The Shape of Agency Part 1

Agency is one of the most fundamental concepts in LDS thought. Often people confuse agency and free will. They are not necessarily the same thing. I’m going to avoid all those sorts of nuanced discussions here. What is interesting to me are the more social, literary and especially political implications of Mormon notions of agency. Often a notion of agency is taken for granted when Mormons make a political point. I think this puts the cart before the horse. Agency gets used in such arguments without there ever being an consideration of what agency is. Thus agency because the ultimate trump card. Not surprisingly, it always tends to validate the conclusions and assumptions of whomever is invoking it.

To me the key factor in discussions of agency is the “what” and “where” of the discussion. Yet this notion of what is the “self” of the discussion is often lost. Why is this important? Well, let’s first look at the basic working definition of agency in LDS thought.

…they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not be acted upon… (2 Ne 2:26-27)

Now clearly there is lot more to the discussion there. What I think is important for our discussion is that we have a basic concept of agency dependent on a “boundary” between the self and the others. To have agency is to be able to act and not be acted upon. This is basically the idea that within some region there is action independent of what is outside that region. Next there has to be some knowledge of what is outside this region. That knowledge has to involve a recognition of differences to distinguish the inside from the outside. Now this boundary is not absolute. As the verse continues to explain this boundary of freedom from action breaks down when there is the “punishment of the law at the great and last day. In other words this “sphere” of freedom is imposed or at least given by God. It is not, within the scripture, ontological.[1]

I use the term “sphere” for a reason. There is a common imagery within the scriptures of agency being a “sphere” or “space” in which we act. For instance Alma 12:24 speaks of a “space granted unto man in which he might repend, therefore this life became a probationary state…” Alma 42 uses the same imagery.

…our first parents were cut off both temporally and spiritually from the presence of the Lord; and thus we see they became subjects to follow after their own will. […] …this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state.” (Alma 42:10,13)

The Book of Mormon says a lot about the implications of this “space” and how it was brought about. For now though I just want to focus on this central metaphor. Consider a few other scriptures on the same theme.

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. (D&C 93:30)

And it became a living soul. For it was spiritual in the day that I created it; for it remaineth in the sphere in which I, God, created it… (Moses 3:9)

…to represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined order or sphere of creation… (D&C 77:3)

A few things should pop out. First we see that the rhetoric of D&C 93 isn’t quite as new as some portray. It is close to very similar imagery found throughout the Book of Mormon. Second, I think we see that this “sphere” is much more general in usage than simply human existence. It could represent this world. It could represent a class of being. It could represent a particular human being. Perhaps it even could represent being in a world. We should also point out that the space is not purely a “mental” space.[2] It might represent a space of time in which a people are protected from “being acted upon.” This notion of spacing appears over and over in the Book of Mormon. Consider for instance prosperity in the Book of Mormon which typically means not being conquered by enemies. (See for example Mosiah 2:31; Mosiah 12:15 and Alma 48:15) The final point is that these spheres are not described as absolute.

This notion that there aren’t absolute boundaries is quite important. Clearly most of these spaces are temporary and are externally imposed. For instance the probationary space given to Adam and his descendants is temporally limited. (See Alma 12:24) After that period there is the judgment of law. Periods of peace are also limited typically terminated by outside violence. If we consider violence more broadly not just as war but as a general phenomena of “being acted upon” then we can consider agency simply as the withholding of violence.

Getting back to our central metaphor, we find “sphere,” “circle,” “space,” or similar terms throughout the scriptures. Even when the terms aren’t explicitly used, we often find them appearing narratively. Consider the flood story. A clearing is made with the wicked being swept off the land. A similar imagery appears with the Jaredites in Ether 2:8-13. The idea is that this promised land is a place prepared where all others are swept off at times and “whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage…” (12) Once again we have the connection between freedom and the sphere. Here both a spatial and temporal sphere of influence.

I don’t want to push this too far. Like any broad type of metaphor it breaks down in places. I think that a lot of this common imagery occurs because many of our text use foundational archetypes that are then applied to many different kinds of narratives. It is a common type of argument. You can see that with Nephi’s style of rhetoric where common types from Isaiah are applied to many different kinds of discourse. Here we’re just identifying a basic literary trope. Were we to push more closely we’d find the narrative metaphors while being true in the general case have exceptions.[3]

I suspect though that if all of these discussions of freedom are tied to a common set of types, then the distinction between political freedom and “ontological” freedom must be blurred. Indeed the only difference is the “size” of the sphere of influence.

1. This is not to deny the possibility of ontological freedom – just that our verse here doesn’t appear to be that sort of discussion. At least not in a Mormon context where entities are co-eternal with God.

2. By mental space I just mean the space we think in. That is the place of our thoughts when we are aware of them – here remaining more in the literary or metaphorical space rather than getting technical.

