The importance of authenticity

In his final column Anthony Hatzimoysis looks at the existentialist idea of living in 'bad faith'

As a final instalment to our brief tour on existentialist terrain, I would like to consider a phenomenon that has been closely associated with existentialist thinking: the phenomenon of living in ‘bad faith’. It is commonly thought that being in ‘bad faith’ is simply the practice of lying to oneself: one knows the truth about oneself, but instead of stating it, opts for deceiving (not others, but) oneself.

Thinking of ‘bad faith’ as ‘self-deception’ is a good way to approach the phenomenon, but it might make us miss what is distinctive about the existentialist view of human beings.

According to existentialism, each person is characterised by both ‘facticity’ and ‘transcendence’. The former includes all those aspects of someone’s being which are given for him, and that cannot strictly speaking be altered at will – his physiology, his past, his biological ties, his society, his place of birth, etc.

Transcendence refers to all the mental, emotional, practical, ethical or political activities through which, at each one moment, a person moves beyond – and in that sense, ‘transcends’ – his facticity, steering his way in the midst of all the conditions, the expectations, or the opportunities that each situation sets to a person.

Bad faith arises when one attempts to present oneself as being wholly facticity, or wholly transcendence. In the former case, a person chooses to resign in thinking that everything about his life is fixed and unalterable, and that he is true to himself only if he acts in terms set by his past, or by ‘the others’, or by ‘the society at large’.

In the latter case, when someone takes himself to be wholly transcendence, he believes that everything in his life is up to him, that nothing is fixed, that even his history, his past behaviour, or the details of his social condition are not real, but are entirely a matter of how he fancies to think about them. Both attitudes are mistaken – and yet they are so attractive because they can be the only way out of taking responsibility for our choices.

What would be a genuine alternative to living in bad faith? Existentialists have proposed different answers to that question, but they all seem to converge on the importance of being authentic. Authenticity, here, is not a matter of being true to ‘human essence’ – recall that no such ‘essence’ exists apart from how each being lives out his or her existence.

Authenticity is more a matter of being ‘the author’ of your own life, while avoiding the twin errors of (i) thinking that you are nothing but an ‘actor’ in some cosmic play over which you have no say, or of (ii) thinking that you can ‘rewrite’ and ‘make up’ everything irrespective of the needs and values that inform the human experience of reality.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle