Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Authenticity’

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.

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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.”

Sunday Repost: Decide to Live

In Books, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writers on January 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
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The Razor’s Edge

A friend recently loaned me his well-read copy of Somerset Maugham‘s 1944 classic The Razor’s Edge. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to get back to since first reading it in college. (It needs a re-reading if for no other reason than to get the Bill Murray movie out of my head.) Last night I finished Ruth Franklin’s review of Selina Hastings new Maugham biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” found in the May 31st issue of The New Yorker. If I were to subscribe to the popular notion that everything happens for a reason, I would think the universe was sending me a message. But I don’t subscribe to that notion, nor do I think the universe is singling me out for inspiration. Rather, I chalk it up to a happy coincidence and the fact that my antenna are tuned to a certain frequency right now.

The book, as I recall, is the tale of one man’s quest for authenticity, and authenticity is a subject I’m spending a good bit of time researching lately. I am trying to trace the idea back to Socrate’s observation that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s a big subject and I will save the conversation for a different forum.  But back to Maugham. Wikipedia summarizes the plot of the book this way: “The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American fighter pilot (Larry Darrell) traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life…” That pretty well fills the bill. It’s what the antenna are testing for.

This theme was again played out this morning by that sage of common wisdom, Ben Stein, on CBS Sunday

Ben Stein

Ben Stein

Morning. If you missed it, here’s a link: “How to Live: Follow Your Heart…” Ben was addressing the graduates in the audience and he ends his essay with this advice: Decide to Live. As with most of Ben’s advice it is spot on. It again brings me around to my subject of authenticity, the examined life, and the Razor’s Edge. Two sentences from Ben’s short essay stand out. He is talking about people who are happy, and this is what he says:  “They decided to do what their hearts told them to do, to do what was in them to do. They took risks and they took chances, and they tried a lot of different things until they got to where they wanted to be.”

I’m not sure how happiness, the examined life, “transcendent meaning” and all that square precisely, if they indeed do. I think they do, and I’m looking into it.

Lastly, a bit of advice, parallel to the theme, from William James. From a letter to his son, James said simply: “Live hard.”

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A NOTE ON HOUSEKEEPING

I’ve added a resource that I hope you’ll find helpful. Check out the “Bookshelf” link just below the header. A click will launch a shelf of books we’ve discussed here at “…the house…” An additional click will launch additional information about the book, author, and so forth.

I’m hoping to add categories–biography, memoir, fiction, etc. But that requires a degree of expertise still under development by your humble host.

Thanks for reading,

d

Two things I’m no longer interested in.

In Life, Philosophy on June 12, 2012 at 6:00 am

The philosopher’s robe.

The heavy baggage goes first.

I’m tired and worn out and now grown weary of (at least) two long-standing philosophical quests: pursuit of “the self”–as in, Know Thyself–as well as the notion of authenticity. As a friend recently stated, they are tired and overworked ideas, seeds that are apparently sterile.

I don’t have the intellectual wherewithal, even interest, to continue burrowing down those rabbit holes.

Nietzsche said that one should strive to Become who you are. He was riffing on Pindar, who concluded the phrase saying, Once you know who that is. (There’s an insider’s joke!) It is this business of knowing what that is, the pure and presumably authentic self (my apologizes to Sartre), that is held out to be the core of things. But these “things” no longer interest me. I wish to sail on. Why go to the core when the horizon holds such promise?

I’m an orderly guy. I like everything buttoned down and tidy; so I thought I would set things right and put an end to the conversation here, once and with certainty. (A quick check of this blog with reference to “authenticity” cites at least a dozen postings.)

I return the philosopher’s cloak to the chifferobe, smelling slightly of camphor.

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In this spirit, a new tag-line for “…the house…” has been composed. Gone is the bluster of: Words, My words, Coming at you. Whether you need them or not. Instead, a factually more accurate, less aggressive, description: The House I Live In, A journal of life pursued.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate it.

No, You’ll Never Do “That.”

In Photography, The infinity of ideas on October 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm

At one time I owned and curated a gallery of fine art photography. (Never mind that I have a problem with the words “fine-art”

An Alison Wright Portrait

An Alison Wright Portrait

as an adjective to anything. It was pure marketing.) Among the photographers I represented in my gallery was National Geographic photographer, Alison Wright, a photographer who had spent her career photographing indigenous people of endangered cultures.

One afternoon a large woman wearing a hat came into the gallery. She had her young son in tow. He was maybe fifteen. They looked at the photographs, brilliant portraits of people living on the Tibetan plateau, of people in the jungles of Burma, remote China and elsewhere in Asia. “Look at these, Jimmy,” said the large woman in the hat. “You could do that. You could do that with the camera you got for Christmas.” Jimmy looked at the images, peered into the eyes of the subjects and said nothing. I do not know if Jimmy believed he could “do that” or if Jimmy even knew what “that” was. I wanted to slap my palm on the surface of my desk. I wanted to shout, “No. No way in hell will you do that, Jimmy. You know how I know, Jimmy? I know you will not invest twenty years of your life getting to know a place, getting to know a people. You will not sleep on the stained floor of a clinic, or sweat your balls off in a steamy jungle, or leave the comfort of your family, or house, your country for God knows how long. And you know what, Jimmy. Even if you were to do all those things, you would not do “this.” You would do something altogether different. “This” can only be done once. Whatever you do, it will not be this.” I wanted the large woman in the hat to stop filling poor Jimmy with delusion. What he was peering at was not common. It was not as simple as “doing that.”

