Winner of the Gerritt and Edith Schipper Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Paper at the
52nd Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association
Mindi Torrey, University of South Florida
Authenticity is commonly identified as a uniquely existential matter and generally as an existential virtue. Both designations, that of being uniquely existential and that of being an existential virtue, require inquiry. The current discussions on authenticity extend from continental philosophy; however, I argue in this paper that along with countless metaphysical and epistemological topics, the notion of authenticity has been a philosophic matter since Plato wrote his dialogues, and has yet to be presented as comprehensively or as successfully. I present here a conception of authenticity from a perspective supported by a contemporary reading of Plato following a brief description of some of the current existential representations of authenticity. In addition, I offer parallels between popular notions of authenticity and the elements deemed critical in its definition, with accounts revealed in Plato’s dialogues representing the ideal of authenticity. My objective is to show that the ancient account includes critical elements deficient in the current definitions of authenticity.
Marjorie Greene describes authenticity as an exclusively existential virtue: “What the existentialist admires is not the happiness of a man’s life, the goodness of his disposition, or the rightness of his acts but the authenticity of his existence. This is, I think, the unique contribution of existentialism to ethical theory.” 1 Plato’s discussions of various themes in his dialogues, including those that Greene asserts are of no concern to the existentialist, are embedded in a complex structure that is itself a dynamic and recurring demonstration of authenticity. Plato’s dialogues as a body of work represent an exhaustive argument for the necessity of authenticity; in fact it is the most paramount pursuit fundamental to rational beings. Many of the existentialist arguments bear a striking resemblance to the views on authenticity introduced in the Platonic dialogues yet none is as comprehensive, successful or enduring.
Sartre asserts his version of authenticity as a moral imperative based in natural freedom. An agent acts with regard to the realization of her freedom; she is aware of her limitations, the ambiguity of her freedom. However, “If value is totally contingent upon freedom, then such talk of
ethical ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes inappropriate since it implies an ethical objectivity totally lacking in Sartre’s theory.” 2 Sartre’s authenticity seems more of a contradiction of reasoning than an existential virtue. De Beauvoir discusses authenticity as an ambiguous existence requiring the willing of herself “to be a disclosure of being” in order to become authentic, asserting her freedom. 3That an agent wills herself as a disclosure of being seems to apply more to epistemology than to ethics. There is no presence of a value in de Beauvoir’s account of authenticity. Therefore, like Sartre’s, ethical objectivity is lacking.
For Kierkegaard, meaning in life is reliant on a commitment to unity. The conflict between the temporal and the eternal aspects of our lives cannot be resolved with rational dialectic. The agent, according to Kierkegaard, achieves unity only by making a continuously renewed choice, a commitment to another person or being. Only such a person aimed at achieving a coherent unity can be an existing individual. Kierkegaard suggests in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “existence itself, the act of existing is a striving.” 4 Thus, the meaning in life, according to Kierkegaard, relieson the synthesis of the temporal and the eternal through a continuously restored commitment to an external being.
Martin Heidegger and Charles Taylor have theories of authenticity that are distinctive, if similar. Both require self inquiry, Heidegger through Dasein and Taylor through self interpretation. Both view authenticity as a mode of being or a continual process of being in the world. Taylor requires for authenticity a need for “openness to horizons of significance.” Heidegger relies on an anti-subjectivist standpoint: we do not create the significance that is our facticity, yet it is something in which we are inherently involved. 5 Both believe that authenticity is a continuously recurring process although we cannot find a “final escape from our original social position.” 6 The main distinction between Taylor and Heidegger is that Taylor’s version of authenticity is normative. Heidegger maintains that an inauthentic mode of being does not reduce the value since values are “thosethingsbelongingtothevery‘thy-self’thatauthenticityismeanttoovercome.” 7 Yet,asGerry Stahl notes, “Heidegger shirks responsibility for the claim inherent in the word ‘authenticity’ to be presenting a positive doctrine of the good life when he insists that he is using the word as a value- free technical term.” 8 It seems that the uniquely existential “virtue of authenticity” has confounded the existentialists themselves as to whether authenticity is in fact a virtue at all.
