On Finding Our Authentic Selves: or, the True and the False in the Age of Rousseau

April 24, 2019

Being Part 3 of: Why Liberals Should be Conservative: Climate Change, Excellence, and the Practice of Happiness

It may be urged that every individual man carries, within himself, at least in his adaptation and destination, a purely ideal man. The great problem of his existence is to bring all the incessant changes of his outer life into conformity with the unchanging unity of this ideal. –Friedrich von Schiller

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for itself; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being  . . . . This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species.–Karl Marx

As in every kind of radicalism the moment comes when any critique of the present must choose its bearings, between past and future.  And if the past is chose, as now so often and so deeply, we must push the argument through to the roots that are being defended; push attention, human attention, back to the natural economy, the moral economy, the organic society, from which the critical values are drawn.–Raymond Williams[i]

First, a recap: I have proposed in Part 1 and Part 2 that Liberalism (which, recall, encompasses mainstream liberals and “conservatives”) does not have the conceptual resources to enforce or even encourage limits to consumption.  This helplessness in the face of a crisis of ecology is the flip side of Liberalism’s strengths, especially the way it has stayed true to its founding celebration of freedom in the face of human heterogeneity and diversity.[ii]  This is why Liberalism is officially neutral with regard to the good.  In contrast to most religions as well as the Aristotelianism we have begun to discuss, it asks the individual to determine his or her own ends according to free choice and preference, which in turn means that within a Liberal moral or social order there are no binding reasons that life should be lived according to any specific plan or towards any specific ends.

Respect for limits, including ecological ones, has an inherent contradiction to liberal freedom, for it is also up to the individual to choose the limits he or she respects in the same way one might choose which God, if any, to worship, or which fitness regime to adopt.  Instead of the good in a restricted sense, Liberalism offers the open-ended good of individual freedom, the virtue of tolerance, and as few limits as possible.  A limitless morality, says Wendell Berry, is no morality at all.  Thus is the old-fashioned and stuffy notion of a moral life replaced by lifestyle, while the chief vice in Liberal society is “imposing your beliefs or ideology on others.”  In part 1 I discussed some of the moral consequences of life reduced to a style, the most significant of which may nevertheless be overconsumption.

If I have a overriding theme, it is this: unless as a society or civilization we can conceive of a good that celebrates a low-energy and low-consumption way of life, one that offers intrinsic reasons for living simply and within the Earth’s ecological limits, we are likely either to consume our selves into oblivion, or should expect external or extrinsic limits of the sort imposed by heavy-handed governments.  The appeal of Aristotelianism, in this context, is that instead of placing external limits on unfettered wants and desires, a recipe for frustration, resentment, and rebellion, it conceives of the good as part of a moral education so that we want and desire what is virtuous, while virtue, which I’ll take up again at a later date, is the means to a life of human excellence or, as Marx would say, of achieving our true human potential.  A properly conceived good, Aristotle argues, does not require the oppression and denial of our wants, but helps us align our fundamental inclinations towards the best and most excellent life for humans, one in Aristotle’s view where the virtue of moderation plays a major role.  In our present circumstances, the good life would not be based on unsustainable consumption, but upon the happy acceptance of limits, while ecological virtues would be the qualities which enable us to thrive in pursuit of that good.

As nice as this may sound, and as implacable as some limits may be, this Aristotelian ideal, like most religious ones, doesn’t have a very good answer for the Liberal challenge, which can simply point to previous conceptions of the good as one group justifying the imposition of its way of life on others.  In the modern age of individualism and global diversity, moreover, Liberalism is skeptical that there is one way of life that is good for everyone; it is aware that, absent a unified belief system of the sort characteristic of theism — of a single God and “his” law — we lack a cultural or moral authority to which we can appeal.  Any good not freely chosen, Liberalism holds, can’t qualify as a legitimate good, for the act of choosing is integral to Liberal good.  That means each free individual is sovereign over his or her moral choices, including choices about what to dig-up, cut-down, make, buy, eat, and throw away.  The best Liberalism can do, lacking a more positive notion of the good, is fall back on John Stewart Mill’s formulation that we are free to do whatever we want up to the point at which it affects someone else.  On a crowded and overheated planet, this postulate is merely formal.  It may have logical coherence, but it has almost no possible content: everything we do affects someone else.  Liberalism and ecological limits have little common ground upon which to meet and it should be of no surprise that Liberalism was born in an age of geographical expansion.[iii]

But Liberalism represents only part of our political history since the eighteenth century.  Soon after Liberalism began to enshrine a politics that rejected traditional forms of authority, basing it instead on a “rationalized” society, featuring property-rights and contractual relationships, a counter-tradition was born, midwifed in large part by Jean Jacques Rousseau.  Schematically, to cite Bertrand Russell, since the eighteenth century Western political philosophy can be divided into two groups: those who follow John Locke (Liberals) and those who follow Rousseau (the Liberal counter-tradition).  Thomas Jefferson referred to Locke, with Newton and Francis Bacon, as “the three greatest people who have ever lived without exception.”  Marx, Nietzsche, and existentialism, in addition to the main innovators in the arts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, follow Rousseau.[iv]  Locke and the Liberals represented pragmatic and utilitarian effectiveness with regard to largely commercial ends and the pursuit of property.  Rousseau, Romantics, and revolutionaries have tended to value community, nature, and self-expression.  This is not to say that Locke and Rousseau are mutually exclusive, or at least that followers have not found ways to draw simultaneously from both sides.  In fact, as I will explain in a later history of Liberalism, Locke and Rousseau have been reconciled in the modern Liberal lifestyle.  As Charles Taylor puts it, “modern society, we might say, is Romantic in its private and imaginative life and utilitarian or instrumentalist in its public, effective life.”  But this reconciliation (or, rather, détente), as significant as it is, hides both the contestation which has defined modernity and the more specific nature of conceptual resources available within the modern episteme.

This Rousseauean counter-tradition set out to find an alternative to the instrumentalism, individualism, and utilitarian values that had begun to prevail as the market economy developed and the industrial revolution began.  Its goal — visible in Romantic poetry, Marxist revolution, modernist literature, existentialist revolt, and in much of the modern environmental movement — was to re-ground the good in a way that acknowledges the Liberal rejection of any illegitimate authority over individual freedoms and difference.  With Liberalism, it admits that neither God, tradition, nor Aristotelian teleology can provide us with the good.  Note that when I contrasted Locke and Rousseau, I didn’t place freedom on one side or the other; it is an ideal they both share, if measured with differing criteria.  While the post-Rousseau tradition shares with Liberalism an ideal of freedom, it nevertheless rejects the Liberal view of a mechanical and meaningless Newtonian universe, or at least rejects the further conclusion that in a Newtonian world, as Hume eventually demonstrated, no moral belief can be grounded in reason.[v]  Its challenge is to preserve the notion of freedom, without giving it over to the arbitrary or contingent choices that free people, in fact, often “happen” to make in modernity.

To recall an image I used in an earlier section, when the scientific revolution replaced the “closed world” of antiquity and the middle-ages with “the infinite universe” of modern mechanics, as Alexander Koyré writes, we witnessed “the discarding by scientific thought of all considerations based upon value-concepts, such as perfection, harmony, meaning, and aim, and finally the utter devalorization of being, the divorce of the world of value and the world of facts”(4).  In response to this infinite and value-free universe, a counter-tradition that reached its apogee in Hegel tried to create a closed and meaningful world for human beings that was nevertheless compatible both with the empirical advances of modern sciences and the modern project of human emancipation.  This remains our struggle today.

Before proceeding any further, I should situate this exploration of Liberalism and its Other in terms of my broader argument that is working its way steadily, if slowly, towards a yet-to-be-developed Aristotelian conservativism.  Another way to characterize this counter-tradition in context of my overall argument is to return to a major distinction that I discussed at the outset and remains, if largely out of sight for now, a main subtext of these subsequent discussions: namely an Aristotelian distinction between effectiveness and excellence.  Liberalism is the philosophy of effectiveness, of utilitarian values, of instrumental reason.  Our Liberal counter-tradition, in contrast, attempts to find an alternative to the triumph of effectiveness.  As Max Weber reminds us, for pragmatic, utilitarian, and commerce-minded Benjamin Franklin, “honesty is useful because it assures credit” and, despite his strong focus on virtue, lacks any sort of Aristotelian ordering of means and ends towards something like Eudaimonia (52).  Those of a more, shall we say, spiritual bent revolted against the erosion of virtue into a means for the end of accumulation for accumulation’s sake.  Liberalism’s Other sought to redeem honesty and truth for more noble or transcendent ends, for something more redemptive than success in the market place.

A such, it has become an “inescapable horizon” (as Charles  Taylor puts it) of what we might call social criticism for the simple reason that society (as opposed to politics) has generally been criticized for its “devaloriziation of being.”  I am interested in Aristotle, following Alasdair MacIntyre, because the Rousseauean counter-tradition has, despite its apparent inescapability, nevertheless failed to achieve its aims of finding an alternative way to ground the good — and in large part because of its similarities with Liberalism.[vi]  Unless we explore this tradition, then, we risk simply repeating it instead of exploring alternatives — like Aristotle as well as a kind of conservativism that is unfamiliar to us today.

