Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Autonomy means to live under one’s own law: to discover the norms of a lawful life, a nomos, by or within oneself. Thus it is not, in principle, anarchic or anomic. Autonomy and authority are, as etymology suggests, paired concepts. Autonomy means that the self becomes its own authority, that authority per se is conditional upon the consent of the self. Autonomy takes self-directedness as its governing principle.

How does self-directedness come to have credibility as a moral concept? Its origins lie perhaps in the logic of responsibility; in the conditions under which we can attribute blame or praise to an agent. To be fully responsible, an agent must have freely chosen his course of action. The idea that we are responsible only if we can be said to have chosen or consented willingly to a course of action is certainly an old one. The great German Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen, attributes its discovery to the prophet Ezekiel, who, in contradiction to the exiles’ belief that “the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” asserted that every man suffers for his own sin. Ezekiel appears to have displaced the older biblical notion that God will punish the children for the sins of their fathers for several subsequent generations. Blame and punishment are neither collective nor hereditary. They are merited by individuals on a basis of personal desert. If Cohen is correct, the concept of autonomy in the sense of having to take responsibility for one’s own destiny-of having, on one’s own, to recognize what is right and to act accordingly-is not new.

What is new is the idea that the discovery of what is right is an idiosyncratic self-discovery. The self, as the field and the agent of moral discovery, acquires a whole new weight. The process of the self ratifying what it has discovered, that is, of consent, takes on a new prominence. Thus what is new is the construction of the self now held to be capable of aiming at an ideal of autonomy. Autonomy as an ideal renders the relation of the autonomous self to other selves, to community, to nature, and to divinity enormously problematic. The ethics and the anthropology of the autonomous self represent a departure from prior traditions of Western thought and religion.

The theme of autonomy has been of defining significance for modernity. Indeed, the major intellectual architects of the modern project have put the individual at the crux of their thought. Modern philosophy begins with the individual. For Descartes, often held to be the first modern philosopher, reality per se is discovered in self-reflection. Being depends upon the solitary, thinking ego for its self-disclosure. The little “I,” which was at best a microcosm of a vast, created (or, for Aristotle, eternal) macrocosm, now becomes the only open window onto the world of being. We cannot know, hence we cannot trust in, anything that is beyond what we can think. The little “I” has now become the arbiter of all that is.

If premodern men and women feared such radical independence, such excision from the context of an environing universe, moderns exult in it. Despite all of the modern talk of loneliness and alienation, the modern soul shrinks from attachments that are not of its own choosing. The modern soul, as Edward Shils put it, has a dread of metaphysical encumbrances. This dread is systematically expressed in the modern traditions of ethical and social thought. The newly definitive individual, stripped of constitutive attachments to primal groups and faiths, is an arbiter not only of what is but of what ought to be.

Although autonomy is not antithetical to authority per se, it is antithetical to traditional, heteronomous authority. Autonomy regards claims to authority that cannot be validated by, or in principle discovered within, the self as suspect. Traditional authority is based on claims to a superior wisdom, to divine revelation or to the accumulated and refined legacy of the ancestors. The modern ideal rejects this as so much paternalism. No prophet, philosopher-king, or historical collectivity knows better than the individual what the individual’s good is. No human arrangement affecting our lives and destinies that does not rise from, or merit the consent of, the individual so affected ought to exist. Furthermore, this consent is a private matter. No one can tell us what we ought to consent to. Society should not prescribe our good for us. Only we who know ourselves best, as John Stuart Mill argued, can decide what is our special good. There are as many goods as there are persons. Autonomy implies that we are epistemic and ethical worlds unto ourselves.

Traditional authority is enfeebled by modernity because it has become increasingly difficult to speak persuasively about the good as such: the human good, the good of man qua man, the common good in which all humans share. Tradition speaks about human beings in broad, species-wide categories: for example, “It is not good for man to be alone.” But what if some humans prefer solitude to sociality? Who is to say? As the postulate of a higher human nature lost ground, the good has been atomized into a near infinity of particularities. The old version of a common human nature which both Jews and Christians developed from Greek thought during the Middle Ages, namely, that man is a thinking being whose telos is found in the perfection of intellect which is also communio and imitatio dei, became incredible with the rise of modern science. The teleological universe of Aristotle was replaced by the mechanical universe of Newton. Nature was a gigantic machine, not a purposive process leading back and up into divinity. The heavens do not speak the glory of God, they speak the theorems of the calculus. Without a divinely directed, providentially purposive nature, human nature lost its human purpose. Man came to be defined increasingly by what had earlier been held to be his lower nature. As modernity progressed, it was the only nature that science could know.

