The historical and cultural movement known as the Enlightenment (Age of Reason), which dominated European high culture by the second half of the 18th century, formed from a secular view of life that recognized the capacity of human beings, through reason, as well as through knowledge of the natural and social world, to take control of their own lives. In this new secularized universe, it was no longer necessary to follow religious traditions and traditional powers to understand reality and act on it. The Enlightenment, as a rational, lay mentality, revolutionized the concept of a natural hierarchical authority and replaced it with the era of the autonomous human being. Individuals were no longer subjects, passive entities submitted to the rigid and hierarchical structure of the state and God, but instead became citizens, active and autonomous participants in social life, capable of directing their own lives and rationally acting on community issues.

The French Revolution (1779) was the moment in history that the Enlightenment became a political movement that forever transformed the Western thinking and political institutions, giving concrete form, through constitutional democracy, to the modern principles of citizen rights and responsibilities. This historical act was consummated, both symbolically and in reality, with the assassination by the new French republican citizens of King Louis XVI at the guillotine in the public plaza, which they justified by invoking the illegitimacy of the despotic monarchical system.

Monarchies still remain in the Western world today, but to survive they have had to abandon the claims to absolute authority of the past and accept the imposition of constitutional regimes that implemented modern democratic (republican) practices and values that in reality stripped the princes of their true political power and reduced them to a symbol of national unity. The constitutional monarchies (such as Great Britain, Spain, Denmark, and others) are, in terms of their political institutions, superimposed on systems that are in reality republican. In other words, the monarch is formally the head of state but lacks true political power. The monarch’s role is decorative and emblematic of the ancestral origin of the community. In these constitutional monarchies, the real government, usually organized around a parliament, adheres to the traditions of constitutional government with a separation of powers and guarantees of individual rights.

The concept of the autonomous individual, central to the ethics of the Enlightenment, not only helps us understand this historical movement, but also goes back to the very idea of modernity, without which it is impossible to imagine a dignified political life. Citizen autonomy is what makes it possible to conceive that human beings’ consciences do not have to be subject to external forces: that art does not have to follow religious principles, science does not have to follow political dictates, and eroticism is not subject to moral conventions. The autonomy of the individual, in other words, is the basis for the modern value of freedom.

For centuries, from the Age of Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, demands for autonomous thought have taken root in the public mood. Since the beginning of the 19th century, this idea of individual independence, translated into professional academic work, extended first to the field of philosophical and philological research and later to scientific experimentation. But with its incursion into the spheres of social and legal action, it became allied to popular social and political emancipation movements. While these movements of liberation proliferated, they encountered the authoritarian tendencies of privileged social groups that depended on the financial, bureaucratic and military power of the state to advance their interests and protect their hierarchies. The supposition that the privileged classes would naturally act against the emancipation of human beings, which they saw as potentially subversive, explains why the development of the principle of the autonomous individual was precarious and has been, even up to today, subject to the ups and downs of the political states. In practice, democratic regimes were not exempt from the persistent threat to individual autonomy by dominant social structures and their representatives in state agencies.

Despite these contradictions arising from atavistic authoritarian tendencies, the modern political order has incorporated the Enlightenment idea of human beings’ autonomy and it occupies a privileged spot in the constitutional structure of democratic states. In legal and theoretical terms, autonomy is a principle that is easy to define and defend. A Bill of Rights usually accompanies the constitutional document in modern republics and defines those areas of citizen conduct that are protected not just from the arbitrariness of the state, but also from attacks by economic interests, religion and traditional hierarchies. In the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Constitution, Article 2 contains a Bill of Rights that recognizes in detail the natural autonomy of the citizen as a human being. Protecting this condition, however, requires an alert public and the willingness to pursue independent and powerful activism that goes beyond electoral events and partisan and group interests.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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