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The Problem of Agency

A particularly modern problem

The problem of student agency—students failing to take active ownership of pursuing an education or striving for other goals—is not unique to our times. Human nature being a constant, some students from all times and cultures have been overly passive, distracted, or even apathetic. It is not hard to imagine a tutor hired to teach the children of a wealthy first-century Roman family facing unwilling students who have no desire to learn.

Even so, it is not clear that the contemporary problem of agency is the same as in ages past. Is the mischievous Roman boy scheming to undermine the efforts of his tutor akin to the anxious teenager of today, who cares about his grades, yet approaches learning with passivity? Human nature may be constant, but the considerable intellectual and cultural changes of the past several centuries also matter. A person growing up today does not think in exactly the same way as people who lived in earlier eras.

The title of this work, Teaching Sovereign Knowers, comes from an essay by Walker Percy titled “The Loss of the Creature.” Percy uses the phrase “sovereign knowers” in reference to the challenge most people today face in knowing and relating to the world around them. The word sovereign brings to mind images of a king—a sovereign lord—exercising governance over his lands. Percy uses this phrase to refer to a person who has governance of how he stands before reality, knowing in a way that takes ownership of the knowing, as one who has full possession of his reason, exercising it in the present moment. A sovereign knower is engaged and self-directed, committed to seeking to know truth for himself. 

Percy’s essay is fascinating because, while not denying that there is a moral dimension to the modern problem of sovereignty or agency, he argues that the problem is deeper. It is not simply the vice of intemperance causing a lack of self-governance or self-control. It is not simply that teenagers are addicted to their phones, spending hours scrolling through social media. The problem has an intellectual dimension, a dimension related to how people living in this cultural moment stand before reality. It is a problem that goes back at least as far as Descartes, who represents the shift inward as the starting point for our intellectual gaze. “I think therefore I am” reflects the shift from primarily standing with eyes open to the world around us to instead directing one’s focus inward, to one’s own thoughts, to the self as a thinking subject. 

Percy’s approach is to lead the reader through a series of “thought experiments.” He begins by reflecting on the experience of the first European to “discover” the Grand Canyon, García López de Cárdenas. Cárdenas’s unexpected encounter with the Grand Canyon, the amazing site he beheld as he traversed one more mound on a repetitive semi-arid landscape, is contrasted with the experience of the tourist who travels by bus to Bright Angel Lodge and views the canyon behind the structures set up by the Park Service. Percy notes that Cárdenas’s unexpected encounter with the Grand Canyon had a magnificence that, despite the good intentions of the Park Service, is actually threatened by the structures they put in place. Percy argues that these very structures make it very difficult for today’s tourist to actually see the Grand Canyon as it really is, as Cárdenas saw it. In Percy’s analysis, if Cárdenas’s experience of seeing had a value of, say, P, then the value of the millions who see it today behind the “symbolic machinery” established by the Park Service is closer to a millionth of P than P. Percy gives some interesting examples of creative ways one could bypass the Park Service structures to again see the Canyon, such as intentionally heading off the beaten path to approach the Canyon in an unconventional way.

Percy is concerned with how people have become reduced to consumers of information packaged by others, often others who have a recognized “expertise” or authority. It is very difficult for people to know the “creature” (by which Percy means basically any real thing) in the context of its defined “symbolic machinery.” Part of the problem is that we have been conditioned to value theory—ideas—over the concrete being of the creature, so that the creature is known primarily as a specimen of a type.

We intuitively grasp the scope of the problem when we consider how quickly people today tend to defer to others, whether “experts,” “data scientists,” or even cultural narratives to help to make sense of experience. If truth is rightly defined as the correspondence between the mind and reality, today this correspondence has been made difficult by structures and patterns of thought that insulate the mind from actually encountering the real, the creature, as a sovereign knower. People distrust their ability to know reality as sovereign, free agents. Instead, there is a willing surrender to an outside source to validate one’s thinking and experience. This is why many overly passive students are comfortable being shuffled along from class to class, performing tasks and receiving grade-rewards, but not really taking ownership of their education, not embarking on a quest to know reality. And most people are not even aware of this problem: they do not realize that a loss of sovereignty has occurred.