Coming Back to Who We Really Are

So how does this counter-tradition attempt to find a non-arbitrary notion of the good that is not merely a matter of “imposing your ideology on others”?  How does it respond to Liberalism’s insistence on individual choice as the arbiter of meaning and value?  Where can it find a source of truth that recognizes the disenchanted world of facts but still identifies a substantial and non-arbitrary human world of meaning?  We live in an age that values above all the human as sovereign subject, to put a finer point on it: how, then, can we prioritize the subject without everything becoming “merely subjective”?[vii]

Consider this example, which also brings us back to the challenges of deep sustainability or of human abundance in a post-peak world, a movement in its broad contours that has adopted Rousseau as its patron saint, whether it is aware of it or not.  I’m going to pick-up on a passage from Rob Hopkins, writing in The Transition Handbook, cited in my last installment.  At that time I was arguing that deep sustainability depends on a notion of the good in ways generally rejected by Liberal free choice.  Now, I’m looking more closely at where this notion of the good comes from in our modern, post-Enlightenment context — where it is grounded or on what authority it speaks, how (by what criteria) it differentiates “good” from “bad.”  Hopkins, recall, is putting forth what might be referred to as a positive morality as opposed to a restrictive or negative one — one that pursues the good rather than avoids the bad.  Hopkins suggests that an energy descent or the simplicity required by living within ecological limits “need not necessarily mean deprivation, misery, and collapse.” “The idea of energy descent,” he continues, “is that each step back down the hill could be a step towards sanity, towards a place and towards wholeness.  It is a coming back to who we really are. . . “(53; emphasis added).

Who we really are” and the desire to be true to it, to live according to it and the value of “wholeness,” even to organize a culture around it, has become a commonplace thought, and thus risks passing unnoticed and without criticism.  To those, following their intuition or hearts, who believe that such ideals are self-evident, in need only of immediate[viii] action without the bother of reflection, this is written precisely with you in mind.  Now more than ever, instead of following our gut we need to examine its undigested history.[ix]  My goal, in this installment is to observe where this idea of returning to ourselves came from.  Throughout this piece I will be providing a historical context for several concepts and distinctions that we may take to be timeless or universal and thus without history, in part, as Michel Foucault argued, because they are only effective if they erase their history.  These include a distinct concept of the self as individual and the ideal of nature and authenticity, all of which appeared for the first time as the market economy developed and changed the face of the Earth.

Today one can, as Hopkins does, use the phrase “coming back to who we really are” without any background explanation or justification, but only because we have become submerged in that background.[x]  With the concept of “who we really are” and the metaphor of “coming home,” Hopkins is relying on terms not only unseen, but inconceivable, within the moral vocabulary or imagination of Western culture prior to what I am referring to as the age of Rousseau.  These concepts or images point to an entirely new way of conceiving of the truth regarding human conduct.  Instead of right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous or vicious, righteous or sinful, it divides the moral universe for the first time into the real and the fake.

The notion of the real was developed as an alternative to a life embedded in commerce, status, accumulation, and competition over arbitrarily conceived self-interest.  Bourgeois wants and manners could not, a least not with any lasting credibility, be referred to as immoral, evil, or un-Godly — as generations of industrious Puritans or faithful God-fearing Burghers can attest.  To say that the industrial middle-class violates traditional norms is to pay it a compliment.  But utilitarian values can, in a stroke of innovative conceptual genius, be more credibly depicted as fake, its so-called free choices deemed false.  With this new distinction, one that seems more compatible with the new empiricism of science and its diagnostic powers, moral (or social) criticism may appear to be avoiding the cardinal sin of imposing an ideology on others.  By referring to a way of life as fake, and then contrasting it to an alternative that is real — a matter of “coming back to who we really are” – it has adopted a non-moralistic, non-teleological idiom that nevertheless has a sense of objectivity or universality about it.  We realize both its novelty and its distinctive ring when we contrast the sound of calling someone “real” as opposed to “righteous” or “morally correct.”  This is an entirely new and staggeringly significant way of making value distinctions about human life: a culture that uses the one set of distinctions has a substantially different orientation and world-picture than one that uses the others.

A new kind of intellectual activity is thus born, the kind that puts society on the couch and submits it to analysis.  Reveling in newly minted metaphors of surface versus depth, it seeks for “deep truths,” cutting through the ideological bulwark that forms the newly conceived false self of modernity; it teams up with another distinction separating the natural from the artificial and speaks now of the genuine.  Franklin’s honesty for the sake of achieving credit may well be utterly dependable within his particular social context; but no one would think of it as “deep,” “meaningful,” or “profound,” concepts yet to be applied to human conduct or life-orientation in Franklin’s Philadelphia.  For the very concept of an ideological bulwark that exists and that can be cut through, if it is to be remotely sensible, requires an entirely new conception of society, history, and the role and status of knowledge and belief.

Sincerity and Authenticity

One of the most common terms we use when speaking of this new kind of moral truth is authenticity—another term which we take for granted, ignoring its very specific history.  In its previous and, we might say, more literal meaning, authenticity indicates that something is verifiably real, an alternative to a fake or counterfeit, now broadened to apply to moral and social life, suggesting in turn that our self-portraits might be false depictions, forgeries of our real selves.  This understanding of authenticity and its history was most influentially presented to English speaking audiences in Lionel Trilling’s 1971 study, Sincerity and Authenticity, where he observes “the moral life in the process of revising itself” on the cusp of modernity (1).[xi]  Instead of being true to one’s creator, community, or overseer, the new imperative in a bourgeoning market society, cutting itself free from all traditional sources of authority, was that we be true to ourselves, perhaps setting out to return to “who we really are.”

There is one sense in which sincerity and authenticity are a paired set, part of an era when, in a moment, there appeared both the very possibility and the pressing threat that one might have the kind of self (mobile, striving, role-playing, inward-looking) to which one might not be true, in which playing a social role became a common requirement, and in which life could be spent in the pursuit of luxuries rather than necessities.  Both sincerity and authenticity are moral ideals which respond to this new threat and are thus part of a modern project of selfhood which required a number of changes to the idea of the self.[xii]  In traditional, pre-modern societies, the self has ascribed identities with fixed social roles in which freedom as we understand it is clearly not possible.  The modern metropolis, generally celebrated by the Enlightenment, provided all sorts of new options and possibilities for the triumph of freedom.  But, Rousseau was to point out, with this freedom comes new burdens: should one fail to create a unique and self-styled self, one would be forced to endure loneliness.  Creating an identity, to orient both oneself and others, involved competition and rewarded manipulation; it required both an adherence to fashion but the appearance of originality, something children in consumerist societies do with a savant-like effortlessness that hides the immense social education in subtle differentiation that defines one’s early years.  Proving one’s sincerity — that one could be trusted in a fluid environment lacking “fixed, fast-frozen relationships,” as Marx put it — became necessary to basic social order as well as psychological continuity.

While sincerity and authenticity are both a part of the modern epoch of European exploration, conquest and colonization, the rise of the market economy, and the destruction of narrowly ascribed social roles, within this epoch they often find themselves in opposition.  Sincerity, Trilling points out, preceded authenticity and, I would add, may also outlive it.[xiii]  Sincerity is a simpler concept, one which Trilling defines as the “congruence between avowal and actual feeling” (2).  One may have to search one’s soul or provide an extensive confession as proof of one’s sincerity, but there is a relatively simple honesty to it.  Trilling marks the entrance of the concept of sincerity as an introspective project into Western consciousness in an otherwise fairly unremarkable if not banal speech made by Polonius to the departing Laertes in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true/And it doth follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.”  Benjamin Franklin’s extensive table of virtues, tailor-made for effective economic competition, are an elaboration on Polonius’s advice.

Compared to authenticity, which we will discuss more fully, sincerity is a more individualistic quality, lacking also the depth and profundity I mentioned above: it makes assumptions about the society in which a person might be sincere or insincere, concluding that its execution is a matter of private integrity or Kantian good will.  To be overly schematic about it while ignoring considerable overlap, sincerity is at home in Lockean Liberalism, where relationships are largely contractual, and social order is maintained when one is sincere about living up to contractual obligations.  The honesty Benjamin Franklin describes in his table of virtues is sincere, rather than authentic.  When I commit to a marriage, take out a loan, or propose to build someone a home, what matters is the congruence between my avowal and my actual feeling or, perhaps, more sustained intentions.  Constancy is a virtue required for the truly sincere.  Despite the way it may require some introspection in order to ascertain one’s “actual feelings” or one’s ability to sustain an intention, sincerity, compared to authenticity, is a surface-dwelling value, indicated by connotations of earnest naivete, even a saccharine quality.  To those in modernity committed to a more complex and searching mode of truth sincerity may ring false.