The “scientization” of nature, that is, the triumph of the quantitative methods of the new physics and of the technological goal of mastery, as well as the loss of a Judeo-Christian anthropology of man as a being with a higher nature, not only atomized the concept of the good into an infinity of particularities, it also shifted the concept of the right, of justice , into a different framework. Formerly, justice was a matter of the conformity of human institutions and practices with an inherent natural standard: of nomos with physis where physis was understood to strive toward the divine. Nature, in the earlier thought, implied an immanent natural law, which linked the mundane, the transcendent, and the human. In a more theistic key, nature was the field in which divine providence engaged in shaping human destiny. While these concepts of nature are not equivalent, they share a common horizon vis-a-vis the modern one. In modernity, by contrast, talk about justice need not appeal to a transcendent norm. What is just is what the individual consents to.

Raising consent to the chief, or at least to a chief, criterion of justice shifts the framework within which we understand justice from ontology to history. Justice does not seek ontological legitimation. Appeals to the way of things or the will of God do not matter. Even worse, they signal antimodern reaction. What matters is the history of the society in which institutions of justice are found. Suttee would be intolerable for Jews and Christians, but it is more than just, one might argue, for Hindus.

Moderns (at least those quintessential moderns, the Enlightenment founders of the modern project) have tried to avoid such culture-dependent relativism by positing a universal and primitive attribute of man qua man that could replace the now enfeebled natural law: namely, rights. Human rights are held to be culturally invariant human possessions that guarantee basic claims to life, freedom, and dignity for all. Yet there is no doubt that the discourse of rights derives from the prior traditions of biblical anthropology. It is a secularized, sanitized version of b’tselem elohim bara otam : in the image of God He created them. Can one doubt that should this historical link between rights and biblical monotheism be lost, rights discourse will collapse as well? There is no reason to doubt this intuition: the process is already well advanced. In many quarters, foremost among them the old USSR, rights discourse was, or was thought to be, a parochial, Western, Judeo-Christian language game. One can well imagine that an Indian devoted to suttee would resent an argument opposed to the practice based on rights no less than an argument based on the Bible. Both, especially at this end of modernity, appear to be so much cultural imperialism.

It is as if there were a law of the conservation of skepticism: that which was designed to replace biblical faith becomes as vulnerable to rational assault as biblical faith. Human rights are no less jeopardized by the intellectual climate of the world that first gave them systematic articulation than they are by governments who abuse and destroy their citizens.

What we are exploring here is how weak claims of authority are in the modern context. As the case of rights shows, modern reason is not able to sustain itself. The modern project of securing a universal human dignity irrespective of tribe, clan, race, or religion founders on its own parochialism. Having abandoned a belief in significant natural right, modernity sought its own anthropology of rational, enlightened man. But such a man proved to be nothing but parochial. The enlightened, autonomous self was nothing more or less than a European, a Western, self. Even Germany, where the Enlightenment had originally found great advocates, by the early nineteenth century had rejected central tenets of Enlightenment as too French. Thus modern reason, having rejected the old religious absolutes, tried to innovate its own absolutes only to discover that relativity, that cultural particularity, continued to haunt them. Without belief in revelation or in natural right we seem necessarily to be thrown upon the shifting fashions of history. And history, Hegel notwithstanding, is not the history of reason. History is the struggle of wills.

The autonomous self of modernity has put will at the center. It is will, the idiosyncratic will of the autonomous self, that chooses a course of life, that decides what is good and right for itself. Yet what is it that illumines the will which chooses? The once unquestioned light of revelation grew dim. It became an or ganuz, a hidden light. In principle, it is a light that cannot be lost in questions, only in too certain answers. Modernity was quick to foreclose the questions and to believe that its answers, tentative as they were, were the only answers. Thus revelation could only illumine the self if the self still sensed the openness of the questions: that is, if the will, in its sublime privacy, consented to such illumination. Of course, there are always such selves, but in modernity they sense, more than ever before, their aloneness. To read great works of mysticism such as the Cloud of Unknowing is to hear what the aloneness of the devout was like in a “religious age.” Yet there is a difference. That age at least recognized the cultural salience of the contemplative. His virtuosity, while surely not for everyone, made sense to everyone. Radical religious seriousness, while always entailing aloneness, was a publicly intelligible and valued phenomenon.

Modernity, however, was born in the retreat of revelation from the light of day, from the public world. The men and women who lived revelation-and the religious authorities that spoke in its name-became culturally solitary voices competing for a hearing at the door of modern reason. Thus the religious communities are no longer thought to be primal. They are derivative, voluntary: they derive from volition. They are not called into being by God, but by consent. Their authority, to the extent that they have any authority, is a matter of voluntary obligation. One consents to it within the framework of autonomy.

