The Romantic Cult of Authenticity

Before the 19th century, the right kind of life was determined by how you conformed to the Bible or to nature or to reason or experience. But after Romanticism, the best life was the life in which you live out what you’re privately believing and feeling. This is the “authentic” life. The “inauthentic” people try to please God or their parents or friends or the wider society’s expectations. The authentic people are “true to themselves.” They “follow their heart.”

It’s Rousseau’s world, and we just live in it

This complete historical inversion started with the strange but influential French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Almost everybody before Rousseau believed that human society helps man to be better than he could be as an isolated individual. Human institutions like the family and church and the guild (business) elevated human existence. Rousseau turned this idea on its head. He believed that we’re born into the world innocent, free, and happy, but then human society and culture enslave us, dehumanize us, sadden us. The institutions around us like our parents and friends and church and job conspire to chip away at our true, authentic selves. (By the way, in this sense Marx was deeply Rousseauian.) The goal of life is to rip away these social barriers so that we can be truly authentic.

Expressive individualism

Today we hear this sentiment all the time: “Be true to yourself.” “Bernie Sanders is not a regular politician; he’s authentic.” When rock stars go wild on stage, ripping off their clothes and breaking guitars, we admire them, because they’re expressing what they really are. There’s even a name for this: “expressive individualism.” You validate your unique individualism by expressing yourself, often wildly and bizarrely in public. The idea that it would be better to conform to standards of decency and order, better yet, God’s word, would just be to put a crimp on authenticity.

Authenticity has now become a badge of social status. This is especially true with diet. Think only of the great push for eating only food that is organic, local, and sustainable. If you eat this way, incidentally, I’m in no way criticizing you. I’m criticizing the lust for authenticity on the part of people who don’t merely eat this way, but want to be known as eating this way. In the words of Andrew Potter, it’s a form of “conspicuous authenticity.” It’s a way of distinguishing themselves from the eating habits of the bourgeois, the unenlightened, the common herd.

For this reason, Rousseau himself was the sworn enemy of social convention. Society was made up of a hierarchy, and he hated that. The lower classes deferred to the upper classes. There was bowing and curtseying. Different classes wore different kinds of clothes. Rousseau hated all of that. For him, people should be judged by the intensity of their conviction and feelings. Social convention demanded that people be courteous, use certain conventional language, stand and talk in certain formal ways. Rousseau considered all of this artificial, totally inauthentic. It’s better for people to say exactly what they are feeling on the inside at the time. It’s not just that they could be rude, loud, thoughtless, and overbearing. They should be this way, as long as that’s what they’re authentically feeling.

The lust for spontaneity

This meant, not surprisingly, that romantics prize the spontaneous rather than the planned. If we plan or prepare or premeditate according to certain standards, we’re surrendering to external norms. But if we say and do things spontaneously, in the heat of the moment, we’re authentic. If we write out our prayers beforehand, we’re not being true to ourselves. “Let’s be spontaneous!” In every situation, we must “let it all hang out.”

Faithfulness, therefore, must take a backseat to spontaneity. Quietly attending the Lord’s house week by week and fulfilling your duties to the Lord is boring, formulaic, and inauthentic. The best Christians are those filled with passion, energy, who love to make a public spectacle of their devotion to the Lord.

They’re the authentic ones.


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