Practical Freedom, Part III

If we ask what in the past made conceivable the daily liberties of children outdoors—and if children, certainly grown men and women also—we come upon a few rules of human existence. They are simple rules, but they bind like steel. I shall put them so:

There is no practical freedom without trust. We must trust that other people will behave themselves in predictable and socially productive ways.

There can be no trust without virtue. We must believe that most people at most times, and some considerable number of people at all times, will do what is right even when it is against their personal interests. At the very least, we must believe that they will refrain from doing wrong, even when it is to their own great advantage. They will not cheat.

There can be no virtue without a belief in objective moral truth: without a belief that you must do what is right because it is right, and all the excuses in the world cannot change it.

[Read Part I and Part II of Anthony Esolen’s “Practical Freedom.”]

There will be no belief in objective moral truth without belief in the divine, the unchanging, the eternal. Whether there can be such a belief, in certain few individuals here and there, is another question, but it is not to the point, since the tenor of a society is determined not by singular exceptions but by the generality.

There must always be restraints. Either you learn to restrain your passions or the world will clap its restraints on you; there is no other option. A few of these unfortunate restraints will be legal. Most will not be so. They will be hard to identify because they will keep you from even conceiving of certain otherwise ordinary activities in the first place. But they will be no less real for all that.

Let me illustrate.

My father and his brothers would sometimes hop a freight train to Scranton, 12 miles away, just to roam about the city for a while, and then they would hop the train back at suppertime. The train officials mostly winked or looked the other way, considering that they were only boys, and they weren’t going to harm anybody, or set the car on fire. Nor were there civil-suit lawyers hanging like bats from the eaves of every home, school, and place of work.

Unavoidable Restrictions

When I was a boy, we had between 45 and 51 pupils in one classroom, headed by one teacher, usually one of the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We were not angels. We were not devils. But there was a great deal of unspoken trust among the pupils, their parents, and the teachers. 

We assumed that almost all of the time everybody would obey the “rules,” which included getting to school before classes started, not playing hooky, not disrupting the classroom, and doing your homework (which was usually light). This trust made it possible for the large majority of the pupils to walk to and from the school unattended, and, for many, even to walk home for lunch and to be back in plenty of time before classes resumed. 

Some of the older children walked into town to have lunch at a diner. After lunch, the children ran about the blacktopped “playground” next to the school, playing tag or crack the whip or cops and robbers or touch football, with one of the sisters usually nearby, in case someone broke a leg, I guess, because I do not remember a single instance in which she intervened in anything.

Every first Friday of the month, the sisters would troop the whole school over to the church, for the rosary, confessions, and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, boys on one side of the church, girls on the other. How seriously each child took it, I don’t know. But the point is that we did take it—for granted, that is. There was order. Certain things were right, and certain things were wrong, because God who was all-good had made the world, and sin brought its own punishment with it. That was reality.

Consider such a simple thing as a pickup baseball game. If it is to happen at all, the boys must all implicitly agree to the rules. Everyone submits to them. The big guys do not get to impose their will on the little ones. Safe is safe, and out is out. Personal feelings are out of bounds. Nobody wants to play with somebody who starts crying. Indeed, nobody can do it. The crying makes the game impossible.

Or consider the now-ended social experiment, the “date.” Every Friday or Saturday evening, I would pick up my high school girlfriend in my car, and we would go somewhere—the bowling alley, the miniature golf course, a dance hall, a movie theater. Often we went, accompanied by another couple in a second car, up the side of a mountain along a disused road, and “park.” No sex, no nudity, nothing we had to tell the priest in the confessional. Then I took her home, at around 11 p.m., always visiting with her mother and father for a few minutes; I liked them very much. At last, I drove home, about 10 miles away.

My parents thought nothing of it. Whether they should have, whether the experiment was a healthy thing, is not my point here. Within a few years, though, such dates would become rare, even inconceivable. They were already so at Princeton, when I enrolled there in 1977. The nearly complete abrogation of the old moral code regarding sex made dating, such as we knew it, impossible. The stakes were far too high. The result was not ease and liberty, but wariness and confinement, and the loneliness that has come in their wake.

The Erosion of Social Trust

Of course, we were already living a somewhat constricted life, as I have mentioned before. But now? Think of every failure of social trust as a sign: “This Activity Now Prohibited.” It is as if we could no longer take for granted that everyone will drive on the right side of the highway. Such a failure would do more than make driving on the highway dangerous. It would make it inconceivable: you would not go there at all. It would take but one driver in 50, or 100, to destroy that feature of an ordinary life.

The reader will no doubt come up with cases that are outside of my experience. There used to be gun clubs in schools. That is inconceivable now. Boys toted their rifles in their cars on the way to high school, to go hunting afterward. Inconceivable. People left their keys in their cars when they stopped to pick up groceries in town; it was convenient, and they didn’t have to worry about dropping their keys and losing them. Inconceivable. You gave your small child a dollar and told him to go to the small grocery store to get a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. He would see nothing shameful at that store. Inconceivable.

Something else is at work here, besides, that has to do not with whether trust in other people for some activity is justified, but with how we come to trust people at all. 

