The Sanctum of Self-Identity

In early 6th century Athens (BCE), it was all the rage.  Introduced by Thespis, play-acting quickly attained widespread popularity among the Athenians who, like most people, were looking for diverting forms of entertainment to fill the evening hours. On one such evening the aged patriarch Solon, celebrated lawmaker and civic founder, was persuaded to attend a performance. His reaction: indignation and an angry rebuke to Thespis, who blithely responded that such “play” was harmless, merely a novel pastime.  “No!”  Solon angrily retorted (here freely paraphrasing Plutarch’s account), “It is dangerous.  Such a tolerance for pretense and deception will end up infecting all our commerce and civic life.”But Thespis merely shrugged–and now, some 2500 years later, we find ourselves enmeshed in a media-sphere of garrulous, deceitful “actors,” all clamoring for our attention as they exhibit their base arts of “persuasion.”

Consulting Bureau of Labor Statistics data, one finds that in the U.S. at present there are some 70,000 “professional actors” (compared to, for instance, 3000 sociologists). Quite obviously, the requisite job skills require playing different roles, displaying (simulated) emotions, and “sincerely” persuading us to buy sundry products, “lifestyles,” or political candidates.  With their omnipresence in all performing media, actors have by now become absurdly over-valued as role-models in everyday life.  They may even be elected to high political office (cf. Lou Cannon’s book, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime; other examples include Arnold Schwarznegger, Al Franken, Donald Trump, etc.).  Indeed, Hitler once boastingly called himself “the greatest actor in Europe.”3

Writing back in the 1940s, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was already alarmed by the  rise of a new American character-type: the “marketing-personality,” whose looks, smiles and banter would be selling-points, not only in politics but infiltrating all aspects of social engagement.  In short, not the real person and his values (if any), but a simulacrum or image fashioned to display pleasing, if insincere, demeanor, attitudes and opinions.4  Sociologist Erving Goffman would later go so far as to argue that social interaction is in itself inherently “dramaturgic,” and that those most skillful in “impression management”–no matter how deceptive or incompetent–would be hired, elected, even “loved.”But Goffman conspicuously neglected the crucial context of power-relations–i.e., how those consigned to subordinate roles, especially in employment, are forced to exhibit compliant, cheerfully inauthentic behaviors.  Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott more accurately recognized that such violations of core-personality in interpersonal relations may reinforce the subjective sense of a “false self,” such realization producing depressed affect.6

As early as 1902, sociologist Charles Cooley had already promulgated his influential theory of the looking-glass self, wherein the “self” is an entirely reactive, subjective state shaped by the responses and judgments of others (cf. also, the symbolic-interactionist theories of social psychologist George Herbert Mead).7  If self-identity itself was merely a nebulous configuration of perceived responses from others, stigmatizing and negative labeling would invariably lead to low self-regard (“negative self-image,” etc.).  Cooley’s concept may have gained plausibility in a conformist culture which–despite its purported individualism–was, according to Alexis de Tocqueville’s early observations in Democracy in America (1830), a nation of persons afraid to disagree with the “tyranny of the majority.”

But now, in the 21st century, we are surrounded by “social media,” an insidiously normalized, omnipresent Panopticon.  “Only connect!” exhorted the depressed novelist Virginia Woolf, who met a tragic end a century ago.  But now, the more urgent question has become: “Why connect?”  Some fifty years ago, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote brilliantly of the adolescent identity-crisis, wherein a young person painfully separates from the authority of her parents and just as painstakingly seeks to forge a genuine identity comprised of well-thought-out values and intrinsic predispositions.  The end-goal: genuine individuation–not the transient popularity gained by presenting a meticulously marketed “self” on Facebook or Instagram, to the anonymous thousands of “insignificant others.”

To be liked and admired–very human longings, but not the end-goal of maturing, authentic selfhood.  Yet if young persons increasingly perceive themselves as commodities to be refashioned and play-acted to gain “views” and “likes,”  they become far more vulnerable to depressing disapproval and feelings of insufficient self-worth. Solon had indeed presciently predicted a penultimate outcome: artfully contrived self-presentations–whether in employment or on-line dating or just promoting a pleasing persona to potentially millions of anonymous, “followers”–would in time come to substitute image for sincerity, self-display for authentic integrity.

But where then can the individual find a sanctuary to preserve and cultivate his true self-identity?  To a considerable degree, in solitude– wherein one actively chooses limited yet meaningful social exchanges, and finds the necessary time and space for self-reflection and for developing critical thinking and rational values.  Notwithstanding the enduring contributions of object-relations theorists, the humanistic (post-Adlerian) psychologist Abraham Maslow even declared: “Far from needing other people, growth-motivated people may actually be hampered by them.”9

Indeed, those who question prevailing cultural norms and often-corrupt, hypocritical practices will most likely feel alienated from the unthinking, mass conformity all around them.  As philosopher Walter Kaufmann observed:

It is those who are easily satisfied that we should worry about, and it is grounds

for melancholy that most people cease so soon to find the world strange and questionable.  [A]s perception increases, any sensitive person will feel a deep

sense of estrangement.  Seeing how society is riddled with dishonesty, stupidity, and brutality, he will feel estranged from society, and seeing how most of one’s

fellow men are not deeply troubled by this, he will feel estranged from them.10

In the 21st century, daily “life” has become a constant stream of stimulus-response reactivity.  Even so, one’s self-identity can be secured and protected, not only by subtle forms of refusal and non-compliance, but by resolutely evading any unacceptable socio-political demand that would compromise one’s core-values (and which is not enforced by severe sanctions).  Freedom to: think one’s own thoughts (without constant interruptions), select what to read and listen to, which communications media to allow into one’s mental space, what gadgets (if any) to use, which persons to associate with or avoid–and so forth.  And, freedom from: inordinate demands for “performance” or “needing-to-achieve” (social status), and, above all, the relentless marketing of a persona rather than the preservation and growth of one’s true self-identity.


  1.  Plutarch, Life of Solon. In: Greek Lives, Oxford World Classics, 2009.
  2. In his On Rhetoric, Aristotle sharply contrasted two types: “the noble,” which encourages critical thinking and self-awareness (as in the Socrates of Plato’s Apology), and “the base,” which deceives in order to manipulate and control.
  3. Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, Vintage, 2017.
  4. Erich Fromm, Man for Himself, Holt Rinehart, 1947.
  5. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday, 1959.
  6. Donald Winnicott, Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In: The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment.  International Universities Press, 1960; pps. 140-157.
  7. Charles Cooley, Human Nature and Social Order, Scribners, 1902; pps. 183-184.
  8. Cf. Mary Aiken, The Cyber Effect. Spiegel & Grau, 2016.  Also, as to the harmful effect of Cooley’s concept on children, see: Susan Harter, “The Perceived Directionality of the Link Between Approval and Self-Worth: The Liabilities of a Looking-Glass Self-Orientation Among Young Adolescents.”  Journal of Research on Adolescence (3):285-308, July 1996.
  9. Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, second edition.  Van Nostrand, 1962, p. 34.  See also:  Anthony Storr, Solitude: Return to the Self, Free Press, 1988.
  10.  Walter Kaufmann, Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy.  Peter Wyden Inc., 1973; p. 146.


Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.