I. “The ancient masters cultivated the
They were profound, subtle –
beyond our ability to comprehend.
For this reason we cannot know them,
but we can try to describe their
Cautious, as if crossing an icy river in
Vigilant, as if surrounded by unseen
Reverent, as if receiving honoured
As malleable as ice when it begins to
as unspoiled as an uncarved block,
as receptive as a vast and open valley.”
Tao Te Ching (15), interpretive translation by Robert Brookes, Kindle edition
II. “Know the male, but hold to the female.
Imagine a river flowing through a
never departing from its original path.
Do this and you will return to a state of
Perceive the bright, but hold to the
Like a river, let yourself flow with
and set a faultless example for the
Do this and you will return to a state of
Be aware of honour, but hold to
Like a valley, let virtue fill you,
sufficient yet everlasting.
Do this and you will return to the state
of the uncarved block.
Just as when the uncarved block is
shaped it loses its simplicity,
when the wise person loses his
simplicity he is no longer wise.
Therefore it is best to stay on the
Tao Te Ching (28), interpretive translation by Robert Brookes, Kindle edition
III. “Below the surface-stream, shallow and light,
Of what we say we feel—below the stream,
As light, of what we think we feel—there flows
With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep,
The central stream of what we feel indeed.”
Beyond all the roles we play every day, beneath the layers of culture, nationality, gender, and other accidental characteristics, lies our authenticity. As Edward Young wrote, we were born as authentic, original works of art, but sadly we so often die copies (quoted after Trilling). The root of the word “authenticity” says a lot about its challenging nature, as Trilling puts it:
“Authenteo: to have full power over; also, to commit a murder. Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self-murderer, a suicide. Forgetting how much violence there was in its creative will, how ruthless an act was required to assert autonomy in a culture schooled in duty and in obedience to peremptory and absolute law, and how extreme an exercise of personal will was needed to overcome the sentiment of non-being.”
To collide with social norms is a violent act. To act according to the dictates of internal space is the most difficult task we can face. What in Tao Te Ching was names the simplicity of an uncarved block, Hegel called a condition of baseness:
“For Hegel, in the progress of ‘spirit’, the individual consciousness will eventually move from this condition of sincerity to a condition of baseness, in which the individual becomes antagonistic to external societal powers and achieves a measure of autonomy.”
The word authenticity in its contemporary use comes from the philosophy of Heidegger, who used the word Eigentlichkeit, which was translated as authenticity into English. The German word eigentlich means really or truly, yet the stem of the word – eigen – means proper, own:
“So the word might be more literally translated as ‘ownedness’ …, or even ‘being one’s own’, implying the idea of owning up to and owning what one is and does.”
To own oneself and not to be owned by anyone lie at the root of authenticity. This is echoed in the famous quote from Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Being true to oneself is not the same as narcissism:
“…authenticity does not amount to egoism or self-absorption. On the contrary, the prevailing view seems to have been that, by turning inward and accessing the “true” self, one is simultaneously led towards a deeper engagement with the social world. This is why Taylor describes the trajectory of the project of authenticity as ‘inward and upward’”
As Jung frequently emphasized, only an individual can individuate; and not a group or a society. The evolution starts within an individual who opens to collective forces and faces a task of making them uniquely his or her own. Collectively, we are driven by individuals. For Heidegger, to be authentic meant to “take a stand” on who we are in every moment of our existence. He believed that as individuals we “fall” into society, a process which is inevitable and inescapable, though as a result we so often do not feel as authors of our own lives:
“To the extent that our lives are unowned or disowned, existence is inauthentic (uneigentlich), not our own (eigen). …
What conscience calls out to us is the fact that we are ‘guilty’ in the German sense of that word, which means that we have a debt (Schuld) and are responsible for ourselves. Conscience tells us that we are falling short of what we can be, and that we are obliged to take up the task of living with resoluteness and full engagement. Such resoluteness is seen clearly in the case of vocational commitments, where one has heard a calling and feels pulled toward pursuing that calling.”
In a strikingly similar fashion, in his “The Development of Personality,” Carl Jung spoke of vocation as hearing the inner voice, obeying one’s own law, “as if it were a daemon whispering … of new and wonderful paths.” The Jungian axiom is that to become authentic, to develop personality, one must succumb to the dictates of the inner voice:
“Just as the great personality acts upon society to liberate, to redeem, to transform, and to heal, so the birth of personality in oneself has a therapeutic effect. It is as if a river that had run to waste sluggish side-streams and marshes suddenly found its way back to its proper bed, or as if a stone lying on a germinating seed were lifted away so that the shoot could begin its natural growth.”
Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 17: Development of Personality, Kindle edition, par. 317
In current discourse the term authenticity seems to have been replaced by empowerment. This article ridicules the trendiness of the buzzword and the phenomenon and my first reaction was to agree with the author. However, perhaps it showcases the same hunger that has been with humanity for millennia: to let our actions be dictated by inner impulses and to free ourselves from being judged by external norms that ultimately are not our own.
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity, Kindle edition
Somogy Varga, Charles Guignon, “Authenticity,” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/authenticity/