Pursuing the authentic self–explained by Gerson, captured by Belz

by Mr. Sheehy

Michael Gerson is a smart guy–whether or not one agrees with his politics I would hope that is an uncontroversial observation–and in a recent column he waded into history to explain a concept of ethics he finds relevant to understanding President Trump.

Without intending it, Tlaib and Trump have wandered into an important moral debate. And not a new one. In any ethical system derived from Aristotle, human beings fulfill their nature by exercising their reason and habituating certain virtues, such as courage, temperance, honor, equanimity, truthfulness, justice and friendship. Authenticity — at least, authenticity defined as congruence with your unformed self — is not on the list. In fact, this view of ethics requires a kind of virtuous hypocrisy — modeling ourselves on a moral example, until, through action and habit, we come to embody that ideal. Ethical development is, in a certain way, theatrical. We play the role of someone we admire until we become someone worthy of admiration.

But there is a rival tradition. In any ethical tradition derived from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, authenticity is at the apex of the virtues. This view begins from the premise that man is born free but is everywhere in social chains. Being true to yourself, and expressing yourself freely, is seen as the chief requirement of a meaningful and happy life. In this system, the worst sin is hypocrisy — being untrue to your real self.

This approach to ethics is also theatrical, but in a different way. In Rousseau’s view, we are performers as ourselves, and life is a kind of transgressive art form. Being true to ourselves means being true to our eccentricities. Especially to our eccentricities.

(I cut his quote before explains the political implications, so if you want to hear those, you’ll have to read the column.)

This pursuit of the authentic self will tangle a person in knots, and Gerson’s explanation comes to life with Aaron Belz’s evocation of the tangle in “Your Objective,” a poem from his collection, Glitter BombParticularly effective is how Belz grasps the silliness and difficulty of where we find ourselves.  (I normally wouldn’t reproduce the poem in full, but I found it online already at Vandal Poem of the Day.)

In a given situation
Your objective should be
To act as much like yourself
As possible. Just imagine
How you would act
And act that way.
A good rule of thumb
Is, try to be similar
To who you really are.
But keep in mind
That there’s no way
To perfectly replicate
Yourself at all times.

Onward I trek,  then, wanting to act like the self I really want to be, but struggling because I can’t seem to replicate that self all the time. Alas! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Such a life.