The concept of autonomy goes back to the politics of ancient Greece. A city had autonomia when its citizens made their own laws, as opposed to being under the control of a dominant or conquering power. The natural extension of this concept to persons resulted in calling a person “autonomous” when he or she was self-determining, that is to say, when that person’s decisions and actions were his or her own.
For the Renaissance humanists, the origin of the concept of autonomy inheres in the earliest episode of the book of Genesis. Pico della Mirandola, for example, expresses the idea clearly in his “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” As he imagines it, God says to Adam: “We have given thee, Adam, no fixed seat, no form of thy very own, no gift peculiarly thine, that…thou mayest…possess as thy own, the seat, the form, the gift which thou thyself shall desire…thou wilt fix the limits of thy nature for thyself…thou…art the molder and the maker of thyself.” In other words, being created in God’s image means that human beings are self-determining. Unlike animal and plant life that are under human control, human beings are under self-control.
A more contemporary philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, puts it this way in his classic exposition “Four Essays on Liberty” published in 1969, writing: “I wish to be an instrument of my own, not other men’s acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object…deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature or by other men as if I were a thing, or an animal, or a slave incapable of playing a human role, that is, of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them.”
Yet with this great gift comes even greater responsibility. To be empowered to act on one’s own means being held accountable for every act and decision. For the Torah, the conferring of responsibility on each person follows the affirmation of the autonomy of humankind. The evasions of Adam and the blame casting of Eve are unacceptable. The indifference of Cain is intolerable. For us as Jews, the greatest lesson that emanates from this early section of the Torah is not the glory of autonomy but the necessity of human accountability.