From monks to existentialists and hipsters, the search for a true self has been a centuries-long project. Should we give it up?
by Alexander Stern is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the LA Review of Books, among others.
Edited by Sam Dresser
‘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.
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.’…