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.