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  • To Be Good Is to Do the Truth:Being, Truth, the Good, and the Primordial Conscience in a Thomist Perspective1
  • For Richard Schenk, O.P., on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday

The Dominant Self-Image of Late Modern Humanity: The Sovereign Subject

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, an observant spectator might perceive the striking ambiguity that haunts the self-image of late modern humanity in the Western Hemisphere. The rapidly accelerating progress of the scientific penetration of the natural world and the ensuing technological domination of the whole planet seem to have advanced humanity into a quasi-divine position, into a collective Demiurge. Sovereignty, once upon a time an exclusive attribute [End Page 53] of divinity, seems now to fall to humanity collectively, and to each individual human subject in rather far-reaching specific ways.

In the affluent parts of the Western Hemisphere, subjective sovereignty is exercised by way of the unfettered rule of one's will over (ideally) everything exterior to one's will, from myriads of consumer goods to varyingly branded identities and, last but not least, ideological and religious affiliations. The precious and tenaciously defended privilege of subjective sovereignty is, of course, choice. The scope of choice is seen as directly proportional to the degree of subjective sovereignty—an increase in the former indicates an increase in the latter.

However, the interpretation of reality that the natural sciences communicate to the public presents a jarringly different picture—a picture that puts into question the very possibility of subjective sovereignty. The human mind is understood as an epiphenomenon of the brain's neurological processes, and human choices are predicted with statistical precision and unmasked as ultimately driven by nothing other than the interests of the "selfish gene." According to the naturalist savants of the most advanced life-sciences, humans are nothing but highly sophisticated primates that will eventually be transparent without remainder to the scientific gaze and, therefore, open to comprehensive governance by way of the most advanced psychological and technological means of manipulation.

Thus, the modern subject vacillates between two competing self-images. On the one side, we find the gnostic angelism of the putatively disembodied sovereign self that may submit to its will an absolutely malleable and fluid exteriority. And on the other side, we find the materialist animalism of a super-primate that is the accidental product of the intricate interplay between random genetic mutation and specific ecological niche preferment. The extremes touch each other insofar as trans-humanism (an outgrowth of the fantasies of the sovereign self) and post-humanism (the reductive understanding of the human being as super-primate) coincide in their de facto erasure of the embodied rational being, the animal rationale.

As always, so also in our contemporary context, deeply shaped by the utopian pretenses of trans-humanism and post-humanism, sovereignty has two aspects: the sovereign agent and the objects upon which sovereignty is exercised. The interminable struggle in late-modern technologically advanced, economically consumer-capitalist, and politically putatively liberal societies of the Western [End Page 54] Hemisphere is to avoid at all costs being subjected to—and thereby objectified by—the sovereignty of others and simultaneously to maximize one's possibilities of exercising subjective sovereignty.

In our robustly secular and deeply skeptical Western societies, subjective sovereignty is the one transcendence the modern subject remains certain of, since it is self-produced. This particular form of transcendence is a decidedly immanent transcendence, for its outer horizon is death. Death defies all strategies of maintaining or increasing subjective sovereignty—albeit with one significant exception: the unique strategy of folding death into the last act of one's own subjective sovereignty by sovereignly determining the terminus of oneself and the subsequent annihilation of one's body. It is this deeply ironic, yet equally deeply consistent, consequence that betrays the profound pretention and falsehood of the self-image of subjective sovereignty.

The Metaphysics of Being and Its Three Fundamental Premises Regarding Being, Truth, and the Good2

What might be the cure from this pervasive but profoundly false self-image? I would submit, in all due modesty, that the only lasting cure will be nothing...


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pp. 53-73
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