What Ails Us? The Rise of the Imperial, Autonomous Self

A rather succinct and accurate summary of our current malaise is that we live in the age of “the imperial, autonomous self.” In effect, many if not most people claim an authority, a right, to craft their own reality and live according to their own notions of it. Not so long ago, it was generally accepted that reality was something outside ourselves, something that we had to go out to meet, study, and obey. There was a certain “is-ness” to things. Conformity with the basic and revealed nature of things produced thriving and the kind of happiness that comes from being in harmony with what fundamentally is.

Recently however, there has been the ascendency of the notion that reality is what I say it is. The “soft garments” version of this is, “That may be true for you, but I see it differently. You live your truth and I will live mine.”

A Supreme Court decision of the early 1990s gave voice to this notion in its ruling defending a woman’s “right” to abort her baby:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life (Planned Parenthood of SE Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992)).

Such vapid language from the highest court in the land undermines the very concept of law. If someone can just define abortion as good, or define even the very nature of the universe, why can’t someone commit mass murder and call it good? This is the exultation of the imperial, autonomous self with almost no qualification! No family, community, nation, or culture can exist as a collection of imperial, autonomous individuals; it would be moral and political anarchy! Something outside ourselves (e.g., reality, the real (not imagined) universe, divine law, natural law, agreed-upon legal norms) must unite us.

The imperial, autonomous self cannot stay soft when, as the court suggests, the heart of liberty is neither the truth nor law (divine, natural, or civil). As we have seen in recent years, the imperial, autonomous becomes the imperious, combative self; the battle is not won by those with the most reasonable stance but by the most powerful, richest, loudest, fiercest, most exotic; or by those with most access to the media and popular culture.

The soft version of the imperial, autonomous self marches under the banners of tolerance, kindness, and open-mindedness. The fiercer version that has emerged more recently substitutes tyranny for tolerance. Few of these tyrants will admit their tyranny; they prefer to call it tolerance, but they have substituted a new meaning for the word.

Tolerance used to be understood as “a measured willingness to live with differences.” Today it has come to mean “agreement” and even “approval.” Of course, if I agree with you and approve of what you do, I do not need to practice tolerance. Thus, the redefinition of tolerance vacates the original meaning of the word entirely. Interestingly this new definition still permits calling others intolerant using the original meaning! It illustrates the “brilliance” of the cultural left in refashioning our very vocabulary and harnessing the power of words. I have written more on this matter here: Misunderstood Tolerance.

We ought not to be mistaken; the “tolerance” of the cultural elites is in fact tyranny. This is evident time and time again when anyone dares to stray from the acceptance and approval that are demanded by this new meaning. If one transgresses by not approving whatever previously sinful behavior currently demands approval, the repercussions include denouncement and demonization. The person or group is labeled unkind, hateful, intolerant, bigoted, phobic, discriminatory, and/or guilty of aggression (or the newly coined “microaggression”) and is accused of making people “feel unsafe.”

Having successfully demonized people or groups, the next move is to silence and suppress any expression of alternate views. Speakers delivering oppositional lectures on campuses are not merely protested, they are interrupted, shouted down, and even subjected physical disruption. All of this is deemed acceptable because the protesters are silencing the views of “bad” and “intolerant” people. In this way, the cultural left—which once held free speech as among the highest freedoms—is increasingly silencing oppositional speech.

The next stage is not merely to denounce opponents, but to legally punish them and criminalize their non-cooperation in the latest cause-du-jour. They are threatened legally, hauled into court, decertified, fined, and/or shut down for failing to approve of whatever the theoretically tolerant people say they should.

A recent Supreme Court case granted some relief to a Colorado baker who was subjected to this. This does not mean that such actions are going to stop. The cultural elites and self-appointed enlightened ones will just keep at it until they reach their objectives. Wearisome, lengthy, and expensive lawsuits, along with increasingly severe legislation, will likely continue until complete compliance has been achieved.

Thus, we see how the imperial, autonomous self gradually becomes the imperious, authoritarian self. Tolerance becomes tyranny. Our current Pope warns of ideological colonization. Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI warned of the “tyranny of relativism” and subjectivism. When we shift the locus of truth from the object (reality) to the subject (the individual), “truth” becomes about power and who has more of it.

George Weigel, in his thoughtful book The Fragility of Order , summarizes our times as follows:

The drastic attenuation of … three great ideas:

  • that there are deep truths built into the world, into human beings and into human relationships;
  • that these truths can be known by reason;
  • and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily (p. 124).

With these three great ideas weakened, we are left with a very small world; we are turned inward and have become self-referential. These are the ultimate parameters of the imperial, autonomous self: it is a small world, closed on itself, with a population of one. It is centered on me and whatever I think. Forget about anyone else. Forget about heritage. Forget the collected wisdom of millennia. Because little can be agreed upon (even the patently obvious sex of male and female bodies), we are left with a fierce power struggle between competing visions of “reality.”

If Western culture was the fair flower of the Judeo-Christian vision, the post-modern world is an ugly dandelion with deep tap roots. It is a dandelion that has gone to seed, and its white, cotton-like seeds are blowing in the breeze and taking root everywhere.

What are we to do? First, we must see the revolution for what it is. There is a hopelessly fatal shifting of the locus of truth away from what is revealed by God in biblical revelation (Divine Truth) and in the Book of Creation as grasped by reason (Natural Law). This is our Judeo-Christian heritage; it was what grounded us and united us. Having removed and denied the efficacy of this, our modern world has become unmoored and unraveled, mired in hopeless power struggles.