Alexander Nehamas’ book Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates presents various essays dealing with the Platonic dialogues. I was initially perplexed that in the many pages of a book of essays about Plato and Socrates entitled “Virtues of Authenticity” the word “authenticity” shows up only in the introduction; it is not found in any of the essays themselves. 9Similarly, while Plato does not set forth an argument per se for authenticity, it is the theme and the objective that he and
Socrates bear within the complex system of the dialogues, expecting the interlocutors and the readers alike to experience authenticity, as Heidegger and Taylor suggest, through self-inquiry.
There is much debate regarding virtue in Plato’s writing; there is scarcely a topic more discussed than the nature of virtue in the dialogues. Nehamas suggests that in order to be a teacher of arete one would have to either know or claim to know what comprises the good life, or one would have to set oneself up as an example of what it is to lead the good life. Socrates, Nehamas suggests, fulfills neither of these requirements. 10 To limit the question of the good life to whether Socrates claimed to know or to be an example of virtue misses the point, for it seems obvious that Plato did not write the dialogues with a primary goal of communicating or making clear his proposal of an objective moral treatise. Plato’s scheme is an involved multilayered set of works presenting Socrates not as a teacher, but rather as a midwife. While Plato’s admiration of Socrates as a virtuous man is evident in his writings, virtuosity is not the isolated function of Socrates as a character in Plato’s works. Socrates functions not as a teacher of virtue, but rather as a midwife of authenticity.
Heidegger’s authenticity involvesDasein, a temporal account of a mode of being not as a decidedly achieved state, but rather as a continual process through which one embraces life. Similarly, Charles Taylor’s authenticity requires that it “is not a thing or an objectified state; rather, it is a continual process of dialogue with the social world.” 11Plato illustrates this very aspect of authenticity not only in Socrates’ singularly famous expression “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but throughout his dialogues with the presentation of Socratic Inquiry.
In the Protagoras, we see Socrates engaged in dialogue with Protagoras, a popular sophist. Responding to the sophist’s insistence that being in command of poetry is the “greatest part of a man’s education,” Socrates illustrates, through Socratic Inquiry, both that Protagoras is claiming knowledge about a subject he has not fully considered, and that being and becoming are two different ways of conceiving existence. Plato uses Socrates’ character here to reveal to his readers and to Socrates’ audience the value of continual reflection in contrast to the objectified state of knowledge that Protagoras celebrates. Socrates makes this point with a playful gloss on Protagoras’ explication of Simonides’ poem. It is not hard for a man to become good, not truly good, but truly hard. But to be good, Socrates says, it is impossible. A man who becomes good is not always good, but sometimes good and sometimes bad since a man can be “thrown down”; yet it is the duty for that man to continuously strive to become good. 12 In the presence of a large crowd of impressionable Athenian young men, Socrates contests Protagoras’ claims of knowledge by illustrating to the audiences in and of the dialogue that what exists in the social world must necessarily be questioned. Throughout the dialogues Socrates impresses upon both audiences the
importance of Socratic Inquiry. Undermining traditional discourse is imperative to the creation of authenticity.
In response to the charge that he has corrupted the youth, in the Apology, Socrates states that he has “never promised to teach them anything and [I] have not done so. If anyone says that he has learned anything from me…be assured that he is not telling the truth.” 13 This is important not only in distinguishing Socrates from the sophists, but in establishing Plato’s ideal of authenticity. Socrates, like Plato desires not to teach others what he claims to know, but rather to influence others to pursue self-knowledge through inquiry. Authenticity is a process of both questioning social discourse and gaining self-awareness. Socrates says of the sophists, “try asking one of them something, and they will be as unable to answer your question or to ask one of their own as a book would be. Question the least little thing in their speeches and they will go on like bronze bowls that keep ringing for a long time after they have been struck and prolong the sound indefinitely unless you dampen them.” 14
Kierkegaard defines truth as “An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness;” this, he says, is “the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” 15 Kierkegaard himself points out that Socrates contributed to the “passion of the infinite” in his struggle with uncertainty. Kierkegaard writes:
But Socrates! He puts the question objectively in a problematic manner: if there is an immortality. …On this “if” he risks his entire life, he has the courage to meet death, and he has with the passion of the infinite so determined the pattern of his life that it must be found acceptable—if there is an immortality. 16
Plato’s Socrates displays a “passion of inwardness” inherent in the Socratic ignorance which exemplifies Kierkegaard’s belief that the truth is related to an existing individual. Kierkegaard suggests that the subjective truth offered in the dialogues through the unfolding of Socratic ignorance may offer more truth than the “entire objective truth of the System, which flirts with what the times demand.” 17
In the Meno, Socrates suggests learning is recollection which, by his own admission, is nothing more than a device to get Meno’s character to agree that whether we believe ourselves to know or not what it is we are looking for, we should always search:
I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it. 18
Plato’s Socrates does not rely on his arguments about virtue and justice to inculcate theories or doctrines; rather he relies on his method as a means of assisting others in acquiring what we would term an authentic mode of being.
