Before rejoining the story of the rise of authenticity in the late 1960s, I need to talk about how authenticity works and, to do that, I need to go a little further back in time. Before the Enlightenment, the peoples of the Americas and Western Europe were part of an age called the Baroque Era, an age epitomized in John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, a nostalgic look at a past that seemed to have cared more deeply about aesthetics than the coal-fired age against which the Romantic Movement rebelled. When it said, “‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats’ poem spoke specifically to the ancient and classical past when theories that truth and beauty were one in the same were first articulated; but it also spoke to the tattered remnants of the baroque world.
At the core of any episteme is a general principle for testing the truth of something; and in the Baroque, that test was fundamentally the test of beauty, one linked to a European aesthetic that emphasized sumptuousness and symmetry. Copernicus could contest Ptolemy because his heliocentric system was as or more beautiful than the geocentric. Claims both of authority and veracity in the pre-Enlightenment world appealed to beauty as the ultimate truth test. Shifts in the meaning of “counterfeit” across the epistemic divide speak to this. Today, we understand counterfeits to be forgeries of art or money that fool people by being essentially indistinguishable from the thing they replicate. But before the Enlightenment, counterfeits referred to evidently deformed objects and creatures. In a world where truth revealed itself through beauty, what we would describe as a counterfeit would be viewed as simply another occurrence of the true and real – and so it was that relics and icons could proliferate, each one of a thousand reliquaries’ or painted virgins’ authenticity revealed in its beauty. A counterfeit that did not reveal itself aesthetically could not be a counterfeit.
The legitimacy of the Hapsburg crown, the authority of St. Peter’s throne, the saving power of the Eucharist, the ordered, beautiful and harmonious movement of the heavens – the truth of the great certainties of the age was revealed through self-evident beauty. That is not to say that reason did not exist in the Age of Beauty, any more than to suggest that authenticity did not exist in the Age of Reason; rather, I suggest that beauty, not reason was the master test for the big questions in life.
At the ground level, a person from the Age of Beauty could quickly and easily test the truth of claims people made by asking: do I find this claim beautiful? When faced with more complex questions requiring specialized analysis or secondhand knowledge, it was best to seek the aid of the most grandiosely or exquisitely beautiful things: cathedrals, men in glorious vestments, sumptuous paintings of the Virgin.
This should also give you a sense of the incommensurability of the two sides in the debate in which Voltaire was engaged, on the fault line between the Age of Beauty and the Age of Reason. In a confrontation between a beautiful claim that could not be empirically verified and an ugly truth supported by logic and evidence, both sides would see themselves as clearly victorious. One could not use reason and evidence to disprove beautiful claims any more than one could use beauty to disprove claims grounded in objective evidence and reason.
So let us take Stephen Colbert deadly seriously when he defines “truthiness” as “truth that comes from your gut,” not from evidence; “you don’t look up truthiness in a book; you look it up in your gut.” In order to take this idea seriously, we must first acknowledge that we all partake of this idea of truth. For instance, the gay liberation movement’s linchpin is the visceral authenticity of same-sex attraction and the way in which feelings of love have an objective existence as real as our warming climate. We all believe that our gut feelings are an important source of fundamental truth. We are a long way from the rakes (successful men who liked penetrating other men) of the Age of Beauty who did not derive the same sense of contradiction and pain from presenting the public image of a wealthy, married patriarch with an array of gorgeous, beautifully-attired children. The beautiful image one presented to the world partook of a truth that had no need to align with one’s internal feelings for authentication.
We all value feelings and hate hypocrisy because, until recently, authenticity was a partner in the Age of Reason. The emotional sensitivity Enlightenment thinkers prized helped to do away with slavery and torture; The Princess and the Pea is as good a fairy tale for the Age of Reason as any because it unites authenticity and sensitivity with empirical evidence. One could use the story to illustrate the Age of Authenticity too, if one lost interest in the ontology of the pea.
Authenticity is, first and foremost, about personal honesty. When we say things we do not think are true, we get a certain feeling in our gut, signaling a gap between what we claim and what we feel to be true. Authentic people, those of us fully resident in the Age of Authenticity, hate those experiences and have sought, through a program of self-reflection, to eliminate those experiences from their lives, sometimes with the assistance of a church but, just as often, a guru or motivational speaker. An authentic person knows they are speaking the truth because, when they speak it, they don’t get that queasy, lying feeling in their gut; they instead feel that, just through the act of speaking, that they are bringing the world into alignment with the truth they authentically feel.
Although most of today’s churches, both liberal and conservative, preach authenticity, it would be unfair to see the Age of Authenticity as a new Age of Faith. Authenticity is not about resort to ministers, priests or scriptures; it is about the world outside you aligning with the world inside you. For an authentic Christian, the feeling that Osama bin Laden should be killed self-evidently trumps any of the Bible’s interdictions against murder or repaying evil with evil. Besides, psychiatrists preach it; business leaders preach it; everyone agrees: your feelings should be honestly expressed because they are a trustworthy guide to what is true.
When Donald Trump tells you that Barack Obama is not an American, he doesn’t get that nervous butterfly feeling in his gut, the feeling a dissembling liar from the Age of Reason, like Mitt Romney, might get. Instead, saying that Obama is not an American is what makes that feeling go away. When Trump looks at the president on TV, he feels a dissonance deep in his gut – this man can’t be president, just look at him. Obama appears to be president but Trump knows in his gut that he is not. Every day he lives in a country governed by this uppity negro, he feels inauthentic, as though he is living a lie, his feelings never matching reality. To live authentically, Trump must believe not only that Obama was not elected president in 2008; he must believe that it is definitionally impossible for him to be president. Authenticity demands that Obama be the foreign interloper Trump’s gut tells him he is.
All Trump is doing is taking Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice from Star Wars. “I suggest you try it again, Luke… This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct… Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them… Stretch out with your feelings… You see, you can do it.” Maybe Trump can even hear Alec Guinness’s voice as he reaches beyond some parochial religious faith and uses The Force to discern the truth, closing his eyes and using it to see the tiny exhaust vent he will use to blow up the Death Star. When he opens his eyes, there is nothing but a mound of evidence confirming Obama’s birth in the US but when he closes his eyes like Luke Skywalker, he can see the conspiracy stretching back to a meeting in a smoky room in Nairobi, years before the president was even born.
And as an authentic person, it is that truth that he proclaims.