxiety of being ourselves is to construct fantasy versions of ourselves through acquisition. This includes not just the acquisition of stuff, but also of personal style, worldviews, sociopolitical identities. The self, as the American social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in his bookThe Culture of Narcissism (1979), becomes an end in itself whose impulses are to be trusted above all else. A therapeutic ‘cult of authenticity’ (a term that Lasch borrows from Adorno) emerges and leads to the contemporary self-help industry. All external constraints are viewed with suspicion, and everyday life, including politics, becomes a theatre for the individual’s self-creative performance. Bad faith and posturing – the objectification of the self – become a way of life, and a slew of products, treatments and self-defeating political movements rise up to fill the apparently bottomless market for self-creation and self-care.
This vision of ‘authenticity’ is taken advantage of by the corporations that profit off our innermost desires
Social media has become an avenue for and intensifier of this narcissism, the likes of which Lasch could scarcely have imagined. The result is not the philosophical anxiety of Kierkegaard that tries to stand firm before the abyss, but a clinical anxiety constantly measuring the self against virtual avatars and adjusting it to their tacit or explicit feedback by way of the marketplace. Instead of trying to come to terms with our radical freedom, ‘authenticity’ drives us toward a rebel conformity constantly searching for the exercise routine, clothing brand or political posture that’s really ‘me’.
Alone in front of a computer screen, the social-media user, despite pretensions toward self-creation, is fundamentally spectatorial and passive. This is a posture not of authenticity but narcissism. The narcissist, Lasch writes, alternates between fantasies of utter omnipotence and spasms of utter helplessness. This means, as Lasch makes clear, that narcissism is very different from selfishness. It’s a more basic confusion and insecurity about the boundaries between oneself and the world.
We can see this confusion in a political sphere that, irrespective of ideology, prizes personal narrative and expression above solidarity. And we can also see it in the almost complete breakdown of the value of privacy – the very idea that there are aspects of one’s life that one might not want to ‘share’ with the public at large. Meanwhile, this vision of ‘authenticity’ is taken advantage of cynically by the corporations that profit off our innermost desires, while they use the rhetoric of individual freedom, identity and ‘entrepreneurship’ to atomise, surveille and exploit their workers.
How can one avoid the pitfalls of this phoney authenticity? More historical awareness of where our ideals of authenticity and freedom come from can help. As the American political philosopher Matthew B Crawford details in his bookThe World Beyond Your Head (2015), the narcissist has a mistaken idea of freedom. Crawford follows Adorno and Lasch, agreeing that the groundlessness of human action doesn’t imply that human beings are or should be completely autonomous. We’re born into a particular place and time, with particular psychological and physical attributions, and with particular people and traditions available to us that we can draw on or reject. These constraints are debilitating only if we see them as such, if we consider them as fetters from which the self should ideally be free. In reality, many rules and constraints are enabling: they are the conditions of freedom, not the barriers to it. They are the friction that allow us to move forward.
By contrast, Crawford writes, the ‘frictionless’ world on offer online and in our other overdesigned and overmanaged virtual and physical environments puts us at the centre of our own little ‘me-world’ that caters to our every whim. But somehow, all this evident control makes us feel only more impotent and unhappy, according to Crawford – and also, not accidentally, more likely to consume.
Genuine authenticity under these conditions requires, first of all, resistance to self-absorption and fantasy and, secondly, acknowledgement of our dependency on others and of the historical contingency that inhabits every corner of our lives.
This is difficult since almost everything in the culture encourages us to fall back on to ourselves and promises that we can escape history and eliminate chance and misfortune from our lives. One simple thing Crawford suggests is learning how to do stuff. Learning a craft – like how to play a musical instrument, finetune a motorcycle (Crawford’s pick), hang drywall or write a sonnet – immediately puts us within particular limits and at the feet of those who have already mastered it. It requires humility, but, at the same time, builds genuine competence. It can help remediate narcissism by rebalancing our relationship to ourselves. In the process of submitting to discipline and focusing our attention on a craft, we find ourselves neither omnipotent nor helpless, but somewhere in between. We’re dependent beings with feeble bodies and minds, prone to flailing about and to failure, but also each with unique sets of resources and abilities that can be cultivated with surprising rapidity under the right conditions, and that can help us to regularly overcome quite serious obstacles. We are, in a word, crafty. It’s how we get by, as the archetype of ancient Greek trickster heroes such as Odysseus and Prometheus suggests.
