Expositional Essay – Authentic Self
In my twenty-first year of existence, I still have no idea who I am. The concept of my identity is muddled between my uprising, my childish ego, and my current facticity. It is a struggle to figure out what my ‘self’ is and what ‘my self’ even means. And it seems as if I’ve been riding a perpetual cycle of trial and error as I stroll the aisles of my facticity, meticulously incorporating the attractive and healthy qualities of the other people in my life for my own survival. It has been an interesting ride. Upon my journey in this existentialism course, I’ve been provided detailed and insightful philosophical accounts of the meaning of self and authenticity, all of which express living a life which is honest to your individual intuitions and desires.
The self is a complicated subject. It is a common agreement among existentialists that the self is a construct in we create and cultivate in each of our own lives. It is the argument that existence precedes essence. Taken from a quote by Kevin Aho, from his book, Existentialism: An Introduction, it is “…the fact that we make ourselves who we are on the basis of meaning-giving choices and actions, and this activity of self-making underlies any account of our physical or psychical makeup” (Aho, 2014, pg. 48). All of our choices and actions have meaning, and the different approaches we have in maintaining physical or psychical makeup are a part of our self-making process.
Martin Heidegger refers to the self “as a ‘thrown-project’ , that is, we have been thrown into a past, into a factical situation that limits and constrains us, yet we simultaneously interpret and give meaning to this situation by projecting forward into possibilities that are always shaping and reshaping our identities” (Aho, 2014, p. 55). In Heidegger’s Being and Time, he makes the argues that in life, each person has their own set of equipment, or tools, that we each utilize for our individualistic intentions. In order to achieve authenticity in life, one must be able to approach their equipment with care and concern. The premise of this excerpt is of a much larger scope. It is that being-towards death is a reliable way to exist authentically.
Heidegger had felt in order to be authentic, or to exist in da-sein, one had to be living life with the knowledge and acceptance that death is one of the only probabilities we can truly count on in our lives. Heidegger mentions on multiple occasions the backlashes of avoiding death: “[it] dominates everydayness so stubbornly that…the neighbors often try to convince the dying person that he will escape death and soon return again to the tranquilized everydayness of his world taken care of” (Marino, 2014, p. 320), “they at the same time justifies itself and makes itself respectable by silently ordering the way in which one is supposed to behave toward death” (Marino, 2014, p. 321), etc. Heidegger makes the point that “authentic being-toward-death signifies an existentiell possibility of da-sein” (Marino, 2014, p. 327)
Friedrich Nietzsche has his own thoughts on how one should live to achieve authenticity in their lives. Amongst many of his theories of the self, Nietzsche has the will to power and the Übermensch. The will to power is the idea which says the encompassing drives and forces behind all forms of life, is that “every living thing is striving to grow, flourish, and dominate” (Aho, 2014, p. 91-92), in whichever way that organism sees fit.
Nietzsche also conceptualized the ubermensch, a “yes-sayer”… [who loves and affirms] his life as a whole. He is true to himself because he accepts the world as it is without the support of moral absolutes and owns up to all of the unique and idiosyncratic qualities that make him the person he is, all of his strengths and weaknesses, everything that has been and will be in his life” (Aho, 2014, p. 94). In the quest for authenticity, we find the ubermensch, the symbol of the authentic being. Nietzsche conducted a thought experiment he calls the ‘doctrine of eternal recurrence’. Essentially, it states that in your loneliest hour, a demon visits you and says, “This is life, as you live it now and as you have lived it, you will have to live it once more and countless times more. There is nothing new about it… the eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again” (Aho, 2014, p. 95). At the sight of this, the average person would surely be ‘shattered’ by this doctrine, says Nietzsche. But the Ubermensch does not recoil from the demon; he responds, “You are a god and I have never heard anything more godlike” (Aho, 2014, p. 95). The idea of the ubermensch, the yes-sayer, is one of good faith. It is one of being true to yourself. If one were to violate their truth to themselves, Sartre would say that they exhibit bad faith.
