“To Thine Own Self Be True.” Good Advice? Bad Advice?

Commenting on the captain of the capsized cruise ship Costa Concordia who abandoned the ship too soon, The Guardian (January 24) recommended more modern morals than those that prevailed during Shakespeare’s times:

“Alcoholics Anonymous has the phrase: ‘Fake it till you make it.’ If you want to become a different sort of person, first act like you are, and the acting will eventually transform you. Pretend to be the person you want to be and you will end up becoming more like that person.

“This cuts right against the grain of familiar assumptions that moral change comes from within, that the most important thing is expressing who you really are – ‘To thine own self be true,’ as Polonius puts it in Hamlet. From this perspective, an honest confession of our own weakness – our lack of courage, for instance – becomes the only real expression of virtue. In other words, an emphasis on authenticity can easily become an alibi for a refusal of character development.”


11 responses to ““To Thine Own Self Be True.” Good Advice? Bad Advice?

  1. The advice is good. It’s just a question of whether you want to be true to the self you have been, or true to the one you want to become!

  2. On the one hand, Socrates famously said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” On the other hand, Allen Wheelis (1915-2007), in his book The Way We Are (2006), says “The assumption that it is always desirable to see the world as it is may be in error. The undistorted and hence unexalted life may not be worth living”. Maybe both are right?

  3. Andre Morrriseau

    I like the idea of “fake it until you make”……I believe these are words for every great actor to live by or politician for that matter….

  4. C.S. Lewis in one of his religious works – Screwtape Letters? Mere Christianty? – recommended going through the motions till they became natural (speaking of prayer, as I recall). Mark Twain said that a bad habit could not be just tossed out the window but had to be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time and out the door.

    In other words, practice makes perfect – and may even make genuine.

    Lew Auerback got it right, in the first comment. Polonius assumed that his son was a decent person at heart, so reflecting that to the world would be OK. If he had thought that Laertes was fundamentally a crook, then the advice would not have worked so (apparently) well. (Whether Laertes justified his father’s confidence, or acted in accordance with that advice when he decided to cheat in his fencing match by taking the button off the foil and putting poison on it, is a different question.)

  5. In morality as in comedy, timing is everything. The captain of the Costa Concordia should have chosen another line of work.

  6. Beauty is skin deep, and that’s good enough. I think that’s the point here.

    • I agree. We can change everything except our deep diabolical selves. I mean, everybody except you and me.