Are you being true to yourself? Should you? Better question: What in the world is a true self, anyway? In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius counsels his son:
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
But that’s mostly wrong. It turns out that being fulfilled, just, and true to others does not flow from autonomy or authenticity.
Not too long ago Hollywood realized that parents see children’s movies, too. The Incredibles (2004) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) stand out for addressing, in sophisticated ways, the search for one’s true self. These films show how the reigning concept of the true self results in moral solipsism. But we should also dig a little deeper into the theological roots and philosophical flat-footedness of this idea. For, in the mandate to be true to oneself, our post-Christian public culture misunderstands the sources and nature of “the self.”
Early in The Incredibles, we meet Buddy (Jason Lee), a fanboy of the superhero Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). “You always, always say be true to yourself,” the boy tells his idol, “but you never say which part of yourself to be true to. Well, I’ve finally figured out who I am. I am your ward . . . Incrediboy!”
Mr. Incredible is dismissive of his hapless helper. (“Go home, Buddy.”) The rejection impels Buddy/Incrediboy toward evildoing on a grand scale.
Director Brad Bird has said the boy’s hurt feelings were more or less an afterthought in the script. But they are deeply persuasive. How natural to resent one’s benefactors and one’s betters. Those with superpowers (the “supers”) have been helping people out of jams, but there’s going to be payback after Mr. Incredible prevents the suicide of a Mr. Sansweet — a bitter man: “You didn’t save my life. You ruined my death.” Lawsuits ensue, and not just Mr. Incredible, but Elastigirl, Frozone, Dynaguy, and the rest are dragged down, forced into hiding.
We next find Mr. Incredible in midlife doldrums, an insurance company middleman prevented from even small acts of heroism and punished when he tries. Incrediboy, in the meantime, has grown up to be the villain Syndrome. He wants to hand out superpowers to all via technology. “When everyone is super,” he chuckles, “no one will be.”
It’s right out of Tocqueville, who warned us:
“There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that incites men to want all to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the small to the rank of the great; but one also encounters a depraved taste for equality in the human heart that brings the weak to want to draw the strong to their level and that reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”
A dedication to egalitarianism can cut both ways: uplifting the lower or bringing down the higher. I would argue that this happens not only in society but also within our souls. For egalitarianism would have us treat all our parts as equally deserving of honor, and this leaves us lost in deciding which of our impulses to be true to.
This brilliant children’s movie communicates a nuanced message. It’s pathetic to see the supers prevented from exercising their excellences, from being the best they can be. Yet Syndrome’s villainy is motivated by an attempt to discover and live out his own unique essence. Rather than simply being true to ourselves, we must ask — as the film tells us early on — to which part of ourselves shall we be true? The Incredibles ends with a restoration of the supers’ prerogative to be super — but also an admonition for them to be gentler with those who lack their talents. Perhaps inside our souls, as well, we must let the higher be higher, but lead the lower lovingly.
At a certain point that cliché to which I referred, that we must find and then be true to ourselves, runs headlong into another cliché of our culture: that our identity is something we can and must choose for ourselves. Which is it to be — predetermined identity or freedom? Self-discovery or self-authorship?
Perhaps neither. Both are bad ideas when used, as they often are, to rationalize bad behavior. On the other hand, as is typical of clichés, both contain some truth. They create problems when asserted as extremes and the difference between higher and lower is flattened out.
Often “being true to yourself” is an excuse to be false to others, a cover for irresponsibility. This is obvious once we admit to ourselves how dangerous aspects of us are. Being naïve about this will result in a lot of pain. We need to recognize it to protect ourselves from the dangerous impulses in others, and to be sufficiently careful not to hurt others. When we do damage, it’s a bullshit excuse to say, “Well, that’s the way I am” or “It’s just me being me.”
This is the theme of Fantastic Mr. Fox. If other animals had logos (reason, language), they would have existential crises just as humans do. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) talks, so he has logos. He’s a husband and a father. But he’s still a fox, and he likes stealing chickens. He promised his wife to give that up to become a family man. This pledge to her constitutes a moment in which his higher logos infuses his lower animality.
The star of the movie is an animal, but he’s there to highlight the fact that we ourselves combine animality and higher traits. Mr. Fox is extremely human, but his animality is always still there: In several scenes, the film humorously juxtaposes calm reason and raw animality. The question is how to put these things together well.
The midlife Mr. Fox is drawn away from the concrete goods in his life because he is bored and has started identifying himself and his friends as merely wild animals, whose only end is death. He’s looking for the meaning of his life, and he thinks he’s found it by reasserting his true, animal nature. Of course, he can only do this because he is not merely an animal. Real foxes don’t have midlife crises.
