The Plausibility of Self-Creation
The idea that we can be who or whatever we want to be is commonplace today. Consumerism, or late capitalism, fuels this notion with its message of the customer as king and of the goods we consume as being basic to who we are. Commercials communicate this message in the way they present particular products as the key to happiness or life improvement. You have the power to transform yourself by the mere swipe of a credit card. The possession of this thing—that car, that kitchen, that item of clothing—will make you a different, a better, a more fulfilled person. Underwritten by easy credit, consumerist self-creation is the order of the day.
Such self-creation is perhaps more of a myth, or what Freud would have called an illusion, an act of wishful thinking, than a practical reality. Indeed, the underlying dynamic of the consumer marketplace is that desires can never be fully satisfied, at least not in any long-term manner. The consumer may not simply be a hapless dupe of the ruthless capitalist reinventing the market to maintain income streams, as some on the Left would argue, but the negotiation between producer and consumer is ultimately predicated on the fact that the desire for consumption never seems to be met by the act of possession. If the producer creates desires in order to fulfill them, then the consumer seems a willing-enough party in the process. To use Hegelian jargon, the consumer society really does present persons whose being is in their becoming, constantly looking to the next purchase that will bring about that elusive personal wholeness.
This illusion of sovereign self-creation through consumption still has its limitations. All of us are ultimately limited by a variety of factors that are not always susceptible to transubstantiation by credit card. First, there is the range of goods or lifestyles on offer. The marketplace does not have an infinite number of products for sale. The consumer is not an absolute monarch; as noted above, the marketplace involves a negotiation between supplier and consumer.
Second, society is constantly changing its mind about what is and is not fashionable, what is and is not cool, and what is and is not acceptable. We might think that we have the power to create ourselves and our own identities, but we are typically subject to the range of options and the value schemes that society itself sets and over which most individuals, considered as individuals, have very limited power. Consumerism makes us believe we can be whoever we want to be, but the market always places limits on that in reality.
Third, there are always specific individual limitations to our ability to invent ourselves. Physiology, intellectual capacity, income, location in time, and geographical location all play their role. I might truly desire to be Marie Antoinette, queen of France—indeed, I might happily decide to self-identify as such—but my body is male, has a genetic code provided by my English parents, is physically located in Pennsylvania, and exists chronologically in the twenty-first century. Being Marie Antoinette is therefore not a viable option for me. My body, not my psychology, has the last word on whether I am the last queen of France in the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, the idea of self-creation, that we can shape our essences by acts of will, is deeply embedded in the way we now think, to the point that, while I may not be able to overcome the genetic and chronological issues that prevent me from being an eighteenth-century Austrian-born queen of France, I can at least deny the decisive say that my chromosomes might wish to have over my maleness. As Bruce became Caitlyn and was recognized as such by society, so Carl might now become Caroline, if I so wished.
The world in which this way of thinking has become plausible has both intellectual and material roots. Streams of philosophical thought from the nineteenth century have exerted a powerful effect in weakening and even abolishing the idea that human nature is a given, something that has an intrinsic, nonnegotiable authority over who we are. And changes in our material circumstances have enabled the underlying, antiessentialist principles of these philosophies to become plausible and, indeed, perhaps even the default of the way we think about selfhood today; however, I cannot address these material factors but will focus rather on intellectual developments.
Thus, here I want to note the thought of three men who, while very different thinkers, helped shape the way we imagine human nature today: Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. All three in their different ways provided conceptual justification for rejecting the notion of human nature and thus paved the way for the plausibility of the idea that human beings are plastic creatures with no fixed identity founded on an intrinsic and ineradicable essence. While there are others whose thinking also played a role in this shift, these three are arguably the most influential as fountainheads for later developments up to the present day.
Darwin is likely the most influential. Setting aside the question whether evolution—or, to be more precise, one of the numerous forms of evolutionary theory that looks back to Darwin’s work as an initial inspiration—is true, there is no doubt that vast numbers of people in the West simply assume that it is so.
Whether evolution can be argued from the evidence is actually irrelevant to the reason most people believe it. Few of us are qualified to opine on the science. But evolution draws on the authority that science possesses in modern society. Like priests of old who were trusted by the community at large and therefore had significant social authority, so scientists today often carry similar weight. And when the idea being taught has an intuitive plausibility, it is persuasive.
