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Art and Our Cult of the Self


A cult of the self shapes much of our lives. Its cardinal conviction is that the self is sacred. Via its often stealthy influence, self-worship has risen to riddle our culture and politics. To explain, I’ll outline three themes, first tracing the tricky provenance of the cult’s “expressive individualism,” then roughly laying out what could be called the law of conservation of religious energies, and finally sketching the role of art and aesthetics has played. The self this cult centers as if it was simply human nature isn’t supportable—psychologically, anthropologically, sociologically, politically, or ecologically. As we’ll see, this sort of selfhood is novel, and its viability is far from assured.

While not common, the phrase “expressive individualism” has appeared 35 times in that uber-arbiter of liberal life the New York Times. One columnist calling it “the dominant note in American culture.” Our “cultural climate preaches the self as the center of life” under an ambient liturgy of “follow your passion, chart your own course … and find yourself,” he writes. Another columnist connects the deifying dots: “The good life lies almost exclusively in … the cultivation of the unique and holy You.” In Homo Deus historian Yuval Harari (whose fans include presidents and billionaires) echoed that point:  “Humans are … trying to upgrade themselves into gods.” And one legal scholar detects an “anthropology of expressive individualism [that] elevates the principles of autonomy and self-determination above other competing values in the hierarchy of ethical goods, such as beneficence, justice, dignity, and equality.” If these observations hold even a germ of truth, they merit vigorous investigation.

Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah popularized the term “expressive individualism” in his 1985 bestseller Habits of the Heart, which described research on American life’s “crisis of meaning.” The prevailing ethos of “striving for wealth and success,” was proving psychologically/spiritually unsatisfying. Bellah contrasted the inability of “utilitarian individualism to provide a meaningful pattern of personal and social existence” with the “expressive individualism” that was preached, for instance, by “poet-prophetWalt Whitman. In works like Song of Myself, Whitman eloquently advocated a creed in which expressing oneself was paramount and life’s purpose wasn’t chasing riches but committing to the deeper, Romantic cultivation of the self by seeking strong feelings—aesthetics in its widest sense (which in excess risks emotional solipsism or aesthetic avarice).

That vital but vague term “Romantic” is pivotal in all this, so let’s quickly recap its history. Formal philosophical Romanticism “changed the way we think of the world by placing the self at the center of everything.” So writes Andrea Wulf in Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, which recounts the adventures of the “Jena set.” In that small German town, this band of thinkers and artists (including Goethe, Hegel, Novalis, and Schiller) built the basic beliefs that shape our modern selfhood. Their self-centering revolution began in 1794, six decades before Song of Myself, when philosopher Johann Fichte declared “the Ich”—”I” in German—to be “the source of all reality” (the rest of the cosmos was non-Ich). This fundamental recentering made Fichte “a second Copernicus”: the cosmos went from geocentric to heliocentric to me-ocentric or egocentric (though “egocentric” wasn’t coined until almost a century after Fichte’s seismic me-ward maneuver1).

The Jena set were dinged for “egotistical self-absorption,” but they typically held that the enlightened self’s inseparable twin was moral duty. They linked art and duty directly: since art improved character, and morality was bound to follow. Schiller’s 1795 Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man extolled “beauty’s ability to free our minds.” In Wulf’s summary of this Romantic philosophy “without beauty there is no sense of morality.” Taste and beauty were the “bulwark against brutality, greed and immorality.” This pretty creed has since seen many ugly defeats.

The original meaning of “romantic” was “like a novel,” and, intriguingly, influential figures have confessed to feeling that their selves were shaped by novels. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau felt the very “sentiment of his being” was forged by reading novels. Barack Obama has said he learned “the most important stuff … from novels.” And novelist Vikram Chandra captures this by calling novels “the most sophisticated technology of selfhood”—British colonizers used novels as tools to try to convert select Indians into “proper modern subjects.”

