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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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war