“Know thyself,” said the ancient Oracle of Delphi. Most of the world’s major religions and esoteric traditions teach that wisdom and happiness require self-knowledge. For example, Gnostic Christianity, which taught that Jesus Christ is a symbol of everyone’s potential for godhood, not a literal, single person who alone became posthuman, agrees with the Hindu and Jain teaching that the inner self is divine, that Atman equals Brahman, that the God who controls the world lies within. Now in the last century, Western philosophers abased themselves before science, turning philosophy into the pseudoscientific analysis of concepts, rushing to get their hosannas in before the start of postmodernity would make their scientism embarrassingly naïve and self-sacrificial. Science-centered, “analytic” philosophy became highly academic and so irrelevant to the masses that turned to social scientists and to charlatans in the self-help and New Age movements, for direction in their practical affairs. Postmodern philosophers now dance on the moribund body of analytic philosophy, celebrating the infantile freedom of artistic self-expression that’s left to those who lack any rules for intellectual discourse. But the World Wars united our species in a vision of human-made hell. The Western philosophical school that took that experience to heart was existentialism and that school echoes the ancient imperative to know yourself. The fruit of existential self-knowledge is personal authenticity.
However, the philosopher Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, a psychoanalyst, write in the NY Times that the ethic of authenticity has become an egocentric search for happiness through consumption and work. As they say,
a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith--and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.
More specifically, “The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!”
Self-Discovery as Self-Creation
Critchley and Webster imply that the ethic of authenticity itself is dangerous and ought to be abandoned. However degraded the connotations of “personal authenticity” may now be, though, I think the distinction between authenticity and its opposite is ethically crucial. So what’s the distinction? I’ll leave aside here the technical discussions among existential philosophers. The word “authentic” derives from the Greek “authent” in “authentikos,” meaning original, primary, or literally one who does things himself (auto + hentes = self-doer). The ethical distinction, then, is between the self-doer and the passive self to whom things are done. And the point about self-knowledge is that your inner self can be born only after you discover what you are. If you’re ignorant of your true identity, your self lies dormant while other forces direct your life. In naturalistic philosophy, as opposed to the ancient theism of the world’s religions, you liberate yourself with self-knowledge, because the thought patterns you establish in your endeavour to know yourself set up the mental feedback loops that produce a more self-controlling agent in the first place. The cognitive process of self-discovery is really one of self-creation, and what you discover is largely your power of creativity. Without philosophical self-reflection or empirical knowledge of where we stand in the world, we’re less self-aware and more like animals than people in an ethical sense.
Whence, then, the existentialist’s moaning and groaning about angst? Well, liberating the self through the mental acts that forge an autonomous mind is paradoxically also an imprisoning of that mind. The self is liberated from the natural and social forces that would otherwise run roughshod over our raw materials and enslave us, creating us in their image, as it were. But without the deep thinking needed for self-knowledge, which walls us off from those forces, we lack the abstract concepts needed to protest our enslavement. On the contrary, we welcome the comfort of not having to define ourselves, because just as the birthing of the biological body is painful, so too is the mind’s liberation. The body departs from the womb and the enslaved, dormant, ignorant mind wakens to its creativity and so realizes its aesthetic potential to be original, to be a great artist rather than a hack or a pawn. The liberated self is freed to some extent from the world and when we recognize that separation which is entailed by even our limited freedom, which alone is naturally possible, we ought to mourn and wail in horror rather than shout in jubilation. For that birthday marks the moment we’re cursed by our reason, when we can no longer just go with the flow, but must appraise social conventions by our aesthetic criteria, condemning all expressions of enslavement as undignified and aesthetically uninspiring. Angst, then, is the fear of standing apart from some natural and social forces as a newborn mind, liberated by the mental work that carves out that self in the first place, by creating a network of ideas with which the free-thinking self identifies as its artistic masterpiece. That primary artwork is just a worldview, a vantage point on the world which largely is the liberated, albeit isolated mind. Those ideas, values, and memories (the latter also being rewritten over time and thus recreated) are the belfries, moats, bastions, turrets, gate houses, and other fortifications that prevent you from being overrun by the opposing hordes, but that also provoke doubts about whether you can ever reconnect with the rest of the world. (See the first section of this article for more on how abstract thinking shapes the mind.)
