In this month’s interview, Public Discourse’s managing editor, Alexandra Davis, interviews Tara Isabella Burton, author of Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. The two discuss the development of the modern self-help movement and the less-than-desirable fruits of a culture whose consciousness has been shaped by the notion that reality is not discovered, but made.

Alexandra Davis: What initially sparked your interest in this topic?

Tara Isabella Burton: My doctoral research at Oxford was in theology, but specifically it was in the theology of Dandyism. So I was looking at nineteenth-century decadence, particularly in France, and the idea of the person who creates their life as art. I was looking at a particular nineteenth-century phenomenon, but I was particularly interested in the relationship between technological modernity and the idea of art and self-creation as something that was both seemingly a resistance to mass production and urbanization, but also very much a modern theological statement about the self vis-à-vis a natural world or a divinely created world that had meaning outside of what the self makes it. A lot of these later figures were also influenced by philosophical currents, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and so that dynamic was something that I really loved exploring.

After I finished my doctorate, I came to New York, where I’m from, started working for as a religion journalist, and wrote my first nonfiction book, Strange Rites, which is much more about the “spiritual but not religious.” It’s more of a contemporary book. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do for a follow-up to Strange Rites, I thought about this idea that, particularly in the internet age, we think of ourselves as our own gods, we want to curate our own bespoke realities. And I realized that a lot of this historical material would be relevant to a much more contemporary story, and so that was the genesis of Self-Made.

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AD: For those who haven’t read your book, could you take us through the origin story of what we might call now the self-help movement, or as you aptly describe it, the “cult” of self-help?

There is this implicit metaphysic that the “vibes,” the energy, the forces out there in the universe govern us, and that we can affect those forces by getting in touch with them in our own internal selves.


TIB: I joke that there are historical precedents for contemporary self-help that are illustrative, both in how they’re similar and how they’re different. In the Renaissance, in particular, there’s this genre of texts with a very particular audience in mind: would-be or actual nobility. The idea behind them is that there is some way to be a ruler, to be a high-ranking person in a more secular way, and this is how you do it. But as we get closer and closer to the present day, particularly in the United States where this really flourished, we see the democratization and the increasing secularization of these virtue books, these ways that claim to teach ordinary people how to live better lives.

And increasingly we see, especially over the nineteenth century, the shift from “become a more virtuous person, live industriously, and have a moral life.” There are a whole bunch of nineteenth-century texts by Charles Seymour, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that teach about the lives of self-made men in order to become like secular hagiographies. And that started to switch in the late 19th century to a much more individualistic sense of “read these books and learn to focus on what you want, what you need” in a semi-spiritual way, influenced by a quasi-religious movement known as New Thought, where you can manifest wealth, health, success, by meditating upon it.

In the late nineteenth century, in what’s known as the Gilded Age, this became a huge publishing boon, it became a huge phenomenon, and it ultimately set the stage for modern self-help, which became less about “how do I conform myself to religious or secular virtues in order to be a better person?” and much more about “how do I harness the energy of the universe to get what I want?” There is a very spiritual dimension there, even if it is not traditionally religious in nature. There is this implicit metaphysic that the “vibes,” the energy, the forces out there in the universe govern us, and that we can affect those forces by getting in touch with them in our own internal selves.

AD: There’s a passage I really liked early in your book where you say, “we have moved away from spiritual belief and enchantment and toward perceived rationality.” I like that you delve into that theme of our increasing disenchantment, or our lack of appreciation for the enchanted. But at the same time, like you said, so much of today’s self-help content has been grafted onto traditional orthodox religion. So we are disenchanted, yet at the same time, we’re willing to mold religion in a way that helps us leverage our material success. Can you say more about that? 

TIB: I’m less likely to want to speak of disenchantment than of a relocation of enchantment, which is to say that I think the “traditional,” roughly speaking, medieval pre-modern Christian worldview is enchanted in the sense that it sees the world, the universe, as a holistic whole, where our social selves, our biological selves, our natural selves, are all bound up in it. There’s a synthesis in the purpose of all creation, of all telos. That vision of the universe as not just fundamentally rational, but fundamentally with a divine purpose, really started changing in the Enlightenment. 

But in the nineteenth century, what ended up happening in slightly different ways in Europe and America was that that sense of the sacred became identified in slightly different ways with the human will and human desire. And the European model, which perhaps is more explicitly nihilistic, more explicitly influenced by Nietzche in particular, was the sense that nothing is real, nothing is meaningful, except what we decide it is. And the figure of the Dandy, who always has this slightly nihilistic streak, evolves into the figure of the Übermensch and the person who can create reality according to his will, precisely because reality itself is only ever about perception.

