Doug Bruns

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Authenticity, and other over-used words.

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on November 24, 2019 at 9:00 am

I heard recently, during the current impeachment hearings, someone accuse so-and-so of “lacking authenticity.” It caught my ear. Several years ago I was deeply hung-up in the pursuit of authenticity, or at least a workable explanation of what truly it is. Eventually I walked away, vowing never to use the word again. It seemed too much a rabbit hole. The accusation I’d heard on the news suggested that authenticity was a default setting, that human beings were naturally authentic in our dealings and projections and designs, that the individual in question lacked this natural human state. That is not how I see it, particularly in this age of Instagramed lives and curated online personalities. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I’ve spent a good bit of the last couple of years reading and studying the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Among the many things I find appealing about these thinkers is their practicality. Their’s was a workable philosophy. They were, above all, interested in how to live, how to enjoy what they called the Good Life. The good life was not a life of materialistic pursuit, as we might think today. Rather, it was a life framed around the pursuit of tranquility, a life that flourished, a way of moving in the world that was harmonious with others and with, most importantly, nature. That is the good life and they were dogged in the pursuit of it. To that end they reasoned that a human being, if he or she is to enjoy the good life, must develop a handful of attributes, exercise them, and never let them go. What they were talking about was leading a life of virtue.  Not long later the Christians incorporated this notion into their new religion. The Christian Scholastics of the middle ages later developed a dogmatism around the virtues that lingers to this day. It can be hard to get around that for some people when considering virtue.

Depending on which school of ancient philosophy you subscribed to the number of virtues, four, six, ten, and so on, varied. The Stoics, for example, had four. Aristotle had eleven. I want to focus on a shared virtue among the schools: Courage.

For the ancients, courage was a given. Hand to hand combat, invasions, sacking and plundering, common violence—demands upon the individual such that courage was required to simply survive. That is a definition of courage upon which we can all agree. But there is a notion more subtle also at work here, the courage to live. And with that aspect of courage, we circle back to authenticity. To live fully, to live the good life is to live with courage and in doing so, a life of authenticity begins to develop.

Courage from the Latin “cor”, heart

Not surprisingly, the word courage derives from the Latin for heart, cor. “That player has heart,” is not an unusual comment to hear in the arena of sports. It connotes a depth of character that speaks to drive, fearlessness, and commitment of pursuit. Consider Thoreau, for instance. Writing about his Walden project, he said, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” To summarize Thoreau, courage is the first and most important thing he learned by living close to nature. That is what I mean by the phrase, courage to live, advancing confidently. I encourage you to read the last chapter of Walden, Conclusion. There is no better writing about courage than you’ll find there.

The barriers to courage, and subsequently to a life of authenticity, are not difficult to find. “How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” wrote Thoreau in that last chapter. I touched on this in my last essay, that is, the cultural pressures to be something other than individually realistic. It takes courage to resist the modern trappings which often lead to herd life, herd life being the antithesis of the good life. That is not to say modern life cannot afford us opportunity for a courageous life of authenticity. Indeed, the more ubiquitous is herd life, the more opportunity there is for one to stand tall courageously and authentically.

* * *

I would be remiss if I failed to consider a mistaken notion of modern authenticity. There is a current stream of thinking which suggests that authenticity is an excuse for incivility, for rudeness, and crass comments. “He can’t help himself, he has no filter, he’s totally authentic.” Really? I don’t think so. True authenticity is a manifestation of courageous self-knowledge. As such, by definition, a natural harmony is set into play–that is, if you’re following the path the ancients laid out. Authenticity demands of us a purity of character such that we are agents of harmony. That is not to say one is necessarily passive. With virtue as the motivator, the natural course, passive or aggressive, will be apparent.

Here’s the core of it. The ancients held that the closer we align ourselves with nature–green nature, the nature of the cosmos, human nature–the greater the degree of harmony we manifest. They saw an order to the world that was both teacher and student, a guiding self-referencing energy. You don’t have to subscribe to ancient metaphysics to observe that the world works better when harmony is pursued over discord, when kindness is a motivating factor. Here we might want to consider Kant’s moral categorical imperative:

“Act so that you can will that all persons should act under the same maxim you do.”


Take a moment and read that again. Genuine authenticity reduces religion and philosophy to kindness, to paraphrase the Dali Lama.