The novel itself can be a supremely sensitive instrument for tracking shifts in the idea of the self and in how to judge proper selfhood and its fitting purposes. It could be said that the novel’s core preoccupations, personal and ethical, orbit three key concepts: sincerity, authenticity, and autonomy. Tight definitions of those terms aren’t important for our purposes, but in Sincerity and Authenticity, Lionel Trilling (once “indisputably America’s leading critic”) maps complex mutations in literary culture’s moral patterns. He finds that in the creed of the 19th-century novel, one’s “moral career began with a desire to enter the fair courts of life.” Novels gained cultural ground alongside and shaped the mores of the rising bourgeoisie (Ian Watts in his history of the art form goes as far as to say the role of the novel was to supply the doctrine and rituals of “the most universal religion of the West2”). But this bourgeois aspect vied with an ethos of the “honest soul,” whose path to nobility runs “through duty acknowledged and discharged,” though such duties can in retrospect look very dubious. Consider that Jane Austen’s “fair courts” often rely on duties to colonial plunder, for instance: Mansfield Park’s owner operated a slave plantation. The bourgeois beauties that many such novels sanctified were the distilled and sanitized extract of industrial-scale “brutality, greed and immorality” (international infrastructures of suffering that blast Romanticism’s aesthetic bulwark to bits). In Trilling’s analysis this cultural moral pattern, with its contending duty and pursuit of material comforts, has been rejected by the “literature of our own day.” He deems Dostoevsky definitive of the new mode and mood. The “modern conception of the spiritual life” meant honest souls gave way to “disintegrated consciousness” (and as we’ll see, today’s literature has sharply shrunk the role of duty). 

The third term of the novel’s moral orbit, autonomy, began as the “antithesis of civilization” and has morphed into the essence of humanity’s spirit and unquestionable dogma in the cult of the self. Autonomy has been called “the most horrible thing that Homer could imagine.” Ancient heroes felt deep duties and loyalty to their collective. But by the early nineteenth century, Hegel declared that the aim of humanity’s “Spirit [was] … to press towards autonomy.”  Napoleon, Hegel said, was the epitome of this humanity-defining drive—he was humanity’s “Spirit on horseback.” In this worldview, the essence of humanity was found in its exceptional best, in great figures like Napoleon, not in the ordinary masses. Indeed, many millions of ordinary people were mere cannon fodder killed in the great man’s heroic adventures. Various cultural forces have since democratized this doctrine casting everyone as the hero of their life’s adventure. And as astute analyst of religious and literary energies René Girard has noted, individualism and Romanticism preach the “illusion of autonomy to which modern man is so passionately devoted.”  There is a rich irony in how Romanticism fueled “the fantasy of complete autonomy from society, only to itself become a dogma that all thinkers and artists were expected to profess,” as historian of ideas Mark Lilla wryly observed. This autonomy-über-alles creed has become a sacred binding constraint on the permissible doctrines of proper “poet-prophets,” or other “art-priests,” and their self-focused flocks.

Other energies feeding this great self-centering flow from Protestantism’s inward turn to unmediated religious individualism (like Martin Luther’s sola scriptura, the doctrine that reading the Bible was all one needed for salvation). Also from the conservation of religious and spiritual/psychological energies in different forms in secular culture, like Max Weber’s linking “the spirit of capitalism“ to Protestantism. And a spectacular example is offered in Friedrich Nietzsche’s seeing modernity as a secularized version of the “slave morality” of Christianity. Nietzsche preferred the classical “master morality,” under which a great figure (an Übermensch) could rightly exploit the disposable masses as he saw fit, as Napoleon did. Nietzsche’s view was that modernity and Christianity both valorized victimhood and encoded “the revenge of the weak against the strong.” He held that the political emotions driving modernity were resentment and envy towards the strong or privileged. That sort of analysis has since been called a “structure of feeling.” As novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains, every period has its own “distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system.” Early in the Covid pandemic, Robinson wrote a piece foreseeing the end of the “neoliberal structure of feeling.” But that, I argue, would require a dethroning of the cult of the self, and there’s little sign of that.

Another fruitful stream of the history of our selfhood surfaces in Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. Regarding the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, Rieff believed the phrase “moral culture” was “redundant.” Culture always encodes, expresses, and preaches moral patterns or properness of some kind. His book maps stages in prior “structures of feelings” or cultural framings of selfhood: initially political (serving the glory of one’s polis), then religious (serving Christ to seek salvation), then economic (serving the self with greed recast as rationality), and, since Freud, psychological or “therapeutic” (serving our feelings). The clear trend is towards being “frankly and shrewdly selfish,” wrote critic George Scialabba in his roundup of Rieff’s career. In Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, Rieff described the orthodox and wildly popular misinterpretation of Freud, which believed he was preaching that “inhibition, repression, and conformity were … unhealthy” while “spontaneity, individualism, and self-expression” were vital for mental health (which synchs strongly with “expressive individualism’s” credo). In contrast, according to Rieff, “Freud was temperamentally conservative, rating order as highly as freedom and restraint as highly as expression.” Generations raised under the reigning misreading of Freud suffer “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom.” Rieff criticizes those Freud-misinterpreting thinkers who have worked hard at “disguising their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art.”3

