One of Canada's hippest, smartest cultural critics takes on the West's defining value.
We live in a world increasingly dominated by the fake, the prepackaged, the artificial: fast food, scripted reality TV shows, Facebook "friends," and fraudulent memoirs. But people everywhere are demanding the exact opposite, heralding "authenticity" as the cure for isolated individualism and shallow consumerism. Restaurants promote the authenticity of their cuisine, while condo developers promote authentic loft living and book reviewers regularly praise the authenticity of a new writer's voice.
International bestselling author Andrew Potter brilliantly unpacks our modern obsession with authenticity. In this perceptive and thought-provoking blend of pop culture, history, and philosophy, he finds that far from serving as a refuge from modern living, the search for authenticity often creates the very problems it's meant to solve.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Andrew Potter is the coauthor of the international bestseller The Rebel Sell. A journalist and writer, he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, and he is a former assistant professor at Trent University in Peterborough. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and the University of Quebec at Montreal. He is currently a public affairs columnist with Maclean’s and an editor with Canadian Business magazine.
From the Hardcover edition.
THE MALAISE OF MODERNITY
In one of the most famous road trips in history, an emaciated and notoriously untrustworthy Greek youth named Chaerophon trekked the 125 miles from Athens to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to consult with the Oracle as to whether there was any man wiser than his friend Socrates. No, Chaerophon was told by the Oracle, there was no man wiser, and so he returned to Athens and informed Socrates of what the Oracle had said. At first Socrates was a bit skeptical, since it struck him that most of his fellow Athenians certainly acted as if they were wise about a great many things, while he, Socrates, didn’t really know much about anything at all. But after wandering about the city for a while, questioning his fellow citizens about a range of topics (such as truth, beauty, piety, and justice), Socrates eventually decided that most of them were indeed as ignorant as he, but they didn’t know it. He concluded that he was indeed the wisest Athenian, and that his wisdom consisted in the fact that he alone knew that he knew nothing.
Socrates should have known there was a bit of a trick to the Oracle’s pronouncement. Inscribed in golden letters above the entrance to the ancient temple were the words gnothi seauton – “know thyself.”
“Know thyself” thus became Socrates’ fundamental rule of intellectual engagement, which he continued to deploy in Athens’ public spaces, conversing at length with anyone who would indulge him and spending a great deal of downtime in the company of handsome young men. It cannot be said that his fellow Athenians appreciated this commitment to debate. In 399 bce, Socrates was charged and tried for the crimes of teaching false gods, corrupting the youth, and “making the weaker argument the stronger” (a form of argumentative trickery called sophistry). At his trial, when the jury returned with a verdict of guilty on all counts, his accusers pressed for the death penalty. Given the chance to argue for an alternative punishment, Socrates started by goading the jury, going so far as to suggest that they reward him with free lunch for life. As for the other options – exile or imprisonment – he told the jury that he would not be able to keep his mouth shut on philosophical matters. Philosophy, he told them, is really the very best thing that a man can do, and life without this sort of examination is not worth living.
Socrates chose death rather than silence, and ever since he has been hailed for his integrity, a Christlike figure who was martyred for his refusal to sacrifice the ideals of intellectual independence, critical examination, and self-understanding. For many people, the Socratic injunction to “know thyself” forms the moral core of the Western intellectual tradition and its modern formulation – “to thine own self be true” – captures the fullness of our commitment to authenticity as a moral ideal.
For its part, the visit to the Oracle, with the cryptic pronouncement about Socrates having a special hidden characteristic, has become a stock motif of countless works of film and fiction, where the hero has to come to believe something about himself before he can help others. Perhaps the most hackneyed version of this is the scene in the film The Matrix, when Morpheus takes Neo to visit the Oracle. Morpheus believes that Neo is The One, the prophesied messiah destined to rescue humanity from the computer-generated dreamworld in which it has been enslaved. Neo is, understandably, a bit skeptical of his ability to serve as the savior of humanity. So Morpheus drags Neo off to see the Oracle, hoping that the good word from a maternal black woman who speaks in riddles while baking cookies will give Neo the boost of self-confidence he needs to get into the game and set about destroying the machines. Instead, the Oracle looks Neo in the eye and tells him he hasn’t got what it takes to be the messiah. On his way out, she hands him a cookie and says, somewhat oddly, “Make a believer out of you yet.” As Neo leaves, we see inscribed above the entrance to the kitchen the words temet nosce, which is Latin for “know thyself.”
