The Myth of Autonomy
Updated: Jan 31
Many Americans take for granted, even idealize, the ideal of personal autonomy: they call it independence, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, not being a burden, not taking hand-outs, taking care of their own, standing on their own two feet, and freedom. The American myth is that autonomy is achievable and that it’s the most honorable lifestyle there is. Many Americans unconsciously accept that people are by nature autonomous individuals. But autonomy is a myth, not a reality.
Autonomists think that people can live entirely by the fruits of their own efforts, not relying on outside people or society. They imagine that they can interact with people solely as they choose, entering into relationships and leaving them whenever they want to, not being a burden to them or having them be a burden in return. They believe that they are entirely in control of their thoughts and choices, that they direct their wills, and that their true moral guidance comes from their own hearts.
This mythology is not a new thing for most (though not all) Americans. To some extent our geography has shaped it. Historically we’ve had the sense that there’s always new land out there, waiting to be subdued, where men are men and women are tired. There’s room never to have to be part of a neighborhood. When those mythic Americans, the pioneers, saw the chimney smoke of a new neighbor on the horizon, they could move farther out and wrest an independent living from the land, with no revenuers or government agents breathing down their necks. Of course this is no longer true, if it ever was, but the mythology of autonomy remains with Americans today.
Philosophy has also shaped our mythology. Many of the earliest and most influential European settlers arrived during the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers held, and the common people absorbed, the ideas that there was not a personal god, that mankind was perfectible by its own efforts, and that through reason and science we could break the bonds of oppressive religious, governmental, and personal relationships. In fact, some of the philosophers believed that the interdependence of people was what created evil in the world, that perfectly detached people would be perfectly good. Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau even abandoned his own (illegitimate) child to be raised in a convent, feeling that the smothering interdependence of father and son would distort the child’s psyche and prevent his growing up free. (Whose freedom was Rousseau concerned with?)
We tend to forget that there was always tension in America between individualistic and collective ways of thinking, between mountain men and barn raising, between lighting out for the frontier and being part of an established community. In the memory of autonomists, the American Revolution seemed to reinforce the convictions that independence and self-determination were the supreme good and were achievable by our own efforts. According to the mythology, the Civil War, too, was fought over the issue of independence — of states’ rights or personal independence from slavery. Although the Civil War might more properly be seen as a contest of the cooperative life of the Northern towns versus the so-called autonomous life of the Southern landowner, in which the Northern way of cooperation won, nonetheless autonomists see the war as a struggle for personal freedom. And so the myth of self-reliance continues until today.
But no matter how they boast, no one is living the autonomous life that they idealize. Even the few who look like they’re self-sufficient really aren’t. The survivalist hunts his own meat and tans the hide, but did he smelt the ore to make his guns and traps? Homesteaders raise both food and buildings, but they didn’t plant the trees that they cut down for lumber, nor did they mine the iron for the nails. In fact, they didn’t give the trees the power to grow or place the raw materials in the earth. They — we — all rely on provisions from outside ourselves for life.
Autonomists typically claim that they’ve worked for all they have, that they’ve never taken a hand-out from anyone, but they aren’t telling the strict truth. They may have started their own business, but they didn’t make the economy or customers or infrastructure that made the business possible. They didn’t create and raise and educate the human capital that keeps their business running. And ironically, not only do they rely on others for their success, but others rely on them to provide something they need and pay the autonomists money that they need to maintain their business. Even autonomists are part of a web of giving and receiving, not an isolated entity.
One barrier that autonomists erect to preserve their illusion of autonomy is money. If I pay you, I don’t have an interdependent relationship with you. You aren’t another person, you’re an employee, or a nursing home attendant, or a shopkeeper. I can pay you to look after me when I want you to and go away when I don’t, and then we’ll never be a burden to each other. But paying for food, education, care, services, and goods doesn’t make people autonomous. It just moves the relationship they have with the providers of goods and services a little farther away.
Even our thoughts are not autonomous. All people are products of their culture, time, and place. Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson, an undeservedly popular American essayist and contemporary of Henry David Thoreau, the ultimate guru of autonomy. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” In other words, don’t let anyone or anything affect your thinking, but rely only on yourself. The big joke is that now, 150 years later, graduate students are writing dissertations on where Emerson got his ideas, because they understand, if he didn’t, that no one develops in a vacuum.
We are fooling ourselves if we think that individual independence is the mark of personal and evolutionary success. We evolved not by the Randian competition of individuals but by the development of interdependent social networks. Our most extraordinary evolved trait makes that clear: language. If we were meant to be autonomists, we would look like sabertooth tigers or sharks; instead, we are small and weak on our own, but with the means for complex cooperation and community, we have become the intelligent, flexible species we are today. It’s time to debunk this mythology of autonomy and consider the nature of our true relationships with the world and each other.