Civic Chaos and the Myth of Autonomy

A regime that rejects the primacy of truth and attempts to upend our social nature will inevitably create conditions for civic unrest.

The farmer and social critic Wendell Berry argues that contemporary life in America could be described in terms of “radical disconnections.” This brokenness is what makes Americans feel so frustrated and confused.

The breakdown of robust communities, neighborhoods, and various forms of associative life has left many people incapable of navigating the difficulties and complexities of life. The works of Robert Nisbet and Robert Putnam demonstrate that communal life in America has been decimated and replaced by an excessive political and cultural individualism. As Nisbet argues, contemporary individualism has not erased humans’ natural desire to live in community. On the contrary, it has only further exacerbated such innate inclinations.

This reality explored by Berry and others can be traced to our acceptance of the dangerous modern myth of autonomy. Viewing ourselves as totally autonomous beings strips us of our anthropological, geographical, natural, and spiritual reference points. The myth of autonomy teaches us to believe that the accidents of birth, family, neighborhood, polity, and church are not life-giving sources of identity and connection but rather forms of oppression that we must transcend and overcome.

Self-Making Global Citizens

Our culture—especially in our institutions of higher education—urges people to transcend the limits of their places of origin and become cosmopolitan global citizens, those who love the abstract “world,” but not any particular place and its inhabitants more specifically. Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen sees this trend in the students he has taught at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities:

My students are the fruits of a longstanding project to liberate all humans from the accidents of birth and circumstance, to make a self-making humanity. Understanding liberty to be the absence of constraint, forms of cultural inheritance and concomitant gratitude were attacked as so many arbitrary limits on personal choice, and hence, matters of contingency that required systematic disassembly.

By embracing “self-making humanity,” people conclude that human nature, or nature more generally, is not something that already exists. Indeed, contemporary man tends to view the natural order as something “formless” and thereby open to manipulation. Because things are considered to be devoid of substantial essences and intelligible causes, nature’s meaning becomes something that must be “put there.” Instead of respectfully seeking to discover the already established ontological order of reality, too often we seek to impose ourselves and our wills upon creation. Instead of working with the order of nature, both the cosmos and human nature, we attempt to work against it.

A friendly relationship between human beings and the natural order has been replaced by a deep-seated antagonism. The political protests and civic unrest that characterize contemporary American social life cannot be adequately explained without reference to this feeling of being cut off—this existential experience of feeling displaced.

Is the Enlightenment the Problem or the Solution?

Kurt Andersen has observed that the deepest divisions in American culture are not primarily political. Instead, the deepest divisions can be traced to the level of first principles and our relationship to reality. Andersen thinks that we need to recover an understanding of the relationship between truth and reality that he says is to be found in the Enlightenment philosophical tradition. His worry is that the sober, rational, and empirical features of Enlightenment thought have given way to an increased tendency toward magical thinking and fanciful explanations.

For Andersen, this outbreak of magical thinking can be traced back to the cultural upheavals of the sixties and seventies. However, while there is certainly some truth to this judgment, this sort of thinking is actually one of the first principles of modern and Enlightenment thought. Descartes’s Cogito, Francis Bacon’s supplanting of truth with mere action, and the “state of nature” doctrine of Hobbes and Locke provide a certain path to the magical, fantastical thinking that Andersen bemoans. It must be remembered that the early modern philosophers were formidably indebted to the post-Aristotelian political and philosophical worldview of the Epicureans and Stoics. This anthropological worldview envisions human beings as individuals without a context. Severed from nature, others, and material reality, the self-created and artificial individual emerges.

Alexis de Tocqueville predicted this state of affairs, observing that America was Cartesian without ever having read a word of Descartes. American perspectives on intellectual freedom and authority usurped their relationship to the past, to an inherited culture, and to any objective, external conception of truth. It did not appear strange to Tocqueville that Americans would set themselves up as the ultimate judges on matters pertaining to truth; it was the logical conclusion of being philosophical children of Descartes. In such a post-truth regime, knowledge is reduced to mere opinion, and we are no longer able to engage in public discourse about “comprehensive doctrines.”

This shallowness of discourse aims to prevent engagement with the fundamental questions at the heart of human life. Yet it is through asking the deeper questions—those that force us outside ourselves—that we can be exposed to what is real. In truth, the natural order of reality is not open to manipulation. It is only by seeing this that we become sane and no longer disenchanted.

Autonomy Leads to Displacement

So how can we leave behind this myth of autonomy and regain our sense of connection to the natural world and to the people who surround us? What practical steps can we take?

In the book Shopclass as Soulcraft, philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford persuasively argues that we should start by recovering a more holistic account of the trades and mechanical arts. Crawford argues that true craftsmanship entails an intimate connection with the nature and order of things that are outside the scope of one’s own will. He writes:

Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility . . . If we fail to respond appropriately to these authoritative realities, we remain idiots. If we succeed, we experience the pleasure that comes with progressively more acute vision, and the growing sense that our actions are fitting or just, as we bring them into conformity with that vision.

Crawford goes on to lay out the fundamental social and existential disorientation that springs from the early modern notion of “autonomy.” This idea is rooted in the Kantian judgment that human beings are autonomous self-makers, with regard to both the moral and the natural order. According to Crawford, to emphasize radical autonomy “is to betray the natural debts we owe to the world, and commit the moral error of ingratitude. For in fact we are basically dependent beings: upon one another, and each on a world that is not of our making.”

Crawford contrasts this with what he calls “sociable individuality.” In this understanding, one’s individuality is not denied or put aside in favor of the collective group. Rather, each person’s individual identity and agency is “expressed in an activity that, in answering to a shared world, connects him to others” through personal “efforts to reach a goal that is common.” Our modern liberal order makes this difficult, because it is built on the idea that humans are autonomous beings, attached neither to anyone nor to any place. Yet it is not impossible.

Though such steps may seem modest, they are essential if we hope to maintain a healthy social and political climate. A regime that rejects the primacy of truth and attempts to upend our social nature will inevitably create conditions for civic unrest. That feeling and experience of being isolated spills over into the kind of hatred and angst that we have witnessed in our current culture of political outrage.

The cure is to allow ourselves to be guided out of our self-made “caves” by turning to what is. In this light, our vision becomes open to this mind-independent order, to the order that we did not make. It is here that we can begin our path toward overcoming that crippling myth of autonomy.

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