Taking a break from contemporary physics, the next installment of the Essential Ideas series looks at the modern desire for authenticity.
Authenticity is one of the highest virtues of our time…
To know who you are… At the deepest core of your being.
And be who you are… Despite the rejection you’ll face.
And become the best YOU that you can be…
It’s a quest worth dedicating a lifetime to.
What you may not realize, is that all of that has come about fairly recently.
Authenticity wasn’t always a virtue.
Not too long ago, it wasn’t a thing at all!
We’ve all heard the famous quotes from the past…
Shakespeare imploring us to “be true” to ourselves.
The inscription on the Temple at Delphi, admonishing seekers to “Know thyself.”
It’s inspiring stuff!
But the thing is, those sayings didn’t have the same meaning to the people of the time, as they do now to us.
The idea that people have a rich interior life…?
An innermost self that is kept private and protected from the shallow dealings of everyday society…?
Or that there is value in exploring and expressing those secret parts of ourselves…?
None of that existed when those famous quotes were written.
In Socrates’ day, people were seen as parts in a grand cosmic order.
Like we would think of gears in a vast machine.
It was a functional view of reality.
Where a person’s worth and purpose were determined, not by who they were in their core…
But by the role that they played in society.
Know thyself didn’t mean, “know your true internal self, and honor the authentic depth of your being.”
It didn’t mean, “be the same on the outside, in the world, as you are on the inside, in yourself.”
It meant know your place.
Know the functional role that you were meant to play—as determined by the cosmos itself, not by you—and spend your life fulfilling that function.
Any other endeavor was seen as a waste of time.
An affront to the cosmic order.
“[It] is right for someone who is by nature a shoemaker to make shoes and nothing else, for the carpenter to practice carpentry, and the same for the others…”
It took many centuries, the rise and reformation of Christianity, the industrialization of the West, the age of Enlightenment and the backlash of Romanticism, and beyond…
Before our current notion of authenticity started to make any sense in the world.
And the landscape is still changing.
By today’s standards, the idea that someone’s worth begins and ends with their profession is repulsive, and worthy of a revolution of it’s own!
So, that message on the Temple at Delphi…?
Not actually so inspiring.
Even Shakespeare’s famous quote had a different meaning at the time that it was written…
To thine own self be true.
It’s a powerful message!
But it’s also taken out of context…
Polonius’ full quote reads, “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it doth follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
His wisdom isn’t leading us to authenticity.
To our innermost selves.
Being “true to yourself” isn’t the goal of Polonius’ advice. It’s nothing but a means to an end…
A path to sincerity in our interactions.
It’s a social virtue that he’s pitching. Not a personal one.
Still a fine piece of advice…
But it had nothing to do with our modern concept of authenticity.
Now, to some extent, none of that matters…
Both quotes are still valuable in the context of our time.
We’re free to let them inspire us in whatever way we choose!
But it’s important to recognize that we aren’t following in the footsteps of our wise, insightful ancestors…
The journey to our best and truest selves that so many of us are walking is not an ancient one.
It’s something altogether new.
Or new-ish anyway.
Exploring the inner depth of our being, and expressing it to the world, is a more-than-worthy endeavor.
It’s something we sorely need!
But that quest is the product of centuries of growth and reflection.
And constant revision to our understanding of ourselves.
And of the cultural rift that has grown between our private and public lives.
Socrates—if we traveled back in time for a quick chat on the temple stairs—would likely have no recognition or appreciation for our pursuit of authenticity.
It’s an inner destination that didn’t exist in the world he lived in.
And it’s not one that he would have endorsed…
Just set your “innermost self” aside, and make the next pair of shoes.
Or the next bit of woodwork… Or the next batch of donuts…
Know your place. Then keep your place.
That is the wisdom of our ancestors.
The quest we’re on now is our own…
In another hundred years, it will be different.
As we chart new depths within ourselves, we’ll emerge with new questions.
As the world changes, we’ll find new journeys worth taking.
And the next generations will wander even further afield…
And we’ll be the crotchety old bastards who don’t get what all the fuss is about.
But they’ll get it.
And the world will change again.
In the meantime, if you’d like to read more about the birth and evolution of our desire for authenticity, check out On Being Authentic by professor Charles Guignon.
It’s a fascinating read!
Up next: There are no forces of nature!
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About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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