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Never Really Our Own

July 17th, 2023 | 16 min read

By John Ehrett

Tara Isabella Burton, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from da Vinci to the KardashiansPublic Affairs. 288 pp. $30

Like pretty much everything she has written, Tara Isabella Burton’s new book Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from da Vinci to the Kardashians is positively overflowing with ideas. It feels strange to even type the words “an intellectual genealogy of Instagram face,” and yet that is precisely what Self-Made manages to be.

In the broadest sense, the book can perhaps be described as a cultural history of individuality, an exploration of how modern Western elites have conceived the idea of “one’s responsibility for oneself” in a truly totalizing sense. In theological/metaphysical terms, it is a sprawling study of how—in Burton’s telling—Western civilization wrestled with the paradoxes of “self-creation” in a modern world that had rejected the old Great Chain of Being.

Those are very heavy themes. And yet Self-Made, to its great credit, is the farthest thing from dry or stodgy. Quite the opposite: it’s an entertaining, highly erudite exploration of personal transformation as a way of life, even if some of its more ambitious moves are less than satisfying.

For those familiar with genealogies of modernity, Burton begins on well-trodden turf. Somewhere around the Renaissance era, she contends, there occurred “a radical, modern reimagining of the nature of reality, humans’ place in it, and, even more significantly, of who or what ‘created’ humanity to begin with.”[1] This reimagining involved the collapse of “a God-created and God-ordered universe in which we all have specific, pre-ordained parts to play—from peasants to bishops to kings—based on the roles into which we are born.”[2] The old sacramental worldview, in short, fell apart.

Unsurprisingly, a new ruling myth soon emerged to fill this void. This was the myth of self-creation—or better, “self-divinization,” where human beings themselves assumed the prerogatives once typically reserved to a Creator God.[3] This myth came in different versions: one held that self-creation was the “innate” prerogative of a ruling class (the European/aristocratic strain), while the other insisted that self-making was the responsibility of every person (the American/democratic strain). Despite this different political orientation, both strains shared a common normative core: where self-creation is concerned, those who could not (in the aristocratic account) or would not (in the democratic account) should be treated as somehow less than human.[4]

That’s just the introduction, though. The great bulk of the book is a series of case studies tracing motifs of “self-making” within particular cultural domains at particular historical junctures. Beginning with Albrecht Dürer’s pioneering work in self-portraiture, culminating in the adoption of poses “traditionally reserved for God the Son,” Self-Made explores the self-centric metaphysics of Marquis de Sade, the coolness of Beau Brummel and his Regency-era “bon ton,” the American narrative of self-transformation through hard work, the symbiotic emergence of electrical power and metaphysical New Thought, the rise of dandyist fashion—which defined itself over against la foule, or the hoi polloi—and much more.[5] 

At its best, this disregard for disciplinary boundaries results in a dazzlingly original synthesis that, in the execution, reads as effortless—just like the quasi-mystical sprezzatura Burton chronicles. (Who would’ve imagined the curious connections between, to take just one example, Nietzsche’s critique of bourgeois morality and the screen goddesses of the 1930s?) At other points, though, this narrative leaping from subculture to subculture sometimes makes it difficult to discern a consistent argumentative through-line.

Late in the book, Burton presses the daring argument that the allure of self-making drove weary Europeans into the arms of fascism.[6] This is a notable departure from the classic position argued by Erich Fromm, who contended that fascism’s appeal was the possibility of escape from modernity’s paralyzing field of choices.[7]  Burton’s stance here is essentially historicist: on her account, both modern liberalism and antiliberalism are trapped in the same “immanent frame” of mandatory self-creation, from which there is no possibility of release.

But this means, in turn, that a great deal of Burton’s central argument rides on the notion of a total rupture between medieval and modern thought-worlds. If everything modern can be counted as evidence of Burton’s thesis, when looked at from the right angle, then readers require a contrastive account of what a genuinely “premodern” sensibility would be.

Why, exactly, don’t classical Aristotelian-Thomistic accounts of character formation—through the practice of the cardinal and theological virtues—also count as modes of “self-making”? As Aristotle himself put it, “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”[8] Surely something distinguishes this early “self-making” from self-making under modernity, but precisely what is challenging to nail down. The logic of Burton’s book seems to suggest that metaphysical essentialism—that is, the old view that the developmental possibilities of created beings are restricted by a fixed “nature”—has something to do with it, but the volume doesn’t make that case. (Richard Weaver would bristle at the omission.)

Largely lacking such a criterion, Self-Made ends up frequently blurring the line between human moral/technological agency as such, and a post-theistic narrative of self-creation. Virtually all “contemporary” language connoting autonomy is pressed into an overarching story of modernization through atomization, while similar motifs in the preceding tradition are left ambiguous.