I fear we have lost the capacity to recognize the authentic. That seems the ominous leveling nature of modern society. Hence, I rail!

A Pandemonium of Myths…

In Mythology, Philosophy, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on August 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Nietzsche held that a problem of modernity is that the modern man (and woman) is a “mythless man.” As a result, we take the mundane and lift it to the glorious, making it “shine.” As Julian Young says, “the problem, in fact, is that too many things shine in modernity, and that their shine rubs off too soon.” He continues to cite cultural examples of what so cheaply shines. (You can fill in the blanks; it’s not hard.) As a result there is a “pandemonium of myths…thrown into a disorderly heap,” [Nietzsche]. We live, as Zarathustra puts it, in a “motley” town.

This resonates with me. It feels true and is at the center of a personal quest for authenticity. One effort, along these lines, is the rejection of the shiny.  Or at least a severe analysis thereof. Regardless of what shines, glamor, consumerism, materialism, personality, this, that and the other thing, so often–always?–the shine wears off. We live in a neo-Guilded Age. There is no sustainable myth. (David Foster Wallace wrestled with this theme in Infinite Jest, the idea that our energies are spent on the mundane, seeking addiction in something, so as to fill some nascent unrealized need.) A mindful challenge of the assumptions of modernity correlates with a minimalist approach to living–which brings me to the most emailed New York Time’s article of last week, But Will It Make You Happy? The piece takes a look at the growing American phenomenon at personal down-sizing. (Can you live with just 100 things?) I will not attempt to encapsulate the article. Read it. (I expressed similar thoughts on happiness and the gross domestic product in previous blog entries.) There is also a wonderful blog linked in the article which warrants consideration, a collection of musings  advocating “social change through simple living,” by Tammy Strobel, called RowdyKittens.

As the slow cooking movement began as an Italian reaction to a new Rome-based McDonalds, so might a minimalist, non-consumptive living movement gain purchase against the drive to the abyss which our species seems hell-bent on completing. To paraphrase a personal hero, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, We have marched to the brink of existence, now we have to turn 180 degrees and take a step forward. Backward is no longer backward. It is forward. Can we escape this motley town?

Phase of Authenticity

In Philosophy, Photography, The Examined Life, Truth on March 1, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Is it just me, or do other people feel less authentic than they used to? It’s probably just me. I’m not even sure what I mean when I say authentic, but I know it when I feel it. (Kind of like Supreme Court Justice Stewart in 1964, writing about hard-core porn: “I shall not today attempt further to define…[b]ut I know it when I see it.”) I can’t define it, but I know it when I feel it.

But I am famous, in family circles, that is, of going through phases*. Going through a phase is something I have done all my life in an effort to avoid the static. Really, who wants to be static. Static is roadkill.

I was at dinner last week, a progressive dinner for The Telling Room here in Portland. I had my photographer’s bling around my neck. That would be my Leica MP with a short stubby sexy 28mm lens. (Yes, I am a camera geek/dork…) And the gentleman next to me, of all things, was a pin-hole camera hobbyist. We started talking photographer’s talk, film and f-stops and all that stuff, when someone across the table sort of demeaned the craft, specifically the film-photography craft in the day and age of digital. I said that I was in a life-phase going somewhat analogue, as best I could. Shooting film was a start. Are you, she asked, smiling bedevilingly, ready to stand in a bank queue at 6pm on a Friday night? (Well, for starters, I don’t get a paycheck on Fridays, but I sensed where she was coming from.) Do you remember, she continued, the days before ATMs and computer banking, when the banks stayed open late on Fridays so you could deposit your paycheck? Yes, I lied. I remembered. That was analogue, she said. Touché. Okay, Uncle. I give up. Analogue does not equal authentic. But is it closer? Is listening to vinyl more authentic than listening to my iPod. That’s silly. But…

I sense that the further I get from my origin the less precisely I feel I am living. (A friend, Vernon Hines, once proclaimed, We can never escape our biography.) I’m not sure I can explain that in a manner that warrants serious consideration. It is, after all, an intensely personal comment. But of this I can be sure: There are ways to think about living that are more genuine than other ways and I want to experience them. Again, intensely personal. In general, for starters, it is not about stuff. Despite my bling, stuff turns on you, and ends up owning you before you know it. Aspiring to stuff is aspiring to bondage. Believe me, I know. (“Possessions are a way of turning money into problems,” Brian Eno.) Stuff is not authentic. Style is. (But not the way you think.) Stay tuned.

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*Phases: “Phase of Understanding” followed by “Phase of Existence (cogito ergo sum backward)” followed by “Phase of Being Present (my Zen phase)” followed by  current “Phase of Authenticity”