Mr. Fox is fantastic — charming, creative, clever, a leader. But he’s also a bit of a jerk sometimes. He takes unnecessary risks. He doesn’t respect other animals enough. He’s on the narcissistic side, needing to be the best at everything all the time. Yet he isn’t satisfied with being merely a fox. As a rational animal, he is a complex creature, needing to balance and order his many parts and to orient his activities meaningfully — but he looks for meaning in all the wrong places.
He makes two big mistakes that endanger his community. First, against his wife’s judgment and his lawyer’s advice, he decides to distinguish himself by being the fox who lives in a tree instead of a hole. Second, he gives in to his animal desire to steal chickens, breaking his promise to his wife. Instead of being a fox with logos, he wants to be both more and less.
When Mr. Fox’s behavior draws the ire of local farmers, his family and neighborhood are threatened, and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) talks sense to him. Mrs. Fox succeeds where Mr. Fox fails, at infusing and controlling her animality with her logos:
Mrs. Fox: I’m going to lose my temper now.
Mr. Fox: When?
Mrs. Fox: Right now. [She slaps him.] Twelve fox years ago you made a promise to me, while we were caged inside that fox trap, that if we survived, you would never steal another chicken, turkey, goose, duck, or squab, whatever they are. And I believed you. Why—why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.
Mrs. Fox: You are also a husband and a father.
Mr. Fox: I’m trying to tell you the truth about myself.
Mrs. Fox: I don’t care about the truth about yourself. This story is too predictable.
Mr. Fox: Predictable, really? What happens in the end?
Mrs. Fox: In the end, we all die — unless you change.
Whereas Mr. Fox thinks his escapades bespeak living more meaningfully and being true to himself, Mrs. Fox unmasks Mr. Fox’s existential crisis and his assertion of identity as self-serving excuses.
So Mr. Fox needs to harness his impulses in a way that respects others and protects the web of social relationships in which, and only in which, he can live meaningfully. We have many impulses that we must respect and service, but also harness and order, not merely give in to.
Clearly “discovering” who we are isn’t the point. Yes, we have to learn to recognize how we’re structured, the pattern of our desires and fears, our abilities and inabilities — what we can and can’t change about ourselves. That’s only the first step. The next is responding. It’s up to us, as persons with reason and freedom, to handle those “facts” about ourselves. That is to say, while being honest about oneself is a crucial first step toward responsibility, being true to oneself — as commonly understood — is nonsense, excusing irresponsibility.
Of course, many aspects of our lives are more or less intractable facts; still, these facts remain open to various plausible interpretations and afford multiple responses. That is, our freedom consists in our ability to respond—in our responsibility. Our identities, our selves, are in part discovered, and in part accrued and created through experiences and deeds. That’s because our freedom comes from reason, logos, which is conversational. It’s what gives us a self.
Our post-Christian culture’s idea of the true self—is this not a distorted remnant of a Christian idea, namely, that the inner man (not the flesh, not the outer man) constitutes our real identity? It builds on Hebrew experience: Elijah encounters the divine not in earthquakes, fires, or other physical phenomena, but in “a still, small voice” directed to him personally (1 Kings 19), and this makes sense, for the Hebrew God is both utterly beyond the world and a conversation partner. He is both a transcendent and a personal God. That’s not to endorse the “buddy Jesus” notion of a personal God, but to say that the Judeo-Christian God is someone with whom one can wrestle, make deals, and negotiate, who speaks to and can be spoken to.
For those who worship the God of Abraham, the intimate presence of this other person in the recesses of consciousness authenticates it. That God sees our interior even better than we do is experienced as making our interior identities more real, lending the flux of consciousness more stability and existential weight. This inner ballast may support an impressive freedom from everything else. The loyalty due this most intimate partner in conversation overrides all worldly demands, and gives true believers an admirable courage in the face of those demands.
Our public culture, which no longer affirms the presence of this intimate conversation partner, nonetheless rests upon its ruins. We retain the sense of an inner, true self that frees us from outer demands. What was a loving loyalty to something beyond oneself becomes an excuse for raw self-assertion, for not managing one’s many parts and prioritizing the higher over the lower. The turn inward now forms an ethical solipsism.
What we discover in our interiority is not a thing, but an ability to attend and respond to what’s given. That’s why people who seek authenticity as the highest good, ironically, end up hollow and fake, or worse — because without an openness to the outside, our insides are empty.
The key is to build a self that is worth being true to, and that requires being true to reality and other persons. So the advice dispensed by old Polonius needs this correction: Let us “reverse the polarity.” It’s a prerequisite for being true to ourselves that we strive, first of all, to be true to what’s beyond and better than our mere selves. Otherwise, we should conclude (with Mrs. Fox): “I don’t care about the truth about yourself.”
This was originally published with the same title in Law and Liberty on October 27, 2017.