French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of bad faith is one which undertones the process of understanding ourselves, and existing in our authentic natures. I found this concept particularly striking, as the essential meaning I found in it is to follow your heart, and to not allow external pressures deter you from your intuitive feelings. Sartre introduces his reader to the ‘No’, which is said to be “the man of resentment“ (Marino, 2004, p. 370). The No is a person “…whose reality is entirely that of the No, who will live and die, having forever been only a No upon the earth” (Marino, 2004, p. 370). I take it to mean that those who not only have restricted the choices of other people through arbitrary means, but have also limited their own freedom as well by negation, are considered a No. Through the No, Sartre raises the question of self-negation, which is “[taking] negative attitudes towards [one]self” (Marino, 2004, p. 369). Then, Sartre claims, “This attitude, it seems to me, is bad faith…” (Marino, 2004, p.370).
Sartre provides multiple analogies to explain the process of bad faith. He first speaks of the unconscious properties of thought, and the conscious symbols these instinctual thoughts represent. He describes the concrete products of this type of thought. “Fear, lapses of memory, dreams really exist as concrete facts of consciousness in the same way as the words and the attitudes of the liar are concrete, really existing patterns of behavior” (Marino, 2004, p. 374). Sartre is comparing the concrete nature to our internal dialogue – which is full of fears, dreams, and lapses of memories – to the concrete nature of the liar’s attitude, saying that they both represent existing patterns of behavior. Our internal dialogue represents our instincts and personal desires and the lies we commit represent bad faith.
Sartre then introduces another analogy. This time, he speaks of a young woman who has agreed to go out with a man for the first time. She is aware of that he has romantic intentions, but does not reciprocate the advances made by the gentlemen. Towards the end of their outing, when the man took the woman’s hand, she just leaves her hand there as if she had not noticed the physical sensation to her body in the first place. This introduces another face to bad faith. She had two options: one, to release her hand from his grip, or; two, affectionately react to signal the man had made an appropriate act. “Her aim is to postpone the moment of decision as long as possible” (Marino, 2014, p. 381), says Sartre. That moment, when she decided to act as though she had not noticed the touch of the man, was one of bad faith. She sacrificed her internal intuition at the expense of the dignity of her hand, resting in the comfort that the other party would have no guarantee of her reflection upon his touch. The moment she chose to keep her hand in place and carries on as if he had not made a move in the first place was a perversion of her good faith; Sartre says “she realizes herself as not being her own body, and contemplates it as though from above as a passive object to which events can happen but which can neither prove them nor avoid them because all its possibilities are outside of it” (Marino, 2014, p. 382).
In Existentialism: An Introduction, we learn that both bad faith and good faith are eternal in the human experience. Aho says, “In good faith, the young man acknowledges his factical situation[…]but he simultaneously acknowledges his transcendence, seeing that this pattern of conduct does not determine who he will be in the future, because he can freely choose to act from a range of possibilities that are open to him and that he alone is responsible for these choices” (Aho, 20). This implies that, as we are freely able to choose from a ‘range of possibilities’ and that ‘[we]’ alone are responsible for our choices, that we are as susceptible to behave anywhere within the spectrum of our transcended selves or ourselves as a No. As Sartre stated himself, “it is best to choose and to examine one specific attitude which is essential to human reality and which is such that consciousness instead of directing its negation outward turns it toward itself” (Marino, 2014, p. 370).
I have had strong feelings of solidarity with the sentiments listed above in particular. As I try to understand who I am, I need to remember to stay true to my intuition and to remember to resist the influences of societal pressures and expectations. I need to remember that I am still finding myself and am still struggling on this road to authenticity. Though I was just ‘thrown into’ this world to figure out who I was, I can count on Heidegger to comfort me in my journey towards death. I can count on Nietzsche to believe in my will to power in my quest to becoming an ubermensch, without any feelings of judgement from his nihilistic behalf. And I can count on Sartre for reminding me to stay good and faithful to my true intuition and desires.
Aho, K. (2014). Existentialism: an introduction. Cambridge: Polity.
Marino, G. D., Kierkegaard, S., Nietzsche, F., Dostoïevski, F. M., Heidegger, M., Sartre, J., . . . Ellison, R. (2004). Basic writings of existentialism. New York: The Modern Library.