Having flamed out on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I was happy to find a more bite-sized chunk of his thought in The Ethics of Authenticity. I admit to approaching the book, like others of a traditional bent, leaning against the very idea of authenticity. “Get over yourself, already.” The search for meaning within the self can never go anywhere and remains something of an illusion. What, after all is there to really “experience?”
The whole concept of “authenticity,” born out of the 1960’s (or so I thought), has given rise to a whole host of modern problems. All of the issues with sex and gender have their roots here, as does a great deal of spiritual innovation with the church, along with the Trump presidency. Many inclined to read this book of Taylor’s might hope for a thorough denunciation from the venerable professor.
Of course, boring conservatives such as myself may not have always been such. We may remember the days of our youth when it seemed we had to break free from our surroundings to see what we were made of. Taylor taps into this, and so, while he criticizes much of what the “Authenticity” stands for, and finds it ultimately self-defeating, he reminds us that a kernel of something like the truth remains within this–in my view– unpleasant husk. Taylor writes,
The picture I am offering is rather than of an ideal that has been degraded . . . So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced tradeoff. What we need is a work of retrieval . . .
Taylor demonstrates that of what we term “authenticity” has its roots in Christianity. In the ancient world nearly every person received their identity by what lay wholly outside their control, be it birth, race, family, etc. The triumph of Christianity meant believing that an entirely other world lay outside of our normal lives, the Kingdom of God, in which there existed “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free . . . (Gal. 3:28).” The book of Revelation tells us that God “will also give that person a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17). St. Augustine’s magnum opus told us that the City of God lies nestled, in some ways, within the City of Man, to be discovered by anyone willing to walk through the wardrobe.
18th century Romantic thinkers, primarily Jean-Jacques Rousseau, picked up this dormant thread, albeit thin sprinting with it in ways that St. Augustine would abhor. I find the 18th century an absolute disaster for the Church, but still, Taylor calls me to at least a degree of balance. There was something quite ridiculous and artificial about the French aristocracy, for example, ca. 1770, accurately portrayed (I think) in this clip from John Adams
Perhaps St. Augustine did see “the road to God as passing through a reflexive awareness of ourselves” (p. 27). Many have pointed out how psychologically oriented was Martin Luther’s view of salvation. John Calvin began his Institutes by asking his readers to heed the Socratic dictum to “know thyself,” for knowledge of God and ourselves have an inextricable link. But Taylor sees Rousseau as the main originator of the modern view of authenticity. For Rousseau, “Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves,” and, “Self determining freedom demands that I break free from external impositions and decide for myself alone” (p. 27).
Well . . . ok. I don’t like the concept of authenticity but perhaps the difference lies in the “time of day.” What I mean is, bacon and eggs smells wonderful on the skillet when you’re hungry before breakfast, but that same smell hits one very differently with a full belly after lunch. The early Romantic movement, just as with the early Enlightenment, had good points to make. Rousseau championed, among other things, mothers actually breast-feeding their own children–something dramatically out of fashion for his time. Connecting with “nature” and the “self” I suppose could lead to more morally responsible living. You cannot blame your birth or other circumstances for who you are. But let it linger too long and you get the ridiculous movie Titanic, riddled through with romantic and “authentic” ideology–the smell of bacon and eggs at 10 am after you have already eaten. Still, Taylor asks the reader to see the premise of the morning before jumping straight to the twilight.
As for today, Taylor points out a variety of ways in which the “authenticity” narrative has gone astray.
Rousseau and his followers helped fuel democratic movements at home and abroad, but having created democracies in part through the dignifying the self, these same democracies would make a mockery of the original golden thread. Liberated from tradition, democratic man seemed to attain authenticity not via stern moral struggle against tradition, but as a birthright. If we are all authentic, then are all special, and thus, we all need recognized and regarded by others.
Taylor’s insights show us why those, for example, like Kaitlyn Jenner can be granted moral weight. The Authenticity narrative tells us that such people have attained a status of “real” humans because of their “courage” to make war even on biology itself–the final frontier–in order to achieve their version of true personhood. And, while I believe that those who alter their sex (if such a thing is truly possible) make terrible and tragic decisions, Taylor hints at why those that make these decisions often find them so empowering. Seeking a “genuine” connection with the self is the modern version of a transcendent experience. We grant large amounts of authority to those that have them, like the mystics of old.
Taylor also points out the endgame in store for “authenticity” lay implicit in its origins. If the self is to be the guide, and self-actualization has the ultimate authority, then we have a contradiction. The self can never be absolute, certainly not over others. Telling someone about your “experience” is nearly as bad as telling someone about the dream you had last night. In the end, we require an outside reference.
Alas, logical contradictions will likely not derail the Authenticity movement. But it is possible that time may take of this in ways that logic cannot.
I mentioned above the analogy of the smell of bacon before and after breakfast, and the analogy holds true in other aspects of life. In his War and Civilization compilation Toynbee admits the allure of the “morning” of a military outlook when reading the Iliad. Homer’s battle scenes have a dramatically bracing effect. Then, fast-forward to 19th century, where Prussian militarists like Helmuth von Moltke give one an entirely different impression of essentially the same thing that Homer described:
Perpetual Peace is a dream–and not even a beautiful dream–and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the Universe. In War, Man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness to sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up Life itself. Without War the World would be swamped in materialism
Toynbee comments that, “there is a note of passion, of anxiety, and of rancor,” here that takes far away from the Greek poets. Moltke continues, perhaps even aware that he sails too close to the wind;
It is when an institution no longer appears necessary that fantastic reasons are sought or invented for satisfying the instinctive prejudice in its favor, which its long persistence has created.
If the modern Liberal order was created in part on the back of Authenticity, then surely we might say that those who still champion the idea copy Moltke and indeed invent “fantastic reasons” for the path they take. Perhaps Authenticity has run its course and can go into hibernation. We will wake it up when the scales have tipped too far in the other direction.