In summary, I take issue with the interlocutor at the impeachment hearings. Authenticity does not come naturally. There are too many other forces at work. It requires courage and work. So what is to be done? How does one live with courage and consequently, authentically? I turn again to that most American Zen Master, Henry David Thoreau for a clue. To wit:

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Listen to your music and dance gently. To quote Nietzsche, “Become who you are.”

Buzzwords of authenticity

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on March 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm

There is an article in the current Yankee magazine about the tradition of the Maine guide. At its heart, the guide program here in Maine is the practice of handing down skills and knowledge, guide to guide. It is, by definition, a tradition, like an apprenticeship. The article speaks to the context of “ritual history” verses “artifact history.” Artifact history is stuff, the offal of civilization, the things one finds in antique stores and museums. Ritual history, however, is the action of a skill handed down, including the knowledge of time and place contained in the memory of the teacher, drawing on previous teachers. There seems such natural symmetry to history practiced, if that is the right word, in this manner.

Turning still to contemporary culture, I received a catalog from a company called Ibex. They specialize in outdoor clothing. The catalog is quite nice and filled with lovely photography and interesting copy. Not all the copy is specific to selling clothes, at least not directly. There are several short essays that articulate the life-style choices of the Ibex clothes wearer. They are good little pieces, and frankly inspiring. One title, in particular, caught my eye: “Do (Authentic) Things.” The piece describes a sixth generation Vermonter, Bob Harrington, who runs a 140 acre sap farm. He collects sap with a horse-drawn tank. Drawing an overlap between their clothing and Harrington’s story, the copy reads, “We understand taking a longer road, a road tied to an artisan product and a strong connection to the natural world. We get it.” Consumerism aside, I respond to the pitch with a good deal of appreciation.

The business of authenticity has held center to my attentions for some time. It is the classic challenge: how to ensure that your experience of experience is valid. I have to reject in principle Sartre and Heidegger who held that modern civilization is already lost, that authenticity had been crushed by modern cultural norms and the attendant technologies. However, despite my rejection of that claim, it does not escape me that we first turn to outdoor guides and sap farmers when thinking of a life drawn authentic. I enjoy the comforts of modern existence. I’m not a Luddite. But there seems something fishy about much of modern existence (perhaps what Roland Barthes meant by “the plastic attempts of modernity”); so devoid it often appears of ritual history, to use our new phrase.

I wish to eat at the table of authenticity where the test of time is a basic ingredient of the recipe. That meal is most satisfying when the skills of its making are handed down from previous generations. Whose meal would you rather, Grandma’s or Ronald McDonald’s?

Does not something in our DNA long to connect with the ritualized promise of our ancestors? I fancy that if I find the right combination with which to respond to that question, a satisfaction, rich and unique, will be my reward. How best does one understand the nature of authenticity and assimilate that knowledge into a life?

Words per idea?

In Writing on March 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’ve determined that these entries should be, give or take,  500 words each. That’s approximately the number of words it takes to fill one page. If you ever want to write a novel, by way of advice, all you have to do is write 500 words a day. In a year you’ll have a 365 page novel, unless it’s a leap year, then you’ll have 366 pages.

I decided on 500 word postings because I hold the notion that an idea, any idea, can be conveyed in 500 words or less. If you need more than one page to make your point you’re in trouble. I am convinced that even the most complex idea can be, indeed should be, limited to a single page.  Most ideas, I think, can be conveyed in just a few sentences–the really good ones, in a phrase, as in, I think, therefore, I am. Or perhaps: In the beginning was the Word.

The thought articulated above, that an idea can be made pithy and communicated with no more than 500 words, took one-hundred and eighty-seven words, counting this sentence.


I consider myself an essayist first. However, five hundred words does not an essay make. Perhaps in grade school it would qualify, but likely not as a grown-up definition. There are fortunately no essay police to ticket the violator, no standard by which one must practice the craft. That is the thing I most appreciate about the form: its unobstructed freedom. Although, I am hesitant to call these postings essays, if a haiku, with it skeletal structure of just seventeen syllables is a poem,  then perhaps it’s not such a stretch.

The essayist’s craft

Is calling the rose a rose,

Plus “rose,” Gerti said.

I’ve read that a blogger should not accept word limitations or rules of count. This makes me happy, as logic would suggest that if I embrace a word limitation then perhaps I am something other than a blogger. That maybe I might even be a writer–but please not a blogger. I was at a party recently and someone asked me what I do. I told them I write essays and book reviews and general musings about whatever strikes my fancy. I mentioned this forum and a few others where my writing appears. Oh, he said, you’re a blogger. I gulped. It is a term I must accept, given this outlet, but that does not make me like it. As I’ve stated previously, the word blog and its deviations, is an inelegant word and looks plain dumb. Too, the context makes me squirm. I am convinced that a good poet would never use that word and I trust the judgement of poets when it comes to words.