The obvious implications of this situation are, first, that the sacred account of human origins given in Genesis is undermined and, second, that human beings are therefore relativized in relation to other creatures. Descent from a prior species excludes special creation of man and woman, and natural selection renders teleology unnecessary as a hypothesis. In short, human nature as a significant foundational category for understanding human purpose is annihilated. And in a world in which belief in evolution is the default position, the implications for how people imagine that world, and their place within it, are dramatic.
The influence of Nietzsche is perhaps less obvious in terms of it being a source—I suspect many more have heard of Darwin—but no less pervasive. As we noted, he, too, attacks the idea of human nature, though from the perspective of his assault on metaphysics. Nevertheless, the result is much the same: neither human nature nor human destiny any longer have any transcendent or objective foundation; in fact, they were never anything more than manipulative concepts developed by one group, most notoriously the Christian church, to subjugate another.
This points to two further pathologies of this present age that can be seen as finding some inspiration in the work of Nietzsche. First, his genealogical approach to morals carries with it a basic historicist relativism and a deep suspicion of any claims to traditional authority. Both of these are now basic to our contemporary world. From the casual iconoclasm of pop culture to the dethroning of traditional historical narratives, from the distrust of traditional institutions such as the church to iconoclastic attitudes to sex and gender, we can see the anarchic outworking of the challenge posed by Nietzsche’s madman and the ruthless critical spirit of On the Genealogy of Morals. The average twelve-year-old girl attending an Ariana Grande concert may never even have heard of Nietzsche, but the amoral sexuality of the lyrics she hears preach a form of (albeit unwitting) Nietzscheanism.
And that leads to the second area where Nietzsche’s thinking is reflected in current social attitudes: living for the present. When teleology is dead and self-creation is the name of the game, then the present moment and the pleasure it can contain become the keys to eternal life. While Nietzsche himself may have had a view of hedonism that was different from that which grips the popular imagination today (he understood the pleasure to be gained from struggle and from triumphing over adversity), the idea that personal satisfaction is to be the hallmark of the life—or perhaps better, moment—well lived is basic to our present age. Again, Nietzsche’s books may not be widely read, but his central priorities have become common currency.
The idea of self-creation, that we can shape our essences by acts of will, is deeply embedded in the way we now think.
That brings us to Marx. As with Darwin and Nietzsche, he assaults the metaphysics on which traditional religions and philosophies have built their views of the moral universe. Again, as with Nietzsche, he not only relativizes ethics via a form of historicism, he also presents moral codes as manipulative, as reflecting the economic and political status quo and therefore designed to justify and maintain the same. Modern suspicion of traditional authority owes a debt to Marx, as to Nietzsche, for its theoretical foundations.
Marx also makes another major contribution that is now basic to how we think about society: he abolishes the prepolitical, that notion that there can be forms of social organization that stand apart from, and prior to, the political nature of society. For Marx—and even more for later Marxists—all forms of social organization are political because all of them connect to the economic structure of society. By Marx’s account, the family and the church exist to cultivate, reinforce, and perpetuate bourgeois values. In today’s world, this thinking helps explain why everything—from the Boy Scouts to Hollywood movies to cake baking—has become politicized. And one does not need to be an ideological Marxist to be pulled into this tussle, for once one side gives a particular issue or organization political significance, then all sides, left, right, and center, have to do the same.
Finally, the cultural iconoclasm of all three thinkers is notable. Darwin is perhaps the least culpable in this regard: his thought relativizes culture but is not directly iconoclastic. For Nietzsche and for Marx, however, history and culture are tales of oppression that need to be overthrown and overcome. If ever the Rieffian deathworker of today needed a philosophical rationale, then the thought of Marx and Nietzsche and the traditions of cultural and political reflection they helped birth certainly provide it. These men shattered the metaphysics for the sacred order that underlay the Rieffian second world of nineteenth-century Europe and thus challenged the culture to maintain itself purely on the basis of an immanent frame of reference—something that Rieff declares to be impossible. In light of this, the words that Nietzsche applied to himself in his autobiography, Ecce Homo, might easily be applied to all three:
I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.1
- Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, 326.
This article is adapted from The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman.
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