Friday, January 13, 2012

The individual

Michael Oakeshott on the individual that emerges in the middle ages as part of his examination of the character of a modern European (including the USA) State:

Tis glorious misery to be born a man.’

“What has to be reckoned with is a historic disposition to transform this unsought ‘freedom’ of conduct from a postulate into an experience and to make it yield a satisfaction of its own, independent of the chancy and intermittent satisfaction of chosen actions achieving their imagined and wished-for outcomes: the disposition to recognize imagining, deliberating, wanting, choosing, and acting not as cost incurred in seeking enjoyments but as themselves enjoyments, the exercise of a gratifying self-determination or personal autonomy….

The self here is a substantive personality, the outcome of an education, whose resources are collected in a self-understanding; and conduct is recognized as the adventure in which this cultivated self deploys its resources, discloses and enacts itself in response to its contingent situations, and both acquires and confirms its autonomy.  Nor does the experience of this disposition imply the worship of ‘non-conformity’, or a resolution to be different at all costs.  The conduct it prompts is not composed of unconditional choices, and it does not require indifference to moral or prudential practices or aversion from any but self-made rules.  It is composed of actions and utterances which reflect the contingent sentiments, affections, and beliefs this particular self has made its own, performed in subscriptions to practices whose resources it has made its own.  The autonomy of such a self and independence or originality of such conduct lies not at all in an unconcern for the conditions which specify the arts of agency….In short what is postulated and emphasized here is a collected personality, autonomous on account of its self-understanding and its command of resources it has made its own.  And half of this self-understanding is knowing its own limits.

This disposition may express itself in a modest an unaggressive self-reliance, in a man’s acquiescence in his own capacity for self-enactment, whatever it may be; and even quite humbly in a man’s knowing how to belong to himself and a preference for being related to others in these terms.  And it may go along with an undismayed acknowledgement and admiration of the superiority of others, an aristocratic recognition of one’s own unimportance, and a humility devoid of humiliation….

Where personal autonomy is thus given a place in a moral practice, conduct will be recognized to have an excellence simply in respect of its authenticity and perhaps to be, in part, justifiable in these terms….Of course this may be exaggerated into an exclusive moral ideal, excellence in conduct being identified with this authenticity; but this is a corruption which every disposition recognized as virtue is apt to suffer at the hands of fanatics."

Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, Character of a Modern European State

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