Inauthenticity

Everything has been figured out, except how to live. - Sartre

Inauthenticity involves pretending to be something other than one is and so, by implication, casting off the freedom to create, express, and fulfil one’s own self. Inauthenticity is often reinforced by sociocultural forces such as peer pressure and advertising, and is motivated by the subconscious desires to fit in, avoid criticism, and minimise or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility. Examples include the teenager who acts ‘cool’, the person who takes an interest in something because others do, and the person who gets married because he has arrived at the ripe old age of 30, 35, or 40 years old.

The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity mauvaise foie, ‘bad faith’. His paradigmatic example of bad faith is that of a waiter who does his utmost to conform to the archetype of the waiter, that is, to everything that a waiter should or is expected to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to entertain or even recognise the multitude of other choices that are open to him, the waiter places himself at the mercy of his external circumstances. In this important respect, he is more akin to an object – ‘a waiter’ – than to a conscious human being who is able to transcend his existence to give shape to his essence. As Freud himself commented in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, ‘Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.’

The concept of authenticity does not begin with Sartre or Freud, and stretches at least as far back as Plato. In the Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young and foolish Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates maintains that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror to see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into an eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman – as indeed he intends – without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of society also condemns himself to by far the most dishonourable kind of slavery, the slavery of the mind.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

– William Blake, London

As noted by the 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, the authentic person does not necessarily need to resemble some kind of freak outsider. If a person engages in a frank and thorough appraisal of the universal and personal implications of the prevailing social norms and then decides to adopt some or most of them en toute connaissance de cause, then he cannot be taxed with inauthenticity. Conversely, it should not be assumed that every eccentric is an authentic. Genuine authenticity lies in the method and not in the madness.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith

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Kierkegaard’s Three Lives

During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk. – Kierkegaard

According to the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, there are three types of lives which a person can lead: the aesthetic life, the ethical life, and the religious life. The person who leads the aesthetic life aims solely at the satisfaction of his desires. If, for example, heroin is what he desires, then he will do whatever it takes to get hold of heroin. In circumstances in which heroin is cheap and legal, this need not include any immoral behaviour. However, in circumstances in which heroin is expensive or illegal, this is likely to include lying, stealing, and much worse. As the aesthete adapts his behaviour to the circumstances in which he finds himself, he does not have a consistent, coherent self.

In marked contrast to the aesthete, the person who leads the ethical life behaves according to universal moral principles such as ‘do not lie’ and ‘do not steal’, regardless of the circumstances in which he finds himself. As the person has a consistent, coherent self, he leads a higher type of life than that of the aesthete.

Despite this, the highest type of life is not the ethical life but the religious life, which shares similarities with both the aesthetic and the ethical lives. Like the aesthetic life, the religious life prioritises individual circumstances and leaves open the possibility of immoral behaviour. However, like the ethical life, the religious life acknowledges the existence and authority of universal, determinate moral principles, as embodied in and promulgated by social norms and conventions. By acknowledging moral principles and yet prioritising individual circumstances, the religious life opens the door for moral indeterminacy. For this reason, the religious life is a life of constant ambiguity and constant uncertainty, and hence of constant anxiety. Anxiety, says Kierkegaard, is the dizziness of freedom.

For Kierkegaard, a paradigm of the religious life is that of the biblical patriarch Abraham, as epitomised by the episode of the Sacrifice of Isaac. According to Genesis 22, God said to Abraham,

Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Unlike the aesthete, Abraham clearly recognises the existence and authority of moral principles. However, unlike the moralist, he prioritises individual circumstances over moral principles, and thus obeys God’s command to kill Isaac. As Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel appears and calls out to him,

Abraham, Abraham … Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

At that moment, a ram appears in a thicket, and Abraham spares Isaac and sacrifices the ram is his stead. Abraham then names the place of the sacrifice Jehovahjireh, which translates from the Hebrew as, ‘The Lord will provide’. The teaching of the Sacrifice of Isaac is that the conquest of doubt and anxiety, and hence the exercise of freedom, requires nothing less than a leap of faith. It is by making such a leap of faith, not only once but over and over again, that a person, in the words of Kierkegaard, ‘relates himself to himself’ and becomes a true self. Although choice is made in the instant, the consequences of making a choice are irredeemable and everlasting, and this risk and responsibility give rise to intense anxiety.

Adapted from