Note that explicit linkage of art to a “worship of self.” That’s a theme well pursued by lefty literary critic Terry Eagleton in a fabulous essay (and lecture) on culture’s origins and current role. He doesn’t quite call out the cult of the self by name, but he describes its essential energies and ingredients. Eagleton finds no cultural force to rival religious faith. It is “the most enduring, deep-rooted, universal form of popular culture that history has ever witnessed.” It still “forges a bond between the routine behavior of billions of individuals and ultimate, imperishable truths.” In overlooking this fact, much of the secular intelligentsia, many of whom consider themselves humanists, ironically fails to grasp empirical human essentials. Eagleton detects a depletion in a once “precious ideological resource,” since religion had “bred a sense of duty, deference, altruism and spiritual edification in the common people” (I’d suggest we err in discounting its equivalent role in elites, the less uselessly self-centered kind that is). Eagleton echoes Rieff, Nietzsche, and Weber, in noting the conservation of religious energies: “Culture …  had to take over from the churches,” with artists taking on priestly tasks (even if often unwittingly). If God is dead, there remains the question of his will. Who inherits his earthly possessions and tasks and functions? For Eagleton, “art and the nation rank among the many surrogates for the Almighty.” As you might guess, to that god-replacement roster I’d add “the self,” particularly the neoliberal self, and its enabling co-deity, the market god of greed.

Eagleton exquisitely expresses that “most aesthetic language is secretly theological.” He exposes a link that’s almost taboo, or at least very unfashionable, among the current bishops of beauty and high priests of culture. Or as George Orwell put it, “Few people have the guts to say outright that art and propaganda are the same thing.” Propaganda is secular preaching, political preaching. Echoing the Romantics, Orwell saw aesthetics and morality as “inextricable.” In Eagleton’s assessment “aesthetic culture mimics religion in its communal rites, priesthood of artists [and] search for transcendence,” but it “fails to replace religion …  because culture in the artistic sense involves too few people.” He seems to mean high culture, but of course pop culture constantly preaches to the masses. A steady diet of doctrines of centering the self and its feelings begins early, in Pixar and Disney movies, and continues in numberless novels, films, and TV shows; countless self-hymning pop songs; and endless ads that sell capitalism’s secular salvation by consumption. How authentic or sincere or autonomous are the selves and desires that emerge from childhoods immersed in capitalism’s 30-second soundbite sermons delivered at a torrential rate of over a hundred every day? (As philosopher Kate Soper reports, “70 percent of three-year-olds recognize the McDonalds symbol but only half of them know their own surname.”) Likewise, there’s no letup in capitalism’s self-impacting pressures in adulthood.

Eagleton joins art to politics in another vital way. In his view the “point of political change” itself has shifted to turning life itself primarily into activities akin to artmaking, where self-expression and self-realization are the central mission. He writes that, for whole societies, a certain kind of liberal politics seeks to enable the “harmonious realization of one’s powers as a delightful end in itself.” Linking back to the pivotal term we noted above, he dubs this life-as-art mindset “the ethics of Romantic humanism, which includes the ethics of Karl Marx” (quipping that “Marxism is about leisure, not labor”). This politics of self-realization is driven by “the deepening influence of liberalism and possessive individualism.” Both embody a view of “the human … [that] has been rapidly gaining ground in actual life [whereby] men and women are now seen as authors of themselves” (an allusion to Shakespeare, who mocked such hubristic autonomy thus: “As if a man were author of himself,/ And knew no other kin”). Without using the term, Eagleton nails the crux of “expressive individualism.”  

The religious roots of liberalism’s cult of self-creation have also been well mapped by philosopher John Gray, who calls liberalism “a footnote of Christianity.” He detects no creed of self-creation until that “saint of rationalism” John Stuart Mill promoted “experiments in living” (in his 1859 book On Liberty). Under Mill “liberalism became a separate religion.” He held that humanity should replace God as an object of worship. But Gray feels today’s hyper-liberal politics of experimental self-creation ignores that humans can never be wholly self-defined except in “private fantasy.” I’d add that art’s potentially potent public fantasies can influence political life. An amusing classic case is Alexander the Great, whose world-conquering career could be called Achilles cosplay: he carried Homer’s work wherever he went and had his armor fashioned after the Iliad’s ill-fated, self-sacrificing hero. More recently, Mark Twain blamed Romantic novels for starting the American Civil War. He wrote that “Sir Walter [Scott] had so large a hand in making Southern character … that he is in great measure responsible for the war.”) That word wizard Shakespeare has the three-word key: he called art “livelier than life” (hence it can be more experientially powerful and mind/spirit moving than lived experience).  