Percy does provide a few thoughts on what an education would look like that addresses the problem of sovereignty or agency. He mostly advocates impractical solutions, a type of “shock-therapy” to help a student again become able to freely see the “creature” or subject before him. For example, Percy wonders if a student who goes into a science lab intending to do a dissection, but instead finds a Shakespearian sonnet, will be able to encounter the sonnet in an authentic way, removed from the obscuring packaging of the English class (the “literary experience textbook,” “the smell of the page and the smell of Miss Hawkins…”). Percy is not really trying to propose specific reforms to our education system. He is more trying to make the reader aware of the intellectual side of the problem of sovereignty / agency so as to encourage him to fight to rescue “the creature” from whatever symbolic machinery obscures it. For example, Percy does not suggest that we get rid of museums but rather that anyone who goes to a museum should know that he has a fight on his hands to try to rescue the creature from the packaging.

Historical Perspective

Our struggle to bypass the symbolic machinery to get to the creature is not a feature of human nature. It is a particularly modern problem that has an identifiable history. Though people today do not have a completely different outlook than those living in previous eras, they do approach reality in a way informed by the cultural developments particular to our time in history. People today have thought patterns that were uncommon in times past. Pope Benedict highlights some of this history in his Regensburg Address, which is more about the modern crisis of reason than about faith and reason. Benedict notes that our society suffers from the reduction of the scope of human reason to only being able to objectively know through the methods of the empirical sciences: the error of scientism. Benedict traces the historical roots of this crisis through stages of dehellinization—turning away from the expansive use of reason characteristic of ancient Greek thought at its best—discernable in modern thought.

We are living at a time when fundamental insights behind Western civilization have been turned upside-down. In the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome there was a confidence in human reason, a confidence that is less common today. Leonardo Polo, a Spanish philosopher who was a friend of St. Josemaría Escrivá, identifies the civilization-defining insight of the ancient Greeks as the recognition that man can know unchanging truth, that despite the vicissitudes of human affairs, which seem to be cyclic unending patterns of struggle, it is possible to know that which does not change, and this knowing holds the promise of human meaning. For Greek thought at its best, the possibility of knowing truth was seen as a liberation from the drudgery of endless change; to fully engage human reason to ponder what is beyond the horizon of history was to open the possibility of transcendent and liberating meaning to human life. Life may seem monotonous, a never-ending cycle of birth, hardships, and death. But the human mind can grasp unchanging truth, and this knowing was seen as the possibility of transcendent meaning, as leading to human fulfillment and freedom. Sure, knowing truth could involve hard work, and I’m sure some people in ancient Greece found it difficult to listen to Aristotle lecture. But, even so, there was a confidence in human reason and an excitement about the possibility of knowing reality. For the Greek mind, to discover truth outside oneself was to grasp the very thing that contains the possibility of human fulfillment, that which leads to true freedom. In contrast, after the centuries of the dehellinization Pope Benedict traces, today many consider the very possibility of a stable reality outside our control as a threat to our freedom to express and define ourselves. To a modern who wants control, even the rules of logic are seen as rigid and confining; and the musings of the metaphysician are viewed as an impractical waste of time. What was liberating at the dawn of Western civilization is now seen as stifling.

The Romans, though more practical, kept intact the fundamental insights of Greek thought and even advanced this thought in such areas as ethics, politics, and law. The Christian tradition, in addition to unfolding in a new way the dignity and vocation of the human person, borrowed much from Greek and Roman pagan sources. For example, the various Creeds of the early Church used pagan philosophical terms to express with clarity the content of Divine Revelation. There was a Platonic bent to much early Christian thought, and for a time the works of Aristotle were lost to Western civilization. Aristotle’s thought found its way back into Christendom through the Muslim world, which, after a period of critical engagement, ultimately rejected Aristotle. The Christian West also found Aristotle disruptive but ultimately incorporated his insights and achieved, particularly in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a new synthesis of faith and reason. St. Thomas is best thought of as a Scriptural theologian who is philosophically and historically informed. His writings reflect what is best from Greek and Roman thought, especially the work of Aristotle, into a harmonious synthesis with revelation and faith. He incorporates the fundamental speculative insights of the Greeks, purified from error, into a Christian worldview which includes both contemplation, in its highest form as prayer, and charity, including all its ethical demands.