I have said that there is no freedom, practically speaking, unless there is trust, because otherwise everyone must look over his shoulder at everyone else, and people will huddle in their caves, not doing—perhaps not even conceiving—many of the once-ordinary things in human life. We would do well to ask whence that trust comes.

Not from crime statistics. Those, as I have pointed out, can only count incidents, but cannot give the context in which they occur. Fewer boys than ever will, perhaps, break a leg in a pickup hockey game on a local pond, but that is not because our ice is softer, or our boys are tougher. The ice is as hard as ever. The boys are not out on the pond to begin with. 

In any case, statistics give no comfort. We must look at what endows people with a general attitude toward the world, that it is good and beautiful, that other people are mostly decent, that the game of love is worth the candle, and that some general and dependable rules regarding manners, dress, speech, and action will apply.

Not from a national constitution, which without the lived habits of a people is but a piece of staging for the theater of government. Almost every nation on earth has one of those, a genuine Enlightenment article, stamped on the bottom, “Made in China.” It means very little. 

Nor do we derive trust from a mythical social contract, as even its most perspicacious peddler, Thomas Hobbes, concedes when he says that without fear, indeed without the prospect of downright terror to be visited upon you from the state Leviathan, people will readily revert to the state of nature, where every man’s hand is against every other, in a war of all against all.

Hobbes does not acknowledge it, and we have forgotten it, but the matrix of trust is that pre-political and foundational society, the family. It cannot be otherwise. The child, small and helpless, learns from the family, if he learns it at all, that there is a moral order in the world. This sense of order is in its way as necessary as expressions of affection. Indeed, without order, affections themselves can be a cause of fear, as all capricious but powerful things are.

Mothers and Fathers

Each sex is crucial here, and this too is something we have forgotten. The child in a healthy family sees, not a series of unattached and unreliable men, and not women only, but his father. The father is somehow strange and frightening: he is big, strong, with a voice that is not like a child’s, and a generally rough exterior. But if he is on your side, no real harm can come to you. He will push you, play roughly with you, do those adventurous things that take the measure of fear and defeat it.

Yet his real force is not physical, but intellectual and moral. He will not tell you a lie to soothe your feelings. If he is the umpire, he will call plays as he sees them and not as his heart moves; and his impartiality will extend so far as to give the benefit of the doubt to your opponent, not to you. Thereby he teaches self-control, self-denial, and justice. He may make mistakes; everyone does. But the order he represents is liberating. It makes possible the “games” that constitute civilized life—those games that require of the players that they set their interests aside, and even, when they are called upon to give counsel or to judge, all personal feelings, of affection or dislike, of compassion or anger.

Consider how important is the trust that any seller will respect the validity of the dollars in your pocket, or that cars will not speed up as you try to cross the street. Without a sense of moral order, the world is a frightening chaos, and we turn to sheer might, made more terrible by the unpredictable fury of passion and caprice.

The father makes the world a place where you can live; the mother, a place where you want to live. In this sense, all that the father does is ultimately for the mother, whose love for the child is more immediate than his; the warmth of the mother is visceral, felt in the pulses of the heart, so that in a sense even a man advanced in age is still a child to her who once held him in her very body, and who took most intimate care of him when he could neither walk nor speak. It is another kind of trust that she inspires. It is the knowledge that whatever you may become, however low you may fall, one person in the world stands with you before and beyond judgment; she seeks nothing from you but gratitude, and often not even that. 

I have a strong memory of my mother, when I was three years old, singing to herself as she worked in the kitchen, while I lay writing and drawing on a sheet of cardboard on the floor of our little parlor. It is a memory of security and peace. Nothing can replace it. By comparison with it and moments like it, all the ministrations of school, where we are supposedly socialized, are but noise.

But the persons of the parents carry more meaning than they ever express in word and deed. They are in themselves the embodiments of an order that extends beyond the years. They were children too, and in the family the child sees that he has been born into a large web of relationships, which, unless human evil has torn them apart, are also stable, ready to be known, and very much alive, as the child sees himself as the bearer of the family name and the family bonds, to marry and have children in turn. 

Now imagine that you dwell in a world of families, not in a world of aleatory sexual engagements, not in a world of confusion or hostility between the sexes, for those are rather like war zones, or like the rubble of a city after the armies have gone through. You can then trust that in all important ways every family will be like your own: strangers are not so strange to you, and every house on the street is where a family dwells, whether they are the grandparents after the children have moved into homes of their own, or the child-rich homes of those children, or the home where the newly married couple live, with children to come.

Nothing can replace this trust, this order. Consider what a neighborhood full of such families really is: a neighborhood and not just a geographical area. It is a place where people can be and usually are near to one another, doing things together; a place where official organs of government and state management need not be, because people police their own streets, settle their own disputes, make their own games, hold their own block parties, oversee their own schools, and have, in short, a real political life that has almost nothing to do with elections. 

How free are a people? Tell me whether they know the names of their neighbors along the block, and what their children are doing on a sunny day in June.

So powerful a force for liberty the family is, that all statists, all totalitarians, all schemers for the subjection of mankind have had it in their sights, to corrupt it or to destroy it.


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. 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).

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