In a prior post entitled “Existentialism, Humanism, Responsibility, and Freedom,” I examined meaning in life, Jean-Paul Sartre, existence, etc. In this blog, I would like to go a little further toward examining authenticity vs. the idea of “bad faith.” It will hopefully generate more light than it does heat as far as living one’s life with success, passion, deliberateness, and insight. As always, wisdom is about the highest goal, and happiness is not far behind.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a very interesting French philosopher and playwright who lived during the French Resistance of Nazi Germany all the way through the Vietnam War. In a word, he saw a lot of shit. He also was a dedicated thinker, individualist, and loved dialogue. The French cafe scene in 1935 and then again after the war ended saw a lot of him drinking, smoking, talking, arguing, and writing. A real intellectual – in France, where intellectuals get more respect than in America. He thought about very important topics such as freedom, the human condition, philosophy, psychology, values, wisdom, existence, authenticity, and “bad faith.”
To live a happy and responsible life is to understand that our moment-by-moment choice for love or hate is determined entirely from within. ~ Unknown author
The authoritative philosophy site Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this long but telling intro to the man:
Sartre (1905–1980) is arguably the best-known philosopher of the twentieth century. His indefatigable pursuit of philosophical reflection, literary creativity and, in the second half of his life, active political commitment gained him worldwide renown, if not admiration. He is commonly considered the father of Existentialist philosophy, whose writings set the tone for intellectual life in the decade immediately following the Second World War. Among the many ironies that permeate his life, not the least is the immense popularity of his scandalous public lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” delivered to an enthusiastic Parisian crowd October 28, 1945. Though taken as a quasi-manifesto for the Existentialist movement, the transcript of this lecture was the only publication that Sartre openly regretted seeing in print. And yet it continues to be the major introduction to his philosophy for the general public.
Three of Sartre’s ideas are significant and worth exploration in this limited space. Firstly, existence precedes essence. This keystone concept refers to the idea that a thing (a person’s, say) existence comes before and is more fundamental than their essence. This means that, unlike a tree, whose essence is clearly established and basically unchangeable, a human being has fewer constraints and proscriptions. Existentialism is based on the idea of existence, not coincidentally, and in this context refers not to a human beings essence (its blueprint and necessary characteristics) but the human’s ability to construct for itself what it will become. To define a self in the face of an uncaring and cold universe. It is freedom and individualism at its highest. So, to sum up, Sartre feels that a human being first exists, and then, through work, can create its own essence.
Secondly, “bad faith.” This concept refers to the way some human beings, sometimes, largely, live according to the social forces surrounding them. They adopt habits, mores, and norms of other people for the most part. They don’t examine their lives, they live according to the prescription others set. By “others” I refer not only to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, but also the power-brokers and establishment forces such as newspaper owners, advertisers, politicians, lobbyists, powerful businesspersons, religious leaders, etc. If you have heard Americans be likened to “sheep” you know what bad faith refers to. The exact etymology of the combination of bad and faith is unclear to me.
The best thing you can do, Sartre declared, is to live authentically. Sartre used this term to mean that you have to accept the full weight of your freedom in light of the absurd. You have to recognize that any meaning your life has, is given to it by you.
Lastly, and importantly, authenticity. This is the opposite of bad faith. Authenticity is when one lives with an inner-directed, conscious, willful, chosen way of being. One looks at the world, society, time, and body into which they were thrown, if you will, and decides through contemplation and values such as creativity, courage, and character what one will be. If you think of carpe diem as “seizing the day and really living,” this is an allied concept wherein one seizes the opportunity to define themselves as this or that; as believing in this versus that; as being characterized by a very particular self-created description.
To get from here to there, look at the society in which you find yourself and ask yourself which of its precepts, axioms, dogmas, beliefs, laws, customs, and norms you can truly endorse. You will not find all of them palatable and consistent with your true nature; your soul; your true essence. Schools, churches, communities, powerful individuals, parents, and the media want you to be a certain way, and reward and punish you for complying or defying established ways of being. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that being yourself is one of the most difficult but most rewarding pursuits, and it is yours to decide upon every single day. But it’s not all about you. Once one establishes a solid self and stakes out one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual territory, one is going to be naturally inclined to go beyond the self. To grow; to reach; to transcend. That leads to caring for others, concerns, and things beyond the self.
Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know]. Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.
The subjectivity and allure to the individual that mark existentialism are compelling. However, Sartre faced at least two types of critique. One is that if we are, in his words, “condemned to be free”, does that make existentialism a nightmare or a dream? He felt that existential views of life made for an optimistic point of view; he was upbeat about it because he tended to see the freedom to create oneself and be in the world as net positives.
