Practical Freedom, Part II

Enamored as we are with statistics and measurement, we forget that they usually deal with things that do not really exist, or with things that do exist, but not in the way they exist. Unless we bracket them, set them to the side, and remember what these numbers can tell us and what they cannot, the numbers we come up with will falsify the reality. 

It is especially the case when we ask whether the lives of a people are free. Even if, for the sake of simplicity, I define civil liberty as breadth of action, I cannot answer that question with statistics or with a glance at legal or constitutional guarantees. I need to know what the people are doing, how they live from day to day, what things they take for granted.

You may lock yourself up behind barbed wire and alarm systems, and keep the numerator down, so to speak: you will probably not be the victim of a violent crime. But what is the “denominator”? Your bare existence as one person? Not sufficient. The “denominator” is something that cannot be reckoned up. It is the whole quality of a human life, the spirit of it, the variety, the daring, the action. 

Fewer boys than ever will break their arms or legs by falling out of trees. That is not because trees are safer than they used to be. It is not because boys are better tree-climbers than they used to be; they are surely worse, because they have so little experience of it. It is because nobody is climbing trees in the first place.

The greatest of all American cartoonists, Chuck Jones, dropped out of high school at age 15, to enroll in an art school in Los Angeles, where, he says, he did not learn how to draw well, but did learn to get good enough to fake it. At 19, he got a job as a janitor in one of the studios, and that was his foot in the door. He does not record these events in his life as anything out of the ordinary. There is a picture of Jones, age 14, a pipe in his mouth, dressed like a man of the world, standing next to one of his friends similarly got up, on Mount Washington, clear across the continent from where his family lived.

I could adduce examples of such liberty all day long. 

When Horatio Storer, the father of gynecology in the United States and the main force behind anti-abortion laws in the 19th century, was a kid at a boarding school on Cape Cod, he and his buddies had the run of the whole shore, and, on free days, the run of the town of Barnstable eight or nine miles away. One day they took it into their heads to build a log cabin, so they got their saws and axes and hammers and did just that, clapboarding the roof and planting flags atop it, and hanging up a portrait of General William Henry Harrison inside. That was in 1840, and Storer was 10 years old. 

At age 14, he writes home from Provincetown, where a recent storm has littered the shores with fish, and he tells his parents that he is going to call upon a local naturalist who has been collecting fish-skeletons for a museum out west; he has never met the man, but that does not matter. At age 19 we find Storer, now a student at Harvard, pursuing the naturalist’s dream voyage, on a ship in gale-force winds around Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the Magdalen Islands.

The point is not that Jones and Storer were venturesome. It is that they had no idea they were so. Nor did such breadth of action extend only to boys. The boys establish, as it were, the outer limits, and the farther they go, the farther the girls can go too, if not so far as the boys. 

Jane Austen’s young women in Pride and Prejudice think nothing of walking several miles to town on a fair day. Dorothea Dix was only 14 years old when she set herself up as a schoolmistress for the daughters of mill workers in Worcester; she did not need a policeman at the door. She did not need a policeman over her mind, either—the curriculum she used, she came up with on her own.

Though the malady may now be acute, this constriction of life has been going on in the United States for at least 50 years. In 1983, I visited for the first time my cousins in a rather poor region of Calabria, in southern Italy. By then I could speak Italian, so I asked my great aunt Concetta why she had left us so soon after coming to the United States in 1976 to visit her brother, my grandfather, whom she had not seen since 1920. She had planned to stay more than a month, but two weeks was all she could endure. Her answer took me aback.

“You have no liberty in America,” she said.

I protested in the usual terms: we have a constitution, we have laws, we have free elections, and so on.

“Your grandmother will not go walking downtown at night. She is afraid to do it. Nobody is outside at night. You are all shut up in your houses.”

I could see the point immediately. In Tiriolo, that mountaintop village, everybody was outdoors all the time, well into the night, old and young, men and women and children. I had seen the same phenomenon in the crowded streets of Florence, which surely had its share of crime. It was a thing of no special notice to see an old man and his wife strolling down the main thoroughfare at 11 p.m., eating gelati, while small knots of young men or young women walked past each other, eyes glancing to the side, and street musicians played or sang for money, which the appreciative people would toss into an upturned hat.

I am not describing an idyll. That is the point. You can have life, or you can have safety at all costs, but you cannot have both. 

We are now at such a pass, that you can lose your job if you refer to a girl pretending to be a boy as “she,” because, she will say, she has the right to feel “safe.” That is like providing everyone with a padded cell and carefully monitored conversation, hushed, gentle, lest the madman so enfolded in safety begin to shriek with fear and wrath, like a wounded animal glaring out from its den at someone who happens to pass by.

These are bonds we have clapped upon ourselves. But so far I have described only the breadth of action and not the virtues that make such action conceivable. More to come.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. You can click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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