In the United States, the influence of New Thought took us in a slightly different direction. A lot of interest in popular and pseudoscience, around then-novel discoveries like evolution, particularly Social Darwinism, and electricity, created this more “woo” interpretation of the power of the self. There was this idea that there are “energies,” “vibes,” “forces,” magical currents out there, and we can harness them, we can become in control of them through the power of our desire and will. It’s like a different narrative, but it comes down to the same thing, which is that whatever magic, sacredness, sanctity, whatever you want to call it, there is in the world, it comes from the self and our desires.

AD: I was thinking about the chapter where you talk about Beau Brummell and this idea of calculated nonchalance and how we can make it look as though we’re one of the elect when we’re not. Can you talk about Brummell’s influence specifically, and then more broadly, how this idea of nonchalance unfolded, and how we see it emerge in today’s celebrity culture? 

TIB: Absolutely. Beau Brummell’s a really interesting figure. He’s often called the first influencer, the inventor of sponcon (sponsored content). He was a Regency-era (early nineteenth century) London social figure who was not an aristocrat: he was an upper-middle-class Etonian who was able to get to Eton through his father’s money. His family was not outrageously rich, but they were members of a new social class. Brummel befriended, at Eton, the Prince of Wales, the Prince Regent, who had become George IV, and through this friendship created an identity for himself. 

He became famous for being famous. He was beautifully dressed. He always had the perfectly cutting, witty thing to say. And what’s interesting about him and his influence, as well as the other dandies who popped up around him, although no one ever became quite so famous, is that they represented a new and liminal conception of aristocracy: the “bon ton,” an untranslatable term, in the sense that it literally means good manners in French, but that’s not what it means. It means something like elegance or wit, something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

This concept of bon ton became a stand-in for a sense that there is something innate and personal that some people just have and others don’t, that cannot be reduced to blood, aristocracy, or money. And in an era when there was a lot of tension between old money and new money in the social sphere, it becomes, not even a bridge, but a third option. Either an aristocrat could have bon ton or not, a new money person could have bon ton or not. But there was a sense that there’s a personal power, a personal sense of elegance, that’s innate but not learned, that sets some people over others. And this is why I argue in my book that actually, in many ways, dandyism is a fundamentally reactionary force. It’s a way of looking at the democratization of the modern world, at looking at social equalization happening through the rise of a burgeoning middle class, and saying, “Okay, you might make money, but you don’t have this thing.”

We see this in the case of the Prince Regent’s friendship with Beau Brummell. The Prince Regent did not have bon ton. He wasn’t stylish, he was awkward, and nobody liked him. People tolerated him because he was a prince. But Beau Brummell clearly had something that gave him social power, and ultimately, it was this disparity that led to the collapse of their friendship in a quite disastrous way. 

What’s interesting to me about this idea of bon ton is precisely that it echoes earlier ideas in the historical narrative of self-making that genius, personal power, must be innate. They cannot be learned. And yet at the same time, basically any time you find a theory of genius and innateness, you find a bunch of self-help books telling you how to “fake it until you make it.”

So there’s always this dynamic, there are always these three elements: there’s the innateness of genius, there’s the work hard to achieve it, and there’s that third thing of “if you can make it look like you’re a genius, even if you’re not, you can shape reality and make people think you are what you aren’t.” And so in the Renaissance, the dawn of the vision of the God-given genius, we have the idea, found in Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, of sprezzatura, another wonderful untranslatable word, this time in Italian, that basically means lightness, nonchalance. The idea, as discussed in this book, is that genius is effortless because things are innate for the genius. But if you’re not a genius, if you make things look effortless, people think you’re a genius, and then you’ll be able to achieve your ends.

Something similar happened a couple of hundred years later in the time of the dandies, when sprezzatura is something innate that you cannot claim, but alongside these dandies, there is this crop of dandy novels that are designed for middle-class readers who want to fantasize about being part of the bon ton, but that also involve directions on how to be a dandy. There are these extended passages on X dandy narrator, or Y dandy narrator, how they live, how they tie their ties. It’s a kind of handbook for faking dandyism.

My favorite of these, which is Vivian Gray, is written pseudonymously by Disraeli, who would soon become the first Jewish prime minister of Great Britain. So there is this wonderful sense politically that the narrative of Dandyism was something innate, but gets filtered by people who are strivers or who are interested in the idea that performing Dandyism might be used for its own end. And so the fantasy of effortlessness is often not quite as true as the idea that it’s about shaping public perception to make things look effortless from the Renaissance onward.

The idea that there is no truth beyond our personal desires makes it very hard to live in any kind of functioning or flourishing political community.


AD: I think it’s fascinating how in corporate America, companies and brands so intimately understand how we’re fundamentally wired. They encourage influencers to package their identities and publicly sell them, to make other people, middle-class people, people who lack sprezzatura, who are not (and will never be) part of the bon ton. They are sold this belief that they, too, can become among the dandies simply by exercising their purchasing power. We can buy our way to that effortless genius by purchasing the same products that, say, Kim Kardashian uses. 

What is this doing to us? What is this doing to our souls? What is this doing to our relationships? What does it mean when it becomes all about perception and not just the personal pursuit of virtue and growth and character? 

When this is how we think, where are we ultimately headed? 

TIB: Nowhere good. That’s my pithy short answer. But I think what worries me most about this phenomenon is not just the idea that you can spend your money on stupid things hoping that you’ll become an influencer. That’s a waste of time and energy, but it’s downstream of my primary concern, which is the fundamental ideology underpinning “you can buy this and be a genius.” I think the genesis of this idea was in the early twentieth century and the rise of cinema stardom, the new celluloid celebrity model, which is that “it” girls had this mysterious, innate quality. But “it” is not about talent or genius, or in the case of Albrecht Dürer, or Da Vinci, an ability to actually do something. It becomes about having a particular personality that is magnetic.

This gets translated through advertising culture into this very strange double movement that is simultaneously the true self-maker, the true genius, the “it” girl. It’s innate, but anybody could be an “it” girl because it has to do with your personality, who you really are. And so if you’re able to figure out who you really are and harness it correctly, that is what separates Clara Bow from the girl who works at the drugstore. There’s a 1928 advertisement that I think really gets at exactly this dynamic. It’s for a correspondence course called “Personal Magnetism.” And the tagline in the advertisement, the magazine goes, “You have it, everyone has it, but only one in 1000 knows how to use it.” And so the distinction gets drawn between those who know how to use what they have, and those who don’t. 

And how do you use it? How do you harness it? By wanting it badly enough. And how do you show that you want it badly enough? Transforming desire into capital, you spend money on it, you spend time, you spend attention, and that makes you who you are. And this idea is that desire can transform us into something else, and that the way that desire plays out is through spending money. I think it’s that overarching vision of the self that has become dominant in the contemporary world. We are who we want to be. How we feel is the truth of reality. And I think that the ultimate point that we get to is a fundamentally nihilistic point. It’s that reality is what you make it. Reality is what you want it to be. My truth is my truth. There is no objective truth. There is no objective standard that one person ought to set. It becomes just about our feelings and our wants.

It’s all well and good to say, “I’m Norma Jeane Baker, and I want to become Marilyn Monroe, and I want to go blonde.” On a societal level, the idea that there is no truth beyond our personal desires makes it very hard to live in any kind of functioning or flourishing political community. It makes it hard to have certain civic life or civic conversations because it is difficult to live in a shared reality. And of course, intensifying this problem is the fact that because so many of us live our lives online, professionally and personally, and the geography of the internet is of desire, we see things as a result of what we’ve clicked, the algorithm shows us what we want to see, we are just living in fundamentally different realities. We are living in different unrealities, you might say. And so I think what starts out as this very specific celebrity culture-related historical moment about whether you should buy Woods shaving cream to be more like Norma Shearer, leads to where we are now.

AD: One of the most disturbing things I took away from your book was this idea that we’ve collectively created this cultural ethic where we see people who don’t “want ‘it’ enough” as somehow less-than. We look down on them. We see this a lot in the self-help movement. Figures like Tony Robbins, or the leaders of this billion-dollar, multi-billion-dollar industry now, saying, “If you don’t want to become better, richer, more creative, more in touch with who you are and your best self, then you are pathetic.” Could you say a bit about that?

TIB: One of the things that I found really interesting in the course of writing Self-Made is that one of the questions that comes up in the book repeatedly is, what makes us us? What makes us human? What makes us who we really are? And the story of working that out philosophically is often a story about identifying one quality, one characteristic of the human experience, the ability to reason, the ability to love, whatever it is, and saying that’s what makes us human. 

As this idea of self-creation, telling our own story, self-determination has become seen as the fundamental element of human life, that means those of us who participate more fully in self-creation are more human, and those of us who participate less fully are, in some sense, less human. I think it’s rare for people to say someone who just lets life pass them by in a certain way is not a human being. But I think that there is a sense that if you are not taking active ownership of your life, you are somehow failing in what it means to be a human being.

