Conformity, Authenticity, and The Desire To Exist In Nothing and Spirit
By David Metcalfe
July 18, 2019
The Play Is Badly Cast
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the most philosophical character, Jacques, utters the famous lines,
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Jacques, or, I suppose, Shakespeare, hits a very important point as to what it means to be a person among people: social roles. It’s like we’re always trapped inside a play. There are certain ways of what we deem acceptable expression in any given context. These acceptable expressions define the very being of the individual.
In Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, he uses the example of a waiter at a restaurant. The customers see some guy taking their order, giving them food, walking around the restaurant, etc. To the customers, the waiter is a waiter. It’s his very being. But, obviously, that’s not the essence of who he is. He has a complex and diverse life with varying interests, relationships, thoughts, actions, roles, etc. When he goes home, his wife will see him as a husband, his children will see him as a father. When he goes to school, his classmates will see him as a classmate, his professors will see him as a student. When he goes to church, his pastor will see him as a congregation member. On and on, everyone sees him as a certain role based on their perception of their relationship with him.
But none of these things get at who he really is; and there lies the question: who is he? Who are we? What is a person? Is an individual trapped in this play, with roles constantly being set for them by whoever is perceiving him?
What Sartre ends up with is answered by the title itself: our essential being is nothingness. There is nothing that can really define who we are, and that is where our free will exists. Since there is no real or essential being, there is no real or essential way to be. We are what we make of ourselves.
But there are two constantly conflicting desires within each individual. The first desire is to fit into a role. We crave community. We want to be actors. But there are so many demands of us, and deep down we want to be our free and authentic selves. And thus is the second desire: to break free from our social roles and become our true selves.
When these desires are in opposition to each other, it is harmful to ourselves and others, and there are various ways to alleviate it. If a man has the social role of being a father, but does not consider fatherhood to be part of his true self, he may either live a fake life pretending to be a father, or follow his true self and leave his family to be single. If a black man considers himself to be equal to white people, but exists in a society where he is forced to be a slave to white people, he will feel that he is living a fake life, and to discover and live out his authentic self, would have to escape and live freely. Thus, this desire for authenticity can be very negative (abandoning one’s family) or very positive (desiring social equality).
Oscar Wilde develops this point further, elaborating on Shakespeare: “Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications. Our Guildensterns play Hamlet for us, and our Hamlets have to jest like Prince Hal. The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”
This is the fundamental problem of being: we are told to play characters that are not our true selves. We need money, so we take whatever job we have the skill and opportunity for. We are romantically lonely, so we get married to someone. We are born into a religion, so we accept those beliefs. On and on, everything we do is playing some kind of role, fitting the demands that the role has for us. At our job, we try to act according to the expectations of our employer. In our marriage, we try to act according to the expectations of our spouse. In our religion, we try to act according to the expectations of our morals. Our lives are a series of living up to expectations! When, in your life, do you get to be who you are?
We crave this authenticity in conjunction with our need for conformity. If we were all about authenticity, we would be content to live on our own out in the forest. If we were all about conformity, we would live as robots. What we want is to express our true selves within the conformity set out for us. We want our career, our spouse, our religion, etc. to be one that we feel matches the most essential expression of truth unto ourselves.
But How Do I Exist?
If our existence is a product of the consciousness of those who perceive us, then we either exist as fake people or not at all. So, in the balancing act to fulfill our contradictory desires of conformity and authenticity, we end up being partially fake and partially nothing. For this reason, it is impossible to ever be your true self.
The optimism is limited in Sartre’s philosophy, but it comes in the remnants of this nothingness: you are free to do as you like. There’s nothing stopping you other than the arbitrary expectations of your social community. But is that really all there is? Is existence either living a fake life as a slave to people’s demands or being nothing at all? Are ethics merely the whim of a social community? Are things like purpose, meaning, morality and identity just a blank slate to be painted with whatever canvas you happen to feel is authentic to yourself?
I think this might be as far as atheism can get. With only the material world, metaphysical things like love, purpose, morality, etc. are just nothing; made up concepts by human brains that happen to undergo chemical reactions that mirror some kind of conscious knowledge of the stimuli around us. Faking to the expectations of others is real because reality is only as real as the consciousness that perceives it.
I wouldn’t claim to know that Jean Paul Sartre is wrong. He may be right. But Christianity has a different answer to his question, and it’s an answer that perhaps seems more fulfilling and meaningful than that we are either fake or nothing. This answer is well summed up in 1 John 3:
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”
This passage answers every aspect of the questions Sartre is raising. Who are we? Children of God. Why don’t people define us for who we truly are? Because they do not know who God is. Instead of nothingness, it sets God as the definer of who we are. Instead of fake roles, it sets up an absence of true knowledge for why people don’t understand us.
It does not contradict Sartre’s famous concept of “existence precedes essence”, but rather limits it to our subjective understanding. Yes, we are born into a confusing world, not knowing who we are. But rather than discovering ourselves in nothingness, we come to discover ourselves in who God created us to be. Who God created us to be is like his son, who lived a perfect life.
And by stating the concept of an ideal nature, it flows perfectly into the establishment of “the law of righteousness”. We are free to do as we please, as Sartre suggests, but we are not always right to do as we please. There is a perfect standard by which to attain to. The absence of law, rather than freedom, is actually the essence of sin.
Jean Paul Sartre is one of my all time favourite philosophers, and trying to comprehend the complexity of his ideas may prove a lifelong ordeal. But I have come to think, as most philosophers now have, that while Sartre does an excellent job of identifying the problems of human nature, he comes up short of developing a real answer.
To claim to know exactly what this answer is, is something even I am not arrogant enough to do. I have, however, never found an answer that speaks so profoundly to the core concepts of humanity as the one given by the writers of the New Testament. Christianity appreciates these essential problems, but came up with an answer to them thousands of years before Jean Paul Sartre ever asked them. Rather than saying that who we are is either a fake self or nothing, the Bible develops a transcendent conception of humans as being children of God, with essential purpose, meaning, identity, and morality- expressed in the form of an ideal standard, being Jesus.
In terms of the “fake self”, Christianity would agree with Jean Paul Sartre- you are not defined by what others think of you. St. John goes on to say, in chapter 3, verse 13, “don’t be surprised if the world hates you”. In terms of “authentic being”, Christianity disagrees- you are not nothing, free to do whatever you like. You are an image bearer of God, with a higher standard to live towards.
St. John continues on in chapter 3, verse 23, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
Our physical selves may be fake, but because we exist not only as physical, but as a spirit, there is a spiritual reality intrinsic to our authentic being. This spirit is ultimately what defines us. But if you don’t believe that humans have souls, then Sartre is right, we are ultimately nothing.
I think Sartre knew this when he said, “That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”