Saturday, May 24, 2008

Legitimate vs. Illusory Autonomy

This topic has proven fruitful, and so I will stay with it, at the risk of boring my gentle readers...

The contrast of freedom and autonomy might appear to produce the oversimplification that 'freedom is good; autonomy is bad'. I have, however, hinted at the idea of 'legitimate autonomy'. Avery Cardinal Dulles, in a recent issue of First Things, wrote about the 'freedom of theology', by which he meant something akin to what I have been describing as autonomy. Theologians should not be stifled in their important work by the Magisterium unless it is clearly the case that a proposition is outside the Catholic faith. Professional theologians, that is to say, require a certain autonomy to choose the topics they wish to explicate and to choose the methods and contexts out of which these speculations occur.

Autonomy as a good has emerged in the West in the past two hundred-fifty years, and did so within the larger context of the concepts of personhood and individuality, concepts that Christianity has done much to clarify. Some would even go so far as to assert that the Trinitarian controversies gave rise to the concept 'person'; the Latin persona meant simply 'a mask' before it was yoked to the idea of hypostasis, to denote the distinction between Three Persons in the Trinity.

The difficulty in modern times is perhaps not autonomy per se, but autonomy disengaged from moral virtue and discernment. Since at least Plato (and with notable parallels in Hebrew wisdom literature), the connection between virtue and knowledge had been a commonplace, until the making of distinctions in the late Middle Ages severed moral philosophy from, say, analytical philosophy. The idea that a philosopher had to be virtuous so as to be disinterested and unswayed by his own preference and desire fell into desuetude.

With this in mind, we can consider this quote (sent by Dave B) from a lecture by then-Cardinal Ratzinger:

"The destruction of the conscience is the real precondition for totalitarian obedience and totalitarian domination. Where conscience prevails there is a barrier against the domination of human orders and human whim, something sacred that must remain inviolable and that in an ultimate sovereignty evades control not only by oneself but by every external agency. Only the absoluteness of conscience is the complete antithesis to tyranny; only the recognition of its inviolability protects human beings from each other and from themselves; only its rule guarantees freedom."

Before Dave had sent along the quote, I had been trying to formulate a related point. My observation would be that when autonomy is severed from Christian 'freedom', the freedom that virtue makes possible, those who practice such 'autonomy' are ripe for manipulation by those who can seize on their vices (as previously noted, vices are a negation of freedom). This is why people buy beer and cars advertised by women in bikinis; why there is hardly a protest against governmental invasions of privacy out of fear of terrorists; why demagogues usually appeal to racism and tribalism; why Americans on average waste four hours a day in front of the television, and so on. All a dictator need do is exploit these weaknesses on the one hand, while proclaiming them to be extensions of autonomy (You can have it all! The War on Terror is to protect your freedom!), and he will have you in the palm of his hand.

So genuine autonomy is only available to the genuinely free person. A person locked in vice may feel as if he is responsible to no one, but is in fact pushed here and there by the winds of passion and prejudice.

1 comment:

Connie said...

I'm glad you have continued this subject actually. I find it quite interesting and I enjoy your writings very much.

I have yet another question and you will forgive me in advance if my question loops around itself like last time and diverts into 2 or 3 questions....

When does a person begin to trust their own conscience? I ask because I think all too often we have become so accustomed to hearing our own voice (as opposed to God's) and so partial to our own ego that we can quite comfortably turn an evil into a good (a vice into a virtue) by playing a sort of justification by mental gymnastics. This lack of trust in ones own conscience could be a disaster for a person discerning the religious life, or any major decision, such as marriage, etc. because the person will never make a decision for fear of their own conscience.

Perhaps it is as simple as spending time getting to know ourselves by getting to know God. It's a bit of a paradox though...kind of...because can we really KNOW God, not know OF Him but really KNOW Him, without knowing ourselves? And can we really know ourselves without knowing God? I'm not trying to be coy or quaint or whatever the adjective is...I'm truly inquiring.

Thank you Father,


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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