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Kristin Girten, University of Nebraska Omaha
(THE CONVERSATION) The ability to stand up on one’s own boots has long been celebrated in the United States. This admiration for autonomy stems from the 17th century English philosopher John Locke, who argued that individuals are fully responsible for themselves because they alone own their bodies – a kind of “self-ownership”.
Locke’s theory of self-ownership continues to inform how individuals in modern societies perceive themselves as capable of choosing and acting freely and independently, motivated by their own intentions.
However, as a scholar of 18th century British literature and culture, I am aware that some of Locke’s contemporaries challenged his portrayal of the fixed and possessed self, arguing that individuals are made up of constantly moving atoms and therefore fluid and susceptible to transformation. .
This idea, which comes from ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, can prove to be valuable and compelling as societies struggle to recover from the devastation of COVID-19.
Origins of autonomy
John Locke presented his point of view on self-ownership in his “Second Treatise on Government”. The treatise, published in 1689, was very influential not only in England but also in the United States.
The Founding Fathers embraced Locke’s representation of “life, liberty, and property” as universal and inalienable rights, and his assertion that government must obtain the consent of the governed. These principles would shed light on the declaration of independence in 1776.
In a chapter on property, Locke asserts that “every man has property in his own person, [which] no one has the right to do it except himself. This serves as the basis for all personal rights in his political philosophy.
Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, individuals have been forced to take into account the fragility of their self-appropriation. How can one presume to have a property in one’s own person if the boundaries of that property are so easily violated by a deadly virus?
Epicurus offered a flawless theory of the cosmos that not only held that all existence is made up of atoms, but also denied the divine presence and insisted on death as the end of the self. The 17th and 18th centuries saw his ideas return in what has been called “the epicurean revival”. This revival was fueled in part by the new popularity of the poem book by the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretia, “On the Nature of Things”, from the first century BC.
Lucretius presents Epicurus’ philosophy – which promoted pleasure, tranquility and “the good life” – in exquisite verse, making it accessible and entertaining.
Contributor to the Epicurean revival, the poet and pious Calvinist Lucy Hutchinson, produced the first translation of Lucretia into English and incorporated Epicurus’ theory of the atomic cosmos into his biblical epic “Order and Disorder” in 1679.
While Locke portrays the self as an object to be possessed and therefore to be fixed, Hutchinson is shown to be fluid, prone to being shaped and transformed by outside forces such as other people or new social or environmental events. It is also porous and, with the constant movement of atoms, perpetually penetrated by atoms of other bodies.
Instead of emphasizing integrity and self-reliance, as Locke does, Hutchinson turns his reader’s attention to the interdependence of selves. She describes how, because people are constantly undergoing change, ultimately resulting in their death, they are inseparable from each other as well as from the environment.
‘We are each other’s business’
Ironically, at the same time that the pandemic has forced people to distance themselves socially and stay in their “bubbles” or “pods,” it has also forced individuals to recognize how deeply they relate to others. Nothing attests to the porous nature of humans like a highly contagious disease.
A person’s ability to escape the virus is tied to their community’s willingness to wear masks and get vaccinated, as well as tackle underlying inequalities such as housing and health care. There is also a new recognition of how difficult it is for people to pull themselves together when they feel the world is falling apart around them.[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]
Still, people are likely to cling to John Locke’s idea that individuality is self-ownership, so fundamental to American democracy as it is. However, for societies to be better prepared not only to face future disasters but also to recover from them, I believe that a different view of oneself is needed – one that takes into account how much one’s own. health depends on the health of others.
Like it or not, humans are atomically entangled with their environment and with each other. As the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks writes in a poem about singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, “We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are the greatness and the bond of one another. “
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