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Wright on Authenticity and Virtue

I haven’t forgotten about my series on The Naked Anabaptist and plan on returning to it shortly, but in the meantime here’s a few quotes that struck me this week from N.T. Wright’s new book on Christian virtue called After You Believe:

The ancient Greek maxim “Know yourself” is as good advice now as it ever was.  The question, though, of what to do with that knowledge once you’ve acquired it is far more difficult…. How can we tell which of our “hidden depths” are to be acknowledged in order then to be neutralized or (if possible) killed off, and which are to be brought out into the light, celebrated, and acted upon?  The fact that they are deep within us provides, in itself, no answer…

All this means that the massive presumption within our culture in favor of “authenticity” or “spontaneity”—”freedom” in that sense—simply won’t do as a serious moral proposal…. In particular, let us name and shame, as being totally inadequate, the idea that if something is done spontaneously it carries an automatic validation, whereas if something is done through obeying orders or after careful reflection, or despite enormous pressure of various kinds to do something else, it is somehow less valuable, or even “hypocritical” because you weren’t really “being true to yourself…”

Part of the problem about authenticity is that virtues aren’t the only things that are habit-forming: the more someone behaves in a way that is damaging to self or to others, the more “natural” it will both seem and actually be.  Spontaneity, left to itself, can begin by excusing bad behavior and end by congratulating vice…

Romantic ethics, or the existentialism which insists on authenticity or (in that sense) freedom as the only real mark of genuine humanness, or the popular version of all this I have alluded to above, tries to get in advance and without paying the true price, what virtue offers further down the road, and at the cost of genuine moral thought, decision, and effort.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reading this one now Ryan… it’s fantastic.

    March 26, 2010
  2. Ken #

    It does not sound like Wright understands the way freedom, authenticity and bad faith were used in connection with expressing the human condition in existentialist writings. He has not given existentialists a fair reading. He sounds grouchy to me. He sounds anxious to “name and shame.”

    March 26, 2010
  3. I bought this book from the Regent book store a month ago and it is on my “to-read” list once school is out. Thanks for the preview.

    I’ve done some work in virtue ethics and it seems to me as though Wright (nor surprisingly) has nailed it. The idea of authenticity particularly struck me. There was an article in the Vancouver Sun during the Olympics which advocated the use of “authenticity” as the measuring stick for how Vancouverites should respond to the games. While authenticity is not a sufficient measuring stick it is one which I believe can be a helpful tool in its proper context. I tried to “redeem” the use of authenticity in a recent blog: “To Thine Own Self be True”

    March 26, 2010
    • Nice post, Travis. The community context you discuss is indeed the vitally necessary corrective to some of the individualistic language and practice that floats around out there. For me, the question is always, “to what end, authenticity?” Authenticity doesn’t seem like an end—or at least a proper end—in and of itself.

      March 26, 2010
      • I’m in complete agreement with you re: authenticity as an end. I view it as a helpful criterion not as the telos. I am reading Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” right now and he makes a similar argument about how Christian ethics was distinct from Gk philosophical ethics based on its grounding in relationship and not authenticity for the sake of one’s own self…

        March 26, 2010
  4. Some much of Romantic ethics is tied to romanticism’s understanding of human creativity… I think many artists in particular struggle with the outcomes of authenticity and spontaneity (not that I want to throw out the baby with the bathwater – artists also owe the Romantics many many good things). The value of spontaneity gives the impression that true creativity is not at all pre-meditated (or that it actually takes a lot of WORK), which ends up discouraging many. The other side of the coin is that art or music, (which, if they are well executed, are always the products of careful thinking, planning, skill development etc) end up being undervalued because there is a disconnect between the act (supposedly free and authentic) and the object; not to mention that “authenticity” assumes an almost hyper-subjectivity – what exactly does your “authentic” expression have to do with me?

    To jump from my own frustrations with the aftereffects of Romanticism to what Wright is talking about in this quote, “knowing yourself” doesn’t actually translate into virtue. Authenticity without interdependence (or the hard work that involves living out what you believe) leads, in the end, to making virtue irrelevant. Authenticity doesn’t make any claims beyond the self, a poor place to start for any discussion on ethics.

    … perhaps complaining about devaluation of the arts was a poor place to start too – just being “true to myself” I guess 🙂

    March 26, 2010
    • Authenticity doesn’t make any claims beyond the self, a poor place to start for any discussion on ethics.

      Well said, Jessica. I think the art analogy is a good one. In both art and virtue, something of beauty is the result of deliberation, thought, practice, and hard work. Authenticity plays a role in both, of course, but it’s not the only factor.

      March 26, 2010
  5. Is Wright dancing with Foucault (panopticism)? Or is he trying to use the folly of the notion of authencity to suggest that human freewill is actually possible through contraint?

    March 26, 2010
    • I’m not sure Wright has anything as exotic as panopticism in view. His focus is on character formation and what the Christian view on this is. I think free will and the possibility of constraint would be pretty basic assumptions on any view of character formation, Christian or otherwise.

      March 27, 2010
  6. Larry S #

    Ryan: yet another book to add to my reading list.

    From my perspective as one whose professional life is now in Corrections within the Canadian criminal justice system (having left the confines of professional Christianity) the notion of self refection is critical. We try to break those subject to the criminal justice system of their ‘spontaneity’ since reacting ‘naturally’ without reflection or self-restraint is usually what got the boys into trouble in the first place.

    March 27, 2010
    • I imagine the perspective from Corrections would be a very interesting one, Larry. It’s probably not only inmates who react more often than they reflect, though :). Wright is big on habitually making good decisions to develop our “moral muscles” so that eventually we will instinctively do what is right.

      March 27, 2010

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