All of us who study Autonomy and Life are familiar with its philosophy. Born and bred in America, in citizenship, autonomy is a philosophy that challenges our creative capacity for originality. Its freedom is a complex one. We are required to accept the opportunity to enjoy the creativity of an originally authored life and, at the same time, to accept the burden it places on us, the deployment of energy, the use of reason, rationality and self-control, the social responsibilities.
All of us, too, are aware of the principled mechanism, or the centrality, on which its practice is built: our individual agency, our moral personage and our entrepreneurial biography. Not only can we describe the philosophy and name the tripartite mechanism, we might, if pressed be able to state that the classes and coursework of Autonomy and Life are an opportunity to examine our life, lay claim to being its author and to declare it worth living. If there were a test, you might ace it.
But, of what in-the-world practices is the centrality made? No matter how much we have studied the subject, we don’t have all the answers. In the past, our Cartesian mental faculty would have had us believe that we have a special connection to the supernatural, though we could be and often were floored by novelty, contingency, emergency, rivalry, by fears, passions and regrets, you know the drill.
But now, despite Descartes and our very conceited egos, we know there is no thing inside of us and no crib sheet that can provide us with all the answers. In fact, what’s “in there,” was apt to be a long list of unattractive “thinking” habits and conclusions. Historically, conventionally and reflexively these were used to justify antagonism, conformity, superficiality, poor sportsmanship and overt or covert moralizing or self-righteousness i.e., the bad behaviors that once constituted our default response to the confrontational conditions and circumstances in which we found ourselves.
We have learned that the creative capacity for originality and authority when we engage with others is built piece by piece, strategically. A product of thinking, speaking, writing, acting and experience, we literally practice the means to transcending the mimicry, conformity and timidity that compromise our ability to create a life of our own design. Remember accelerating toward embarrassment? Forwarding the relevance of the discourse? Diffusing anger one word at a time?
We know that one of our means to authorship and authority is to make useful distinctions between that which is public and that which is private. We have consented to the manners of our public role because its alternatives are not appealing, or because we have asked ourselves, “How can I provide for myself and at the same time serve others—by acquiring an appropriate place for myself?” But we know that the authority of the principled mechanism also allows for private choices: the opportunity to be thoughtful, philosophical, to experiment with options and ways of being reflective that aren’t specifically decreed by public life.
Our "right" to explore our choices is based, of course, on our ability to deal with the consequences of these options with the resources of the autonomous subject. Indeed, though we have a right to private options, it is far easier to theorize about them than to enact or practice them.
Let me give an example. Most of us really fear embarrassment. This is because convention is a powerful, punishing inhibitor when we don’t conform to any piece of the prevailing conceptual reality. If we don’t follow the rules of convention (especially now, the Internet being what it is), we can be publicly shamed, humiliated, ridiculed, etc. Disrespect, contempt and disgust are felt. They hurt! In the absence of a thoughtfully constructed authorial presence, it’s natural enough to feel withered by scorn and begin to doubt or waffle over carefully chosen private options. Do we abandon our intellectual integrity in order to be liked? Do we swallow our voice in service of admiration? Do we squander our moral personage to avoid harsh judgment? Do we metaphorically bury our head in the sand and hope for the best?
Yes, it’s a contentious world out there. The competition is fierce, possibly nasty. It takes nerve and heart, not to mention energy, to stay on our feet, to play by the rules, to compete (to communicate fully in dialogue for the opportunities offered in our culture), to stay in contention amid the prevalent antagonism (which sometimes includes stomaching it—a demand not required of theorizing but only of practicing, acting, and transacting dialogically).
No one would deny that it’s hard, scary, maybe wearying to challenge our creative capacity for originality day in and out. But I think this heartful and courageous alternative to the persistent and worrisome internal dialogue that has shaped so much of our lives is a chance worth taking.
Autonomy is a rubric for an understanding and a means (a practice) with which to address the life experience. It finds its guidance, so to speak, in its pragmatic grappling and experimenting with our dynamic energy. This energy, grounded in nature and in the human construct of history and language, is optimistic, creative, purposeful, inquiring, processive and invites engagement. Our mindful understanding and skillful representation of its plenitude and possibilities give back upon us a prevalent peace of mind, equanimity and happiness. The truth of knowing ourselves in this pragmatic way, as contrasted with knowing ourselves as the center of Descartes’ imaginary world, does set us free. It is its own reward.