Egoism vs Altruistic Rebellion
Is this liberated self just the ego, then, as the NY Times article suggests, and if so, is this why the ethic of authenticity has been co-opted by business interests? In so far as the ego is egocentric, the ego is either only partially liberated and self-knowing or else is a relatively poor artist. To see why, we need to consider what else is known when we seek to know ourselves. Just as we are (biologically) what we eat, so too in a sense we are (psychologically or spiritually) what we think. What I mean here is not that if we think we’re immortal we become immortal, for example. Rather, the extent to which a self is distinguished from the rest of the world rests on the originality of her mental labour, because that labour is the primary means by which she distinguishes herself. So if we think we’re immortal or immaterial, we’re not fully liberated, because those ideas are by now quite hackneyed and otherwise dubious, and so the self who identifies with them signals rather her slavery to tradition, public pressure, fear of death, and so forth.
When we meditate on our personal identity, thus ironically creating the very thing we’re trying to discover, we can’t help but also appreciate the nature of the world from which we aim to be detached. Theoretically, a purely extroverted person with little self-awareness would be more animalistic than an introvert whose mind is both more liberated and burdened by the pains of thinking herself into inner being and then of recognizing the gulf between that being and the rest of the world. Most people, though, are partially liberated rather than entirely enslaved by their environment, precisely because they’re partly introverted and thus introspective. We’re free-thinkers one moment, unenlightened pawns the next, because we have both introverted and extroverted tendencies. Regardless, we distinguish our inner selves best when we self-consciously act in opposition to what we consider the world to be. Thus, the freest acts are the ones that are the hardest to perform. If you see someone drowning, there’s no one else but you nearby, and you don’t know how to swim, the world appears to want that drowning person dead, as it were. The easy response would be to give in to fear and to let nature take its monstrous course, but were you to choose to risk your life and to cast yourself into the water, the mass media would call you a hero. That praise would be utterly insignificant, “You’re a hero” in that case being a mere empty-headed meme, bringing shame on every slave who repeats it. No, more important than society’s obsolete (God-centered) moral evaluation is that your courage would help to free you, not just the drowning person, by surprising nature with your rebellion against the tyranny of its norms. This doesn’t mean that anomaly is the mark of artistic greatness. Not all surprises are aesthetically appealing, but this sort of originality is a necessary condition of selfhood.
So original, creative acts are opposed to normal events. Obviously, nature is the ultimate creator, since everything in the cosmos is naturally made, including our bodies and our capacity for self-creation through our thought processes. The biological norm, however, is for nature to create animals that are mostly enslaved by natural forces (by their genetic programs, the naturally selected life cycle, and so on) as opposed to being creators themselves. We’re unusual in the extent to which we can distance ourselves from biological norms. We’re thus potential creators and when we come to appreciate that potential for novel, beautifully original interpretations of our experience, we necessarily juxtapose our higher self with the enslaved mechanisms which are the instruments of nature’s undead creativity. Although the universe is infinitely active, its creativity belongs to the universe as a whole, which evolves and complexifies in very general ways, so that the instruments of that change lack individuality. Even the stars which are largely independent and highly creative are slaves to their chemical and cosmological processes. By contrast, the acts of a liberated person aren’t fully explained even by psychological theories, but are best interpreted as unique works of art. An authentic person is unique in the universe, because she’s relatively free. Her autonomy is made possible by her trillions of self-adjusting neural connections, and she’s a god to the extent that her uniqueness elevates her above natural law. This isn’t to say that her acts are miracles; she doesn’t violate natural law, but she acts in a way that isn’t entailed by scientific theories. She creates new worlds, the first being her worldview which is the seat of her liberated mind.
This unique creator, then, this true god prefigured by all monotheistic metaphors, achieves her godhood by thinking hard about her real identity. What is she? What can she do? How does she differ from all other types and instances? What is the world such that she came to be in it? These are the sorts of philosophical and empirical questions with which liberated souls must grapple. The answer, in short, is that she’s a paradoxical natural being that transcends nature, like a singularity in which natural laws break down. Science can go only so far in explaining the patterns in our minds and in our actions, before the desire to understand and to control ourselves gives way to the artist’s taste for great art. The Gordian Knot of the human brain together with the liberated mind it embodies is a kind of white hole, a creative singularity that spews out everything rather than sucking it in (like a black hole). Instead of an event horizon, we have a worldview that shields us from the field of undead changes. Like the Big Bang singularity or a gamma ray burst, a liberated mind inexplicably creates a wealth of mental, cultural, and now virtual worlds (as opposed to physical ones). And just as nothing crosses a white hole’s event horizon to reach the singularity itself, we’re alien to ourselves and can occupy only the artificial inner and outer worlds left in our wake. Moreover, just as a white hole would be unstable, briefly spewing out matter in a godlike burst of creativity before collapsing, our species of potential gods may not be long for this world.
