In Charge and Autonomous

How to Master Self-Possession

Arnold Siegel
4 min readApr 23, 2019

In America we are expected to be in charge of ourselves, each an autonomous individual. The promise of achieving our nation depends on our autonomous behavior. Nonetheless, it’s not easy for us to get up to speed when it comes to self-possession. Why? Because autonomy requires us to be in charge of ourselves — in charge of our performative behavior and our subjective ups and downs — all the time. Key to such mastery is the depth and reach of our autonomy.

Happily, though we’re not born autonomous — far from it, we do have the emotional and intellectual capacity to acquire autonomy. Still, its acquisition is a challenge because we must also dislodge ourselves from the supremacy of our immediacy. This reflexive, instinctive biological response to what is happening right now seems adequate in the fight-or-flee jungle. However, in today’s peopled world, evolution-honed instincts for life in the wild do not provide the autonomous individual with enough information.

In other words, in the modern world, here in America, we are expected to transcend the restricted reach of the naked animal in favor of responses born of thinking — the in-charge cognitive, communicative and performative behavior of human beings capable of and responsible for processing their individuality. And, we must create and express our self-possession within the enlightened framework (laws, rules, conventions, expectations) that has emerged in America.

Yet the cultural matrix of our social embeddedness is complicated. Our circumstances can be tough, competitive and often contentious. Moreover, America is basically unconcerned with each individual’s specific wants and needs. America has built its prosperous civilization on our biologically and culturally programmed willingness to live in its pressure-filled environment. We comply with its demands and to one extent or another accept its blows because that’s the world we live in. In short, we’re expected to find for ourselves a place where we can thrive and contribute.

Indeed, we must not only acquire the understanding and the know-how to order our responses to the social, economic and political demands of life, but must also rid ourselves of the illusions and foundational myths we haplessly harbor so we can be responsible for our biography, that is, so we can create a life of our own design.

Since neither culture nor our formal educations predictably teach us how to be in command of the autonomous individual in the competition for life and lifestyle (or how to be a competent contender in the subjective struggle for meaning, purpose and contribution), study and practice are required. For example, we must:

  • Gain the ability to get beyond ourselves over and over again as life makes it demands.
  • Learn how to transcend antagonism, small-mindedness or cynicism whenever and wherever it creeps into our words, mood, attitude or point of view.
  • Generate and refine our vocabulary so we can think and speak the right thing at the right time and not allow our intelligence to be co-opted by timidity, intimidation or conformity.
  • Be responsible for ourselves — our past, present and future and recognize ourselves as stewards of the civilizing discourse, grounded as it is in the elite range of the collective vocabulary of America’s enlightened framework.

I think you can see that the diligent work is well worth it, to us as individuals and to the nation at large. Think about it. The struggle for the soul of democracy is ongoing. We need and want to be executives in command of ourselves — at the helm — when it comes to managing our conditions and circumstances. We also need and want to have the nerve and heart to recover when an emotional or material loss has brought us to our knees. And what is the reward for such effort? A profound sense of meaning, control, relevance and honor, not to mention the experience of wellbeing and life satisfaction.

In sum, yes, the challenge is big, given our own personal history, that is, the state of our own biological and cultural determinism, but it is motivating, too. For when we choose the responsible path of enlightened self-possession, it leads us to the possibility that there can be liberty, equality and justice for all — a level playing field of competitive opportunity and a safety net for the individual not up to the competition.

I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website:



Arnold Siegel

Philosopher, Contemporary American thinker, Founder of Autonomy and Life