Guignon suggests that on a Platonist reading of Socrates, “humans are regarded as parts of a wider cosmic totality, placeholders in a cosmic web of relations in which what anything is—its being as an entity of a particular sort—is determined by its place and function within that wider whole,” and that “to know yourself, then is to know above all what your place is in the scheme of things— what you are and what you should be as that has been laid out in advance by the cosmic order.” 19 Socrates and Plato consistently urge their interlocutors, observers and readers away from this notion of social place holding. It is this very notion that the dialogues attempt to refute. In the Republic I, for instance, prior to the creation of the ideal city-state and the search for justice, Socrates’ character announces “don’t think that in searching for justice, a thing more valuable than even a large quantity of gold, we’d mindlessly give way to one another or be less than completely serious about finding it. You surely mustn’t think that, but rather—as I do—that we’re incapable of finding it.” 20 Socrates and Plato are not trying to advance a political or social conception of justice through rule by philosopher kings and throwing babies over cliffs. The objective is quite the opposite; to engage the young men of Athens and the reader to inquire and reflect upon individual and personal conceptions of justice, virtue, education, aesthetics, goodness and all that is authentic in the search for subjective truth, despite the backdrop of the “cosmic order.” This is the very notion that the Platonist reading of the dialogues disallows. Plato’s Socrates realizes that knowledge of justice, virtue or the ideal polis are not attainable, at least in the world of becoming. The Platonic writings are inherently more complicated than a social or political ideology. They present the occasion for authentic awakening through active dialectic. The role of midwife is thus taken up by both Plato and Socrates in encouraging Socratic Inquiry, which induces self-inquiry and leads to authenticity.
A major aspect of authenticity that seems to be absent in many current definitions is that of contesting power through opposition. While most discussions of authenticity include some mention of rejecting social influences in the process of finding a true or genuine mode of becoming, the presence of the power structure is a more complex and pervasive obstacle to authenticity. Plato addressed this force comprehensively. He is not advocating but rather questioning and addressing the “omnipresence of power relations and their tendency to combine and become systematized and institutionalized” which, as Foucault believes, “must be tempered by the fact that power is also ‘rooted deep in the social nexus.’” Foucault notes that if there are relations of power throughout every social field it is because there is freedom everywhere and that “people…are much freer than they feel.” [notes] Roger Alan Deacon, Fabricating Foucault: Rationalising the Management of Individuals (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2003) 167-169.[/notes] It is no coincidence that Socrates’ interlocutors suggest definitions of justice in terms of the “advantage of the stronger” 21 or of virtue as “to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them.” 22 Socrates suggests that people are ruled by the power of appearance which “often makes us wander all over the place in confusion, often changing our minds about the same things and regretting our actions and choices with respect to things large and small, the art of measurement in contrast, would make the appearances lose their power by showing us the truth, would give us peace of mind firmly rooted in the truth and would save our life.” 23 Plato’s comments on the power of appearance and the art of measurement exemplify the struggle of authenticity against the prevalence of power. The art of measurement, the balancing of the large and immediate desires with the small and distant reasons, leads the individual toward an authentic mode of being. The power of appearance, on the other hand, leads the individual to a position within a significant set of power relations in which her authenticity is constrained.
