One of my sons is studying existentialism at university, and he asked for some help on the topic of “authenticity,” living an “authentic” life. I wrote up some notes that you can find below. But before that, here are some updates.
On 26 February, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the Deus Ex Machina conference, hosted online by Masaryk University, at Brno, in the Czech Republic. My talk will look at how the comic book superheroes of my youth strike me as models for the transhumanist agenda, but also for something much more evolutionary…
My first book, Turn Off Your Mind, is back in print after a considerable absence. It’s new incarnation, as Turn Off Your Mind: The Dedalus Book of the 1960s, includes more than 100 pages of new material. It’s available on amazon.co.uk and should be available on amazon.com this spring.
My book on Swedenborg’s Correspondences – a long essay, really – is now available direct from the Swedenborg Society.
And now for authenticity…
Notes on Authenticity for Joshua
We might say that concern with living an authentic life can be traced back to the beginning of philosophy, in the command to gnothi seauton, “know thyself”, that hung above the oracle at Delphi. We can also see it in Socrates’ criticism of the Sophists, who did not pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, but were adept at using words to their personal advantage, making the “worse argument the better,” in other words, sophistry. And we can find it in the Gospels, when Jesus criticises the Pharisees and Saducees for their very visible acts of piety, which belied their lack of true humility. But we can say that the modern expression of this concern begins with the nineteenth century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard, a witty, eccentric outsider figure, was critical of the limp, complacent, hypocritical Christianity of his day, and with the abstract philosophy of Hegel. Kierkegaard believed that a true Christian, one who lived by the spirit and not only the letter of the Gospels, would feel what he called angst, anxiety and despair, because of his awareness of the reality his own limited, imperfect self in the face of God. The Christians of his day, much like many today, would go to church on Sunday and make the proper noises, but the rest of the time they were rather less than religious, and lived lives aimed at material comfort, ignoring the demands made on them that living as authentic Christians would bring.
Kierkegaard rejected Hegel because, although his system could account for everything, existence itself, in terms of logic and the Absolute Idea, it was useless in guiding him in how he should live his life. Kierkegaard compared Hegel’s philosophy to a map on which Copenhagen, where he lived, was the size of a postage stamp. It was of no help in getting him around town. Kierkegaard used the term “existential” to refer to these kinds of questions, of meaning and purpose – “why do I exist, and what should I do now than I do?” They referred to his existence, here and now, and what he should do with it, not to the historical unfolding of the Absolute Spirit. These were the kinds of questions religion used to answer but no longer did. Hegel’s magnificent system, in which everything fit into place, could not answer them either.
Most people aren’t bothered by these questions, and just live, doing what other people do. Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed, believed that if one ignored these questions, one lived “inauthentically,” that is, one accepted a more comfortable, but false, way of living, in order to avoid the demands that come with living a true life.
Kierkegaard would be rediscovered in the 1920s, but before that, there was Nietzsche.
Dostoyevsky is also considered one of the founding fathers of existentialism, although he was a novelist, not a philosopher. (But Sartre wrote novels and plays, etc. too…) His novels deal with existential questions existentially, because he explores them with characters in life, not abstract ideas. But I don’t think you’re covering him.
Nietzsche didn’t know of Kierkegaard, although he did read some Dostoyevsky. Nietzsche’s ideas on authenticity are different than Kierkegaard’s, although both rejected the lukewarm, complacent Christianity of the time. Although Kierkegaard was a Christian and Nietzsche rejected Christianity, they were alike in their demand to live an authentic life. For Kierkegaard this meant a life that did not ignore the true reality of human existence. This meant to live a true Christian life, which Kierkegaard believed required what he called an “absurd leap of faith.” It is “absurd” because we cannot “know” in any scientific or rational way whether God exists (Hegel’s system notwithstanding), so we must take a chance and believe in spite of not knowing – and believe in a real, existential way, and not give lip service, as the Sunday Christians do. It demanded taking a risk, and the bourgeois Christians of Copenhagen, quite happy with themselves and their comfortable lives, rejected any risk.
