Tara Isabella Burton is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for Travel Writing. She completed her doctorate in 19th-century French literature and theology at the University of Oxford and is a prodigious travel writer, short story writer and essayist for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist’s 1843, and more. She currently works for Vox as their Religion Correspondent.
Below, Tara shares 5 key insights from her new book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Listen to the audio version—read by Tara herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Self-creation is nothing new.
Today, over 50 percent of Americans say they’d be a professional influencer if the opportunity presented itself—and more than 90 percent say they’d post “sponsored content” on their social media feeds for money. But the idea of cultivating — and capitalizing — your personal brand is nothing new. In fact, we can trace the origins of the first selfie to the cult of the Renaissance artistic genius, and in particular to Renaissance painter (and self-promoter extraordinaire) Albrecht Dürer, a pioneer of the self-portrait in art.
The earliest self-portraits in Western art history were relatively modest affairs: a painter might, for example, put someone who looked like him in the background of a religious scene. This fit in with the prevailing pre-modern idea of the self: as a not-very-important mortal being, whose purpose in life was to be, basically, the background to a much bigger and more important story of God and humanity. But Albrecht Dürer changed all that. In his 1500 AD self-portrait, Dürer didn’t just present himself as a worthy subject of reflection: he painted himself, basically, as Jesus, in the forward-facing posture, with the raised hand gestures, typically associated with Christ himself. Smirking like the Mona Lisa, this painted Dürer is a celebration of Dürer’s own talent and creative powers. The artist, Dürer seems to suggest, is a kind of god—the human being who creates and chooses is participating in acts typically reserved for the divine.
Dürer isn’t alone in exploring this then-novel idea. The Renaissance saw an explosion of this kind of humanistic thinking. Artists and philosophers (most of them not aristocrats but, indeed, like Dürer and his rough contemporary Leonardo Da Vinci) self-made men began to celebrate human potential to determine their own lives in accordance with their own desires. In his 1510 manifesto “Oration on the Dignity of Man” Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola—later banished for heresy—rewrites the Biblical Book of Genesis. This time, though, Mirandola’s God offers Adam not limitations on his behavior (no thou shalt not eat the fruit here) but rather, “Divine law assigns to all other creatures a fixed nature. But you, con-strained by no laws, by your own free will, in whose hands I have placed you, will determine your own nature.”
2. The story of self-creation is a story about religion.
The idea that humans not only can, but should, create their own destinies, was hugely significant and controversial from a religious point of view.
In the Medieval world, Catholics believed that everything, including your social station and place in the world, was part of God’s overall plan for you and for the whole world. King or peasant, prince or knight, your social role was part of how God made you: not to be questioned or changed.
“Most seeming truths or laws about the way things are, especially when it comes to our social lives and identities, are not innate or God-given but mere accidents of history.”
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment changed all that. While the European Enlightenment is often referred to as the “Age of Reason,” a better title might be the “Age of Individualism,” as philosophers like Montaigne, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau explored the idea that social life and social roles weren’t divinely ordained at all, but merely a function of “custom.” Custom was a dirty word in Enlightenment thought. Custom, they argued, was arbitrary and random, a result of superstition or prejudice. As a result, customs could be changed.
For Montaigne, custom isn’t just harmless tradition. Rather, it’s what we’re left with when we stop seeing the social world as inextricably connected to the natural one, or to the supernatural one. Custom suggests that the reason we do things—cut our hair, wear clothing, perform certain actions—is not because we ought to, or because so doing is part of what we were created to do by God. Rather, we do things simply because we always have, with no particularly good reason behind our actions. Our social lives, and the rules that govern them, are simply arbitrary.
Throughout his essays, Montaigne asks the same question over and over: “Where are we to distinguish the natural laws from those which have been imposed by man’s invention?” Over and over, he comes to the same conclusion. Most seeming truths or laws about the way things are, especially when it comes to our social lives and identities, are not innate or God-given but mere accidents of history. This means, Montaigne tantalizingly suggests, that we have the power to change them.
3. The power to self-create isn’t democratic, exactly.
For many people, the idea of “self-making” is inextricably bound up with the narrative of the American Dream: work hard, apply yourself, and no matter where or how you are born, you too can become wealthy. But more often than not, self-makers were understood not as hardworking individuals who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but as special individuals, chosen by God or Fate, who had innate qualities that allowed them to transcend the limitations put on ordinary mortals or the common herd. The self-maker was understood as a kind of demi-god; his superior qualities—and it was usually a “he”—were something you had to be born with.
In the Renaissance, for example, people talked about the genius using language of the divine. A couple of centuries later, in Regency England, people used instead the language of bon ton. Literally French for “good manners,” in context bon ton meant, well, a certain je ne sais quoi. Elegance, style, grace, or what would later be understood in Hollywood as “it” — bon ton was what separated successful dandies like Beau Brummell, often considered the first modern celebrity, to say nothing of the first influencer, from the upwardly mobile merchant class. Bon ton was vital in an era where noble birth was becoming less important, and money was becoming more important.
This idea that some people are “natural aristocrats,”—that they, and only they, have the right to shape their own destiny and rise above the masses—remained part of the story of self-making for centuries. In Europe, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined the profoundly influential figure of the ubermensch, a kind of spiritual aristocrat, whose qualities of strength and will made him able to become the closest thing to God. This was in a world in which, Nietzsche famously said, God was dead. Nietzsche’s ideas about natural superiority would become hugely influential on a number of 20th-century fascist and protofascist leaders, including the Italians Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini and, of course, on Hitler himself.
“This idea that some people are “natural aristocrats,”—that they, and only they, have the right to shape their own destiny and rise above the masses—remained part of the story of self-making for centuries.”