A sincere person, we may intuitively grasp, is a simple one; but what exactly does it mean to be simple?[xiv]  In the context of modernity, in which Marx points out, capitalism has “given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption,” simplicity may refer to “old local and national seclusion” uninformed by the broad range of possibilities (Communist Manifesto 38-9).  But the same cosmopolitanism, regardless of what we may think of it, requires a broader range of moral discrimination as well, such that simplicity can also refer to a lack (by seclusion) of broader social or historical awareness, an inability to contextualize one’s transactions or consider far ranging and unintended consequences, thus permitting an unquestioning trust in their legitimacy.  It bespeaks of a truthfulness that may represent a “true heart” but an unquestioning mind.  We may doubt the used car salesman’s sincerity when he tells us he’d snatch that car up himself did he not think we’d look better behind the wheel than he.  But if he is in fact sincere, we would conclude that he is oblivious to the larger scam in which he plays a role.  Hegel described sincerity, or something very much like it, as “the heroism of dumb service.”

In this way, says Trilling, “a judgment may be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic” (11).  The “congruence between feeling and avowal” characteristic of sincerity might be oblivious to the source of the feeling (its ideological conditioning), ignorant of the manipulative relations in which it plays a well-intentioned part, earnestly committed to a kind of life that is not “real.”  Authenticity in this way projects us forward into a world of the unconscious, unseen social influence or power, ideology, a culture industry where meaning is mass-produced for easy consumption.  When we think of authenticity, we may think of depth, profundity, courage in the face of mortality or the immensity of the universe, even despair at the insuperable contradictions of our life that we cannot solve but nevertheless refuse to deny.  In contrast to the “heroism of dumb service,” or “the honest individual,” Hegel, foreshadowing Conrad and The Heart of Darkness,[xv] speaks of the “disrupted consciousness”: “the shamelessness which gives utterance to this deception,” he explains, “is just for that reason the greatest truth,” at least in the context of an inauthentic social arrangement (Phenomenology of Spirit 317).  Hegel’s “labor of the negative,” a force destructive of the superficial and inauthentic, is to become the chief protagonist of later literary modernism and deconstruction, of Sartre’s nausea, Beckett’s speechlessness, Warhol’s repetition and reproduction, The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”  Disavowal will become one of authenticity’s chief deportments.[xvi]

Authenticity, Trilling writes (in a phrase that I kindly ask you to read at least twice), thus implies “a more strenuous moral experience than ‘sincerity’ does, a more exigent conception of the self and what being true to it consists in, a wider reference to the universe and man’s place in it, and a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life” (11).  We will return to these ideas periodically.

An operating assumption of Liberalism, in contrast to this, is that precise contractual relationships and procedural legal codes, along with rising material comfort, might adequately contain the dark forces of culture, desire, and deception.  Against this, the ethos of authenticity notes the larger (structural or systematic) lie borne by this contractual sincerity and the goods and goals over which it presides.  The classic example is that of capitalist accumulation, which requires honesty in many of its transactions in the service of wide spread manipulation and destruction.  The very idea of institutional racism, to take a current example, bespeaks of this “wider reference” and “less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life.”  Institutional racism is repeatedly misunderstood by sincere but simple people because it attempts to explain how a “congruence between avowal and actual feeling” may, even for those who have no apparent hate in their hearts, nevertheless be the unconscious custodians of a tradition of violence and oppression.[xvii]  Authenticity entails more than good intentions; it requires a connection with what Marx would call the real conditions of social life.[xviii]

Or consider some literary examples.  The characters of Jane Austen are sincere, and in their sincerity also authentic, given Austen’s relatively genial social world.  Jim, in Huckleberry Finn represents the kind of sincerity that Twain holds up as a sort of social utopia.  Emily Brontë provides a vision of authenticity with the character of Heathcliff, while Emma Bovary’s dissatisfaction with her narrow provincial entrapment bespeaks of a will to authenticity if not one actualized.  Gatsby has a kind of sincerity about him, but his life is anything but authentic.  The same could be said of the blunt and bullying Tom, in the same novel, whose cruel avowals match his feelings, even though his inauthentic life is at one with an extreme sort of social disorder depicted by Fitzgerald as anything but genial.  Despite her propensity to lie, according to Fitzgerald, Jordan Baker’s life approaches a piqued sort of authenticity (“the shamelessness which gives utterance to this deception,” as Hegel put it) in which lying may be a way of distancing oneself from a society that is untrue at its core.  In Heart of Darkness, which I will at a later point discuss at length, Conrad articulates something similar, if interestingly mediated by the multiple layers of narrative, when he writes of Kurtz (also described as “hollow at the core”): “No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity.”  Heart of Darkness takes the ideal of authenticity a step further, however, such that we might say, with Conrad, that “a judgment is passed on the very ideal of authenticity that it is not itself authentic.”  The inescapable horizon is maintained; everything in it, however, is hollow and dead, full of magnificent eloquence providing us only a choice of nightmares.[xix]  But that is to jump ahead of ourselves and the dawn of the age of Rousseau, where we must try to remain for now.

To sum up, authenticity provides a radical new way of dividing up the moral universe.  As Nietzsche, also an important part of this counter-tradition and its eventual demise, makes explicit, authenticity takes us beyond good and evil to a world of real and false, “where lies are experienced as lies” (Ecce Homo 326), shifting the terms of the debate so that traction might be found in the face of the Liberal abandonment of the good to personal preference, taste, and lifestyle.  Put strategically, as if it were a matter of solving a philosophical problem, the Other of Liberalism will argue that the Liberal understanding of human life — as a cheapened and arbitrary matter of taste and preference — is itself an ideological manifestation of the false and artificial nature of modern, bourgeois, life.  For this reason, one can denounce the “free choices” made by actual people not only as more deeply unfree, but contrary to human good.  The “happy-souled,” honest and genial, friendly and laidback bourgeois consumer, guilt or shame-induced “hang-ups”[xx] filed smooth by therapy or group encounters, with a job in advertising or corporate management is, as Wendell Berry suggests in this vein, “probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world” (20).  He or she is a victim of a divided, dis-ordered, dis-eased, and unsettled ideology which must be disentangled by the pursuit of authenticity, a return to who we really are in our health and wholeness, our connection to ourselves, each other, and the earth.[xxi]

This idea that bourgeois values of self-interest and its pursuit of an instrumental kind of happiness is false, superficial, inauthentic, and ultimately unhappy will find repeated articulations from different perspectives ranging from Romantic poetry, to Marxist critique, to existentialism, and, perhaps finally  in the howls of beats and the free-love of hippies.  Although they all define authenticity in different ways, all share this belief: that the Liberal view that there is no single good is, itself, an expression of the fact that the Liberal self is lost and alienated, disconnected from “who we really are.”  Authenticity does not impose an ideology; it is, in claims, undoing the one already imposed upon us.

This Strange Disease of Modern Life 

It may seem as though I’m suggesting that authenticity was developed as part of a philosophical strategy or move, an attempt to maintain a kind of philosophical truth—a stand-in for Aristotelian teleology or divine law in an age of rational skepticism.  For many of the tradition’s key figures this discursive, rather than experiential, description is accurate.  According to his biographer, as a young philosopher Hegel and his network of fellow intellectuals (including Hölderlin and Schelling) concluded that “either we found some way in which to establish a new philosophy appropriate for modernity; or we had to face Jacobi’s [religious] indictment that the Enlightenment appeal to reason itself was mistaken, an act of human hubris, whose outcome could only be, to use the term Jacobi coined, ‘nihilism’” (Pinkard 204).   The problem that Hegel and his generation were grappling with was, in turn a result of Kant’s very explicit attempt to salvage rational freedom from Hume’s critique of the Lockean empiricism that had animated both the Enlightenment and the rise of democracy.