Gray agrees with Girard, Lilla, and Rieff that overemphasizing autonomy is sweet folly that’s deeply unwise. Liberals who cast “autonomy [as] the innermost human need betray an ignorance of psychology,” since “for practically everyone, security and belonging are equally important, often more so.” Yet liberalism encodes “a systematic denial of this fact.” As previously noted in these pages, ignoring empirically evident traits of humanity is truly a terribly “rickety basis for a way of life.” For Gray, today’s “crisis in the Enlightenment” is fed by the fact that “humankind cannot bear much autonomy.” A politics where autonomy trumps all else just doesn’t fit the needs of the mass of humans. But it easily seduces those self-centered elites who zealously put their own self-realization4 (and neoliberal Napoleonic appetites) above everything else (see “Our Deformed Professional Class”).

While not excusing its extensive sins, religion’s rightful role included checking elite hubris, promoting pro-social behavior, and relieving elites and the masses of some of the “burdens of freedom” by providing guidance on how to live. Nowadays in much of secular culture, capitalism and its loyal art-priests provide the equivalent guides (absolving devoted flocks of the psychically strenuous business of figuring out how to live). But is there any reason to believe that capitalism’s or art’s cultural preachings are reliably any less irrational than religion was held to be? Or that they counter elite hubris? Or strengthen pro-sociality? Scripture’s questionable truth claims aside, religions have for millennia met true spiritual/psychological needs. Does secular art or culture do that nearly as successfully? The continuation of those needs and our biology’s baked-in tendency to experience suffering underwrite confidence in the law of conservation of religious energies. The secular liberal intelligentsia ignore this truth at their collective peril, their cult of the self and its faith in competitive hedonism are psychically/spiritually failing.

Counters to the excesses of fanatical self-worship have never been absent (for instance, religions typically center other-oriented duties, or in the Jena set’s twin of moral duty or in Eagleton’s cameo casting Marxism as “political love”). They’re still around and frequently gestured at. But in practice does duty or material justice really discipline or limit the sect of our elites that’s zealously and self-idolizingly self-interested? I argue that the dire (but often cheerfully disregarded) results of many decades of devotion to liberalism’s cult of self and its creed of greeds (financial or aesthetic) suggest not. While elites hoard a greater share of global resources to enjoy ever more self-maximizing beautiful material and emotional indulgences, there’s been little progress on the double crises of poverty and ecological degradation. Contra self-centering economic dogma, moral duties can’t be safely outsourced to markets. The results of trying that elegantly elite-flattering philosophy during the neoliberal decades have been ugly for the majority of humans that liberal humanists say they care about: today 84% of people live in poverty by our standards. And using liberal capitalist methods it will take over 200 years to end poverty when that is defined as a consumption level of $5 per day—that’s 8 generations to get the largely nonwhite global poor to only 1/8th of our poverty level. Here we have the dreadful spectacle of liberal humanists experimenting with self-realization while extending enormous (largely racial) resource disparities (across the “global color line”) far into the future—centuries more of injustice during which the privileged enjoy materially, emotionally, or aesthetically avaricious lives.

It seems as if the very meaning of “moral” is mutating and twisting to be too self-facing. Consider Amitav Ghosh’s criticism of John Updike’s view that unlike lesser narrative forms, the true novel had to be an “individual moral adventure.” Ghosh notes this parallels the “invention of neoliberal economics” and I argue  it expresses and preaches the cultural and artistic version of a “greed is good” ethos. For Ghosh, while Updike’s view fits the “majority of writers” now, it’s clearly not true of earlier novelists (he cites The Grapes of Wrath among many cases). Ghosh judges English literature to be “a leading disseminator of the ideology of morbid individualism.” Some, of course, still resist these self-centering forces. For instance, Pankaj Mishra decries the “creative-writing industry [and MFAs for bolstering ]… a cult of private experience.” The passion and aesthetic powers of great writers that once weighed “the fate of their societies” is now too often expended on what it feels like to be “some adulterer in suburban Massachusetts” (he’s alluding to Updike).

