What's Tony Thinking

The Liberated Individual


Forty-five years ago I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, doing a degree in European Cultural and Intellectual history.

My master’s thesis was titled, “Andre Gide, Roger Martin du Gard and the Liberated Individual.” Heady, eh?

Gide and Martin du Gard were both French novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Neither is well known now, although Martin du Gard won the Nobel prize for literature in his time.  Gide has perhaps had a bit longer shelf life thanks to use of his shorter works in high school and college French classes.

I was interested in how the two dealt with the emancipation of the individual from social and cultural norms and restraints. Gide anticipated later 20th century movements of liberation, cultural and sexual. Martin du Gard, in portraying some Ayn Rand-like characters, anticipated the excesses.

I recalled this long ago project as I read David Brooks’ column today on retiring Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy.

Brooks focuses on what might be called the Kennedy doctrine of the “privatization of meaning,” what I long ago termed the “liberated individual.” Here’s Brooks:

“Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t invent the shift from community to autonomy, but in 1992 he articulated it more crisply than anyone else: ‘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.'”

Sounds good. Is it?

A couple years after writing that Master’s thesis I opted out of graduate work in history to go to seminary, which led in time to my life in ministry. I was motivated, “called,” in that direction at least in part because in the era of the Vietnam war and Watergate I felt our shared social and moral fabric unraveling. We, my contemporaries and I, seemed at sea (usually with drugs on board) as we tried to make sense of life.

Kennedy’s doctrine, which as Brooks notes, had infused the whole culture by 1992 sounds, in the justice’s articulate phrasing, quite noble. But it leaves the ordinary person without a lot to go on. It is as if we were all supposed to re-invent the wheel, morally and spiritually speaking. I wasn’t especially confident of our ability to do that.

I saw the Christian tradition as a wheel we might inherit and in which we might find meaning. Open to re-interpretation, yes, but offering a story, a world-view, a way of life that had some history and track record, though not of course without blemish.

A few years after Kennedy’s famous 1992 articulation of “you are on your own here,” I attended my first college orientation as a parent. I still remember the faculty member who blithely said to the incoming students, “We are only here to teach you to think for yourselves.” I thought at the time, “Really? This is a lot of money to be told exactly what the whole culture is already telling these kids, namely, ‘do your own thing,’ ‘be you.'”

The upshot is that I don’t find myself as distressed by Kennedy’s retirement as many seem to be. (I’ll bet you too have gotten a ton of emails in the wake of his announcement warning that the end is near for this or that cause — send money today to avert disaster!)

I am distressed that Trump is the one who will be appointing a new justice. But I’m not sure I would be totally comforted were that task in Hillary Clinton’s hands either.

The thing is, we’ve lost the balance between the two poles of individual autonomy, on one hand, and community and social norms, on the other. Neither pole is a stand alone, and yet as a culture we continue to push and be pushed to one extreme or the other.






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