After St. Thomas, our story begins to become complicated. Pope Benedict XVI identifies the beginning of the dehellenization of the West as being as early as Blessed John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308). In sharp contrast to the classical spirit, any knowledge that dehellenized reason can discern is of limited human value. Philosophical speculation, especially metaphysics, came to be seen as a vacuous enterprise that has little to do with human meaning. By the end of the fifteenth century, the intellectual climate of Europe was marked by skepticism. One aspect of the spirit of the Protestant Reformation was the rejection of empty metaphysical speculations in favor of a return to simple Biblical faith: Greek thought was viewed with suspicion, a system foreign to Hebraic faith. The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to flee from the dominant skepticism toward a faith that alone holds the possibility of authentic meaning. It was a faith understood as covering the enigma of the corrupt human person with an assurance of salvation, Luther’s snow-covered dunghill. Leonardo Polo identifies the secular flipside to this in the emergence of modernity—what he calls the “modern root” —as an attempt to avoid trying to know oneself and instead to find meaning in doing. In Polo’s thought, the defining characteristic of modernity is “fleeing forward” from discomfort with one’s unknowable self and instead finding satisfaction by losing oneself in productive work. Modern man finds particular satisfaction in the results of his labors. Polo borrows the phrase “the result principle” from Hegel—who said “the absolute is the result” —to describe what is behind the arc of modern thought from Luther all the way to the early twentieth century.

Modern thought emerges as a sharp break with the classical tradition in as much as doing—productive efficient work—replaces knowing reality and the self as a source of human meaning. At the same time, the understanding of the self and the world changes. We have already mentioned that

René Descartes embodied the shift in focus away from the objective world and instead toward the knowing subject, the human person as a knower. He attempted to answer radical skepticism starting with the one thing he thought was not open to doubt, that thinking reveals the human subject to be real. From this starting point he tries to reestablish philosophy on a new footing, as a project that begins not with the world but with the interior spaces of the human psyche. This inward shift can be traced through subsequent developments in modern thought, such as, for example, Kant’s epistemology, which highlights how the human mind imposes structures on the objective world.

This shift to the subject corresponds with a “flattening” of the world. The hierarchy of being that was contemplated by classical thought—from minerals to plants to animals and to man and beyond—is not the way the world really is. The material structures of the world came to be seen as a passive substrate of small particles arranged in different configurations that support particular functions. The mechanical workings of matter—the arrangement of small particles in “fields” governed by extrinsic laws like gravity—leave us with a world open to technological manipulation and domination. If we understand the materials of nature and their structures, as well as the laws that govern them, we can realize the Baconian project of developing useful products. Nature is not so much a given with its own intrinsic principles but rather fodder for the development of useful machines. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains this by referring to a change from a mimetic view of the world—one in which the world has given order and meaning that man can discover—to a poetic view of the world which emphasizes that the world is a set of raw materials out of which any meaning comes from using these materials to produce something.

The flattening of nature—the shift from a mimetic to a poetic view—along with the shift to the subject Descartes began, contributes to the cultural assumption that meaning is to be found primarily within the interior world of the human psyche. The meaning stripped from nature by the flattening mechanical focus was found in a new way by looking within. This inner psychological self was idealized by Rousseau and the Romantic movement in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, Rousseau posited that the inner world—what we can call one’s subjectivity—is what is authentic about a person, and what is threatened by society. Rousseau rejects the notion that man is marred by original sin, that he needs a Redeemer to become truly himself. Instead, man longs for the freedom to realize himself according to his inner natural intuitions, which are pure, noble, and good. The Romantic movement that followed seems, on the surface, to be a renewed appreciation of nature, which to some extent it is, although it is better understood as seeing meaning in nature according to this newly discovered inner subjectivity.

Notice that by this point a decisive shift to the subject in thinking has taken place. Meaning is now to be found primarily in the interior spaces of the human psyche, in what has been called “expressive individualism” by Charles Taylor, Carl Trueman, and others. To be an authentic person now means acting outwardly—performing really—according to one’s unique inner intuitions and feelings. The flip side of this is that knowing the world as it is becomes less important: even if it is possible to know objective reality it is questionable why someone would want to do so. If authentic meaning comes from within, then the possibility of objective knowledge of an external reality becomes potentially limiting to one’s freedom to determine oneself, to perform according to one’s unique inner subjectivity. The scope of human reason has been reduced so that meaning is primarily found by looking within, through one’s subjective experience of the self.