But the urgency of this project came from a sense not only of philosophical ungrounding, but the unravelling of the fabric of life as it was experienced.[xxii]  As Terry Pinkard notes, “probably no generation lived through such a wrenching transformation of ways of life as did Hegel’s (1870-1831), which included many of the artists and poets who, following Rousseau, initiated the Romantic revolt against modern inauthenticity.  This transformation was both intoxicating and frightening.  It promised an entirely new epoch of human possibility, but at the same time put the promised freedom and renewal just out of reach, while heads rolled and blood flowed from the guillotine of post-Revolutionary France.  For those not simply caught-up in the thrum of achieving, maximizing, and accumulating, the advances of modernity, commercial society and the industrial revolution appeared profoundly and unmistakably false and artificial, cruel and dehumanizing, often base and ugly.  Modern life had not only become unmoored, it brought on separation, division, alienation, as well as the proletarian misery later highlighted by Marx and Engels.  As George Monbiot has more recently noted in this same vein, “we rip the Earth’s living systems apart to fill the gap in our lives, yet the gap remains,” while “the atomization we suffer has eroded our sense of common purpose” (18,25).   New questions, previously all but unknown to humans, suddenly demanded answers in the age of the sovereign self: who am I? what should I do and be?  How should I live my life?  There was, if I may, sincerity in the initial quest for authenticity, an earnest response to a world, in Marx’s words, where “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

As I have mentioned, a good deal of this began with Rousseau, who had to invent a new way of seeing the world and many of the terms necessary for describing it.  Rousseau burst on the intellectual scene when his essay, answering a question put forth by the Academy of Dijon, won first prize (1750).  Condorcet, as one example, expressed the Enlightenment’s faith in rationality when he exclaimed that  we have “the strongest reason to believe, from past experience, from the observations of the progress which the sciences and civilization have hitherto made, and from the analysis of the march of the human understanding, and the development of its faculties, that nature has fixed no limits to our hopes” (179).  The march of reason would set all of humanity free.  Attempting only to gauge the effectiveness of the overall project, and never for a moment doubting its basic goals, the Academy asked whether “the reestablishment of arts and sciences had contributed to the refining of manners.”  Rousseau’s answer turns the question upside down in a way that announced an entirely new era, perhaps without precedent.  Yes, he says — the arts and sciences have helped refine manners.  But the refinement of manners does not represent an advance of human good.  Rather, so-called progress represented a loss of virtue and a decline in human well-being.

More specifically, says Rousseau, beneath the manners that have been refined lies a real self that has been lost or alienated, a word whose current usage can be trace back to him.  Not only are the advances of culture and civilization unnecessary to human life, all this “expensive finery” distracts us from nurturing the “strength and vigor of the soul” (7).  In the advanced and cosmopolitan culture of Enlightenment Paris, one witnesses the triumph of the false and fake.  The degree to which the heterogenous bustle of urban life “stimulate or enlarges one’s consciousness,” Trilling writes, proportionally “make it less his own.”  The modern self “finds it ever more difficult to know what his own self is and what being true to it consists in” (61).  In a society enjoying the social mobility enabled by a belief in freedom and the material choices enabled by scientific advancement, says Rousseau, “our outer appearances” are not “the likeness of the heart’s dispositions” (7).  As he exclaims, “common customs are followed, never one’s own lights.  One no longer dares to seem what one really is”; “before art had fashioned our manners, and taught our passions to speak an affected language, our mores were indeed rustic, but sincere and natural” (7).  Doubling down on sincerity, however, will not solve the problem in this disintegrative and ungenial social arrangement; more radical social change is required, a degree of change that was by the end of the century to inaugurate the age of revolution.

It is valuable to consider Rousseau’s words, here, as they demonstrate a sort of sensibility with which the idea of alienation was initially conceived as well as some of the imagery that has been with us ever since.  Rousseau turns ideals previously denigrated, such as the rustic, wilderness, nakedness, and simplicity into terms of value, while the stuff of civilization is contrastingly made to appear affected, fashion a matter of conformity and thus the loss of individuality.  In modernity one doesn’t want to be “behind the times” or unfashionable, for that is to be conservative or to indicate one’s lack of wider reference to the universe or society and “man’s” place within it.  But being au courant and fashionable also makes one a slave to custom.  Rousseau thus talks about “a vile and deceitful uniformity,” “vile ornaments,” and a “deceitful veil of politeness” (7).  “Adornment” becomes synonymous with corruption, nakedness with truth.  Civilization is newly likened to enchainment while “civility” and “politeness” are “garlands of flowers” which hide the truth of our degradation from ourselves (6).[xxiii]

The more specific cause or dynamic of this falseness further demonstrates why Rousseau is the patron saint of deep sustainability, radical simplicity, or Transition.  Material progress, argues Rousseau, creates luxuries and desires that are unnecessary to human life and well-being, thus creating false wants.  Worse, though, these false wants breed competition and competition results in viewing yourself and your possessions through the eyes of one’s fellows and thus seeking “our happiness in the opinion of another” (24).  A life spent pursuing things we don’t need in order to impress others whose opinions don’t really matter thus doubly alienates us from our true interests and needs, separating us from ourselves and each other.[xxiv]  This sort of material progress also marks the origin of inequality.  The artistic and scientific advances that Rousseau criticized in his First Discourse addressed to the Academy of Dijon, not only requires inequality, but breeds it.  For the work of the scientist, philosopher, artist, and engineer are, he was the first to note, maintained by the simple fact that others are supplying for their sustenance; a life of study and reflection, he notes, is a luxury, and like luxury results in idleness and vanity (“luxury seldom thrives without the sciences and arts, and they never thrive without it” [15]).

Rousseau’s description of the Enlightenment resembles Wendell Berry’s critique of the culture of specialization.[xxv]  As these so-called advancements continue, we find ourselves increasingly separated from our “real” interests and a self-possessed regard for ourselves.  His is the first anthropology of what Joseph Tainter calls the “complex civilization.”

Because we are still emerged in the age of Rousseau, it is easy to forget that the idea of a real self that might be capable of getting lost has not been with us forever.  We are also accustomed to “conservatives” who are at once anti-intellectual, distrustful of artistic innovation, and declaim the loss of traditional virtues.  But to think of Rousseau as a conservative who wanted to turn the clock back a few ticks is to miss his point, even if he seems to share a similar antipathy to rationality and progress.  In both mid-century eighteenth-century Britain and France, the Enlightenment was clearly a challenge to the Ancien Régime of the monarchy and the church, and the French Revolution was as its culmination a sort of Rousseauean cult of freedom, at least according to Edmund Burke.  But if Burke wanted to restore the recently-disrupted old order and base moral and political life on inherited traditions, Rousseau’s emphasis both on freedom and authenticity gave him no such desire.  Despite his use of imagery of simpler times and rustic peasant life, and despite the unmistakable “bearing in the past,” to recall Williams’ phrase, a feudal or absolutist social organization was as inimical to freedom as the alienating metropolis.  As Marshall Berman summarizes it, “Rousseau was at one with the philosophes and their indictment of the Old Regime.  Indeed, he grasped its moral bankruptcy more fully and criticized it more trenchantly than anyone in the eighteenth century” (The Politics of Authenticity 88).  With the rest of the Enlightenment, his was a philosophy that was both forward-looking and overwhelmingly devoted to the project of human emancipation.  But human emancipation in the authentic mode, as with Marx as well, couldn’t help but take as its model for fecund unity and organic reciprocity from some image of the past, even if it were to be fully realized only in the future.  The disease of modern life, those sensitive to it realized, could never be cured only with a stronger dose of modernity and modernization.

For this reason, even if the battle between the ancients and the moderns was on its way to articulating a familiar liberal/conservative split, Rousseau adds a third term that still beguiles our political divisions today.[xxvi]  Although returning to recent pre-modernity provides no good options, Rousseau believed, the emancipation from tradition and the old order by use of reason may nevertheless interfere with the more important goal of human freedom, now described not as civil equality but as the potential to flourish in ways reminiscent of Aristotle.  More specifically, as Berman explains, the Enlightenment following from Locke and Adam Smith, as well as Voltaire and Montesquieu, believed that emancipation was solely a political and legal issue, one to be settled by constitutions and the rule of law.  Civil society, in other words, was conceptually cut-off from society and culture, an early version of the Liberal public/private split.  Freedom from an absolute monarch may have been an important start, Rousseau believed, but of little lasting value if men and women are imprisoned within manipulative social relations and the opinions of others or were impelled to pursue purposeless wants or compete for status.  In fact, not only is civil freedom not enough, in the form Rousseau encountered it, this “freedom of the void” as Hegel would call it, combined with a faith in reason promoted utilitarian values and a distinct lack of social cooperation.[xxvii]

We can, at any rate, include another item to our growing list of beliefs, concepts, and values that we take to be universal, but in fact entered human consciousness for the first time during the years following the European conquest of the Americas and the rise of the market economy and the dawn of the Liberal state as the primary force of social organization: namely, the paradox of progress: as M. H. Abrams explains, what Rousseau and his followers quickly grasped, once given the necessary concepts, was that “human progress in intellection and in the sciences, arts, and social institutions, after an early optimal stage, involved a correlative decline in human happiness by imposing a growing burden of complication, conflict, oppression and instinctual renunciation” (199).  After Rousseau gave life to this idea, a flood-gate is opened, and modernity is newly questioned not only for the falseness of its manners and its obligatory insincerity; rather, nearly all of the features of progress come under question: the loss of artisanship, the rise of utilitarian and instrumental values, alienation and loneliness, the splitting of the self and the diremption of society, such that the law stands against religion, natural inclinations against the moral code, work against leisure, the interests of the self against the interests of the group.  In his poem “The Scholar-Gipsy,” Mathew Arnold was to later to describe “this strange disease of modern life,/With its sick hurry, its divided aims,/Its heads overtax’d, its palsied hearts.”