Even across the pond in America, where “self-making” was closely linked to the capitalist work ethic, people still believed that self-makers were fundamentally superior beings. In the late 19th century, heavily influenced by pseudo-scientific interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, plenty of Americans explained the ever-widening gap between rich and poor as the result of some people simply being better than others. As the Yale political scientist William Graham Sumner wrote the late 19th century: “Millionaires” are a product of natural selection.” In this age of winner-takes-all, conniving entrepreneurs could make dazzling fortunes, but ordinary people were blamed for their failure to become the next Andrew Carnegie or JD Rockefeller.
4. Everybody agrees: you should fake it until you make it.
For much of modern history, the American and European narratives of self-creation looked a little different. Europeans tended to stress the innate, maybe even magical, quality of the self-creator, valorizing effortless-seeming dandies like Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde. Americans, though—true to stereotype —focused on praising good old-fashioned hard work, even as they blamed the poor for their own perceived failures.
But both visions of the self-creator had one thing in common. If you weren’t a genius self-creator or a virtuous hardworking entrepreneur, you could still make people believe you were. As early as the Renaissance, writers like Baldassare Castiglione encouraged would-be courtiers to cultivate the quality of sprezzatura, Italian for making difficult tasks look effortless, even if you’d secretly spent hours working on perfecting them.
In Regency England, where the cult of the dandy reigned supreme, ordinary readers devoured wildly popular “dandy novels” like Robert Plumer Ward’s Tremaine: Or, the Man of Refinement, Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Gray, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham, in which the dandy protagonists treated readers to insights into how dandies lived. They also instructed on how to become a dandy yourself: usually through amoral behavior and careful conniving. Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, for example, reads as House of Cards meets Bridgerton. Its young dandy protagonist rises through the ranks of London society by scheming with “a sneer for the world.”
In America, likewise, the idea of virtuous hard work was soon intimately bound up with a mania for “positive thinking,” “manifesting,” and, well, faking it. In the late 19th century, a quasi-spiritual self-help movement called “New Thought”—an early version of “power of attraction”-type movements like The Secret—spread all across the Eastern Seaboard. Central to this new religious mania was the idea that you could control the universe—including your health and wealth — by looking inward, thinking positively, and visualizing your own success.
“A person is limited only by the thoughts that he chooses,” one New Thought self-help book insight. Wanting money, fame, or beauty badly enough was the first and most vital step towards actually getting it. And so “positive visualizations,” “affirmations,” and outright lies — all these were less counterfactual fictions than ways of gently nudging the universe to provide you with, as we might put it today, your best self.
5. In the age of the internet, reality is what you say it is.
In the 20th century, the American, democratic myth of hard work and the European, aristocratic model of inherent specialness fused together in the figure of the modern Hollywood celebrity. As the dawn of advertising culture and Old Hollywood alike launched a new breed of self-made icons this sense of faking it until you make it only intensified. Advertisers made millions hawking products—from face creams to deodorants—that claimed to help ordinary people appear as though they had that mysterious “it”—provided they were willing to fork over the cash. Everybody had the potential to have it, but not everybody had the desire, or the ability, to harness their own individual specialness in the service of chasing success.
What separated the star or the dandy, therefore, from the ordinary person wasn’t just having some special or innate quality, but being willing to pretend they did: building what we might call today a personal brand.
In the decades after the Second World War, as television, personal cameras, and other technological advances closed the gap between “star” and “viewer,” the idea that anybody could become whoever they wanted to be, became more and more prevalent in the American cultural consciousness. This was bolstered in part by the notoriety of art scene figures like Andy Warhol and his hand-picked “superstars”—people who, like Beau Brummell before them, were basically just famous for being famous.
“As the internet further democratizes self-creation, and anyone with an iPhone can post a highly-curated, filtered, and Photoshopped picture on Instagram, that sense of reality being flexible—and what you make it—has only intensified.”
This new crop of self-proclaimed superstars believed in a 1970s version of the New Thought manifesto: Want something badly enough, want to be someone badly enough, and it will become true. You really are—in the deepest, truest, and most profound sense—who you want to be. As one of Warhol’s contemporaries put it: “If you wanted to be an artist, you basically just said you were.” Saying and believing you were something, or someone, was enough to make you the person you claimed to be.
Today, as the internet further democratizes self-creation, and anyone with an iPhone can post a highly-curated, filtered, and Photoshopped picture on Instagram, that sense of reality being flexible—and what you make it—has only intensified. Think of the exaggerated, highly artificial, beauty aesthetic of influencers like Kim Kardashian and the many influencers she’s inspired. These women use their bodies as a kind of creative canvas to celebrate the power of apparent surgical enhancement.
Or think of New Thought’s most famous devotee—another onetime reality star—Donald Trump. Trump was heavily influenced by New Thought ideology. His personal family pastor was Norman Vincent Peale, a Christian pastor and New Thought guru whose book The Power of Positive Thinking had been a bestseller in the 1950’s. Trump has made an entire career around gleefully warping public opinion, whether or not the things he claims are based on verifiable truth. For those like him, truth doesn’t matter. Reality—as Nietzsche and Warhol alike put it—is nothing but what we make it. The best way to make reality in your image is to shape public perception into whatever you want it to be.
As Trump himself put it (via ghostwriter Tony Schwartz) in his business manifesto The Art of the Deal, “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. . . .A little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
In the end, maybe that’s what self-making is: claiming the power to reshape reality like a human god. It’s what our celebrities and our entrepreneurs alike do: shaping a public image that reflects not who they “really” are, but who they most want to be. And now, anyone with a smartphone can do it too.
To listen to the audio version read by author Tara Isabella Burton, download the Next Big Idea App today: