The Path to Being Authentic

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“On Being Authentic,” Charles Guignon, Routledge (2004)
“The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, Simon & Schuster (2016)

I recently read two books that explore ways of thinking about the “self” throughout history. To anyone interested in what we can learn from past philosophers on living life well I highly recommend reading these books together — both are thoughtful, captivating, and short!

The first is On Being Authentic, by the philosopher Charles Guignon. Beginning with Socrates, Guignon traces the idea of “the self” through western history up to the present day. Who am I? What is my role in society? Since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, human beings have struggled with these fundamental questions, and they’ve come up with a lot of different answers. When Plato and Aristotle walked in the Athenian agora, the idea was that your inner life mattered very little – in fact, the concept of an “inner self” wasn’t that powerful at all. The proper way to search for your identity and conduct your life was to look to external truths derived from the cosmic order. With the rise and spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages, the truth of the cosmos became synonymous with the truths of God and the Holy Scriptures. It was only after the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment that the search for truth was turned radically inward. Now, many thinkers argued, deep within each individual was a “true self”—the “Real Me”—in distinction from everything that lies outside. This inner self was considered to be the wellspring of truth and revelation. Guignon deftly shows how this historical shift inward still informs the way most of us think about identity and authenticity today.

One of the chief strengths of On Being Authentic is that it gives us an accessible understanding of why our modern-day dilemmas of who we ought to be are so complicated. Should we trust our feelings, go with our gut? Should we rely on reason to chart a course through the uncertain future each of us faces? How much stock should we put in the examples and advice of others? How much should we introspect and self-evaluate? Guignon doesn’t provide clear-cut answers, but his book offers the consolation of knowing that human beings have struggled with these questions for hundreds of years. He clarifies the way great thinkers have tackled these questions, helping us navigate today’s panoply of life-philosophies which seem to amount to endless contradiction. On Being Authentic also reminds us that many of the ideas we take for granted have evolved from the past, and keep evolving – which raises the exciting thought of how might we improve them in the future.

What On Being Authentic doesn’t include, however, is the wealth of wisdom from eastern philosophers who explored the very same questions. For insight into that history, I recommend picking up The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, a book co-authored by Michael Puett, a history professor at Harvard, and the journalist Christine Gross-Loh. The two teamed up to convert Puett’s immensely popular undergraduate course on Chinese Philosophy. For so many of the great but often under-explored (here in the U.S.) Chinese philosophers, the guide to living well is not so much about finding and remaining true to the “real me,” but about taking life as it is and remaining flexible to change. You don’t have to be bogged down by your past, and your future is in no way predetermined. In fact, rather than engaging in intensive introspection, ancient Chinese philosophers thought that simple and habitual changes to our everyday environment can lead to profound changes of our identities. We hear about Confucius on the usefulness of social ritual; Mencius and the impossibility of making plans; Zhuangzi on “trained spontaneity”; Laozi on soft power; Xunzi on preferring artifice to nature; and many more. The ancient Chinese wisdom here can open up new constellations of possibilities in the way we think about everything from our careers to our families.

As someone who’s been thinking about the struggle to pursue the authentic self, I think both perspectives–East and West–help us, especially when read together. The two are often presented as foils to one another. The West values individuality; the East collectivism. The West encourages dissent; the East deference to authority. The West pushes innovation; the East conforms to tradition. But simple distinctions like these oversimplify the story. We can learn a lot from seeing thoughtful analyses from different parts of the world not as contrasts but as compliments. Both books work together in the pursuit of understanding the same questions: who am I, and how should I live? For example, the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers actually has a lot in common with western existentialist thought from the 20th century!

On a larger note, categorical thinking in terms of “this” culture versus “that” culture is outmoded for today’s world, and exemplifies our difficult quest for identity in the first place. Globalization has made connectivity the central pulse of our lives, where the lines between east, west, or any cultural category are constantly hazy. Political life is strained under the blurred national identities of global governance. Education is focused on transferable, interconnected skills for a global workforce. Historians have uncovered the deep roots of interconnectedness throughout the past. Psychologists have proposed new ideas for understanding how we construct our identities al-a-carte, from a global menu of cultural ideas, rather than strictly following the homogenizing codes of national or ethnic categories.

This new global menu of options can be a real thrill. It brings an exciting new array of identities and experiences to anyone with an internet connection. But it can also be overwhelming and frightening. If forming personal identities weren’t hard enough already, now we have double, triple, quadruple the possibilities for self development from all across the world.

How do we navigate this vastly enlarged menu of combined cultural forms? That’s a hard question to answer. But any answer will have to start with an understanding of how we got here in the first place, how to think about the ideas we’ve inherited, and looking for answers from many places and times. I can’t recommend a better introduction to thinking about living a life well than these two books.