Personal autonomy is a precious thing. How can we broaden and enrich this freedom? Is it simply allowed, or constrained, by the society we live in? Or does it rather depend on our mental attitude—and what we make of it? What translates independence and autonomy into character and purpose?
This can be a penetrating and thought-provoking question. And the answer might be influenced by things we sometimes fail to consider—our family, our community, and our cultural heritage.
We like to think of ourselves as self-possessed and in control. But there can be unrecognized influences at work in ourselves which have their origins in personal experience or cultural roots.
Ignoring this possibility does not make them go away.
I am interested in exploring this question as a white American because that’s what I am, and because of my roots. The European heritage of white Americans is, for better or worse, the founding heritage of the United States.
And, yes, the question does draw us into complicated territory. Certainly, the ethnic differences in the United States raise interesting questions.
It is apparent, for example, that indigenous American Indian and African-American cultures are far more community-based than is the dominant white American culture. Could it be they are closer to their historical indigenous roots than are white folk?
And we should remind ourselves that the breakdown of the institutions of family and community—fragmented by modernity—has had profound consequences across every cultural divide.
I want to explore another influence here, however: the cultural history of the European peoples who colonized and founded the United States.
The influence of this extraordinary past remains hidden in almost everything about America, and it colors the experience of every citizen. Understanding where America came from can reveal much about where we now find ourselves.
So, why are white Americans so concerned about freedom, rights, and autonomy? These ideas do have a history.
Thinking people first began to question the institutional dogmas and restrictiveness of medieval European culture in the 15th century. The emergence of self-conscious individuality gradually freed human initiative and creativity from stifling constraints and overbearing conformity.
The realization of individuality led to growing resistance to the rigid fettering of patriarchal families, religious dogmatism, and the social and economic control of trade guilds. It also led to a lessening of family coherence and the weakening of community roots. And this isolation from the social foundations of association and identity had consequences.
The shift away from family and community was slow at first. But it intensified greatly with the industrial revolution and in the formless uniformity of mass society.
Why should this matter to us now? The slow fragmentation of family and community life has dominated American history.
This is our story. What shall we make of it? Freedom is not found in a wasteland. Autonomy is meaningless in a vacuum.
Individuality and identity are grounded in context. They take shape in childhood and early adulthood. They develop in a supportive environment—and with the diverse associative opportunities that are only available in functional communities.
We are human, intelligent and multi-dimensional. And we need roots.
The destruction of authentic community by mass society, and the disintegration of family life that inevitably followed, disrupted the natural processes for developing identity and personhood.
This is among the heaviest burdens inflicted by modernity. But nothing forces us to accept it. Creating authentic communities will not be easy, but Americans are fully capable of learning how to do this.
First must come recognition that freedom depends on responsibility.
Second, we must understand that safety and dependability require trust—the gist of constructive working relationships.
“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” Robert Nisbet wrote, “from the phenomena of individual insecurity… is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.”
“Separate man from the primary contexts of normative association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”
You may watch for the next post on or about November 22.
Dear readers: An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage. Please note “The Individual and Society”, which addresses the ideas introduced in this post.