The ideal of authenticity is an existential concern insofar as it relates to what Teodoros Kiros calls the “existentially serious person.” He notes that such a person finds herself in a situation in which “a concern with existence, which is the ultimate freedom of the individual, is subordinated to the increased legally sanctified power of the community to decide on the behalf of the helpless, neurotic, pleasure-seeking, and dangerous individual who is incapable of cautiously determining the desires of the self.” 24Socrates maintains that those who are controlled by the power of appearance are depriving themselves of the ultimate pleasure, of their very “salvation in life” which those who are willing to practice the art of measurement would struggle for.
Plato aims to break down this larger than life non-reflective presence of the power of the community through Socrates’ continued inquiries concerning sophistry, education, justice, virtue and knowledge. Socrates makes this claim in the Apology:
Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?
Socrates holds resolutely to his purpose of authentic midwifery, continuing, as he faces death,
if one of you disputes this and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once or leave him, but I shall question him, examine him and test him, and if I do not think he has attained the goodness that he says he has, I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things. 25
As agents we have the freedom to choose our actions. Plato makes a case for authenticity in the Republic suggesting the use of the art of measurement as opposed to the power of appearance. Socrates says to Glaucon, “he’ll go on imitating, even though he doesn’t know the good or bad qualities of anything, but what he’ll imitate, it seems, is what appears fine or beautiful to the majority of people who know nothing,” and “an imitator has no worthwhile knowledge of the things he imitates, that imitation is a kind of game and not something to be taken seriously.”
Freedom is available by existence alone and adults cannot be spared this “anguish,” but dissention or revolt is available with the subsistence of power. Resistance, however, is “not an external struggle against power, but an internal and dyadic exercise of power relations, over others as much as over ourselves” and these relations are “sometimes extended by the position of those who are dominated.” 26 Socrates puts this freedom to the ultimate test in the Apology. With the opportunity to appeal to the emotions of the jurors and defend himself in a way that would allow him to be free from the punishment of the government, Socrates does not waver in his life of continuous struggle toward the ideal of authenticity. Socrates declares that his unpopularity will be his undoing; that it would not be his accusers, but the envy and slander of many and that other good men had been ruined this way and he would not be the last. 27 Socrates is unconcerned that the men of Athens will not understand his method of defense by truth, since justice is not measured by truth, but rather by tears and pity. He is interested in self-truth which revolts from power.
In the Apology, Plato takes a firm stance for authenticity. He suggests that the justice wrought through power relations is not justice at all, and that soliciting for rights in such a system is inauthentic. Facing death, Socrates declares “I will not yield to any man contrary to what is right, for fear of death, even if I should die at once for not yielding. 28 Knowing that his defense will be unsuccessful, Socrates chooses to continue to act authentically and is not swayed by the power of the city-state’s sentence of death. While we can never exist independent of society, we always have the choice to act responsibly, choosing authenticity and spurning the power which believes itself to have infinite control over every human being. The dialogues elevate Socrates as the ideal authentic self in the sense that Guignon describes the authentic individual to be “an individual who can stand alone, shedding all status relations and social entanglements, in order to immerse him- or herself in ‘sheer life’” and the “ultimate form of artistic creation.” 29
Following a discussion of various thoughts on authenticity, Guignon explores the possibility that “it has come to appear that mucking around inside the mental container, far from leading us to a better richer life, might be a path to confusion and despair” and “there is the risk of slipping into a life so prone to self-absorption and self-surveillance that one becomes isolated from all but those who share this preoccupation.” He then counters this position stating that despite the “arduous process” involved in authenticity, most people view it as an “ideal character trait or personal virtue that is necessary to living the best possible life for humans under modern circumstances.” 30 Taylor’s authentic mode of being comprises the struggle against meaninglessness and Heidegger’s is a triumph over the triviality of existence. Both believe that authenticity allows for a “world that is far richer, fuller, and more vivid.” 31
It is necessary to note that “it is not enough to merely assert the worth of certain ideals; there must also be a means of sustaining them,” and that “high standards need strong sources.” 32 Plato’s dynamic and enduring dialogues promote, by method of Socratic Inquiry, the repudiation of imitation and unchallenged beliefs. The dialogues are not merely attempts to define authenticity, but rather the triumph of a continuous ideal of authentic becoming. Plato’s use of literary structure, that is, his effective use of complex dialogues, illustrates this very act. Plato’s work is not a passive jumble of exposition bound together and shelved in time but rather an active discourse engaging readers to confront authenticity in their individual lives. The art of measurement and the power of appearance are real forces that require balancing. Both the white and dark horses of the internal structure of power and the web of interrelated power external to the self require the struggle of authentic becoming. In choosing death as an authentic action, Socrates’ choice to refuse to submit to the Athenian power structure exemplifies the struggle for an authentic mode of being.