An entirely new kind of art, one that rejected classical forms and constraints in favor of spontaneous personal expression was, in the wake of Rousseau, soon developed, often with overt allegiance to him.  It emphasized themes of division and disunion, separation; poetry and art, in contrast tasked themselves with healing this “strange disease.”  As Friedrich Hölderlin, sometimes referred to as the first great modern European poet, wrote in the preface to his novel, Hyperion: “To end the eternal conflict between our self and the world, to restore that peace that passeth all understanding, to unite ourselves with nature so as to form one endless whole — that is the goal of all our strivings” (Abrams 238).  Similar themes appear again in Marx’s critique of Capitalism.  To the contemporary liberal or leftists, the part of Marx that was concerned with the problem of political power or that can be harnessed for a critique of inequality often overshadows the part concerned with alienation, defined by Marx as the loss of ourselves (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts 111).  Unlike today’s democratic socialism (which wants “a bourgeoisie without a proletariat”), Marx was not concerned with the fair distribution of consumer goods.[xxviii]  Even in his more “scientific mode,” authenticity versus inauthenticity is a controlling distinction.  The labor theory of value, after all, carries deep connotations of authenticity.  Exchange value, in contrast, is inauthentic, detached from need, undetermined by necessity.  Although Marx was suspicious of Romanticism’s idealism and, following Hegel, its faith in an aesthetic cure to modernity’s breach, the ideals of Rousseau, Schiller, and other Romantics loom large in his consciousness.

Between Rousseau’s First Discourse and Marx’s declaration that the bourgeois epoch was distinguished by “uninterrupted disturbances of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation” (Manifesto of the Communist Party 476), Europeans witnessed the French Revolution, Napoleonic conquest and defeat, the industrial revolution and accelerating urban squalor, photography, the steam-engine, and the revolutions of 1848, each recasting the idea of alienation and the loss of the self.  But consistent nonetheless was the view that modern civilization had left us divided from each other, removed from honest work, and separated into competing spheres where sensitive souls would long for a lost harmony and unity.  In 1767 Scottish Philosopher Adam Ferguson wrote of the alienating tendencies of the market economy in his Essay on the History of Civil Society, explaining that in “a commercial state. . .  man is sometimes found a detached and solitary being.”  Men are put at “variance” and “the bands of affection are broken” (24). Community had been replaced by individuals spurred on by selfish motives, while society was a collection of individuals.  Thomas Carlyle, who made common use of the phrase “cash nexus” before Marx, wrote in 1843 in Past and Present of the devastation spreading across England in the name of “political economy.”  Even in the face of poverty and deplorable work conditions, worse yet is the crisis of the heart: “Isolation,” he writes, “is the sum-total of wretchedness to man. To be cut off, to be left solitary: to have a world alien, not your world; all a hostile camp for you; not a home at all, of hearts and faces who are yours, whose you are! . . . . Man knows no sadder destiny.”  Blake likewise wrote of the “dreadful state/Of separation,” while for Coleridge the greatest evil was “to be betrayed into the wretchedness of division.”  Just as Wendell Berry writes of the “modern disease of specialization,” and the necessary unity of work and life, the Romantic movement mourned the way craftsmanship was being replaced by the machine, to which the worker becomes mere appendage; “utility,” wrote Friedrich von Schiller, “is the great idol of the time.”  Modern man, he says, is split “into numberless parts, . . .  chained down to a little fragment of the whole, . . . having nothing in his ears but the monotonous sound of the perpetually revolving wheel, he never develops the harmony of his being” (Aesthetic Education of Man Letter VI).

Romanticism’s counter-Enlightenment and (sometimes) counter-Liberalism sought to re-enchant the world through myth, symbol, or feeling which, in their direct simplicity, promised a kind of freedom from the inauthenticity of “exterior appearances.”  At other times it sought refuge in the recent past or peasant life, slipping into nostalgia.  As Wordsworth wrote in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of his poetic approach, “Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are under less constraint, and speak a plainer more emphatic language” (596).   His language, Wordsworth proclaims, “is the real language of men.”  Art and beauty, now recast as an alternative to, rather than an example of, artifice and finery, charged itself with the task of articulating “genuine freedom,” as Wordsworth put it — a freedom fully reconciled to community, place, and the ideal, if not the content, of tradition. “It is through beauty,” a beauty cast in the shadow of ancient Greece, Schiller declared, “that we arrive at freedom” (Letter II). [xxix]

Although Marx would not admit to any interest in re-enchanting the world, he joins the fight against bourgeois disenchantment and the estrangement of the self under a regime of private property.  Once abolished, Marx imagined the necessary emergence of an ideal communal order described with a distinctive language of authenticity.  Explaining the idea of alienated labor, Marx exclaims that under capitalism, “labor does not belong to his [the worker’s] essential being; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts 110).  If one’s work “belongs to another,” he explains, “it is the loss of his self” (111).  Communism, Marx claimed, would not only allow humankind to reappropriate that which was truly theirs, it provides for a more general “self-actualization” (a clichéd phrase, today, which we may forget Marx used with novel force).  His entire work was performed in the service of the truth of and to oneself, balancing ideals of real need and fully-developed capacity.  With a sort of utopianism also audible in deep sustainability, even permaculture, communism, says Marx, is an association “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all; it is “the complete return of man to himself”; “it is the riddle of history solved” (Communist Manifesto 53; Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 135; ibid).

The Nature of Culture and the Culture of Nature

But here’s the problem:  The symptoms of the disease of modernity have received substantial consensus, and the notion of alienation has been given consistent descriptions.  But there is little agreement, and much criticism, about the underlying cause of alienation and, to a greater extent, how it might be overcome.  Additionally, there are few if any “actualized” political models to which we may turn.  Inauthenticity may be easy to detect, but authenticity, itself, has been a much more elusive goal.  Conservativism, as cast by Edmund Burke, prized a traditional order that was under threat, but was still in existence.  We may not actually be able to turn back the clock, but rebuilding ailing institutions is a different and more plausible task.  In the wake of Napoleonic reforms spread across Europe by his conquering armies, a vigorous battle to reassert local customs and the power of the nobility and the church was waged with some success.  But the discourse of authenticity neither trusts the march of Enlightened reason and technological progress nor the comfort of the immediate past.  If not the Ancien Régime, then, what in human history — the apparent record of the possible — might provide an antidote to the inauthentic excess of civilization, cold dissective reason, fractured being, or our overtaxed heads and palsied hearts?

The most common answer, at least in the first half of the age of Rousseau, was nature.  Nature provides an organic, harmonious, and interconnected whole, which seemed the opposite both of the dead mechanistic view offered by the Enlightenment and the disconnections of commercial life and its compulsory calculation.  While modernity ceaselessly changes, nature is stable and unchanging.  The city is loud and frenzied, nature is peaceful and serene.  If culture and civilization appear false, artificial, and fake, nature is, as we have come to say, natural.  It is original and real, uncorruptible except by the interference of men of palsied hearts who overtax nature.  “Everything that comes from nature,” Rousseau declared, “will be true” (Discourse on Inequality 46).  Rousseau escaped his constant alienation from urban frenzy and dissimulation by taking long and reflective walks in the country, beginning a tradition that continues today.  As historian William Cronon summarizes this view, one never conceived before the age of Rousseau, “wilderness is the natural, unfallen antithesis of an unnatural civilization that has lost its soul.  It is a place of freedom in which we can recover the true selves we have lost to the corrupting influences of our artificial lives.  Most of all, it is the ultimate landscape of authenticity” (80).

Unfortunately, the ideal of nature or the natural — a word that has also come to inhabit the idea of human nature in new ways — is more difficult to access than one might expect, a problem Rousseau understood better than many of his followers, but certainly not for the lack of effort on their part.  Romantic poets and their contemporary followers were and are drawn to dramatic natural landscapes in search of the awe-inspiring, fearful and sublime in some cases; in search of gentle pastoral scenes in others.  Diderot described a happy Tahitian tribal society, just as it was corrupted by European colonists, in his Supplement to Bougainville.  German Idealism in the early nineteenth-century worshipped ancient Greece as the perfect balance of nature and culture, while, later, Thomas Hardy and Martin Heidegger, each in very different ways, romanticized the simple lives of the pre-industrial peasant or the rural Volk.  American Historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed in the 1870’s that the wild frontier, which stripped each wave of settlers of their civilization so that they might be reborn, was responsible for the exceptional nature of American life and its democratic institutions.

But in which of these examples can one find the “real” version of an uncorrupted nature?  Do we return to nature through beauty, or the abolition of private property?  Can it be accessed through Hölderlin’s “one endless whole” or Wordsworth’s “real language of men”?  And if so, how?  Or must we conquer a new world, and forget the genocide we performed as we seek rebirth in the wilds of the prairies, the Rockies, or the Sierra Nevada, the redwood forests and the gulf-stream waters?  As I mentioned earlier, the search for deep or authentic truths stumbles when it recognizes its own history in ways that Hegel was to obsessively recognize.