Nietzsche’s command was not a leap of faith, but a perhaps equally absurd “yea-saying” to life, that he encapsulated in the motto amor fati, “love of fate.” It was absurd in the sense that such a love meant that one wishes nothing to be changed in one’s life, in the past or present, and that further one not only accepts but affirms and celebrates the “eternal recurrence” of this life. This was the test that Nietzsche presented to his readers, who were very few in his lifetime, but could be counted by the thousands soon after his death. Can you say “yes” to your life, so that were you to live it over in exactly the same way, you would wish for nothing more? Those who could pass this heavy test – Nietzsche’s calls it a “great weight” – are candidates for becoming what he called the “overman,” which is often mistranslated as “superman.” The overman is able to accept the challenge of creating a meaning of his own, through his own zest for life and his creative engagement with it.
Nietzsche did not accept the idea of some transcendental world, which gave this world its meaning, whether the Christian heaven or the platonic Idea (or Hegel’s, for that matter). There is no heaven or higher world, and we can not find a meaning in this one, as if it was misplaced, or in terms of ideas such as “progress” or “emancipation” or other social developments. Nor can science help us here. Through our own engagement with life, we give it meaning, by living in such a way that we feel the affirmation, the “yea-saying,” that will allow us to accept the challenge, the heaviest weight, of recurrence.
But overmen are few and far between. More prevalent, for Nietzsche, are the “last men.” When Zarathustra comes down from the mountain top in order to proclaim the doctrine of the overman, the people in the marketplace are not interested. But when he speaks of the last men, they perk up their ears. Why? Because the last men live for comfort, pleasure, easy living. They are all alike, have no interest in the high ideals and creative challenges that being an overman bring, and reduce reality to triviality – much like our own post-post-post-everything world… They are like the pseudo-Christians Kierkegaard rightly detested, and the idea of recurrence, if not ridiculous, strikes them as a kind of hell.
I said that Kierkegaard was rediscovered in the 1920s. One of those who rediscovered him was Martin Heidegger, who started as a follower of Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology. Heidegger eventually rejected Husserl’s phenomenology, and plunged into what Heidegger called a “fundamental ontology,” a study of being. Heidegger believed that what was wrong with people in the modern age was that they had become “forgetful of being.” In the German, they suffered from Seinsvergessenheit, “being-forgetfulness”. What does this mean? Essentially it means the same as Kierkegaard’s complaint that people ignore the reality of things, their mystery and sheer strangeness, and comfort themselves by living complacent lives, ignoring the fundamental question of their own existence.
When we do confront these questions – briefly, every now and then, in moments of despair and uncertainty – we experience what Heidegger called a sense of being “thrown into existence,” Geworfenheit, “thrownness.” We find ourselves here, now, in this strange universe, but have no idea why we or it exists. An “existential moment” occurs when you realise that none of the stories or reasons you had until then accepted as adequate accounts of the world and yourself in it, work. Most people quickly retreat into some more comfortable view of life, and for Heidegger, they live “inauthentically.” They are always aware of what the anonymous mass of others – the “They” – think, are doing, believe, and so on, and are happy and eager to do the same. For Heidegger, living authentically means accepting the reality of our radical finitude – the idea that we will die someday – and affirming the challenge of giving meaning to your existence, which means to remember your being, and all the sense of urgency that comes with, and not to forget it in losing yourself in the They.
I’ll end with Sartre, who took Heidegger’s notion of inauthenticity and repackaged it in what he called mauvaise foi, “bad faith.” This is when someone ignores or avoids the reality of his own existence and the responsibilities that come with it, and loses his own identity in some stereotypical one. So, a politician is always a politician, a professor is always a professor, a celebrity is always a celebrity. Their persona – the face they show the world – takes over from what we might call their “authentic” self. They no longer have to agonise over choices, because they already know what to do, they act in a stereotypical way. Their identity comes from other people, not from themselves. Their inner emptiness is hidden from themselves by the role they play.