The advice to be yourself has the curious virtue of having been always already followed. It is un fait accompli, as one is already choicelessly oneself, so that nothing further need be done about it. There is nothing you have to do or to perform to be yourself. As advice it rings rather tautological, if an imperative may be said to be so. Universally applicable advice almost assuredly sounds hollow. Being is not doing, not even the sort of thing that can be undertaken, achieved, carried out or done. It is on that account entirely futile to mention it in the guise of advice.

But even if there were something we had to do or strive for to be ourselves, the maxim remains vacuous in that it offers exactly nothing concrete in concrete terms to guide action, at best indicating an unspecified end-state presumed to be desirable. It is worse than the advice “be successful”, which is notably absent of all practical instruction on what to do, and at best indicates a desirable end-state, and that with little to no specificity. Ironically the end-state in the case at hand is in fact a precondition of being the recipient of advice in the first place. I should be saying about as much (and just as little) if I took you aside to implore you, in all you do, resolutely to avoid the impossible.

Authenticity similarly needs no recommendation, as it already has the stamp of being a genuinely important spiritual status. Anyone in possession of authenticity holds a spiritual treasure, yet the simulation of authenticity is all but routine, the veritable coin of the realm. And the knock-offs lately are so good they are hard to discern from the genuine article. Authenticity is de rigueur, and the semblance of it a hot commodity. Beware authenticity that prides itself on its authenticity, that recommends itself all too heartily. The paradox of authenticity is that the claim of authenticity is always inauthentic.

Authenticity has become so important that it is now imperative to produce its appearance at any cost, so as not to be found wanting. But the authentic mask is no longer a mask. The reality degenerates into a symbol of its own past glory and is paraded ceremoniously and nostalgically in obligatory commemoration. We must all run through the motions of authenticity, express ourselves duly and conventionally at the appointed time, when everyone will be assured not to be listening. Authenticity is ritualized at its own peril.

Authenticity spans all the modalities, from impossible to mandatory, from presumed to aspirational, from accomplished to evanescent. Freedom is another modality of authenticity, a vital if duplicitous one. An outwardly unconstrained choice may exhibit liberty, but the protracted will of autonomy is a more perilous if positive freedom. Liberty has no need of authenticity, and a certain amount of spoilage is bound to attend any expansive expression of liberty. But autonomy is a self-given law, a choice made for oneself and stuck to, lived by, sweated under. There is positive content to autonomy, missing in liberty defined negatively as the absence of obstacles. Autonomy is a house made by hand, and it bears the stamp of autonomy not in its outward form and appearance, but in its inner character, its choice and will, in the home made within the hand-made house. There is positive content to autonomy, missing in liberty defined negatively as the absence of obstacles.

The point is that authenticity is a necessary condition of autonomy, not of liberty, which is defined in external terms. Authenticity is thus bound up with a notion of positive freedom. The decisive issue is the inner relation of ourselves to the positive content of the law we commit ourselves to, rather than the content alone, which remains itself no less vital. Autonomy is worth little if the law selected and laboured under is specious, but it is worth less still if law, though valid, is inauthentically chosen, thus not really one’s own. Authenticity underwrites the auto- in autonomy, ensuring that the self for whom the law is chosen is the genuine self, our truest and highest potential. Objective constraints on content are indispensable, but these neither determine nor even intersect with the inner relation to the content that authenticity implies.

The problem of the true self arises from the throng of false selves. The ubiquity of inauthenticity poses most sharply the question as to which longing is deepest and purest, which urge most original and uncorrupted, which interest is in our best self-interest. There are many contenders for our life’s energies, many suitors for our love. Amid the clamour it is not easy to hear the soft voice of the true self, or to see it prevail.

Authenticity comes in stages. There are breakthroughs, but there are long plateaus where nothing seems wrong. Here the spirit of truthfulness takes its rest.

It is all too easy to imagine that true self as whole, complete and entire, waiting in the depths for our rediscovery of it. But the whole of the self extends indefinitely far into the future, and so is not prior or preordained or predestined in anyway. Integrity is not the self-satisfaction of a presumed wholeness, but projects the self into the unknown future. Authenticity ought likewise never to be mistaken for being true to some pre-given already-determined originary self; instead it stands open to a future that is not yet closed, with all the indefiniteness that entails. Authenticity must involve an encounter with the unended and so-far unending status of existence.

This brings me, at last, to the end, in the form of the unknown future which clouds in blackness one overwhelming certainty, that other unknown, Death. Nothing focuses the mind so wonderfully, so rich and poignantly, on the ephemeral moment and all its glories, as does the sense of impending death. To live each day as our last — is it not the mark of authenticity? It is not the original that is authentic, but the ultimate, the threat of finality hanging over our heads. Authentic existence derives from an immediate awareness of ultimate inexistence. Nothingness sharpens the blade of existence, which excises the self from its submersion in the everyday hand-me-down reality. You can be yourself only in the realization of the fragility of the self and its ultimate disintegration. Authenticity is merely integral disintegration.