With only forty words left me I should summarize. An idea can, and should be made simple–pithy is the goal. I should also like to mention that I believe in the value of constraints, that working within parameters is liberating, as discipline is freedom. And lastly, I reject the moniker of blogger–that, long form or short, an essay is an essay is an essay.

(I’ve run over by eighteen words. Sorry.)

The death of HDT

In Death, Thinkers on April 8, 2010 at 8:09 pm

HDT 1861

On his deathbed, Henry David Thoreau was asked by his aunt Louisa if he had made peace with God. “I did not know we had ever quarreled”, he replied.

His last words were, “Now comes good sailing.” And then two lose words “moose” and “Indian”. He died on May 6, 1862 at age 44.

Toward Wisdom #3

In Covid on May 23, 2020 at 6:28 am

Photo by Mattia Faloretti on Unsplash

Toward Wisdom is a series of thoughts in the age of Covid-19

* * *

The last words of the Buddha were recorded to be:

“Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”

Siddhartha Gautama was born around 480 BCE. He wasn’t called the Buddha until a couple centuries later. It means The Awakened One. He lived in ancient India and taught for about 45 years, dying around age 80.

Of course right now these words seem especially potent. General life, schedules, commitments, normalcy, all seem to be falling apart. We are indeed treading with care, washing our hands, keeping a social distance, and exercising other measures to stay safe. Much of what we are doing might be interpreted as a means of self preservation. Of course this is true also. But I also like to think about treading the path with care as an act of compassion, a way of protecting the community at large. Marcus Aurelius said, “That which is not good for the bee hive, cannot be good for the bee.” Treading the path with care is one way of taking care of ourselves. But I like to remind myself that it is also an act of compassion in that it likewise protects my neighbors, my community, and the world. My mother used to ask, What is your motivation? It’s a great question and a challenge that is always foremost in my mind. If your motivation is to stay healthy, perhaps expand that a bit. For instance, we naturally also want to keep our family healthy. How about including your neighbors in that thought? Then expand it to include wider circles of people you know, even expand it to include nationwide populations and so on. (If you really want to challenge yourself, include people you dislike or disdain!)

Stay well. Be safe. Protect the hive.

Waiting for my work to begin.

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2016 at 8:22 pm

It is reported that the last words of John Stuart Mill were, “My work is done.” I have a minor obsession regarding last words. Perhaps, if there is to be a summary of one’s life, it is  best captured in the last words, assuming the dying is cogent and a degree of ambition still evident. As I mentioned elsewhere, Hegel’s last words were, “Only one man understood me and he didn’t understand me.” And Henry Thoreau’s were, “Moose…Indian.” My advice to the dying is: Know what you’re going to say before you expire. We’re interested.

Mill’s utterance, “My work is done” crossed my radar this week. It came on the heels of a friend making the comment, “If you wrote a book, I’d read it.” You cannot imagine the import of these two phrases colliding as they did in space and time. I expressed appreciation to my friend and told him that growing up I was under the self-inflicted impression that I was to be a writer. I said this and smiled, shrugging my shoulders, as if to say, Oh well. But inside, I wanted to cry out, “Do Over!” Not that I would be up for a trade or a barter. I have loved the life I’ve lived (so far), the family, the marriage, the travel, books read, people met, and so on. But if I could have more that would be good. Greed is not an emotion I’m susceptible to, except when it falls into the category of living: let me live more, larger, richer, deeper. (Note, I didn’t say, Let me live longer.)

At this place in life I am still waiting, as silly as it sounds, to Mill’s point, waiting for my work to begin. When is that going to commence, I wonder? Soon is good, later not so much. And what if it doesn’t come? Herein lies the problem: It is not a thing that is self-starting. It is not a thermostat that will kick in when some pre-set trigger is pulled. It is, to be vague about it, a thing that one must begin with effort and discipline and purpose. Waiting for Godot is still waiting, yet Beckett wrote the play. And still I wait.
What exactly is my work? What am I waiting for? Good questions. Good questions without good responses. “Let us do something, while we have the chance,” writes Beckett in Godot. Indeed, let us do something.