Rousseau, we will see, doesn’t successfully answer this question — where can we find an uncorrupted version of nature to guide us? — despite all efforts; rather he prefigures the way the question will be posed over and over again, and still again today.  In order to understand this, we will need to take one more plunge into the history of philosophy.  The idea of nature, a realm usually beyond or prior to the workings of human kind, had long been part of human consciousness and as Raymond Williams notes, “any full history of the uses of nature would be a history of a large part of human thought” (Keywords 166).  More particularly, natural law had been central to Roman and Medieval jurisprudence.  Especially in the Christian tradition after Aquinas, natural law referred to the part of humanity that reflected the divine.  Natural law referred to the way God confers justice on some forms of human behavior.  In the middle of the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes rejected this view, providing an understanding of the state of nature which was essentially lawless.  What is perhaps most significant about Hobbes’ rejection of tradition, though, was the way he imagines the state of nature according to newly available images from the Europeans conquest of what have come to be called “primitive societies.” In these societies, Hobbes sees an absence of laws and a state of permanent warfare, against which, he supposed, human society was increasingly to develop protective measures as it “advanced.”  Although we may agree that this history (or anthropology) is very poorly done, Hobbes nevertheless injects a historical view of human development and the idea of origins in a way that was unavailable to earlier generations who did not have before them an image of their own alleged prehistory.  For Aristotle or Aquinas, the natural was inferred or deduced; for Hobbes it was observed as part of a historical record, a matter of observation like Francis Bacon’s “new science.”[xxx]

While John Locke, the next great theorist of the state of nature, disagreed with Hobbes that the state of nature was one of perpetual strife, he continues to rely on a quasi-historical view of humans, using our “primitive origins” as a way of distinguishing what was legitimate (that which was natural to humans, visible in the state of nature) from what was not.  As Locke put it “in the beginning the whole world was America” (Second Treatise 29).[xxxi]   As with Hobbes, then, the non-European world was used as a point of contrast as Europeans sought to identify the nature of civilization and distinguish between what was “natural” to it and what was illegitimate.[xxxii]  Despite all his originality, Rousseau joins Hobbes and Locke by basing political legitimacy and, in his case, authenticity, on this sort of anthropological vision.  His “natural man” provides the standard against which he judges modern society and its “decadence” described in his First Discourse, cited above.  Natural man is real; social man is false.[xxxiii]

But again, of primary significance is the way Rousseau describes his project and its difference from his predecessors, for in so doing he provides an interpretive strategy that has been repeated ever since.  As Rousseau explains it, “the philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of returning to the state of nature, but none of them has reached it” (Discourse on Inequality 45).  The problem with Hobbes and Locke, and the reason why his interpretation of the state of nature is more reliable, says Rousseau, is that Hobbes and Locke weren’t actually describing the state of nature.  Rather, to use a more recent term, they projected a socially-constructed understanding of natural man on to the state of nature.  When Hobbes suggests that humans are naturally warlike and violent, says Rousseau “he has wrongly injected into the savage man’s concern for self-preservation the need to satisfy a multitude of passions that are the product of society and that have made laws necessary” (Discourse on Inequality 60; emphasis added).  Although he is less caustic in his critique of Locke, he implies that by projecting property rights onto the state of nature, Locke is dressing up the modern British bourgeoisie in loin-clothes as he imagines them running around the forest, displaying the natural “propensity” (as Adam Smith was to add) “to barter, truck, and exchange.”[xxxiv]  Both Hobbes and Locke thus confuse “natural man with the men that they have before their eyes, and to transfer into one system a being that can thrive only in another” (The State of War 257).   Alternatively, this projection or “injection” may in part also be related to not noticing “how far these peoples already were from the state of nature” (Discourse on Inequality 73), thus ignoring the fact that all “primitive” people are already living in societies.

What we must do, says Rousseau — and this has been a basic move of critical theory ever since — is go back further than Hobbes and Locke, dig deeper, shed local biases, taking “care not to confuse savage man with the men we have before our eyes” (51), listening only to “nature, which never lies” (46).  When we do this, says Rousseau, we discover that in the state of nature humans are absolutely free—without laws, norms, or codes.  The social contract he advises, then, requires men and women to assert a general will that is self-determined, developing “a form of association that defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which, each one, while uniting  with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before” (On the Social Contract 164).  Modern inauthenticity, in other words, derives from our associations that are not entirely self-determined, whether in their laws or in their culture and education.

In addition to the problems of combining absolute individuality with a commitment to the sovereignty of community — a problem that deep sustainability has yet to consider with much seriousness — there are some logical or discursive problems with his claim to have apprehended a time prior to the proto-sociality described by Hobbes and Locke.  Despite all appearances of going back further, as Rousseau rightly points out, it is not actually possible to find humans living in a state of nature (noticing “how far these peoples already were from the state of nature”).  Rather than finding “historical truths” he admits, his are “conditional and hypothetical reasonings. . . better suited to shedding light on the nature of things than on pointing out their true origin” (Inequality 46).  His search, he claims, is one of simple introspective intuition; but to us it looks more like an elaborate argument for what the state of nature “must” have been like, a necessity determined by making it the opposite not just of civil society, per se (as he might have supposed), but his civil society.  If cosmopolitan Paris is characterized by false manners, the concern with the opinions and tastes of others, as well, more generally, by laws and renunciation of instinct, then nature must be characterized by an absence of laws and the pursuit of instincts without regard to false pretenses — or what Rousseau calls freedom.

This notion of freedom (obeying only ourselves as we might have prior to human sociality, as opposed to Locke’s property rights, for instance) allows Rousseau to smuggle in two different and contradictory meanings.  On the one hand, freedom doesn’t seem to imply a specific kind of politics, but rather an absence of politics; because he is not attempting to reproduce an image of Paris in nature (as Locke attempted to naturalize seventeenth-century Britain), but the Other of Paris, his description may appear to have shed this metropolitan corruption.  The slate upon which Hobbes and Locke confuse “natural man with the men that they have before their eyes” thus appears to be wiped clean.

But were it truly wiped clean, Rousseau’s philosophy would be a blank and empty formalism, incapable of supporting a very vivid and concrete version of the political good.   Fortunately for him, on the other hand, the concept of freedom, especially when depicted as a kind of anti-civilization grounded in nature, carries with it a wealth of images, at times leaning on observations of primitive cultures, using descriptions drawn from reports of “primitive savages” or the ideal of Sparta, which Rousseau contrasted to the decadent Athens.  Despite his rejection of conservative regression, he praises the simple virtues of rustic times, the peasant, the courageous Spartan warrior, the rude shepherd who founded Rome long before its degeneration.  Far from being empty or lacking historical references, Rousseau paints a colorful picture of human freedom, filled with images of primitive simplicity and the uncorrupted “honesty” of nature – images drawn from his historical moment, reflecting it as much as any real or hypothetical time before social organization.[xxxv]

To put this another way, Rousseau’s criticism of Locke and Hobbes is that they don’t describe natural man, but what man is like under particular circumstances.  Rousseau may then be accused of wanting to show what man is like under no circumstances, as a purely imaginary and abstracted being (where absolute freedom comes easily).  But under no circumstances, man isn’t like anything.  If his views, moreover, are “conditioned and hypothetical reasonings,” he loses the claim to empirical truthiness that animates his ideal of freedom.  Failed historical induction is replaced by unverifiable inference.  In this way his articulation of the state of nature is no different than an abstracted formulation of God’s law pronounced in the absence of credible revelation.  Rousseau’s impossible task, one repeated by Western Philosophy ever since, is to rid his transcendentalism of empirical particularity or local bias, while grounding that transcendentalism in something that provides something like empirical verifiability.[xxxvi]  So has it oscillated between hard-headed naivete or dreamy sophistication, from data-driven to introspective false certainty.

By refusing to project social man into nature — by reversing it to suggest that natural man has no social nature, only absolute freedom — Rousseau may think he have “pushed his argument through to the roots being defended.  In retrospect, it is easy to see the palimpsest of the Paris or Geneva from which he was in determined flight.  The Other carries traces of the same, and Rousseau’s natural Other does not separate nature from culture but is an image of nature constructed according to his specific antipathy to and alienation from the great modern metropolis of Paris.  We might consider this more concretely by simply noting that the sort of absolute freedom — in which humans are entirely self-determining, subject to no laws not freely chosen and creatively constructed — is a particularly modern dream, fomented in the Paris that Rousseau paradoxically detested, available only to the wealthy that he despised.  It is a dream that neither Wordsworth’s peasants, Diderot’s Tahitian “savages,” Schiller’s harmonious Greeks, nor Rousseau’s “natural man” would have possibly entertained.  While the identification of the “falseness” of modern aspirations may seem relatively empirical, one wonders whether the alternative view of absolute freedom (delivered with transcendental certainty by Rousseau and then Kant and many others) isn’t equally an aspiration possible to conceive only within that same sort of cosmopolitan modernity.

