In The Ethics of Identity, Kwame Anthony Appiah attempts to articulate the role of identities within human life from an individualist vantage:
If there is something distinctive in my approach, it is that I start always from the perspective of the individual engaged in making his or her life, recognizing that others are engaged in the same project, and concerned to ask what social and political life means for this ethical project we share. (xvii)
The first chapter of the book is devoted to characterizing the nature of “the individual engaged in making his or her life,” the nature of what Appiah calls “self-creation.” He writes under the sign of John Stuart Mill, who characterized self-creation as constrained by history, human nature, and personal circumstance, but nonetheless dependent on the free creativity of the individual, who must choose the life he makes. Against the Millian view, Appiah poses two rivals, the Romantic and the Existentialist.
The Romantic sees self-creation as less creation than discovery. The individual has an authentic self, and the task of making a life involves uncovering this authentic self, freeing it from all external, perturbing influences. Authenticity is truth to an already given meaning. Of the two parts of the Millian picture—constraint and creativity—the Romantic emphasizes constraint above all, and minimizes creativity.
Unsurprisingly, Appiah’s Existentialist takes precisely the opposite approach. There is no pre-given self, waiting to be found. History and other sources of constraint exist, to be sure, but they hardly constrain. Every option is left open. Whatever one is not, one must choose not to be. One must not feebly excuse themselves by saying that the option was not open to them (for whatever external reason). There may be no such deferrals of one’s own authority. Thus the Existentialist sees self-creation is consisting entirely of creativity.
One may certainly question whether any actual Romantic or Existentialist thinker answers to Appiah’s depiction, but that is not to my purpose here. The dynamic that Appiah has set up is between a view of self-creation as a balancing act between constraint and creativity, and two possible, though perhaps never actually held, views that privilege one of these to the exclusion of the other. Appiah is certainly right to favor the middle position. Indeed the obviousness of the need for both constraint and creativity is one reason why I question whether either extreme has actually been held. For instance, Appiah quotes Foucault’s critique of Sartre’s invocation of authenticity within an existentialist framework. Foucault argues that this notion is incompatible with the denial of a pre-given self, and claims that “we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” Appiah thinks that Foucault’s view ignores the material constraints on self-creation. But this is unfair, for Foucault could not possibly have been unaware that every individual work of art is constrained and shaped by artistic tradition, available materials, contemporary technology, one’s sense of an audience, and so forth. Constraint is built into Foucault’s metaphor.
So Appiah’s balanced view might be less controversial (among those who care about self-creation, at least) than he thinks. But the balanced view, as I have stated it, which I believe is fair to how Appiah states it (at least so far; better statements may be forthcoming) is an abstraction, and an impoverished one. To favor it over the Romantic and Existentialist views is correct, abstractly, but misses out on something essential: the role of the Romantic and Existentialist views in the phenomology of self-creation.
Enter Emerson. On the surface, Emerson reads most like a paradigm Romantic thinker, even appearing to answer closely to Appiah’s caricature. Certainly Emerson is a descendant of the Romantic tradition, of Coleridge and not Bentham (to borrow Mill’s contrast). At the heart of his work is the ideal of self-reliance, and Emerson constantly characterizes this in terms of authenticity to one’s true self:
On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,—“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will then live from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. (Self-Reliance)
Here the “law… of my nature” is contrasted with that perverting influence, “the sacredness of traditions.” Fidelity to one’s authentic self is not merely the highest law, in this picture, but the only law. But to characterize Emerson as a Romantic on this basis would be to see only half the picture. For Emerson equally frequently reads like an Existentialist:
The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. […] A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. (Self-Reliance)
Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back. (Circles)
While, in the first quote, authenticity appears (or appears to appear) in the guise of “self-trust,” what Emerson goes on to say nearly voids it of content. Everything external is a perverting influence, true—and everything one has been in the past is equally a perverting influence, a siren call to a foolish consistency. Everything but the choice that appears right to one at that moment is relegated to mere perturbation and inauthenticity. Thus Emerson here collapses into the pure Existentialist view, just as Foucault argued in the case of Sartre. In the quote from “Circles,” this is even clearer: no material influences are sacred, none profane. There is only experimentation. This notion of experimentation implies uncertainty: one does not know, in choosing, that one is acting authentically. That can only be found out after the fact.
So is Emerson a Romantic or an Existentialist? It is a question ill-posed. We might look to his own words for guidance, perhaps he is sometimes one, sometimes the other, and, wary of insisting on a “foolish consistency,” articulates now one in hard words, now the other. This is part of the answer, but if we consider this oscillation from the abstract vantage at which Appiah discusses the conflict, it appears like a foolish inconsistency, a mere inability to make up his mind. The problem is that that is the wrong vantage point in the first place.
To understand Emerson, it is essential to recognize that his primary aim is not to provide an abstract discussion of the nature of self-reliance. He is equally concerned to capture the lived experience of self-reliance, the phenomenology of it. And in that phenomenology, both Romanticism and Existentialism play a role, not as intellectual positions to be accepted or denied, but as expressions of a particular sort of experience. For, regardless of whether there is or is not a pre-given self, ontologically speaking, I certainly know the experience of feeling that I have made decisions that were not true to myself, however “true to myself” is to be theoretically understood. The Romantic insistence on authenticity, on self-discovery over self-creation, speaks to this experience. But equally there is the experience of all material, all context, as utterly impotent to tell me what to do, of the dizzying freedom of being forced to choose, of being unable to rule anything out. And this feeling gives us the Existentialist.
For the task of self-creation, it is not enough to accept, bloodlessly, the balanced view, though, bloodlessly considered, that is the correct view. It is also required that one learn to live with both Romantic and Existentialist experiences, to learn practically to balance them. Emerson’s enduring value is that he captured this phenomenological oscillation more accurately than anyone I know.