While Updike’s personal-adventure criteria expose a literature devoted to neoliberalism’s cult of the self, matters may have actually worsened. Much of secular culture seems to preach personal emotional adventures with little to no moral duty to others (except, perhaps, to a small, intimate circle). Ghosh notes that just as we face colossal collective threats and tests like the climate crisis, “humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.” That line is from a book called The Great Derangement which examines the madness evident in artists (secular priests) and educated art-loving elites being unable to imagine a culture or politics capable of acting responsibly on our urgent eco-crises. Instead freedom to make profligate use of ecological resources to maximize the elite’s life experiences is politically sacrosanct. In the cult of the self, ethical concerns about the global poor, and even desires to not burden and worsen the lives of their own offspring, come second to maximizing personal experiences (see How Best To Love Your Kids in a World on Fire).     

For too many, the adventure of securing desirable sentiments has usurped morality (the idea of “a good life” distorted into the quest for consuming artfully proper feelings). This immensely confused morass too easily turns artful living and aesthetics into a moral and political anesthetic (it risks a state of affairs where aesthetics beats ethics and seeking beauty beats duty). Perhaps that’s less likely to arise among those raised on non-Western stories and norms (as philosopher Alasdair  MacIntyre notes, traditionally “the chief means of moral education is the telling of stories“).

It’s worth an aside to note that science has finally in the last couple of decades recognized that Western societies and minds aren’t representative of humanity. Psychologists use the acronym W.E.I.R.D. for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”) societies, noting that “96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.” Most cultures and most humans are empirically sociocentric and not-W.E.I.R.D.

Indian narrative arts, for example, orbit duty and dharma. That’s a complex term, one facet of which enjoins a duty to seek to do the most collectively compassionate thing in any situation (though like all that’s constructed from the crooked timber of humanity, the picture is complex: the cultural centrality of dharma hasn’t prevented caste discrimination). This different center of moral gravity may be why Ghosh is one of the few influential voices who says about our multiple eco-crises, “We shouldn’t think of this in terms of optimism or pessimism … We should think of it as a duty.”  It is simply “our duty to do what we can,” no matter how we’re feeling. Or do moral duties to aid others in crisis apply only if they serve our emotional tastes and appetites (our aesthetics)? Surely a crisis burdening billions of the planet’s most vulnerable people isn’t about our emotions in our vastly better resourced lives. Yet that’s the insanely inhumane position advocated by “optimistic” liberal pundits (see “recreational righteousness” and the “political realism ruse”).   

It seems that those colossal cultural, artistic, psychological, and religious energies once used for moral discernment and to promote pro-social duties are now often rechanneled towards judgments about aesthetics, lifestyle, and décor (humans seem beholden to a law of conservation of judgment, a subset of the law of conservation of religious energies) and to idolizing our own feelings. Vital parts of the work morality once did need not be specifically religious or about sexual norms. Perhaps we now need a de-god-ed and un-sexed morality that humanely focusses on the material needs of those that have the least (see leastism). Such an ethics made kinetic in its politics would surely prioritize addressing the avoidable sufferings of the poor above further enhancing elite adventures in exquisite feelings. A humane world of material justice for all requires that we topple the self-centered politics of the cult of the self.

Decorous self-worshipping liberals inspire a question: Were there ever more dubious deities than this sort of self?

  1. In the psychoanalytic sense of egocentric (in Freud’s unholy trinity of id, ego, superego), many modern selves are more id centric. Devoted to “the pleasure principle” (life is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain; the universe is just a source of feelings), they lack an ego, which only develops by yielding to “the reality principle” (adapting to the realities of a cosmos not centered on your sentiments). And capitalism is a systemic collective id (for instance, many of its high priests deny realities like ecological limits, abetted by “lefty” Climate Lysenkoism).
  2. Ian Watts in The Rise of the Novel quotes sociologist Vilfredo Pareto: “The most universal religion of the West … is the sex religion; the novel supplies it with its doctrine and its rituals“)
  3. Scialabba wisely says that just as exertion strengthens muscles, “moral and psychological strength also require resistance.” Psychological/spiritual vigor needs effort, external limits, and self-restraint; luxury and laxity spell spiritual atrophy. A strong self is neither an innate given nor an unchanging essence. And like a muscle, it weakens if not frequently exerted.
  4. One barrier to clarity on all this is that many of the literati either see themselves as or aspire to be uber-accomplished, Napoleon-like adventurers. They use the tools of their art to preach accordingly.