Despite these contradictions, the post-Rousseau tradition of radical authenticity often follows Rousseau’s move, tweaking it this way or that to find a more real version of the “real.”  Its fundamental critical tic is to dig deeper, look further, think the unthought, return to origins in search of the original and thus genuine, to plumb the unconscious, find the more radical cause, transcend our age or beliefs more fully so that we might find and then come back to who we really are.[xxxvii]  The discourse of authenticity is beset by reversals, by turning ideas on their heads, all in perpetual flight from the inescapable image “of the men we have before our eyes.”

Digging deeper, after all, is the original meaning of “radical,” whose name bears a common “root” with the radish, which I am now going to go outside to plant, in hopes of gathering an early crop.

[i] The Country and the City (1973).

[ii] Kant determined that the only laws and duties enlightened individuals should submit to are those that they determine for themselves by reason in a condition of complete freedom.  Neither tradition, nor communal norms, nor revealed religion were to have any authority.  But in so doing, Kant was not capitulating to hedonism or arbitrary assertions of the will; rather, he believed that in conditions of absolute freedom, necessary for the laws to be binding, all rational men would choose more or less the same laws, ones not coincidentally that looked a lot those an eighteenth-century German protestant post-Enlightenment, quasi-cosmopolitan, middle class philosopher might find familiar.  When it turned out, in the face of geographical and historical continency and heterogeneity, that this was not to be so, the more utilitarian side of Liberalism associated with English and especially Scottish political economy and commercialism split off from the side associated with Rousseau through German idealism.  The illusion of free and “rational choice” was easier to maintain in market freedoms than in a more rationalist moral realm.  This is of course to put it to schematically; the evolution of Liberalism included more intermixing and cross-mingling between various influences and traditions.

[iii] See  and

[iv] But not just so-called “high” art.  The most pedestrian understanding of the artist as spontaneously expressing his or her inner self is an inheritance of Rousseau.  The “starving artists” sale at the local Days Inn lobby is full of Rousseau’s heirs.

[v] Liberalism does of course have its table of virtues.  I mention Benjamin Franklin shortly.  To his thrifty efficiency, we can add ones having to do with self-expression, and those having to do with tolerance, all of which are part of the moral education of a cosmopolitan, self-actualized, hard-working, hard-playing, complexity-managing consumer-citizen.

[vi] Within this inescapable horizon I include myself, even as I am looking for its edges (itself a common practice within a social criticism turning exhaustedly inward).  As I indicate later, I agree with much of the diagnosis of social criticism, refusing the view of the stoic “conservative,” who says this is as it must be, or the liberal enthusiast who claims the arc of history bends effortlessly towards (across the board) progress.

[vii] This is the philosophical question of modernity, from Kant through the present.  Even those who desperately wish to change the subject end up being pulled back by the force of its gravity.

[viii] And therefore “unmediated.”

[ix][ix] Donald Trump believes that his gut is the font of wisdom, a belief that comes from that same gut.  Can expressions of our own guts, without holding ourselves up a mirror of what has been thought and said, submitting ourselves to the most rigorous dialectical stress-tests, provide any more certainty of the purity of our feelings?  We feel certain that we are righteous, forgetting that one can be certain and be wrong, for certainty is, like indigestion, a personal and visceral feeling, a physical and mental, rather than epistemological, state.

[x] In a paradoxical way, this is not entirely unlike the way we have become submerged in the availability of cheap energy and no longer, but for the critiques provided by writers like Heinberg, Greer, or Hall, notice its unique historicity, even if the two are in contradiction.

[xi] In continental Europe (to the thought from which Trilling is no stranger), the idea of authenticity cannot be separated from Heidegger and the existentialism derived from him and Kierkegaard.  For an excellent, if biting critical review of this, see Theodor Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity. Interestingly, though Adorno resists Heideggerian-type authenticity here and generally in his “negative dialectics” by isolating himself from “exchange-society anonymity” according to a system of values and stances for which it is difficult to describe except by the term “authenticity,” or truth to one’s self now figured in terms of vigilant resistance (c.f. the exchange-society anonymity of Resist! Bumper stickers).  Thus does authenticity in its rituals of increasingly vociferous disavowal evolve into the quest for a pure negativity which can be sustained only through ironic distantiation.  I will leave for another occasion a comparison of Adorno’s nausea to, say, Sartre’s.

[xii] Without a certain historical perspective, the idea that the individual is a recent “invention” seems absurd.  As Trilling articulates it, “how was a man different from an individual?  A person born before a certain date, a man—had he not eyes? had he not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?  If you pricked him, he bled and if you tickled him, he laughed” (24).  Liberalism, with its progressive belief in the liberation of man from superstition and illegitimate authority holds that this prickable, ticklish individual was always hidden in his constraining social roles, something we would conclude when we imagine ourselves, like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, projected with our current beliefs and sensibilities into the dark ages (thus the critique of introspection as a road to philosophical truth).  That belief fails to understand the way our beliefs and sensibilities are part of our status as an individual, born and raised in the shadow of new possibilities and pressures, new educational and developmental imperatives, an entirely novel (I use that word purposely) sense of the range of life-stories from which we might or must choose.  As Michel Foucault argued, the appearance of this self “was not the liberation of an old anxiety, the transition into luminous consciousness of an age-old concern, the entry into objectivity of something that had long remained trapped within beliefs in philosophies.”  Rather it was something entirely new — “the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge” (328).  Prior to modernity the self did not, as Trilling writes, have “internal spaces,” nor did “he imagine himself in more than one role, standing outside or above is own personality; he did not suppose that he might be an object of interest to his fellow man” (24).  He did not paint self-portraits or gaze into mirrors.  Tribe, community, polis, and kingdom are replaced by “society,” an arena for the battle of individual wills.

[xiii] The authentic civilization or culture which the discourse of authenticity pursues, after all, is one in which sincerity will become once more unproblematic.  Or, alternatively, sincerity is all we have left once authenticity has entirely deconstructed itself and the depths upon which it depends.  The “turn” in the late 90s from critique to ethics in critical theory represents a weariness with the ideal of authenticity and its cycle of disavowal.  The neo-Romanticism of deep sustainability sometimes proceeds as if none of this ground has been thoroughly traversed.

[xiv] This makes the project of “radical simplicity” more difficult than it may appear, for its conscious adoption requires a “wider” cosmopolitan reference, but a refusal of cosmopolitan wants.  I turn to Hegel, later, because his is the most sustained and nuanced reflection on this sort of “antinomy” and his inability to find a successful solution is instructive to our attempt to combine complexity and simplicity as well as individuality and community, freedom and limits.

[xv] A title, of course, but also a representative figure of the travails of authenticity, searching for itself to the utmost ends of the earth.

[xvi] As Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo, standing “up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed, so far[,] I am no man, I am dynamite” (326).

[xvii] I may appear to be contradicting my claim that authenticity represents an implicit critique of Liberalism.  I will resolve this apparent contradiction in a later discussion of the “defetishizing critique” and its eventual détente with utilitarian Liberal equality.

[xviii] The expression “get real,” as well as the general commodification and mass-marketing of disavowal indicate the extent to which the jargon of authenticity has penetrated contemporary consumer society.  Instead of resisting it through an increasingly negative of deconstructive dialectics, this series is an experiment in substituting it with an Aristotelian dialectic.

[xix] One of the primary aspects of the modernist literary canon is its ironic quest for authenticity or, rather, a rejection through a permanent sort of negative dialectics or deconstruction of inauthenticity.  As such, the bursts of sincerity it may present are often a rather blatant form of dishonesty given its wide reference and starkly ungenial view of the world of social relations.  I will discuss this kind of ironic modernism later in my discussion of Hegel and post-Hegelian critical disenchantment.

[xx] These expressions can teach us much.  A “hang-up,” as it came to be used by the “me” generation, refers to a sort of obsolete hold-over expression of moral self-limitation, one that would stand in the way of guilt or judgment-free indulgence in wide range of consumer opportunities.  It at once bespoke of the erosion of a now outmoded kind of moral restriction in an age where sex needn’t lead to pregnancy nor social ruin, where pennies no longer needed to be saved to ensure a full stomach, and where energy was so cheap and abundant that wastefulness need not prohibit the pursuit of fun.  Hang-ups, as something we are encouraged to avoid, repositioned a range of values, such that self-limitation came to be seen as a kind of inauthenticity, while the rejection of all social codes not self-assigned became a kind of authenticity in a consumer culture that celebrated rebels, now, without a cause, except for the cause of experience and consumption.  It is at this point that authenticity has been tamed to fit a Liberal world order, one of the most interesting stories of modern social and cultural norms.  For a great example of the ideology, if I may, of hang-up free authenticity, consider the clumsily didactive movie, “Dirty Dancing,” as one of many possible instances.