As it turns out, Neo is (of course) the messiah. The Oracle could not just come out and say so though, because Neo had to believe it himself. He had to buy into the whole worldview that Morpheus and his gang had laid out, about the rise of the machines, the scorching of the earth, and the enslavement of humanity. As Trinity tells Neo later on, it doesn’t matter what Morpheus or even the Oracle believe, what matters is what Neo himself believes. The lesson is pretty clear. Before Neo can save humanity, he first has to believe in himself. The idea that self-knowledge and self-discovery are preconditions for social contribution is a thoroughly modern lesson, well steeped in the ethic of authenticity.
The Wachowski brothers were no doubt aware of the parallels they were drawing between Socrates and Neo (and, indirectly, between both of them and Jesus). Yet in Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling makes it clear that this claim of continuity between the ancient world of Socrates and modern world of Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle is an anachronism, and that the authentic ideal is actually something relatively new. According to Trilling, the necessary element of authenticity – a distinction between an inner true self and a outer false self – only emerged in Western culture a few hundred years ago, toward the end of the eighteenth century. So despite superficial similarities, there is no real continuity between the Socratic dictum to “know thyself” and the thoroughly modern quest of self-discovery and self-understanding as an end in itself. What separates them is a yawning chasm between us moderns on the one side and the premodern world on the other.
What does it mean to be modern? That is a big and difficult question, and it has been the subject of a great many big and difficult books. One problem is that we often use modern as a synonym for contemporary, as when we marvel at modern technology or fret about modern love. Furthermore, even when we are careful to use modern to refer to a specific historical period, just what that is depends on the context. For example, historians sometimes refer to as “modern” the whole period of European history since the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. Modern architecture, however, typically refers to a highly functional and unornamental building style that arose around the beginning of the twentieth century.
Here, I am concerned with modernity less as a specific historical epoch than as a worldview. To be modern is to be part of a culture that has a distinctive outlook or attitude, and while an important task for historians involves understanding why this worldview emerged where and when it did, it is essential to the concept of modernity that it is not tied to a particular place and moment. Modernity is what Marshall Berman, in his 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, calls “a mode of vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils – that is shared by men and women all over the world today.” More than anything, modernity is a way of being, a stance we adopt toward the world and our place in it.
The rise of the modern worldview is marked by three major developments: the disenchantment of the world, the rise of liberal individualism, and the emergence of the market economy, also known as capitalism. Between 1500 and 1800, these three developments ushered in profound changes in people’s attitudes toward everything from science, technology and art, to religion, politics, nd personal identity. Put together, they gave rise to the idea of progress, which, as we shall see, does not necessarily mean “things are getting better all the time.” More than anything, progress means constant change, something that many people find unpleasant and even alienating. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s begin with the disenchantment of the world.
In the first season of the television series Mad Men, set in the advertising world of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, graysuit-and-Brylcreemed advertising executive Don Draper finds himself caught up in an affair with a bohemian proto-hippie named Madge. She drags Draper to parties and performance art clubs in Greenwich Village where he jousts with her anti-establishment friends over marketing and the moral culpability of capitalism. (Typical exchange: “How do you sleep at night?” “On a big pile of money.”)
One night they end up back at an apartment, drinking and smoking pot and arguing once again. When one of the stoned beatniks informs Draper that television jingles don’t set a man free, Draper replies by telling him to get a job and make something of himself. At this point, Madge’s beatnik boyfriend chimes in with some classic countercultural paranoia: “You make the lie,” he tells the ad man. “You invent want. But for them, not us.” Draper has had enough, so he stands up, puts on his hat, and gives them some serious buzzkill: “I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe . . . is indifferent.”
“Man,” goes the extremely bummed reply. “Why’d you have to go and say that?”
If he’d bothered to stick around to continue the debate, Don Draper might have answered, Because it is true. For the most part, this exchange is nothing more than stereotyped bickering between hipsters and squares, of the sort that has been going on in dorm rooms and coffee shops for over half a century. But that last line of Draper’s, about the indifferent universe, speaks to a deeper existential realization at the heart of the modern condition.
