By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Judging the Authentic Life

The existentialist branch of contemporary philosophy has frequently spoken of whether one's life is authentic or inauthentic, whether one is living in good faith or in bad faith. Ortega y Gasset also wrote on this theme.

One of his commentators summarizes Ortega's views on authenticity and includes a quotation from Ortega:

My life will be authentic if I am the one whom I must be, that is to say, if the decisions which I take in my life are not arbitrary but rather directed to realizing the project, the vocation that my being incarnates. Each of us can be anything yet only has to be one thing, his authentic vocation: "The poor human being finds himself situated in a very difficult position. It is as if he were told: 'if you want to really be, you must necessarily adopt a very specific and determinate form of life. Now: you can, if you wish, not adopt this specific form of life and decide to be something other than what you must be. But then, be aware that you are left with being nothing, because you cannot truly be except the one whom you must be, your authentic self. The one who freely chooses not to accomplish this, falsifies his life, "unlives" it, kills himself.' "

José Lasaga Medina, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955): Vida y filosofía (Biblioteca Nueva, 2003), p. 177 (quoting Ortega y Gasset from vol. VIII, p. 28, of his Obras Completas edited in 1983 by Paulino Garagorri)(my translation from the Spanish original).

Those are strong and dramatic words describing our common human predicament. But existentialist philosophy can only go so far in setting the stage for the discussion. The question then becomes one of ethics, so to speak: what are the concrete characteristics that define the appropriate form of life for a human being?

And, then, we must get more specific: in these particular life circumstances at this particular time, what specific life-project must I pursue? The Christian gospel provides answers to the first question of ethics; the answer to the second, more concrete question is a matter of free, personal decision which for the Christian is aided by invoking the Holy Spirit.

Now, it is a commonplace reality that human beings of all kinds pursue all sorts of projects. History is the stuff of such projects from the questioning of Socrates in the marketplace to the ambitions of Alexander the Great. We, of course, also see an overwhelming multitude of life-projects around us--from the ambitious politician to the lawyer advertising his wares to millions of businesses all around us. We see another multitude of life-projects in academia with an array of professors specializing in one or another topic. We see a kaleidoscope of ambitions whirling around us and often insistently seeking our attention and support.

How can we evaluate this confusing panorama of life-projects and ambitions? Which ones are authentic? If we stick to a purely philosophical, metaphysical description of our common human situation, all we can say is that only that individual, or someone who knows him very well, can tell if the project is authentic or not.

But, if we add ethics to the mix, we can then make some judgments. From the Christian point of view, a life-project that does not exhibit and enhance the virtues, the powers for good, of humanity cannot be ipso facto authentic. That ethical quality is something we can certainly observe--the ethical character of our actions, especially in something as public as our life-project, is readily felt and evaluated by others.

Thus, being a greedy politician or a dishonest lawyer or sexually promiscuous cannot be the authentic project of anyone at anytime. That type of living is, to borrow from Ortega's description, a form of non-living, of walking suicide.

Yet, often, we cannot know the authenticity of another's life project because we lack the "inside information." Remembering that limited knowledge, we are then careful not to automatically condemn nor to automatically applaud. Not all that glitters is gold. Not all that may conventionally look like failure is in fact failure. Authenticity in life can, ultimately, be judged only from the inside, not from the applause or eulogies or disdain or criticism that we hear. The Christian knows that this final judgment of authenticity "from the inside" is out of the hands of any one of us.