Only a return to our roots can save us. Therefore, St. Paul’s mandate to Timothy must also become ours:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-5).

This is true not only for bishops and priests, but for parents, Catholics in general, and all believing citizens of this land. America remains a great country, and our religious sensibilities are not completely lost. There is time, but the door is closing, and our cultural opponents are more fierce and bold than ever before. This is a good fight, and if you find a good fight you should get in it.

11 Replies to “What Ails Us? The Rise of the Imperial, Autonomous Self”

  1. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog Monsignor Pope. Hope to visit a Mass in your Parish someday. With the high profile suicides in recent news there has been much discussion of why. In this article


    The CDC recommends everyone familiarize themselves with the warning signs of suicide, which may include:

    – A person thinking about or threatening suicide or seeking a way to kill themself
    – Increased substance abuse
    – Feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, being trapped, or hopeless
    – Withdrawing from people and activities
    – Expressing unusual anger, recklessness, or mood changes

    These warning signs appear to me to be symptoms of the Imperial Autonomous Self. Thoughts?

  2. Mandje! Mandje! Timpe Te!
    Flounder, flounder, in the sea!
    My wife, my wife Ilsebill,
    Wants not, wants not, what I will

    “What does she want then?” said the flounder.
    “Oh,” he said, “she wants to become like God.”

    “Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.”

    And they are sitting there even today.

  3. This comes (originally) from Freud. The autonomous Self = Freudian / therapeutic society.

  4. Even though being himself a liberal, it is quite interesting the book The once and future liberal, by Mark Lilla. Amazing description of the whorshipping of individual identities and its efffects on the public life and politics.

  5. One of the problems is that western societies tend to reject many aspects of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and it is done through democratic means (v.g., vote). If we would impose our own view on them it would be tyranny of our part, as no one is obliged to accept the Christian view of reality. There are other views of reality, old and new, that now are, more and more, of common knowledge. When you have a globalized world, you cannot expect that no westerner will become buddhist, or hinduist. When you have free press and two centuries since Enlightenment, you cannot expect a society without atheists. This is democracy, after all.
    Christians seem to be doomed to be a minority in the west, and their influence will depend on their example, in the short term; in the long term, in their ability to make more disciples.

  6. Maybe my earlier comment should have been less obscure. Basically, you are describing the desire to ascend into heaven, exalt our thrones above the stars of God, and sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north; to ascend above the height of the clouds, to be like the most High. We know how that ends, because we have seen it more than once in Scripture and many times in history. One of the most telling versions of the story, though, is THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE, in which the demands of the wife were at first reasonable and did real good, but avarice and pride made them increasingly unreasonable, and in the end she lost everything. That can happen to us individually; that can happen to us as families; that can happen to us as a nation; that can happen to us as a culture. In fact, I think we are beyond the point of escape, like Germany when highly-placed officials finally saw that Hitler was leading them to ruin. It was too late, though, and God would not remove His hand from them until they lost a third of their territory and Berlin was a pile of ashes and rubble.

  7. Great post….but…..the right does the same thing. This isn’t a right / left issue. It’s a human issue born out of pride

  8. Wars were lost because the losers failed to organize and build the necessary forces led by able commanders. This is a revolution the progressive humanists have been planning,organizing and implementing for decades. Christianity didn’t become the moral and spiritual foundation it upheld for centuries without the organizing, planning and leadership starting with Christ and the apostles. We have gone from one nation under God to a global economy under lawyers. The Church is going to have to become confrontational or it will be thrown under the bus.

  9. Concerning abortion: “Dowry deaths are deaths of women who are murdered or driven to suicide by continuous harassment and torture by husbands and in-laws in an effort to extort an increased dowry.”–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowry_death “India has by far the highest number of dowry related deaths in the world according to Indian National Crime Record Bureau. In 2012, 18,233 dowry death cases were reported across India.[2] This means a bride was burned every 90 minutes, or dowry issues cause 1.4 deaths per year per 100,000 women in India.”–ibid.

    “Dowry death” is analogous to abortion. A man doesn’t to put up with his wife and so he either kills her or drives her to suicide, even though he could just divorce her. A woman doesn’t want to carry a baby to term and so she has an abortion, even though if she carried the baby to term there are foundling laws in almost every state that would free her from the burden of raising the child.

    For the same reason that a woman doesn’t want to be burned to death, she ought to not want to abort her child. The prophet Nathan used argument by analogy (the shepherd with one little sheep) to convince David of his sin (Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba).

    “Dowry death”, or the better analogies that people think of, can be used to show people that abortion is both a sin and a crime.

  10. “A recent Supreme Court case granted some relief to a Colorado baker who was subjected to this…”

    I agree that the battle for our soul is intense, yet this case reminds us that if we dare, like this baker, to
    have the tenacity of Moses, confronting the “pharaoh’s” of our day through the Lord, we will find that the Lord is faithful to
    be above the battle, with absolute control of all hearts involved, even the pharaoh’s!
    …and the LORD hardened pharaoh’s heart, and then he tenderized it… in favor of Moses!

    The elite’s are mincemeat for Adonai’s Bakers! 🙂

  11. Guy, what you say might be true but I do not see people dying by the millions, forced out of business, being shouted down at campuses, by the autonomous self ideas of the right. A disciple of Ayn Rand would be closest to this idea or perhaps libertarians but they really don’t s em to be much of a problem right now.

Comments are closed.