Acting Otherwise

This post was written by Zach Stevenson, a Humanities Center student fellow.


It is impossible to know with certainty the precise thinking patterns of one’s youth, but I feel that I can confidently assert that my former understanding of free will was a faulty one. Specifically, I once understood free will to be a sort of superpower that would permit me to achieve any and all dreams, whereas I now recognize it as a phenomenon that, while being absolutely real, both functions within and is bounded by genetic, social, and psychological contexts. In addition to hewing more closely to the fact pattern of lived experience, I find that this conception of agency boasts a certain aesthetic rigor that the alternative does not.

In her 2015 book Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar argues that readers and writers of literature have long assumed that social idealism—which takes as its starting point a belief in the world’s changeability—was inimical to literary sophistication, with Leo Tolstoy’s words on the subject being representative of a longstanding tradition: “The aims of art are incommensurate (as the mathematicians say) with social aims. The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” In other words, Tolstoy believed that good art requires a deep-seated conviction that any and all articulations of human agency are ultimately futile. Maybe that’s overstating things a bit, but at the very least we can say that Tolstoy was likely not optimistic about art’s collective capacity to permanently remake the world for the better.

Later in life, Tolstoy would radically revise his opinions on this subject, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to use his early views as one of my argument-orienting goalposts, with the other being the Horatio Alger tales that were astoundingly popular in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century, tales which “preached that by honesty, cheerful perseverance, and hard work, the poor but virtuous lad would have his just reward.” Here’s the argument: In our search for a juste milieu between Tolstoy’s pessimism and Alger’s obnoxious and untenable Pollyanaism, we could do worse than the character of Jack Boughton in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead tetralogy. On the one hand, the books contain a measured but clear endorsement of the reality and potency of free will, as when the narrator of Gilead, John Ames, tells his son that “you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate.” On the other hand, Robinson’s background in Calvin and Congregationalism has attuned her to the stubborn durability of character traits that we’d prefer to shed, with the character of Jack Boughton functioning as a sustained exploration of the question can people change?

To Robinson’s credit, the question is never definitively answered and the mystery of predestination is never unraveled, but in her deeply humane depiction of bodies and souls that attempt to “act otherwise than as circumstance would seem to dictate,” she gives us permission to be untroubled by that ambiguity. Importantly, those instances of change that Robinson does depict are small, local, and apparently insignificant. For example, John Ames spends the entirety of Gilead trying to overcome his hostility towards Jack, and he succeeds in doing so only at the very moment when Jack is once again leaving town, which is to say that the shatteringly beautiful final blessing offered by the Reverend does not result in a wholesale reversal of fortunes for the blessed. The point is that, to borrow what MacFarquhar says about the fiction of James Baldwin, moral beauty in Robinson’s work “becomes smaller, more concrete, more intimate—something that exists between one person and another.” Here, I think, is a starting point for a conception of agency that is at once more sustainable and more compelling than its Randian alternatives: it is cognizant of the bounds of “that sphere in which God has placed it,” while at the same time retaining a belief in its own efficacy—and here’s the important part—in the sphere of interpersonal relationships (Doctrine & Covenants 93:30).

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