To Thine Own Self Be True

One of Shakespeare’s greatest lines is the advice Polonius gives his nephew, in Hamlet. “To thine own self be true.” We like that: it resonates with our passion for personal authenticity, part and parcel, by now, of the way baby boomers (and now, their children) embrace the world. But it meant something different to Polonius than it does to us.

It was only in Shakespeare’s time, says Lionel Trilling, that society as we know it came into being. When Shakespeare had Polonius urge truth to oneself, he had in mind this new society of impersonal crowds, in which people largely went from role to role: innkeeper, consumer, employer, neighbor, and so forth. Authenticity for Polonius meant alignment with the self that lies below these social roles – a warning against pretending to be what we are not.

It was the age of Machiavelli, after all, who positively advised people to dissemble. The word “villain” came to mean precisely someone who never tells the truth – like Hamlet’s mother, of whom Hamlet says,

O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.

Shakespeare specialized in such villains, not just Hamlet’s mother, but Iago who frames Othello and Cassius who manipulates Brutus to assassinate Julius Caesar. “To thine own self be true” meant avoiding pretense.

Because the sincerely authentic soul neither lies nor dissembles, the second half of Polonius’s advice ensues. Not just, “To thine own self be true” but also, “It must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” It is this second half that we miss today. For us, the self exists for its own sake. As long as we develop our inner passions, it matters little if we then are false to others.

This was also a tenet enshrined in the popular understanding of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea that became practically a cult classic when the early boomers were going to College. Its protagonist is beset by an inexplicable fit of nausea until he admits that he is on his own in life — without history, tradition or God to justify or guide him. “Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them there is nothing.”

How different this is from the religious mentality, where things are not just what they appear to be, and behind them there is something else: a set of ideals, values, and a commanding presence whom we call God.

The new authenticity of self has no moral force. It is purely expressive, a kind of romantic individualism allowing just about anything. Its compelling appeal is evident in the recruiting commercial of the US army from 1980 to 2001: not a call to defend the homeland, not a moral reminder to do one’s duty, but, “Be all that you can be: join the army.”

To be sure, other people too are said to have the right of self-expression, so we are not completely free to do whatever we want. But the best we get is the ultimate laissez faire: Express yourself however you like, as long as you don’t get in the way of others doing the same. John Stuart Mill is famous for his utilitarian ethic that advocated “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” We have an expressive version of utilitarianism: “the greatest self-expression for the greatest number.”

Judaism, by contrast, measures expression of self by an external standard of human life at its best: something supremely good, worthy, purposeful – even noble, which calls us to service.

Gotthold Solomon was a founding rabbi of the New Israelite Temple of Hamburg. In 1824, he published a sermon entitled, “What is our Calling?” — a manifesto for a new kind of Judaism: a Judaism that celebrated the nobility of human potential. Almost 200 years later (despite the understandable nineteenth-century sexist reference to God), it sounds newly fresh with promise – exactly what self-expression for its own sake lacks.

“In spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than what presents itself  as          ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the                 word….         that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

The current culture of expressive individualism is dismally unaware of nobility as our highest human goal. Authenticity of self is valid, but only because the self’s deepest truth is its call to be noble.


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