Saturday, March 15, 2014
Flannery O'Connor on Integrity and Freedom
I spent spring break this year in New Orleans and when I am in New Orleans I always find myself reading Flannery O’Connor. I won’t bother to explain. Anyway, since I have been thinking about autonomy, I was struck by the author’s note to the second of edition of her novel, Wise Blood. Here is most of that note:
Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations. That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think that it is a matter of no great consequence. For them, Hazel Motes integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to. Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.
For “an author congenitally innocent of theory”, O’Connor writes with astonishing clarity and penetration about the presuppositions underlying her fiction. Integrity is a term often used loosely to mean a sense of moral rectitude, but its precise meaning indicates that one is in possession of one’s self. It is the essential requirement for moral responsibility. That integrity is more a matter of what one cannot do that what one can is an insight that goes back at least to Plato’s Gorgias. Self-government, the virtue focused on in that dialogue, means that the self imposes limits the self. For that to be possible, the self cannot be conceived simply; it must be sense as the integration of its various parts.
Thus “free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.” That extraordinarily powerful line encloses the peril of O’Connor’s century. The greatest threat to human autonomy that the world has ever known came from those who insisted on a singularity of will (do we need to add the triumph of the singular will?). Genuine freedom indeed means many wills in conflict whether in an assembly of persons or that assembly that constitutes a natural person.
Her insistence on the element of mystery implies, I suggest, that the capacity for freedom is ultimately miraculous. She may be right about that. Belonging as I do to the tribe of philosophers, I am not entirely convinced. But I do believe that this implication is vital for philosophy. The philosopher may try to explain and hence demystify the human capacity for freedom of thought and action. Unless he takes seriously the possibility that such freedom depends on the intervention of a creator God, his speculations degenerate into mere dogma.