This advice is often given to a person who is faced with a moral dilemma or is unsure about some other kind of decision they should make. Sometimes it is offered as a type of self-help mantra; that being one’s self will lead you to greater peace.
Being one’s self implies that you are being an individual, someone unique among the featureless masses who go about their days sycophantically following the most recent trends in thought and behavior. In other words, it calls on a person to be authentic.
Whether it’s St Augustine, Nietzsche, Sartre or de Beauvoir, it is probably no surprise that philosophers have written volumes about the authentic self, what it is and the ways in which one can embody it.
Authenticity in Copenhagen
Søren Kierkegaard was a particularly strong advocate for living authentically. Writing in the environment of early to mid 19th century Copenhagen, Kierkegaard criticized heavily what he considered the herd-like mentality of the financially well-off Danish bourgeoisie (of which we was also a member). Especially vexing was their approach to religion, and in particular in Copenhagen, membership in what was at the time the state-supported Lutheran Church.
He accused most Christians of blatant hypocrisy, empty belief, and banal societal membership. He thought Christians took no time to discover for themselves why they might want to be one; rather they took it for granted that they simply were by being born into it, a prevalent viewpoint at the time. He strongly believed that one cannot be a Christian through membership or birthright, but rather that one is a Christian all on their own, by themselves, and can only become one by living their way into it, placing a significant emphasis on the individual and personal responsibility.
Jump forward a hundred years or so and one of the 20th century’s most well known philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, continued to champion the importance of authenticity, this time in relation to the concept of freedom.
When we are not being authentic to ourselves, we are acting in what he called Bad Faith. When we succumb to the pressures of society in the ways that we behave, the values we adopt, and the roles we play, we become an actor playing a part, putting aside our authentic self, sacrificing our freedom.
He uses the example of a waiter. A waiter is, of course, an individual person, unique and distinct. But a person who is a waiter acting in bad faith is a person who has so fully adopted what a waiter is, the individual has ceased to be and the only thing left is an inauthentic facade; an individual who is doing what they think a waiter is supposed to do, and in the process negating the self.
If you think about this, we likely act in bad faith all the time. In our professions as teachers, lawyers, or musicians, we do the things we think teachers, lawyers, or musicians should do. This is no less true of societal roles such as a parent, student, or elderly person. We dress a certain way, behave in a certain way, use language in a certain way that comfortably fits the expected norm. We simply play parts negating the individual self. We act inauthentic.
Distrust and Fear
There is something we don’t appreciate about someone being inauthentic, even though we are likely doing it ourselves in one area of our life or another. It really rubs us the wrong way. Why is this?
We have terms for people who act inauthentic. We call them fake or phony, halfie or company man. In the late 80’s, me and my very authentic teenage friends referred to these kinds of people as “plastic”, as if they were something synthetic, not even real.
If something isn’t real (true) then we cannot trust it, and it we can’t trust it, then we must be wary of it, and perhaps even fear it.
We distrust that which is not honest or plain. We distrust the person who has lied to us and view future transactions with them through that lens. We distrust that which is not the real thing because we think the real thing is better because at least it is honest, even with all its warts.
And we fear the inauthentic because we don’t want to become it. We don’t want to be the hive-minded drone who gets up, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, watches the evening program, goes to bed and gets up to do it all again, over and over. That is not living, and we fear that. We don’t want to become that. Anything but that.
So How Can We Be Authentic?
Kierkegaard and Sartre both advocate an approach to living that places a heavy emphasis on acknowledging the importance of individual freedom and taking responsibility for the actions you take. Also, that one must not just live life but throw oneself into life, whatever that aspect of life is. For Kierkegaard, it was Christianity. For Sartre, it was experience.
For you and me, maybe it’s our job, or school, or parenting. It doesn’t have to be some wild and crazy adventure. One can live authentically in any situation because authenticity is not subject to context; it is context. The act of being authentic is in itself a creative act, and if we embrace the authentic creation of our self, we are being authentic.
Compliment this post on Existentialist themes with another: Yes, Existence Is Absurd, and That’s Okay