Learning a craft can teach us a lot about what exactly it is to actualise a self. The word ‘authenticity’ comes from the Greek authentes for ‘master’ or ‘one acting on his own authority’ (aut = self and hentes = making or working on/crafting). Importantly, it doesn’t mean ‘self-maker’ in the reflexive sense of one who makes himself, but one who makes or acts according to his own will – making from out of the self. And in crafting of our accord, we do actually actualise ourselves. We transform inner feelings into something real.
Going inward is a good idea only if we have a plan for getting back out
This idea of humankind finding fulfilment in some kind of practical activity goes back to Aristotle, if not earlier. He declared the best life to be ‘autarkic’, or self-governed, and aimed at the fulfilment of activities most characteristic of human beings: namely, the use of the socially oriented rationality that separates us from other beings.
Understood historically, the seemingly irresistible pull of authenticity might lose some of its sheen. As the internalisation and commoditisation of a religious ideal, the search for the self can go awry and get bogged down in acquisitiveness and narcissism. That’s not to say, of course, that the project of authentic self-creation is wholly without merit, but simply that our reflections on our innermost feelings and desires can’t be an end in themselves. Even if we’re not going ‘inward and upward’ as Augustine did, these reflections have value only if they help us, ultimately, leave ourselves behind in creative absorption in the outward world. Going inward, in other words, is a good idea only if we have a plan for getting back out.
If we’re lucky, then, we’ll be able to see ourselves reflected in meaningful work, in what we produce, but what about higher meaning? Should we completely give up on going ‘upward’ like Augustine? To many of us, belief in God is something simply unavailable, even absurd. Kierkegaard, in fact, understood our relationship to God in terms of the absurd. He writes: ‘The absurd is a category, the negative criterion … of the relationship to the divine.’ It’s the state of feeling one’s powers of reason run out before the choices we face as human beings. Here, the religious might take a leap of faith. As Kierkegaard said: ‘When the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd.’
Similarly, Sartre’s fellow existentialist author Albert Camus wrote: ‘The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ For existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, it wasn’t faith but simply human decision and action itself that conquered the absurd. As we’ve seen, this focus on atomised action can devolve into solipsism.
So how exactly should we think about our absent God? Kierkegaard’s understanding of the absurd was influenced by the late-18th-century German Romantics. This group of artists, philosophers and critics offer, I think, a better way of understanding the relationship between ourselves and the ‘unreasonable silence of the world’ – or what they called the absolute.
Romantic thinkers were attempting to get a handle on the technological, socioeconomic, political and aesthetic changes coming to Europe, which ‘disenchanted’ the world. They reacted against both what they viewed as an overly rationalistic Enlightenment philosophy and against an overly rationalising society. They feared not just becoming like their bourgeois parents, but what Adorno would later call a ‘totally administered society’. They inaugurated the set of dynamics I’ve been discussing: between the crowd and the individual, the corrupted city and untamed nature, the workaday meaninglessness and the thrill of creative life.
They didn’t take the mismatch between human striving and the evident lack of meaning from on high to be so much absurd as ironic. Today, we often think of the ironic individual as detached and self-protective, dismissive and sarcastic, afraid of taking anything too seriously – a species of narcissist. But for Romantics such as Schlegel, irony was primarily an objective feature of the human relationship to the world, and only secondarily a subjective attitude. Our situation is ironic because the absolute – the basis or reason for our existence – is forever unavailable to us, and yet we can’t help but strive for wholeness, especially in art.
This absolute can’t even be properly represented, much less reached; yet, in our expressive and created acts, we strive to grasp the absolute, to fully understand and articulate our place in the world, our reason for being here. What we end up producing falls short of full understanding, but it’s a fragment that bears some relationship, however limited, to the ungraspable whole.
The Romantic ironist doesn’t regard this situation as absurd, but appropriate. If we’re to be authentic, we should ironically and humbly acknowledge the limitations of our individual perspective and effort, without despairing at our limitations. We should embrace the necessarily fragmentary nature of our endeavours, and we should enrich our efforts by trying to inhabit those of others, including those who came before us. In this way, we do take some steps toward the absolute.
This ironic attitude allows us, like Socrates, to truly know that we don’t know, to be comfortable with our ignorance while pushing against its boundaries, and to temper our desire for wholeness with an authentic understanding of our limitations. From this perspective, the silence of the world doesn’t sound unreasonable at all.
To read more about authenticity and the self, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts.