John Locke (1632-1704), a British philosopher and physician, is regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. Commonly esteemed as the “father of liberalism,” he believed in the natural rights of the individual.
In 1776, 72 years after Locke’s death but heavily influenced by him, America, then made of 13 colonies, secured its independence from Great Britain in a Revolutionary War.
The United States of America was established as the first nation-state built on the Enlightenment principles of liberal democracy. And in 1789, philosophy became history. The Constitution of the United States was ratified. It followed the Declaration of Independence, which revealed the ideas of equality, justice and individual freedom expressed as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Locke’s words were the pursuit of property).
Locke believed that our minds were a blank slate to be filled in with experience and reflection. Not knowing about genetics, he thought we were free to choose our actions, and thus, to be individually capable of autonomy. However, we who study Autonomy and Life understand that our minds are not blank slates and our right to choose is not by itself the individual freedom instantiated in America. Instead of finding ourselves on the forest floor, limited by basic animal traits our freedom is defined. We find ourselves bound in a “de facto” contract with America over its idea of freedom.
As a result of the Constitution, we are legally emancipated from obedience to crown or cross, at least, publicly. Yet we are still enculturated to a mistaken belief in our own disembodied ego/mind. Typically, we don’t know how we are set-up to be autonomous. And we don’t know ourselves in our individuated character in a manner that satisfies the terms that accompany the promise of America: living in the liberal democratic experiment, specifically, living in the expectation of mutually responsible behavior between the collection of people that is this nation.
Enculturated into this de facto contract, we find ourselves facing the challenge of flourishing having been subjectively set to be autonomous. Yet we are grounded in our mistaken bifurcated understanding of our ego-function. (Caught up in the prevailing conceptual reality, Locke accepted our obedience to crown and cross and to a disembodied ego/mind.) When we harbor a misunderstanding of ourselves, a misunderstanding, which in fact, is what and who we are not, we are likely to seek the solution to the instability of our minds and our behavior, our insecurity, in the form of fulfilling our desire for admiration. This wrong-headed referential authority can leave us suffering over an illusionary ego/mind unable to handle its body’s need for admiration.
As such, intrinsic to our concern with animating the unique opportunity and burden of being a free individual living in America, we look to the systemic problem of our inherited yet erroneous standpoint. That is, the putative, innately autonomous disembodied ego/mind, the dualist error that in the immediacy of its wrongheaded realization of itself justifies satisfying desire, appetite and the need for admiration over principle. The dualist error tempts us to retreat from engaging the self-individuating authorial voice, mind and consciousness that is internal to the emancipating principles. These emancipating principles of independent agency, moral personage, autobiographical entrepreneurship, deliberative judgment, and progressive originality help define the fully human generic standpoint identity in America and guide individual freedom.
Pointedly, our philosophy abandons the prevailing dualist ground of our authorial voice, mind, and consciousness, the supernaturally posited, mysteriously propertied presence of a disembodied ego/mind. Still, despite being burdened with the mysteriously propertied dualist error, we are charged with meeting America’s experimental expectations of the fully human generic standpoint identity we term autonomy’s author.
When conscionably exercised, and in contrast to the ill-ordered condition of dualism, our embodied selfhood is projected onto our world in the manner that is allowed by its design. Philosophically envisioned, it is revealed in its authorship of the courageously declared, violently secured, constitutionally authorized, socioculturally-ordered, agentive, personifying autobiographical efforts concluding in its deliberative judgment and progressive originality.
That is, ours is a philosophy of the art of self-possession—the development of the identity and unity of the socioculturally instantiated and well-ordered embodied selfhood. We consciously and mindfully realize our authorial voice when we engage in the processing of the autonomous subject’s responsibility for authoring its life-long journey of self-possession and its participation in the American experiment with the free individual.
When we ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be an American?” certainly a critical part of our answer is that Americans are philosophically and historically set-up to be autonomous, free individuals, albeit subject to the generic terms of specific conditions. No crown, no cross, no disembodied ego/mind, our virtuously intent practice of authorial autonomy is the dynamic behavior that is key not only to personal success but to the success of the political, economic and social structures of America. That is, to the success of our civilization.
Our comprehension of the American form of the free individual’s authorial autonomy leads us to recognize anew our emancipated individuation. There is a difference between what Locke thought and what we know individual freedom to be. It is the opportunity to author a life of our own design even as we satisfy the nation’s expectations of our performance: adhere to the de facto contract, exercise its defined freedom, and pursue our fulfillment, satisfaction and equanimity.
Practicing America’s autonomy is what makes each of us one of us. America’s experiment in self-possession is so arranged (in terms of its expectations of us), that if we sufficiently develop our autonomy, all of us who are in the pursuit of happiness can live a life worth living. All of us can flourish in its practice.