In the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that much of this is a Dimes Square-flavored reimagining of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed or Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. Though Burton insists that she “do[es] not think [this] is a tragic narrative about cultural decline and the dangers of modernity,” the overall tenor of the book strongly implies otherwise.[9] Readers are left on a frustratingly inconclusive note—that as human beings, we are always “caught between facticity and freedom, trying imperfectly to work out how to relate ourselves to both.”[10]

That being said, while Self-Made ultimately rejects the idea of the purely autonomous subject, its own proposal isn’t really reactionary. Over against the modern account of infinite choice, Burton calls for “learning from, listening to, and engaging with one another” in community, while simultaneously “escap[ing] those inequalities and injustices that come from thinking that how, when, and where we are born should dictate our opportunities in life.”[11]

This is every bit as much of a paradox, though, as the ones Burton so ably dissects in her book. The vicissitudes of birth—how, when, and where—define the very communities that a child first learns from, listens to, and engages. Wholly apart from whether they should, they inevitably do. (Indeed, for the classical Christian tradition, baptism effects precisely this: a child is given a name, incorporated into a corporate body that transcends them, and invited into unchosen belonging.)

Where does all this leave the dissatisfied modern soul? Maybe an alternative way of looking at the problem is required.

In his 1991 book The Ethics of Authenticity—written against the backdrop of an emerging “self-esteem” culture—Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offers a somewhat different approach to the question raised in Burton’s book. In holding up “authenticity” as a value to be sought and attained, Taylor contends, “Western culture has identified one of the important potentialities of human life.”[12]

For Taylor, this potentiality is not something peculiarly modern, but rather perennial. Its discovery has gone hand-in-hand with the breakdown of the social conditions that once kept it from being glimpsed:

What has come about with the modem age is not the need for recognition but the conditions in which this can fail. And that is why the need is now acknowledged for the first time. In premodern times, people didn't speak of "identity" and "recognition," not because people didn't have (what we call) identities or because these didn't depend on recognition, but rather because these were then too un­problematic to be thematized as such.[13]

By “recognition,” Taylor means—following Hegel—the principle that the self is produced communally. Identity always depends, that is, on how one is perceived by others. Being seen is core to self-understanding and self-definition.

There is significant overlap here between Taylor and Burton. But where Burton’s diagnosis skews negative, Taylor’s leans hopeful. This is because, for Taylor, the moral ideal of freedom that underpins “self-making” always necessarily implies a good—or better, a Good—that transcends the self. “Even the sense that the significance of my life comes from its being chosen . . . depends on the understanding that independent of my will there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life.”[14] In other words, shaping one’s self as regards “things that matter” necessarily implies a standard of value beyond the self, a standard which defines “what matters.”[15]

From here, it is possible to square the Aristotelian-Thomistic circle. Cultivating virtue presumes a horizon of meaning in which the reality of virtue is acknowledged. “Self-making” occurs in both premodern and modern epochs; what has changed is the background context.

Taylor’s key insight, in short, is that the ideal of authenticity is not the problem. Modernity’s pathology is the trivialization of self-making, by which this dimension of human existence is stripped of the seriousness it warrants. Freedom to act in the world is a weighty responsibility, after all. It is the liberty to either recognize limits, or to seek to subvert them.

What does this amount to, prescriptively speaking? Perhaps it means a return to the institutions that foreground those transcendent questions of meaning, but this time after having passed through the fires of “critique.” That return must involve acknowledging that just because traditions and institutions have histories—complex, convoluted, flawed—does not mean they lack authority. There is no reconstructing the old Christendom, but there is still the possibility of acknowledging and embracing the constraints under which one always already lives, the constraints within which any meaningful self-definition takes place.

If we are all in some sense Self-Made, we are also—in a far deeper sense—never really our own.


[1] Tara Isabella Burton, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from da Vinci to the Kardashians (New York: PublicAffairs, 2023), 5.

[2] Burton, Self-Made, 5.

[3] Burton, Self-Made, 7.

[4] Burton, Self-Made, 7.

[5] Burton, Self-Made, 11, 40–41, 48–51, 76, 92–95, 117–18.

[6] Burton, Self-Made, 145–47.

[7] See Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1941).

[8] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925; Internet Classics Archive, n.d.), bk. 2, pt. 1.

[9] Burton, Self-Made, 8.

[10] Burton, Self-Made, 236.

[11] Burton, Self-Made, 235.

[12] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 74.

[13] Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 48.

[14] Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 39.

[15] Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 40–41.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett is a Commonwealth Fellow, and an attorney and writer in Washington D.C. His work has appeared in American Affairs, The New Atlantis, and the Claremont Review of Books. He is a graduate of Patrick Henry College, the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and Yale Law School.