Inauthenticity involves pretending to be something other than one is and so, by implication, casting off the freedom to create, express, and fulfil one’s own self. Inauthenticity is often reinforced by sociocultural forces such as peer pressure and advertising, and is motivated by the subconscious desires to fit in, avoid criticism, and minimise or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility. Examples include the teenager who acts ‘cool’, the person who takes an interest in something because others do, and the person who gets married because he has arrived at the ripe old age of 30, 35, or 40 years old.
The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity mauvaise foie, ‘bad faith’. His paradigmatic example of bad faith is that of a waiter who does his utmost to conform to the archetype of the waiter, that is, to everything that a waiter should or is expected to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to entertain or even recognise the multitude of other choices that are open to him, the waiter places himself at the mercy of his external circumstances. In this important respect, he is more akin to an object – ‘a waiter’ – than to a conscious human being who is able to transcend his existence to give shape to his essence. As Freud himself commented in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, ‘Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.’
The concept of authenticity does not begin with Sartre or Freud, and stretches at least as far back as Plato. In the Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young and foolish Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates maintains that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror to see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into an eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman – as indeed he intends – without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of society also condemns himself to by far the most dishonourable kind of slavery, the slavery of the mind.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
– William Blake, London
As noted by the 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, the authentic person does not necessarily need to resemble some kind of freak outsider. If a person engages in a frank and thorough appraisal of the universal and personal implications of the prevailing social norms and then decides to adopt some or most of them en toute connaissance de cause, then he cannot be taxed with inauthenticity. Conversely, it should not be assumed that every eccentric is an authentic. Genuine authenticity lies in the method and not in the madness.
As far as men go, it is not what they are that interests me, but what they can become. – Sartre
The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi), the habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to recognise the multitude of other choices that are available to him, a person places himself at the mercy of the circumstances in which he happens to find himself. Thus, the person is more akin to an object than to a conscious human being, or, in Sartrean terminology, more akin to a ‘being–in–itself’ than to a ‘being–for–itself’. People may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices by pursuing pragmatic concerns and adopting social roles and value systems that are alien to their nature as conscious human beings. However, to do so is in itself to make a choice, and thereby to acknowledge their freedom as conscious human beings.
One example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a waiter who does his best to conform to everything that a waiter should be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. However, in order to play-act at being a waiter, the waiter must at some level be aware that he is not in fact a waiter, but a conscious human being who is deceiving himself that he is a waiter. Another example of bad faith that Sartre gives is that of a young woman on a first date. The young woman’s date compliments her on her physical appearance, but she ignores the obvious sexual connotations of his compliment and chooses instead to direct the compliment at herself as a conscious human being. He then takes her hand, but she neither takes it nor rejects it. Instead, she lets her hand rest indifferently in his so as to buy time and delay having to make a choice about accepting or rejecting his advances. Whereas she chooses to treat his compliment as being unrelated to her body, she chooses to treat her hand (which is a part of her body) as an object, thereby acknowledging her freedom to make choices.
For Sartre, people may pretend to themselves that they do not have the freedom to make choices, but they cannot pretend to themselves that they are not themselves, that is, conscious human beings who actually have little or nothing to do with their pragmatic concerns, social roles, and value systems. In pursuing such and such pragmatic concerns or adopting such and such social roles and such and such value systems, a person may pretend to himself that he does not have the freedom to make choices, but to do so is in itself to make a choice, namely, the choice of pretending to himself that he does not have the freedom to make choices. Man, Sartre concludes, is condemned to be free.
This crayon drawing by a hospital in-patient with severe depression alludes to her temporary withdrawal from mainstream society. The months that she spent in hospital gave her the time and the solitude to think over her life, and the motivation to make difficult but necessary changes to it. She went on to make a full recovery.
Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows not that it brings abundance to drive away the hunger. – St Basil the Great
Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind. – Marcel Proust
Depression around the world
There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!
In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.
Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.
