Magical inner essence

A column I wrote for the April/May issue of Free Inquiry is online. It’s about “authenticity.”

The idea of an “authentic self” has, oddly, become a theme of political discourse as well as Oprah-style uplift. We’re being told that people have a right to live as their authentic selves, which often means as opposed to their outward appearance, that mere physical dross. It’s a weirdly religious idea, reminiscent of the contemptus mundi of medieval monks, but it’s presented as political rather than religious. What I keep wondering is how it’s possible to make a sane politics out of the denial of material reality.

The irony is that what is meant by the authentic self in the current dialect is not a self that comports with the actual facts—with the biography, the history, the Curriculum Vitae, the parentage, the body—but a self that contradicts such dull literal realities, as if some absent-minded official had simply made a mistake in the paperwork. The authenticity in question is not the kind we mean when we talk of an authentic Vermeer or Patek Philippe; it’s a distinction between the social self and the private one, between the self that others perceive and the one that we alone know from the inside.

As you probably already know, I don’t believe in such a thing as an “authentic self.” I also don’t believe that obsessing about one’s own self, authentic or otherwise, is a branch of politics; I think it’s the opposite of politics.

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