Though the intellectual elites up through the Romantic period had departed from the Greek notion that human meaning is to be found in knowing objective reality, in knowing truth, the notion of nature had not yet been abandoned. For Rousseau and the Romantics, it was still possible to talk about human flourishing according to what it means to be human. Aristotle understood nature to be an intrinsic principle within the thing—a principle and cause of being in motion and being at rest that is in the thing to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself, and not incidentally. For Aristotle the concept of nature applied to the entire world, with its chain of being, as well as to man. Before Marx and Nietzsche, some notion of human nature endured, even if the natural world was no longer natural in the sense that Aristotle thought. At least an analogous romantic sense of “nature” in sync with one’s inner subjectivity endured. 

Marx, Nietzsche, and others paved the way for the final step. For Marx, there is no such thing as a stable human nature. Instead, all human values—culture, art, the way we understand reality, and every way we associate with others—are political superstructures built upon the underlying substructure of economics. Liberation is to be found in the advance of history to the point where the economic substructures no longer lead to oppression and alienation. Nietzsche goes further still by positing that human fulfillment can only be found by the artist who creates his own meaning, who creates himself.


A powerful modern interpretation of our cultural history is to see progress as akin to the triumph of freedom, equality, and fraternity, the battle cry behind the French Revolution. With the passing of the old regimes, new possibilities for self-determination emerge. Traditional societies where people were conditioned to accept their lot in life with resignation, conforming to strict roles, have given way to a new age of freedom, where barriers to self-determination are shattered.

Though this progressive narrative still holds significant sway, many today are keenly aware of its limitations. Even if we put aside modern forms of oppression (like human trafficking) and the fact that many have used their freedom to choose things that have become for them addictions, the problem of sovereignty looms in the background. Many sense they should be free but feel impotent, passive, and anxious, all while knowing deep down that it should not be this way. Part of the problem is that the modern understanding of freedom, while not without merit, is incomplete. A survey of the changing understanding of freedom parallels the historical perspective we have been highlighting and provides a helpful lens to possible paths forward.

For the Greeks and Romans, knowing that which does not change, contemplating what is true, was a way for the spark of the divine in each person to be actualized. Knowing truth was freeing. Freedom was the liberty to live according to what objectively fulfills human nature, according to what leads to human flourishing. In contrast to this notion of “freedom to” actualize oneself, for moderns, freedom was understood primarily as “freedom from” constraints. Freedom was the removal of external limitations on one’s ability to perform according to one’s inner core of subjectivity, to be authentic, to be creative.

Though the classical understanding of freedom is arguably richer, the modern understanding is not necessarily wrong. It is true that man can suffer under the yoke of societal structures that limit his freedom and fail to respect human dignity, structures which should be removed. Problems emerge, however, when the modern is too sharply detached from the classical, resulting in objective reality becoming understood as an oppressive structure, as an enemy of freedom. Some of the worst pathologies of our times result from seeing reality as an enemy of human freedom. The person strives to express himself not in a way that syncs with reality, a way that respects nature and natural patterns leading to human flourishing, but to express himself in a way that attempts to redefine reality according to his inner subjectivity, his deeply felt intuitions. Knowing reality is unrelated to freedom; truth is not relevant. We see signs of this mindset in the way that what it means to know has changed. For some Marxists, for example, logic is not primarily a tool to further right thinking so as to know what is true, but rather a tool that can be used to further one’s political agenda. Logic is a tool used to wield power. The possibility of men working together according to a common rationality is precisely what is rejected.

Setting modern “freedom from limitations or constraints” against classical “freedom to thrive according to one’s given nature” is a critical mistake, and the problems go both ways. Some ancients, blinded by their stoic acceptance of fate, failed to see important dimensions of human thriving. Work was seen as servile, as the proper domain of a commoner or even a slave. Even the work of the architects that built great Roman structures like the Colosseum was understood to be rightly done by slaves and beneath the dignity of free citizens. The upper class of free citizens were able to pursue higher things, a life of contemplation and participation in political life, things closed to the underclass of the commoners, whose lot was servile work understood as drudgery. Though Aristotle rightly recognized the depravity in living for mere pleasure, he expresses this in a way strikingly dismissive and critical of commoners,  “In no way is the utter servility of the masses more manifest than in their preference for a bovine existence,” an attitude that our modern sensibilities rightly condemn. Similarly, later stoicism could also foster a harsh indifference to human suffering; efforts to relieve human suffering and better recognize the human dignity of all people were not seen as valuable. To the classical mind, it could even be hubris—striving against the right order of things—to try to work to lift up those whose destiny is to be part of a servile class. The modern understanding of freedom corrects these classical errors, opening space for seeing work as a noble use of one’s talents and creativity in the service of others.