Problems with diagnosis
All this is not to say that the concept of depression as a mental disorder is bogus, but only that the diagnosis of depression may have been over-extended to include far more than just depression the mental disorder. If, like the majority of medical conditions, depression could be defined and diagnosed according to its aetiology or pathology, such a state of affairs could not have arisen. Unfortunately, depression cannot as yet be defined according to its aetiology or pathology, but only according to its clinical manifestations and symptoms. For this reason, a doctor cannot base a diagnosis of depression on any objective criterion such as a blood test or a brain scan, but only on his subjective interpretation of the nature and severity of the patient’s symptoms. If some of these symptoms appear to tally with the diagnostic criteria for depression, then the doctor is able to justify making a diagnosis of depression.
One important problem here is that the definition of ‘depression’ is circular: the concept of depression is defined according to the symptoms of depression, which are in turn defined according to the concept of depression. Thus, it is impossible to be certain that the concept of depression maps onto any distinct disease entity, particularly since a diagnosis of depression can apply to anything from mild depression to depressive psychosis and depressive stupor, and overlap with several other categories of mental disorder including dysthymia, adjustment disorders, and anxiety disorders. Indeed, one of the consequences of the ‘menu of symptoms’ approach to diagnosing depression is that two people with absolutely no symptoms in common can both end up with the same diagnosis of depression. For this reason especially, the concept of depression has been charged with being little more than a socially constructed dustbin for all manner of human suffering.
An adaptive role?
Every person inherits a certain complement of genes that make her more or less vulnerable to developing depression during her lifetime. A person suffers from depression if the amount of stress that she comes under is greater than the amount of stress that she can tolerate, given her vulnerability to developing depression. Genes for potentially debilitating disorders such as depression usually pass out of a population over time because affected people have, on average, fewer children than non-affected people. The fact that this has not happened for depression suggests that the responsible genes are being maintained despite their potentially debilitating effects on a significant proportion of the population, and thus that they are lending an important adaptive or evolutionary advantage.
There are other instances of genes that both predispose to an illness and lend an important adaptive advantage. In sickle cell disease, for example, red blood cells assume a rigid sickle shape that restricts their passage through tiny blood vessels. This leads to a number of serious physical complications and, in traditional societies, to a radically shortened life expectancy. At the same time, carrying just one allele of the sickle cell gene (‘sickle cell trait’) makes it impossible for malarial parasites to reproduce inside red blood cells, and so confers immunity to malaria. The fact that the gene for sickle cell anaemia is particularly common in populations from malarial regions suggests that, in evolutionary terms, a debilitating illness in the few can be a price worth paying for an important adaptive advantage in the many.
What important adaptive advantage could depression have? Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and to prevent further injury, so depression may have evolved to remove us from distressing, damaging, or futile situations. The time and space and solitude that depression affords prevents us from making rash decisions, enables us to see the bigger picture, and – in the context of being a social animal – to reassess our social relationships, think about those who are significant to us, and relate to them more meaningfully and with greater understanding. Thus, depression may have evolved as a signal that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing or, at least, understanding. Sometimes people can become so immersed in the humdrum of their everyday lives that they no longer have the time to think and feel about themselves, and so lose sight of their bigger picture. The experience of depression can force them to stand back at a distance, re-evaluate and prioritise their needs, and formulate a modest but realistic plan for fulfilling them.
Although the experience of depression can serve such a mundane purpose, it can also enable a person to develop a more refined perspective and deeper understanding of her life and of life in general. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges the person to become aware of her mortality and freedom, and challenges her to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this difficult challenge, the person is able to break out of the mould that has been imposed upon her, discover who she truly is, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to her life. Indeed, many of the most creative and most insightful people in society suffer or suffered from depression. They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln; the poets Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, John Stuart Mill, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams, and many, many others.