This worries me precisely because, first of all, not everyone is in the same position to enact self-creation for a variety of situational reasons. But also more broadly, why should choice be the determining factor of humanity? What does it mean to say that we have to impose ourselves on the world, especially when I think we lack a shared sense, culturally and politically, of what we ought to do, of what duties we might have to one another, what responsibilities we might have to one another, such that there’s no way of measuring ourselves except through our own desires? We are all living again in our own realities, achieving our own ends. And if we make sacrifices for the benefit of another person, that’s not seen as a good thing, or it risks being seen as a limitation on the purpose that we have as human beings.

You can find this very clearly, historically speaking, in a lot of the late nineteenth-century American literature around natural selection and evolution. In pop psychology, there’s this narrative that humanity is improving, we are all becoming our best selves, and those of us who aren’t becoming our best selves are going to die off, and that’s fine because there’s a sort of fundamental growth. The universe wants us to be successful; the universe wants us to be rich. And this is not just some fringe self-help thing, this gets preached in rich people’s church pulpits throughout the eastern seaboard. You have people like William Ellery Channing, or Henry Ward Beecher, these Christian preachers who are incorporating this ideology into the American cultural consciousness.

And we’ve never lost that. We’ve never lost the sense that the universe wants us to be rich, the universe wants us to be successful. And you find this most saliently now in what I call the techno-utopian movement, the transhumanist, hyper-optimized vision of a superior humanity. So much of contemporary Silicon Valley culture is driven by the sense that the arc of the universe tends towards human perfectibility, where perfectibility is defined by our ability to fulfill our own desires.

We’ve never lost the sense that the universe wants us to be successful. So much of contemporary Silicon Valley culture is driven by the sense that the arc of the universe tends towards human perfectibility, where perfectibility is defined by our ability to fulfill our own desires.


AD: And in that sort of world, other people become an imposition.

TIB: Absolutely. And that’s my biggest concern.

AD: Where do we go from here? 

TIB: Well, I wish I could practice what I preach because I believe that minimizing our access to certain kinds of social media is the best way forward. And unfortunately, especially now, I’m promoting a novel. I’m on Instagram, I’m on Twitter, I’m hustling. I can’t tear myself away from it. And so I’m hardly well-placed to say “get offline,” but I wish that I could. The times in my life, personally and professionally, where I only have a flip phone or an Apple watch so I can get calls and texts but not browse, I am so much, not just happier, but more in touch with the sense that reality is something that I am subject to, rather than reality is something that I could just create or conjure up on my screen.

I cannot imagine there being a widespread move away from social media. The times that I’ve been on a flip phone or I’ve been on Apple Watch, I can’t participate in a lot of life in New York. I’m expected to read a menu on a QR code, and I’m expected to pay with my phone, or I have to download my tickets and show them on the app. It would take a lot of planning to even be able to do 50 percent of a normal day in New York without a smartphone.

I am hopeful that people perhaps younger and wiser than I am will find ways to create in community, whether it’s through intentional living, whether it’s through small-scale alternate modes of life, ways to try and consciously resist this cultural trend. I am very, very pessimistic that, at the national level, anything really will change. Unless all social media sites crash tomorrow, and maybe not even then, I think we might be stuck on the macro level and my optimism is reserved for the micro level.

AD: You mentioned you are working on a novel. Does it address some of these themes and issues?

TIB: Here in Avalon is the story of two adult sisters in contemporary Instagram-saturated New York, who one by one fall under the spell of this mysterious, immersive theater/cabaret troupe that may or may not be a cult. What I wanted to write about in that book was the fantasy, the hunger, not just for transcendence, for magic, but a sense of wanting to escape the modern world, of living this life that is just completely free of the kind of constraints that contemporary urban life imposes upon us. But at the same time, the open question in the air of, if you run away from your life and your responsibility and your commitments, what pulls you back to the real world?

It’s not a supernatural book, but it’s been described by some reviewers already as a bit of a fairy tale. And it’s precisely that movement of the cultural concept of fairyland as both an escape from modernity and also something that pulls you away from the things that anchor you that I really wanted to explore: it’s that tension between, “I want to run away and leave it all behind,” and, “there are things to come back to, there are commitments, there’s the life we’ve made, there are choices we’ve made, and who we truly and authentically are is not just about what we run away to; it’s also about the things keeping us anchored even when we would rather not be anchored.”

Image by Justlight and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.