Berman, Mill, and Rousseau on Authenticity


Marshall Berman

As an epigram at the beginning of the “A New Morality: The Authentic Man” chapter of his book, The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society, Marshall Berman uses the following quote from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of inward forces that make it a living thing.

In the first paragraph, Berman comments:

The Machine is understood to symbolize everything that is rigid, compulsive, externally determined or imposed, deadening or dead; the Tree represents all man’s capacity for life, freedom, spontaneity, expressiveness, growth, self-development — in our terms, authenticity.

…The paradox of modernity was that the machine was an outgrowth of the tree.

Rousseau tried to look this paradox in the face and live with it: to think it through, as we would say today, dialectically. He aimed neither to integrate modern men into the machine, nor to blow it up.

Later in the chapter, Berman quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile:

Life is not breath, but action; to live is to make use of our organs, our senses, our faculties, every part of ourselves which gives us the feeling of our own existence. The man who has lived longest is not he who has passed the greatest number of years, but he who has most felt life.

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