The term ‘authentic’ derives from the Greek ‘autos’ or self and ‘hentes’, originally meaning ‘worker’ and by extension ‘agent’. The notion of authenticity is alien to ancient philosophers for whom only the free man as opposed to slaves, women and children, is capable of a full rational judgement, dictated by a code of honour or informed by moral principles such as the ones developed by Aristotle in his ‘Ethics’. Augustine introduced a spiritual dimension to the self which emphasised the direct relation of the agent to God. For the author of The Confessions, an ‘authentic’ Christian must live in accordance with God’s decrees and dutifully prepare himself for his eternal salvation. Soul searching becomes a daily exercise for believers constantly striving for a higher level of purity and moral righteousness. The Protestant Reformation and its Catholic countermovement both vied for the total control of their flock’s souls and access to their moral conscience.

The eighteenth-century Age of Reason put the rational agent at the centre of its ambitions programme of social and political liberation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was instrumental in exposing the hypocrisy of his contemporaries, living in a world of false pretences and losing their individuality in the process. There is undoubtedly a remnant of Calvinist rigour in Rousseau’s harsh indictment of the ostentations of the Ancien Régime way of life. The philosophe’s vision of a democratic society run by and in the name of the people ultimately rests on his basic moral principle: ‘never hurt anybody’, applied to civil society. If ‘Emile’ lays out the education of a future good citizen growing up in a protective environment nurturing his capacity to do good and shun evil, there is no further guideline from Rousseau regarding the actual management of this innate human goodness, artificially recovered from an alleged bygone state of nature. 

By contrast, Kant expected his moral agents not to react to their immediate feelings of empathy and care towards their fellow-beings but to deliberate thoroughly about the choices open to them in the light of a universal rational law, irrespective of personal, social, political or religious considerations. This normative approach of authenticity was questioned by the devout Protestant Dane, Soren Kierkegaard who was the first existentialist thinker to link authenticity with ‘anguish’ or ‘angst’. We are far, here, from Nietzsche’s injunction: ‘Become who you are!’ as a rallying cry for all potential self-created individuals driven by the ‘will to power’. Such a self-becoming process is akin to an artistic approach where every new action or piece of art is a sign of self-affirmation and a corrective improvement to the previous one. 

The horrors of the twentieth-century crystallised the debate about the place of the moral agent in a more turbulent, violent world. As a staunch critic of modern technology, Heidegger harked back to the days of Greek metaphysics and the question of ‘Being’. His conception of authenticity is founded on the acknowledgment of human finitude in the face of inescapable mortality. Borrowing his formulation from Kierkegaard, Heidegger sees in the vacuum created by ‘anxiety’ at the heart of our being, a necessary component of existential consciousness. In his historical condition of ‘fallennness’, man must strive to accept his limitations through a positive attitude of ‘Sorge’ or ‘care’, not to be interpreted in the Christian sense but rather as an attitude of availability and solicitous understanding of our situation in the world. Like Rousseau, Heidegger does not provide his reader with a theory of moral responsibility and personal freedom.

Writing his major work Being and Nothingness during the German occupation of Paris, it is not surprising that Sartre would posit freedom at the very heart of his philosophy as he considered any sign of shunning personal responsibility as a sheer act of self-betrayal or ‘bad faith’. Authenticity becomes a clear-cut, fundamental concept in Sartrean philosophy, illustrated in his literary works and theatrical productions. Pointing an accusing finger at his fellow countrymen tempted by a cowardly wait-and-see attitude or guilty of open collaboration with the enemy, Sartre makes it clear that an inauthentic life is nothing but a pitiful, inexcusable sham. Simone de Beauvoir amplified her life companion’s existentialist position by campaigning for women’s liberation from male domination and struggling for their authentic self-realisation.