If our creations call for aesthetic appreciation rather than just empirical or pragmatic explanation, we stand similar to the universe as a whole, but opposed to every enslaved part of that whole. The world creates itself by its myriad processes and levels of complexity, and we create our artificial worlds, but we don’t engage with the whole cosmos. Indeed, we can comprehend that whole only with simplified models. Every impersonal mechanism we encounter in nature is active in some creative process, but is also undead and enslaved to the collective by causal chains. We perceive only the artist’s instruments in motion and the individual dabs of paint, not the artist--and that artist isn’t a person, but is the cosmic zombie itself, the warp and weft of the monstrous body that mindlessly develops before our eyes at microscopic and macroscopic scales.
So to return to the question of egoism, not all liberated selves need be selfish. On the contrary, selfish behaviour is animalistic, meaning that it’s genetically determined, so a worldview created by philosophical/religious speculation and scientific understanding should counteract any narrow-minded impulse. This doesn’t imply that introverts are more selfless than extroverts, although I would expect introverts to be more intellectually opposed to selfishness. Remember the price of mental liberation, of the inner self’s detachment from the world by way of a wall of ideology: the pain of anxiety, the horror of having to look out over the abyss that’s created by that very separation. Such suffering can make introverts withdrawn, preventing them from acting on their ideas, as Dostoevsky explained in Notes from the Underground. In any case, liberated, detached, and thus alienated minds will tend to have an outsider’s humility as well as empathy for fellow sufferers and pity for potential gods who are nevertheless bound and blinded.
We can test whether selfishness or any other disposition might be part of an authentic self, by asking how easily that tendency or type of behaviour could be explained in biological or psychological terms. When we act selfishly, is that clichéd or surprising? Does selfishness make us more unique or animalistic and commonplace? Does selfishness, consumerism, Machiavellian business practices, narcissism, or materialism help us creatively transcend natural norms or further our unreflective submission to them?
Lowbrow Authenticity vs Divine Creativity
Contrary to big business’s cynical version of the ethic of authenticity, which Critchley and Webster criticize, authenticity isn’t just about self-expression. The authentic person is a self-doer and that requires a search for self-knowledge which liberates the inner self in the first place. The process of freeing yourself, of appreciating your limited independence from natural and social forces is also one of enlightenment. When you throw down the chains that would bind you and make you a mere animal, you also open your eyes and see not just your worldview but the world as it is in itself, quite apart from you and your perspective. The abyss between the liberated mind and the rest of the world works both ways: you see part of your inner self through introspection, but also the independence of the world from you, because you become painfully aware of the abyss that’s the precondition of that mutual independence. A liberated mind can respond to her detachment in many different ways, but she’s unlikely to act as though she were the only one in the world or as if everything revolved around her. Again, such narrow-mindedness is reserved for animals that are controlled by their genetic programs.
Of course, the gambit of capitalistic and consumption-driven authenticity is clear enough. The slogans, again, are “Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!” How can you live fully? With the help of technoscience, with products that enhance your standard of living and afford you a rich, full life. How do you realize yourself? By distinguishing yourself not internally or spiritually, with the richness of your world view, but externally with outer signs of your wealth and success. How can you connect with others? Not with harmonizing creative visions, but with dehumanizing communications technologies that degrade the quality of intellectual discourse by forcing the godlike white hole through the filters of our subhuman machines and commercial interests. How can you achieve happiness? By all of the above, by pleasing yourself and basking in your glory. So say the egotistic predators that run or exploit the crony capitalistic economies.
What’s missing from this lowbrow authenticity is the existentialism, the dark side of mental liberation. As the Garden of Eden myth attests, freedom has a cost. When we learn what we are, we learn that death awaits us and that everything else in the world isn’t so free or personal, in the sense of being creators of unique artworks. Granted, the universe as a whole is the supreme creator, albeit a monstrously undead and impersonal one. But the particular processes that unfold around us are indeed confined by causal chains and the creatures that are caught up in them are infected by cosmic undeadness. We should want to express ourselves, but not in a vacuum; instead, our creative works should be meaningful in the context in which we find ourselves, and that context is our existential predicament. We should oppose the forces of slavery, the cosmic or social implements that would turn us into the universe’s or the oligarch’s art objects. Thus, we should free ourselves further from natural programming and from cultural norms. I’m not saying we need to live in a cave as antisocial ascetics. But if we identify most of all not with our bodies or our possessions, but with our liberated minds that we shape and that make us godlike, we should be focused on our artistic obligations, not on fulfilling our role in some undead process or competing vision. We’re bound to be influenced by what’s around us, just as no artist is perfectly original, and we should celebrate each other’s creations, but we shouldn’t lose ourselves in our environment; rather, we should help to enlighten each other, to prove to the undead god that we’re originators of worlds rather than just flies on its corpse.