“We Must Be True to Ourselves”

The title of this post is almost an axiom among modern Americans. We may hear it put in other ways as well, like “as long it makes you happy,” or “you must do what’s in your heart.” I’ve heard it said that we live in the age of “the sovereign self.” In our age, the subjective rules; the only perspective that counts is my perspective, and my perspective is declared valid simply because it is mine. Whether what I think corresponds to reality in any objective sense is beside the point.

We tend to think of it as a relatively recent phenomena, but this idea of being “true to ourselves” is a form of relativism, and it’s been around a lot longer than most of us would think. The phrase actually goes back to a Johann Gottfried Herder, who wrote to his fiancee, Caroline Flachsland in 1772:

All our actions should be self-determined, in accordance with our innermost character—we must be true to ourselves.

I found this quote in a great book about Romanticism called, The Romantic Revolution: A History by Tim Blanning. I’ve always been interested in the Romantic period in Western history because I knew it was a reaction against the Enlightenment worship of reason. Enlightenment philosophers, starting with Renee Decartes, sought to figure out life without any reliance on revelation from God. Most of these philosophers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries believed in God, but rejected the Bible as God’s revelation of himself. They assumed it was a human book. Underlying this secular pursuit of knowledge and truth was the grand assumption of naturalism. Even for those who believed that God had created the universe (for how could a universe create itself!), he became more of a deist, watchmaker God who would never fiddle with his creation. He started it, and it just ran on its own.

The problem with the Goddess of Reason is that human mental faculties are a thin reed upon which to try to figure out the meaning of all reality. Eventually reality turns into an unsolvable Rubik’s Cube, where no amount of turning or mental gesticulation can make ultimate sense of everything. This kind of rational reductionism proved very unsatisfactory to one Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who while considered an Enlightenment philosopher, was the inspiration for Romanticism and the French Revolution. He was also the first rogue, a bohemian who felt the rules of society didn’t necessarily apply to him (I learned just how much of a rogue he was in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals.)

It does make sense, though, that if the highest value is that “we must be true to ourselves,” then who’s to judge what the content of the “true” is. The problem with this conception of the highest good being what we want is that it will inevitably come into conflict with what someone else wants. In Rousseau’s case, what he wanted conflicted with what his children needed, which was a caring and nurturing father. As it was, being “true to himself” meant abandoning his children to death or misery.

This constant drumbeat in our culture of being true to ourselves is one among many reasons that I teach my kids that life doesn’t revolve around us or what we want. In fact, I often tell them, “Who cares what you want.” They’ve learned there are objective moral precepts ground in the person of our holy, almighty God, and that’s what “it’s all about.” It just so happens that life works a whole lot better when we make it about him, and his greatest commandments (loving him and our neighbors), than when we make it all about us.