Once upon a time, humans experienced the world as a “cosmos,” from a Greek word meaning “order” or “orderly arrangement.” The order in this world operated on three levels. First, all of creation was itself one big cosmos, at the center of which was Earth. In fixed orbits around Earth revolved the moon, the sun, and the visible planets, and farther out still were the fixed stars. Second, life on Earth was a sort of enchanted garden, a living whole in which each being or element had its proper place. And finally, human society was itself properly ordered, with people naturally slotted (by unchosen characteristics such as bloodline, birth order, gender, or skin color) into predetermined castes, classes, or social roles.
Whatever else it might have been, this was a place of meaning, value, and purpose, with each part getting its identity from knowing its place in the whole and performing its proper function within an organic unity. For both the ancient Greeks and, later, medieval thinkers, this fundamental order could be described by the notion of the “great chain of being,” a strict hierarchy of perfection stretching from the rocks and minerals, up through the plants and animals, to humans, angels, and God. In this geo centric and homocentric cosmos, humanity found itself trebly at home, comfortably nestled like a Russian doll within a series of hierarchies. Earth was the most important part of creation, and humans were the most important beings on Earth. Finally, human society was itself a “cosmos,” a functional and hierarchical system – of slaves, peasants, commoners, tradespeople, nobles, and so on – in which each person’s identity was entirely determined by their place in that structure.
This was the worldview in which Socrates (or at least, the man who is revealed through Plato’s writings) operated. For Socrates, self-discovery involved little more than coming to understand where you fit in the grand scheme of things. On this reading, the oracular injunction to “know thyself” would be better expressed as “know thy place.” This is not to say that people did not have ambitions, emotions, or deeply felt desires, just that these were not important to helping you discover your place in the world.
Our films and fiction are full of romantic stories about the sons of medieval cobblers who fall in love with, woo, and win the local nobleman’s daughter, or Georgian scullery girls who find themselves swept off their feet and up to the castle by the young prince who is sick of dating fake society girls, but these are nothing more than projections of our own assumptions and values onto a world in which such behavior was literally inconceivable. The work of Jane Austen is so important precisely because it marks the transition from that world to a more modern sensibility – most of her stories hinge on her characters’ nascent individualism straining against the given roles of the old social order.
Almost every society that has ever existed has seen its world as “enchanted” in one way or another, from the polytheism of the ancient Greeks and Romans to the strict social roles of Chinese Confucianism to the form many of us are most familiar with, the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What is characteristic of traditions of this sort is that they are what we can call “comprehensive doctrines,” in that they purport to explain and justify a great deal about life on Earth, how the world works, and why human society is structured as it is, all within a common metaphysical framework.
Consider Catholicism, which at its peak was a powerful comprehensive doctrine that began by providing an explanation for the origins of the universe (God made it in seven days) and life on Earth (God made Adam out of dust, and Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs). Additionally, it provided a moral code (the Ten Commandments), along with a justification (God commands it), backed up by a sanction for violations (you’ll burn in hell). Finally, it explained the meaning of life, which consists of spiritual salvation through communion with God, mediated by the priesthood. Science, politics, morality, spiritual succor – the Catholic church is a one-stop explanatory shop, serving needs existential, political, social, and scientific.
What a comprehensive religious tradition does is ensure that everything that happens on Earth and in human society makes sense. In the end, everything happens for a reason, as it must be interpreted in light of what God wills, or what He commands. This is a version of what philosophers call teleological explanation – explanation in light of ultimate purposes or goals (from the Greek telos, meaning “end.”) The disenchantment of the world occurs when appeals to ultimate ends or purposes or roles being built into the very fabric of the universe come to be seen as illegitimate or nonsensical.
The big steamroller of Christianity was science, as a series of discoveries – from Copernican heliocentrism to Darwinian natural selection – played an important role in shaking up humankind’s sense of its place in the scheme of things. But even though science has progressively discredited any number of specific religious claims, there is no necessary antagonism between science and religion at the deepest level, and for many scientists, scientific inquiry is just a way of coming to understand the mind of God....
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Book Description Emblem Editions, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P11077107106X
Book Description Emblem Editions, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M077107106X