The curse of the strong
People with depression are often stigmatised as ‘failures’ or ‘losers’. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the sorts of people who are most vulnerable to developing depression are all the opposite of failures or losers. If they are suffering from depression, it is most probably because they have tried too hard or taken on too much, so hard and so much that they have made themselves ill with depression. In other words, if they are suffering from depression, it is because their world was simply not good enough for them. They wanted more, they wanted better, and they wanted different, not just for themselves, but for all those around them. So if they are failures or losers, this is only because they set the bar far too high. They could have swept everything under the carpet and pretended, as many people do, that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. However, unlike many people, they had the honesty and the strength to admit that something was amiss, that something was not quite right. So rather than being failures or losers, they are just the opposite: they are ambitious, truthful, and courageous. And that is precisely why they got ill. Getting ill is never a good thing, but in the case of depression it can present a precious opportunity to identify and to address some very challenging life problems, and to develop a deeper and more refined understanding and appreciation of one’s life and of life in general.
A note of caution
Depression should not be romanticised, sought out, or left unattended simply because it may or may not predispose to problem-solving, personal development, or creativity. The most severe forms of depression have a strong biological basis and are not related to a person’s life circumstances or aspirations. All forms of depression are drab and intensely painful, and most people who suffer from depression would never wish it on anyone, least of all themselves. In some cases, depression can lead to serious injury or even to death through accident, self-neglect, or self-harm. Even highly successful people who suffered from depression such as Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath ended up committing suicide in the end, and most people who attempt suicide do so because they are suffering with some form of depression.
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.
– Martin Heidegger
In his influential paper of 1970, tersely entitled Death, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asks the question: if death is the permanent end of our existence, is it an evil? Either it is an evil because it deprives us of life, or it is a mere blank because there is no subject left to experience the loss. Thus, if death is an evil, this is not in virtue of any positive attributes that it has, but in virtue of what it deprives us from, namely, life. For Nagel, the bare experience of life is intrinsically valuable, regardless of the balance of its good and bad elements.
The longer one is alive, the more one ‘accumulates’ life. In contrast, death cannot be accumulated – it is not, as Nagel puts it, ‘an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust’. Most people would not consider the temporary suspension of life as an evil, nor would they regard the long period of time before they were born as an evil. Therefore, if death is an evil, this is not because it involves a period of non-existence, but because it deprives us of life.
Nagel raises three objections to this view, but only so as to counter them later on. First, it is doubtful whether anything can be an evil unless it actually causes displeasure. Second, in the case of death, there does not appear to be a subject to suffer an evil. As long as a person exists, he has not yet died, and once he has died, he no longer exists. Thus, there seems to be no time at which the evil of death might occur. Third, if most people would not regard the long period before they were born as an evil, then why should they regard the period after they are dead any differently?
Nagel counters these three objections by arguing that the good or evil that befalls a person depends on his history and possibilities rather than on his momentary state, and thus that he can suffer an evil even if he is not here to experience it. For example, if an intelligent person receives a head injury that reduces his mental state to that of a contented infant, this should be considered a serious ill even if the person himself (in his current state) is unable to comprehend it. In other words, if the three objections are invalid, it is essentially because they ignore the direction of time. Even though a person cannot survive his death, he can still suffer an evil; and even though he does not exist during the time before his birth or during the time after his death, the time after his death is time of which he has been deprived, time in which he could have continued to enjoy the good of living.
The question remains as to whether the non-realisation of further life is an absolute evil, or whether this depends on what can naturally be hoped for: the death of Keats at 24 is commonly regarded as tragic, but that of Tolstoy at 82 is not. ‘The trouble,’ says Nagel, ‘is that life familiarises us with the goods of which death deprives us … Death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive goods.’
Given the sheer pain of this conclusion, it is hardly surprising that philosophers throughout the ages have sought, more or less unsuccessfully, to undermine it. Death not only deprives us of life, but also compels us to spend the life that it deprives us from in the mostly unconscious fear of this deprivation. And it is precisely this unconscious fear that holds us back from exercising choice and freedom. In short, death is an evil not only because it deprives us of life, but also because it mars whatever little life we do have. While we may be able to somewhat postpone our death, there is absolutely nothing that we can do to prevent it altogether. In the words of the ancient philosopher Epicurus, ‘It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men live in a city without walls.’ All that we can do is to come to terms with death in the hope of preventing it from preventing us from making the most of our life.