As I ponder the different stages of my life I have repeatedly bumped up against the issue of “circumscribed autonomy.” That is to say, we have, if we chose to exercise it, the opportunity for real agency. We have openings to shape our lives - including our character and identity - but only within limits that are defined by our circumstances.
Let me step back a bit. Both pairs of my grandparents followed the same calling as their kin from time immemorial: they worked the land. When they were young, they knew pretty well what the shape of their lives was going to be.
With my generation it was different. There wasn’t much money in our family, but I knew that if I got off my duffer I could “make something of myself,” as the saying goes. I aimed not at worldly success, but at accomplishment on my own terms, what in German is termed Bildung (roughly: self-education in cultural terms). Now I can look back on my life with the assurance that I have been modestly successful in this endeavor.
Of course I am scarcely the first to confront this problem. It is a major theme of the social sciences, flawed as they are. There are two contrasting approaches. At one extreme lies the pole of social determinism, the idea that almost everything we do is conditioned by a complex of factors that lie outside our control, including our genes, our upbringing, and the social matrix in which we find ourselves. At the other pole is the concept of absolute autonomy. The reality lies somewhere in between.
The reigning climate of individualism may cause us to overstate the possibilities for agency. But they are there, if only we will “seize time by the forelock,” as the ancient Greeks put it.
In summary, there are two opposing models: either we are robots, responding to our programming - and nothing more - or angels, living in a utopian state of complete freedom.
Btw, many of my shorter musings are now found on Facebook. That medium has its drawbacks, to be sure. But it is convenient.