3. So for instance the typical more faithful scholarly take on the Book of Mormon is that when the Jaredites are wiped out they are wiped out as a nation but remnants remain. Likewise with the Nephites. When both the Jaredites and Nephites arrive in America there are of course other people here even if some prefer to interpret Ether 2 as implying there were no other inhabitants despite the abundant archaeological evidence. The counter argument of course is that same archetype applies to the Nephites, yet clearly from Mosiah the Jaredites are still around during the first few hundred years of Nephite colonization.

8 comments for “The Shape of Agency Part 1

  1. Jeff G
    March 17, 2017 at 10:27 am

    Great post, Clark. The idea of a sphere is something I’d never focused on too much.

    On my reading, I think “sphere” is essentially the same as “stewardship”. It is a morally structured space defined by the boundaries of (il)legitimacy.

    There are some things it is illegitimate for me to do and others it is illegitimate for me *not* to do them. The vast majority of possible choices, however, are completely open and free, falling within my own “sphere” of moral legitimacy.

    Let me elaborate a bit more by repeating what I’ve said in other threads.

    X is morally wrong iff:
    1) My moral community *DOES* condemn/punish X, and
    2) My moral community condemns/punishes those who *DO NOT* condemn/punish X.

    Similarly, Y is morally free iff:
    1) My moral community *DOES NOT* condemn/punish Y, and
    2) My moral community condemns/punishes those who *DO* condemn/punish Y.

    The window of which the BoM speaks in this life is basically an assignment of who and when condemnation/punishment at the corresponding 1st and 2nd orders can and cannot be legitimately meted out.

    To be sure, all of what I’ve said goes well beyond what the scriptures actually say. Just one perspective that people can take or leave as they like.

  2. fbisti
    March 17, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    While the OP is complex, fairly comprehensive and well written. I disagree. I think most of what is there is “free will” to act and not be “acted upon” not Agency. But, I don’t have the depth of understanding to be confident with regard to all of that.

    However, I am quite confident in my understanding of Agency. It is, on the face of it, simple. Agency is the inherent nature of humans–in whatever state of existence (pre, post, mortal)–to change themselves.

    In my terminology, one can be said to choose to be kind, humble, and honest, but it is more accurate to say one is *being* kind, humble, or honest. I make that distinction because becoming righteous (or, since it is a continuum, more righteous) in all these many ways, is a process of changing ourselves (otherwise known as repentance) and willing ourselves to be (internally, “in our hearts,” etc)—not just to act as if—that. This is not an attribute subject to being “a gift” because we are co-eternal with God, He didn’t create us. However, lack of knowledge (“of good and evil”) or mental illness might limit it, as, it seems it does young children. It is inherent, intrinsic, uncreated. We are “agents unto ourselves.”

    Once a person has sufficient “knowledge” he/she can will themselves to being more or less “righteous.” It is our natural state/ability. Hence we are “accountable”–responsible–for the nature of our character, our intent, our desires, etc. at any given moment. We cannot be tempted beyond our ability to withstand simply because of Agency. God did not put some governor on Satan that is unique to each of us. Judgment consists simply of taking the measure of our righteousness. There is no “judgment bar,” no actual book of life to be opened–that book is our character. My theory with regard to those we term “not accountable” is that their character isn’t actually changed by their actions and intents/thoughts due to no “knowledge” or mental illness. So their character is also a function of their agency.

    I think that is simpler. Maybe not.

  3. March 17, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Chris Jones has an interesting post at Juvenile Instructor on the 19th-century context of “agency”:

  4. Clark
    March 17, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Just to note I’m consciously avoiding the philosophic debate by focusing more on a literary analysis of the underlying metaphor. What I think happens is we have our philosophical conceptions that cloud how we read the scriptural notions.

  5. Anonymous
    March 20, 2017 at 7:24 am

    In the context of locating agency within a ‘sphere’ or ‘space’ it would seem to suggest that it is not an unmediated process. This is a common perspective in the social sciences notably in linguistic anthropology where language as a form of social action plays a significant role in shaping inter-subjectivity in social groups, and is not seen as the sole property of individuals..
    The view of agency as acting, and not being acted upon, fails to acknowledge the reflexive dimension of acting whereby we act upon and experience ourselves, as we act.
    From this perspective it would seem that the task is to more specially define the nature of the sphere, particularly in terms of the kinds of relational work that is afforded in the contexts that are evident. After all, no one just ‘acts’.

  6. Clark Goble
    March 20, 2017 at 10:30 am

    I’ll get to the topic of mediation in a subsequent post. I touched on the idea that the boundary isn’t absolute. I think that ends up tied to the question of mediation. However typically in the philosophical tradition the boundary is absolute. (That’s the topic for the next post)

  7. Jeff G
    March 20, 2017 at 11:00 am

    “I’m consciously avoiding the philosophic debate by focusing more on a literary analysis of the underlying metaphor.”

    That’s probably best. I guess I’m mostly just thinking out loud.

    BTW, how familiar are you with Robert Brandom’s work?

  8. Clark Goble
    March 20, 2017 at 11:26 am

    Moderately. I’ve read some of his papers but I don’t know the nuances of his views.

    I’ll get into the philosophical views once I do the metaphoric plumbing.

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