[xxi] Is Wendell Berry a Romantic?  In some ways he obviously is, but his thought is both eclectic (or non-systematic) and complex enough, maybe at times even dialectical, that he wears this label uncomfortably.  His use of the past, the rustic, and the simple, as well as his focus on unity and wholeness bear a great deal of resemblance with Romanticism, as do his obsessive dualisms.  However, the truth of which he speaks isn’t truth to oneself so if his is a Romanticism, it is one that has interestingly rejected the pursuit of authenticity.  He asks us to be true to a natural or cosmological order, thus making him in some ways a theologian.  While the privileged side of his various dualisms have as their referent something usually too firm and determined for my taste, he will deserve another longer look in the context of a conservative philosophy of excellence, to which I will add the crucial category of producer in due time.  In the meantime, I explore some of these ideas in:

[xxii] Good critical philosophy is a dialectic between lived crisis and systematic crisis.

[xxiii] Compare Rousseau’s understanding of nakedness and clothes to the “father” of “conservativism,” Edmund Burke, who may well have been thinking of Rousseau as he wrote these words, even though they are more suited to the Enlightenment’s “empire of light and reason”: “All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion” (92-3).

[xxiv] Another interesting connection between Rousseau and Transition or the similar ethos of permacultural convergences comes in the form of his attack on theatre in his Letter to d’Alambert.  His is not a Puritan attack on pleasure, though he does criticize the theatre for merely confirming the views of the audience, but rather a communitarian one: “People think they come together in the theatre and it is there that they are isolated.  It is there that they go to forget their friends, neighbors.”  Instead, as Trilling summarizes it, “there are to be free and festive gatherings ‘in the open air, under the sky’ at which nothing will be shown.  The incidents of these occasions of happy communality will be games and athletic contests, regattas, reviews, and the ceremonies of prize-giving” (65).  Or as Wendell Berry would later say of the farm of the future, in contrast to rural Kentucky in the first half of the 20th century, “They will not live where they work or work where they live.  The will not work where they play.  And they will not, above all, play where they work. There will be no singing in those fields.  There will be no crews of workers or neighbors laughing and joking, telling stories, or competing at tests of speed or strength or skill” (74).  Instead they will be glued to their “devices,” today’s equivalent of Rousseau’s theatre.

[xxv] It is interesting to note that Wendell Berry escaped to the country after spending time in cosmopolitan places of learning to which he responded with a Rousseauesque sense of alienation.  The documentary, “Look and See” is framed in terms drawn, it seems, almost directly from Rousseau.  Does this mean I don’t value Berry’s work?  Far from it.  While historical analysis may make all holy profane, I don’t believe there is a place outside of history or influence where a writer might emerge, and therefore don’t hold one’s expression of a time or a bias as a reason for rejection, but rather for further consideration.

[xxvi] Is Wendell Berry a conservative or liberal?  Is Permaculture and its suspicion toward technology and mechanical metaphors progressive?  Is Transition’s emphasis on the “wholesome” or the resilience of the pre-WWII market town conservative?  If so, why are nearly all of its participants likely to gravitate towards parties of the left when it is time to vote?  The tradition of Rousseau has lived in the spaces created by the contradictions of a Liberal world order divided into progressive and conservative, though without fully unseating those two wings.

[xxvii]A similarity, here, is what makes the Transition Movement and its fellow-travelers a legitimate response to human overshoot, in contrast to the vain Liberal tinkering of something like the Green New Deal, is its awareness that we need a cultural change not just improved means to an unimproved end, beyond which Liberalism has difficulty using its imagination.  As an heir to this Rousseauean tradition (which at this point may sound better than it is), however, it lacks sufficient understanding of its own history and its perils.

[xxviii] Though his model of development assumes a high degree of overall surplus, now evenly divided.  As with his lack of concern with the practical reasoning and normative codes that would be required by a successful dictatorship of the proletariat, Marx did not appear overly concerned with the more fundamental Rousseauean view that high surplus would encourage inequality, status, and competition.  There is a sense in which Marx solves one paradox of human freedom in his understanding that the sort of freedom and self-expression he and Rousseau shared would require freedom from pressing wants.  Rousseau doesn’t address that problem but does address the problem of unintended consequences of material development.  Of course neither was inclined to see nature as a source of limits.  This is one of the ways in which Liberalism’s Other suffers from some of the same problems as Liberalism.  One of our most pressing philosophical and practical questions, today, one for which Hegel provides some conceptual assistance, is whether both problems can be dialectically reconciled.

[xxix] Initially a supporter of the French Revolution, Wordsworth later followed Edmund Burke’s suspicion of it, something easy enough to do under the dark shadow of the Jacobin Terror.  While Rousseau did not believe freedom could be found in the recent past, he is not fully immune from its rustic simplicity, as we saw above.

[xxx] Bacon’s science has also been attributed to the influx of new information from the “New World,” incapable of being situated within Renaissance tables of similitude.  It required observation and the detection of regular and law-like patterns, of induction instead of deduction.

[xxxi]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. C. B. Macpherson.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett, 1980):  29.

[xxxii] As Schiller put it, “the discoveries which our European seafarers have made in distant oceans and on remote shores afford us a spectacle which is as instructive as it is entertaining.  They show us societies arrayed around us at various levels of development, as an adult might be surrounded by children of different ages, reminded by their example of what he himself once was and whence he started” (“The Nature and Value of Universal History 325).

[xxxiii] The great structural anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, was an avowed follower of Rousseau.   As he explains “culture therefore relates to the specific differences between men and animals, thus leading to what has ever since been the classic antithesis between nature and culture” (Structural Anthropology 354).  Yet as Derrida explains, Lévi-Strauss shows the limits of this distinction in, for example, the prohibition on incest.  As Derrida writes “the incest prohibition is universal; in this sense one could call it natural.  But it is also a prohibition, a system of norms and interdicts; in this sense one could call it cultural” (Writing and Difference 283).

Xxxiv About Locke, Rousseau says, “Others have spoken of the natural right that everyone has to preserve what belongs to him, without explaining what they mean by ‘belonging’” (Discourse on Inequality 45). for See Polanyi, The Great Transformation Chapter 4 for a critique of man’s “natural” tendency to engage in free trade.

[xxxv] Without what turns out to be a communitarian content, one derived through the travails of  introspection, feeling, and the great act of self-consciousness that Rousseau’s German disciples were to understand so well, Rousseau’s vision of freedom would be indistinguishable from the empty formalism of Liberal freedom and its inability to resist the instrumental quest for utility.  As Schiller similarly put his Rousseau-inspired dedication to introspection and self-reflection, “My ideas [are] drawn rather from the uniform familiarity with my own self than from a rich experience of the world, or acquired through reading” (The Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter I)

[xxxvi] I am of course thinking of Kant’s great project, in light of this sort of observation, of separating the phenomenal from the noumenal, the empirical from the transcendental.  Kant’s immediate followers saw the problem with this division and either doubled down on a “better” empiricism or a “more logical” transcendentalism, or like Hegel, attempted to determine how the two might be reconciled.  I am already imagining responses to this piece that will either be vociferous statements of empirical findings that neglect the perspective of the inquiring subject, or statements about the subjective truth of things, based on dogmatic introspective certainty.  One of the best descriptions of this “antimony” and its aftermath is provided by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, his most sustained critique of authenticity.  The study of “man,” which started with Rousseau’s anthropology, has as its subject and object of study an “empirco-transcendental doublet” whose analysis results in “an endless oscillation” (336).  As Foucault summarizes what he refers to as “the anthropological sleep,” “paradoxically, the original, in man, does not herald the time of his birth, or the most ancient kernel of his experience: it links him to that which does not have the same time as himself; and it sets free in him everything that is not contemporaneous with him; it indicates ceaselessly, and in an ever-renewed proliferation, that things began long before him, and that for this reason, and since his experience is wholly constituted and limited by things, no one can ever assign him an origin” (331)  “What is conveyed in the immediacy of the original,” says Foucault, “is, therefore that man is cut off from the origin that would make him contemporaneous with his own existence” (332).  In other words, the origin (or original) that would provide the stamp of eternal authenticity thus stands outside the time and history in which humans invariably and have always lived.  The origin is always in retreat, whether as we delve back in time or wait for its appearance at the end of history.  See also Jacques Derrida’s “Introduction to the ‘Age of Rousseau,” in Of Grammatology, where he analyzes Rousseau’s role as the founder of modern anthropology or, as with Foucault, the study of “man.”  As Derrida puts it elsewhere, “the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology. . . has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play” (Writing and Difference 292).  Rousseau’s other most notable contribution to the study of man, one taken up by Romantic introspection and self-expression, is “a new model of presence: the subject’s self-presence within consciousness or feeling” (Of Grammatology 98).

[xxxvii] The discourse surrounding peak oil often demonstrates the same sort of tic.  It is with considerable force that Heinberg or Greer (among others) have shown that the invisible abundance of cheap and plentiful energy in the unthought of modern society.  I myself have referred to oil as Liberalism’s unconscious.  That modern society doesn’t understand its own conditions of possibility, though, does not provide us a clear path to what an authentic alternative might be.  It may only tell us that the passage of time reveals to us things we hadn’t previously been able to consider in this Hegelianism without reserve.


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Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: conservatism, liberalism, rebuilding resilient societies