How does this consent work? For thinkers in the social contract tradition such as John Locke, community, including the communities formed in the name of revelation, arise from the decision and choice of individual humans. We band together to secure advantages that we are unable to secure by living singly. Community is no longer an organic and a priori condition of our humanness, as it was for Aristotle. Man is no longer a zoon politikon , a being for whom sociality is a condition of soteriology, for whom community opens onto the horizons of both virtue and transcendence-rather, he is Homo sapiens, a thinking being who arranges his life in light of his calculations of gain and loss. Community is made, not found. It is not the condition of our being, but a consequence of it. Thus, the norms of community, including the communities of revelation, bind us only insofar as we consent to them, that is, only insofar as we continue to associate our lives with them through choice.

Why should we consent to the norms of the social order that we ourselves (or at least our social contracting ancestors) have allegedly made? It seems hopelessly crude to say that we should consent to them only if in the calculation of gains and losses we stand to gain more than we stand to lose by the association. A horde of self-interested, calculating, potential nomads could never amount to a society. How does one proceed from a radical doctrine of individual autonomy to sociality, to human solidarity? Those too, at least in sanitized, rationalized form, constitute a modern ideal. An early answer to the problem of consent and the origin of normative solidarity, i.e., political obligation-Locke’s answer-continued to borrow from medieval tradition. Locke did not make consent dependent on strict and arbitrary autonomy. Rather, consent is consent to what is right. What is right is determined by natural law. We ought to give our consent to what is right. We ought not to consent to what is wrong. Suicide, which Locke, for example, believes contravenes natural law in a fundamental way, is never something one could rightfully choose. Nor is slavery. Such consent is no consent at all. Thus Locke, writing in a religious culture in early modern times, heavily qualifies autonomy. A transcendent order of norms limits the range of moral possibilities that the will to consent may select.

As modernity progresses, however, these limitations weaken. Consent is shorn of its normative horizon and simply becomes an act of will illumined, if at all, by tastes and preferences. This possibility was glimpsed, or perhaps preached, by David Hume, who offered a radical critique of the social contract tradition. He saw in consent not a rationally informed moral act of affirmation, but a passional surrender to inherited, irrational prescriptions. Consensual affirmation of the authoritative norms of social life was a myth, an old wives’ tale for those who still thought that reason governs the life of man.

Kant sought to rescue autonomy and consent from Hume’s bleak vision by tying them firmly to reason. Yet for Kant, too, the authority that still resided in Locke’s natural law receded. Natural law as a source of authority is replaced by an ideal of a self-sufficient, solitary individual governing himself according to formulas of reason. The lawfulness that we discover in the logic of our own moral self-reflection is the only authority worthy of consent. Autonomous reason is the source of its own law. If one can will a course of action-a maxim-such that all other rational agents could also will it without self-contradiction, then that maxim passes muster. Formal criteria of universality, discoverable by practical reason reflecting on the experiences of moral life, set the parameters for what is right.

Such attempts to ground or justify autonomy all return to a calculation of gains and losses. For Locke, one has more to gain by living in society than in the state of nature. For Kant, one has more to gain by living under the universal moral law, discovered by individual reason, than by living under the partial and particularistic codes imposed by an external agency. One gains freedom, which, for Kant, appears as a kind of summum bonum.

Yet, there are other versions of individual gain and advantage. The most radical version, which modernity produced as a dialectical reaction to the stress on autonomous individuality, is the nullification of individuality altogether. Modernity offers the total absorption of the individual into a collectivity, usually a society or nation-state, as a putative version of a human good. Modernity has produced leviathans more terrible than Hobbes could have imagined or approved of.

The possibility of surmounting and transcending the autonomous individuality that modernity has itself unleashed in the form of absorption in a collectivity strengthens in proportion to the decline of biblical faith. The religious communities, Jews and Christians, continued to represent a social order that claimed ontological legitimation for itself: the Church as the body of Christ, the Jews as the chosen people. With the retreat of the public legitimating function of transcendence, society represented itself to itself as a more or less immanent affair: the product of decision, choice, consent. These, as we have seen, are relatively vulnerable grounds for social order. Given the modern idea that society is made, not found, that the human world is a product of volition, not nature, the way was cleared for radical experimentation, for inventing new, rational versions of social order. As biblical understandings of transcendence retreated, rival versions of transcendence filled the vacuum. The state could become an ersatz divinity offering salvation for those who sacrifice themselves to it. The strains and terrors of modern autonomy spawned a solution that both rejects modern autonomy and derives from it. This “solution” has not yet run its course.

Jews and Christians, as representatives of forms of community far older than modernity, have not a common, but a related, task: to model a way of life, both private and public, that is demonstrably superior to both the culture of radical autonomy and to its totalitarian antithesis. To do this, Christians and Jews need to recover the essential lineaments of their archetypal communities from the mass of adaptations they have made in the course of secularization. I am unable to say precisely what this might imply for Christians, but let me conclude with what it implies for Jews.