The deepest understanding of freedom—the Christian understanding of freedom—includes both what is legitimate in the modern notion of freedom from constraint and especially the classical notion of freedom to fulfill one’s given nature. But the Christian notion of freedom goes further by emphasizing that one is only truly free through the authentic gift of oneself. He who seeks to save his life loses it, but he who gives his life is the one who finds it. For a Christian, true freedom includes possessing oneself in an authentic way and acting in a way that is humanly enriching, like the classical and modern notions, precisely to be able to give oneself in a relationship with God and others. In this relationship one receives his true self back and, indeed, only in relation is one able to know oneself. The mystery of who the person is only becomes apparent in a relationship with Christ, the One who reveals man to himself, as St. John Paul II repeatedly emphasized (cf. Gaudium et Spes 22).

Students Today

The problem of agency in students is often discussed in terms of students today being too passive and anxious. There has been lots written about the increasing anxiety and passivity of young people today from a variety of perspectives, including mental health and sociological studies. Even before COVID, this generation of students was in the midst of a mental health crisis. The social and emotional complications that young people carry with them, including into the classroom, are unfortunately all too real. The sociological data shows the problems becoming worse around the time the iPhone became popular. A good book that summarizes this data is called iGen by Jean Twenge. It goes into granular data such as the decline in teens getting drivers licenses and jobs and their tendency to stay at home. It has been my experience as a teacher that students today are more anxious and more passive than when I began teaching in the 1990s.

As we have argued, it is important to recognize that the problem of agency, including passivity and anxiety, is also closely connected to modern intellectual and cultural developments. There are deeper cultural reasons that shed light on the contemporary problem of agency. From the modern shift to the subject, students have inherited uncertainty in the possibility of knowing the world around them in a meaningful way. They have inherited the modern distrust in human reason being able to know reality on its own. Correspondingly, they seek validation from outside sources. This has led to people who perceive the need for outside validation to confirm that their experience of the world is genuine. 

This validation at times comes in the form of deferring to experts. Walker Percy, also in his essay “Loss of the Creature,” describes a Western couple visiting a traditional village and expressing the wish that a cultural anthropologist were present to assure them that their experience of this particular culture is authentic. They distrust that their experience of reality is valid, that they can on their own meaningfully experience the world around them.

The distrust in human reason and the seeking of outside validation corresponds with the phenomena of identifying with a particular group so as to know reality according to one’s status as a member of this group. Here the deferral is not to experts but rather to a particular community. The stated and arguably lofty goal of being authentic to one’s true self—as if one could become Rousseau’s noble savage or Nietzsche’s creative artist—is actually the opposite of what happens. It is much too difficult in practice for someone to really connect with his or her inner world of feelings and intuitions and define oneself accordingly. Instead, what typically happens is that the ideal of being authentic—acting outwardly in accord with one’s inner subjectivity—is presented, and in the face of this impossible task, one instead seeks to identify with a narrative of a particular group that offers the appeal of a meaningful way to stand before reality. This act of identifying with such a group provides the validation one needs.

This is not to imply that all identifying with a community is problematic. Humans are social by their very nature. A solitary person—Nietzsche’s sun—is, as Polo notes, a tragedy. The challenge is to be connected to human communities that are in sync with the truth and are supportive of a transcendent vision of human fulfillment. We should all identify with our historical cultural roots, going back all the way to the dawn of civilization. We should also seek out communities open to the transcendent meaning for which the human heart has been created. The Church is one such community that proposes an expansive understanding of human thriving. Rather than ceasing to be authentically oneself by identifying with Christ, Christianity offers a relationship which makes possible the true discovery of who one is. As St. John Paul II was fond of repeating from Gaudium et Spes, “…only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light… Christ fully reveals man to himself…”

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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