The second concern is that the subjectivity and total freedom to live authentically can lead to self-concern or solipsism, hyperindividuality or hypersubjectivity. We must factor in other human beings because we must relate to them as social creatures; “No man is an island” the poet John Donne wrote. The critique has been leveled to existentialism, “Is anything permitted?” This is a question of ethics, in other words, proper relationships with other human beings.
In his essay/lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he sought to reform the “theory” a bit. He wanted to make sure it was broad enough to exist in a very social world. He developed a three-part syllogism of sorts:
a) In choosing myself, I choose who I am;
b) In choosing myself, I choose a certain type of human being in the presence of others;
c) In choosing myself, I project a certain image of what it means to be human;
d) Therefore, in choosing myself, I choose man.
Sartre is suggesting that we go beyond purely subjective and personal concerns and try to take some responsibility for others when he speaks of “choosing man.” At best, at highest, he is really saying “In choosing myself, I construct universality.”
So, no, though we are free, we must respect the freedom of others. Thus, not everything is permitted. Ethics binds us. After all, we are social creatures in community with one another.
In sum, what I term a “life of value” has two parts: one is about fulfilling yourself and finding meaning by prioritizing, or “living” the values that you authentically possess. When your life is consistent with what you truly value, then your life just “feels right.” Beyond fulfilling yourself and valuing your life, when you live a life of value, you make positive differences to those around you – be it your family, your community, your country, or our world. It is as though, objectively, your life is “valuable” to someone or something beyond yourself – that the Earth breathes easier with you here. Hence, you derive a subjective sense of value from your life because you are living your values, but further, your life has some objective value beyond how you feel. This is really advanced authenticity.
Here are a few quotes about authenticity, self-definition, becoming, and maturity:
“It requires philosophy and heroism to rise above the opinion of the wise men of all nations and races.”
“In making our choices, we need to respect the freedom of others. I am obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as I will my own. I cannot set my own freedom as a goal without also setting the freedom of others as a goal.” ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
“As we proceed in the act of creation, the litmus test is always about authenticity. Is this your voice, your soul, your story coming through this piece? The idea of seed you’re cultivating has surfaced for a purpose and awaits the originality only you can bring to it.”
“Dare to be yourself.”
“Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.”
“Man is never so authentically himself as when at play.”
“There are many who are living far below their possibilities because they are continually handing over their individualities to other. Do you want to be a power in the world? Then be yourself. Be true to the highest within your soul, and then allow yourself to be governed by no customs or conventionalities or arbitrary man-made rules that are not founded on principle.”
“Social situations do profoundly influence individuals. But individuals also influence social situations. The two interact. Asking whether external situations or inner dispositions determine behavior is like asking whether length or width determine a room’s area.”
“to be yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop.”
“When ‘the common good’ of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals.”
“Be yourself. Who is better qualified?”
“When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”
“Often we want to try and retain our self, to be confident and courageous. Wisdom is required to determine when is the right time – or it’s not confidence, but dogmatism. It is wise to be yourself – but with the realization that your self needs continual improvement. We simply never arrive at perfection – or at least we don’t linger there long. And the less you try to cling to that, the more face-saving it is when you discover the need to change.”
“To truly serve, purpose must be connected to our unique authenticity. That is why money cannot serve as our purpose. It can be a goal, but not a purpose.”
“There’s an interesting parallel, I think, between the way Faust ends, and Fichte’s view that in the selfless life – in ‘de-individuating’ ourselves, in giving up the merely personal, private exercise of freedom, and externalizing all of the possibilities of freedom for the benefit of the many – we end up at once with a life that is thoroughly authentic.”
“Of course, most of us do not believe that we can be happy no matter what the external circumstance. When confronted with the idea that happiness is ultimately in the mind, many of us immediately entertain extreme examples that falsify the theory: could we be happy even if we break a bone or lose our job? To me, those are the wrong questions to ask. The right question to ask is whether we can be happy given the types of negative events that routinely occur in our lives.” ~ Raj Raghunathan
And, two challenging ones:
“The great danger that America faces is that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual. Each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who will then speak for America? Who will look out for the common good?”
“By narcissism is meant ceasing to have an authentic interest in the outside world but instead an intense attachment to oneself, to one’s own group, clan, religion, nation, race, etc. – with consequent serious distortions of rational judgment.”
Find more quotations about authenticity here in The Wisdom Archive. It’s free, it’s awesome.