It's a sham: A history of authenticity from Jesus to self-help & beyond + 1st goats

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Goats were first domesticated in western Iran 10,000 years ago

INTRO: Goats were domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago in the area around the Zagros mountains in what is now western Iran. The finding suggests goats were one of the first animals to be domesticated, with only dogs unambiguously preceding them... (MORE)

It's a sham: A history of authenticity from Jesus to self-help & beyond

INTRO: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’ This popular quip, often misattributed to Oscar Wilde, appears without any apparent irony in self-help books and blog posts celebrating authenticity. Understandably, they take the dictum to ‘be oneself’ as a worthy, nearly unassailable goal. Our culture is saturated with authenticity: we’re forever ‘finding ourselves’, ‘self-actualising’, ‘doing you’, ‘being real’, ‘going off the beaten path’, ‘breaking free of the crowd’. We spend our youth trying to figure out who we are; our later years trying to stay true to ourselves; and the time in-between in crisis about whether we are who we thought we were.

But ‘Wilde’s’ quote, inauthentic though it might be, suggests something foolish at the heart of authenticity. All this introspection can seem gratuitous. Why expend so much effort trying to be something we can’t help but be? ‘In the end,’ as the author David Foster Wallace put it, ‘you end up becoming yourself.’

And there’s a deeper absurdity to authenticity, too. Everyone else might be taken, but the effort to be ourselves is the surest path to being just like everyone else, especially in the context of a highly commodified and surveilled culture where we always seem to be on stage. If some person or organisation claims to be concerned with authenticity, you can be almost certain that they’re conformist posers. As Wilde actually did write: ‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ (Or misquotation.)

Where did all these dead-ends and paradoxes of self-creation come from?

Despite its ubiquity, there’s nothing necessary about authenticity. First of all, it’s a luxury: only those comfortable enough to take the necessities of life for granted can turn their attention to authenticity. Secondly, authenticity has a history. Other cultures and times haven’t given the self nearly so much weight, nor have they frowned so much upon conformity. Self-actualisation is often subordinated, if not completely subsumed, by service to the family, to tradition, or to God. Thinking about the history and contingency of authenticity – as with any concept – can help us understand how best to approach it.

Authenticity seems, at least initially, to have had a religious component. Indeed, Western authenticity can’t be understood without reference to that peculiar Christian God who decided to become a man. One way to understand authenticity is as the inheritance we’re left with after God passes away. In personalising God, Christianity foregrounded the inward struggle of the believer. In the form of Jesus Christ, whom Wilde called ‘the first individualist in history’, God wasn’t just a lord to serve, but ‘one of us’, a human being with a personal narrative that holds lessons for his humble servants. Jesus’ struggle with temptation, his rejection of hypocritical dogma, and his willing self-sacrifice parallels every Christian’s own struggle: ‘What would Jesus do?’

To see what’s new here, consider the difference between Moses’ 40 years in the desert and Jesus’ 40 days. Moses’s struggle is external: to subordinate himself to God, follow his (quite demanding) instructions, and lead his chosen people to the Promised Land. By contrast, Jesus’ struggle is internal and psychological: left alone by God, he must resist temptation through an inner strength that becomes an example to his followers. Jesus isn’t just man and God in one. He endows human life in general with a touch of the divine. His story puts in stark relief a whole inner world, dramatises it, and elevates it to a realm of utmost spiritual importance. A long history of tortured self-scrutiny follows... (MORE)

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