There remains much ambiguity as to the definition of authenticity as a theme of continental philosophy, particularly whether or not it is a normative ethic. Despite the dissention among the existentialists, authenticity is an important individual ideal. Perhaps authenticity, through the many attempts at existential definitions, has become, not a mode of being, but just another metaphor. Although they neither set forth a declarative treatise on authenticity nor attempt to define it per se, the Platonic dialogues successfully and comprehensively communicate authenticity as a foundational theme. Socrates and Plato actively represent midwives of authenticity, revealing the ideal through the unfolding of a life of struggle such as we witness in Plato’s Socrates. This paper has barely touched the surface of the existential thought or the Platonic representations of authenticity, which invite further inquiry. Despite our determined location in a society, as individuals we have the freedom to struggle toward an authentic mode of becoming.
Arras, John. “A Critique of Sartrian Authenticity.” The Personalist 57 (Spring 1976): 171-180. Deacon, Roger Alan. Fabricating Foucault: Rationalising the Management of Individuals. Milwaukee:
Marquette University Press, 2003.
Greene, Marjorie. “Authenticity: An Existential Virtue.” Ethics: An International Journal of Social,
Political, and Legal Philosophy 62 (July 1952): 266-274.
Guignon, Charles. On Being Authentic. London: Routledge, 2004.
Guignon, Charles and Derk Pereboom. Existentialism Basic Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001.
Kiros, Teodoros. Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Values. London: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Nehamas, Alexander. Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Plato: Complete Works. Ed. by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997.
Sherman, Edwin. “Authenticity and Diversity: A Comparative Reading of Charles Taylor and Martin Heidegger.” Dialogue44.1 (2005).
Stahl, Gerry. “The Jargon of Authenticity: An Introduction to a Marxist Critique of Heidegger.” boundary 2 3.2 (1975).
- Marjorie Greene, “Authenticity: An Existential Virtue,” Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy 62 (July 1952): 266-274.
- John Arras, “A Critique of Sartrian Authenticity,” The Personalist 57 (Spring 1976): 171-179.
- Arras 77.
- Charles Guignon and Derk Pereboom, introduction, Existentialism Basic Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001) 4-7.
- Edwin Sherman, “Authenticity and Diversity: A Comparative Reading of Charles Taylor and Martin Heidegger,” Dialogue 44.1 (2005): 148-150.
- Sherman 151.
- Sherman 149.
- Gerry Stahl, “The Jargon of Authenticity: An Introduction to a Marxist Critique of Heidegger,” boundary 2 3.2 (1975): 489.
- See Alexander Nehamas, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates (Princeton, NJ:
- Nehamas 62.
- Sherman 148-150.
- Plato: Complete Works, ed. by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997) 771-775.
- Plato 30, 33b.
- Plato 762, 329a.
- From Concluding Unscientific Postscript cited in Guignon and Pereboom 92.
- Guignon and Pereboom, 90.
- Guignon and Pereboom 90.
- Plato 886, 86b.
- Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic (London: Routledge, 2004) 13.
- Plato982, 336e.
- Plato 983, 3338c.
- Plato 877, 77b.
- Plato 785, 356e.
- Teodoros Kiros, Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Values (London: Greenwood Press, 1998) 110.
- Plato 27, 29d-e.
- Deacon 179-180.
- Plato26, 28a.
- Plato 29, 32a.
- Guignon 69 and 73.
- Guignon 147-149.
- Sherman 152.
- Sherman 146.