Modern Judaism has been pulled between two poles: the confessional and the national. Judaism has been constructed as nothing-but-religion and as nothing-but-ethnicity. The nineteenth century reinvented Judaism as the “Mosaic faith” of German or American or British Jews, and deemphasized the national and ethnic elements implicit in the tradition. Zionism and other secular movements, by contrast, rejected this confessionalization of Judaism, but substituted no less modern a construction of the ethnic and national elements. Secular peoplehood is no less a distortion of traditional sacral peoplehood than is sacred religion without peoplehood at all. With the success of Zionism, secular constructions of Judaism became dominant, either marginalizing the confessional model or creating a new form of confessionalization: Jewish religion as a civil religious appendage to Jewish national identity.

For Jews to reach a new/old self-representation of their communal reality entails the rediscovery of the Jewish polity . Community is rather too weak a term to describe the sociality of the Jews. Jewish historical being is both chosen, voluntary, consensual and primordial, natural, and transcendent. One is born a Jew and one chooses Judaism. Judaism is found in oneself, not made. Yet one must also make one’s Judaism, that is, one must make oneself into a Jew. The law precedes one, yet one must make it one’s own. The massive, public otherness of the law becomes personal, intimately one’s own.

The resolution of this apparent paradox has been a major concern of modern Jewish theologians. Throughout modernity, Jewish thinkers have been simultaneously drawn to and deeply agitated by Kant. Kant’s stress on ethics, inner purity, and on the dignity and ennoblement of man through righteous will and action seemed like a convincing and a compatible statement of Judaism’s own ideal. Yet Kant’s uncompromising rejection of heteronomy seemed fully incompatible with Judaism’s revealed Law. Indeed, Kant called for a “euthanasia of Judaism” (Judaism represented pure heteronomy for him) as a condition of the moral development of mankind. Thus the Kantian version of autonomy became a persistent challenge to modern Jewish thought.

The time has long since arrived for modern Jews to free themselves from the Kantian dialectic of autonomy vs. heteronomy. It is a true dialectic only if we accept its metaphysical presupposition that human beings are or ought to be radically individuated beings; that community is derivative, not primal; that self and other are mutually exclusive. Judaism (and, it would seem, Kant himself-at least the Kant of the Critique of Judgment ) rejects these premises.

The primary Jewish reality is not the individual agent but the historic polity in which the individual discovers his or her Jewishness. “Polity” is stronger than “community” because it resonates with the sense of obligation that characterizes the political. It entails as well a sense of continuity, primordiality, and objectivity that community has come to lack. On the other hand, polity must not be confused with “state” or any other political category where the emphasis is on sovereignty and the monopoly of legitimate violence. Polity refers to forms of social life more binding than community yet more decentralized than the modern state.

To belong to the Jewish polity means to live in a network of duties, obligations, rights, and privileges that has worldwide range and temporal depth. The ground of this order is the covenant: a binding intimacy of a human group with God that is characterized by both love and law. Two parties chose one another. The human party must still, in every generation, choose. This stress on consent as a condition of covenantal participation, that is, of life within the polity, satisfies the modern orientation toward autonomy. On the other hand, the divine partner clearly expects that the Jew will “choose life” and ratify, in both an individual and a collective way, the terms of the covenant, not the least of which is the halakhah, the Jewish way of life. The Jew ought to consent to what is right. Consent is not directed by radical autonomy, but by a bounded autonomy. Such autonomy is conditioned by a vision of the human good that claims ontological legitimation. This vision is at once both private and public. Just as the individual stood at Sinai only as a member of the Jewish polity, so too the individual stands before Torah today. Torah is both the law of the Jewish heart and the constitution of the Jewish polity.

With appropriate qualifications, Christianity’s understandings of polity bear resemblance to Judaism’s. The distinctions are of crucial significance, but so are the commonalities. Jews and Christians can moderate the excesses of the modern dialectic of autonomy by modelling legitimate authority within their polities. Such authority is neither sovereign nor arbitrary. It recognizes God as the only sovereign and so circumscribes its own reach and tendency. Such authority seeks consent, but asks that consent be illumined by a persuasive ideal of the common good. Such authority speaks the language of rights but never without the correlated language of obligation. Such an authority should renew our sense of relatedness to the natural world without denigrating or distorting the uniquely human. Here, Jews and Christians, either in dialogue if they are willing, or by cultivating their own gardens if they so choose, can become a nes amim , a sign for the peoples, of a human life worthy of the name.

Alan L. Mittleman teaches in the Religion Department at Muhlenberg College. This article is adapted from a paper prepared in February 1994 for the International Jewish-Christian Conference on Religious Leadership in Secular Society in Jerusalem.