Part six of an ongoing series on practical freedom.

Tearing Down Our Castles

“Of all the modern notions generated by mere wealth the worst,” says G. K. Chesterton, “is that domesticity is dull and tame. Inside the home (they say) is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety.” As is so often the case when a people derive their opinions largely from mass entertainment, mass schooling, and mass media, all it takes is a little consideration, or a few minutes of experience, to see that a given popular notion is not only false, but wildly and ridiculously so.

Enter the home of someone who really has a home to enter. What will you find there? You can assume there will be beds in bedrooms, a stove in the kitchen, and a table to eat from; you can assume there will be electric lights, and some form of heating; you can (nowadays) assume there will be indoor plumbing. Beyond that, you dare not go. “For the truth is,” our Apostle of common sense goes on to say, “that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty. Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on the earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim.” 

I have sometimes imagined an Armageddon to bring down our vast structure of standardization in business, schooling, and government: a lone worker at a McDonald’s somewhere in Idaho, in a fit of cheerful and human lawlessness, sprinkles the French fries with paprika. Or a teacher in one of those public enclaves built to resemble a factory or a prison gets a wild idea—perhaps it is springtime, and the scent of a long-forgotten blossom is in the air—and teaches his students an old Hebrew poem, beginning, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Or the workers sitting opposite one another on a commuter train shut their computers and begin to—what is it called?—have a conversation.

People who say on Monday that a woman in her home is accepting confinement will say on Tuesday that the child whom she teaches there should instead be in a school. I suspect that what they dread in both cases is liberty. It is frankly admitted in the case of the child taught at home. The critic is afraid that he will be under the tutelage of his parents, which means, practically, not under the standardized tutelage of the state. Why, we have no idea what he will be taught! 

And that, precisely, is the point. Assuming that in fact he is taught to read, to write, and to calculate with at least the facility of his friends in school (and that is a bar that any mole or hedgehog can clear), what business is it of ours to determine whether he is reading David Copperfield, or planting beans, or rigging up a catapult? In the home, there may be as many schools as there are children.

“A man’s home is his castle,” goes the old proverb, much misunderstood. In that castle, every husband is a king and every wife a queen, and the boys and girls are princes and princesses of the realm. Even the dog Rex assumes the role if not the livery of a guard at Buckingham Palace. For every ordinary man, says Chesterton, “wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses.” 

It is more than permission to do as he pleases. It is a sacred circle of authority and adventure, for “the family is itself a wilder thing than the State; if we mean by wildness that it is born of will and choice as elemental and emancipated as the wind. It has its own laws, as the wind has; but properly understood it is infinitely less subservient than things are under the elaborate and mechanical regulations of legalism.”

One empty home is much like another. That is only an inevitable result of man’s having removed from the home the greater part of his energy and devotion, his time, his labor, and his leisure. 

The flight from home, considered as a permanent feature of a human life, is a flight from the terrible responsibility of freedom, a flight from creativity, a flight from royalty, into the routine, the drab, and the servile. A home full of children, though—God only knows, for the parents themselves rarely do, what those whoops of laughter from the basement mean, or that sudden silence of intense concentration; and the dog shakes his tail like a pikestaff.

In the school, on the train, at the workplace, order is purchased by reduction, and we are rendered congenial to one another, or at least not obnoxious, at the cost of what makes us surprisingly individual. The state makes its servants, and the workplace its commuters, but God makes the child, who really does arrive in the home, as Chesterton puts it, like an invader. Twelve people in one home when only the husband and wife have chosen one another (and they have done so in the happy blindness of love) deliver more diversity by far than the frail nerves of modern man can take. It is much easier to pretend allegiance to a person of another ethnicity who lives far away than to love your mischievous younger brother, let alone that man whom God made just for you, your next-door neighbor.

Home and family, bulwarks of freedom and freedom-making in their turn, are therefore hated by those who hate mankind and want to subject it to vast systems of social and political control. We must ask of any proposed social legislation whether in practice its effect is social at all, which means whether its effect is to strengthen and to multiply those castles, those realms governed by a king and queen, rich or poor but always royal. I believe, with only minor and sometimes accidental exceptions, every piece of social legislation in the United States and Canada, in my lifetime, has been born of suspicion of the family and its freedom, or antagonism against it, or sheer culpable neglect. 

No-fault divorce has sapped its foundations. Schools have been built farther from homes because in spirit and intent they are far from homes, and if a king comes to visit to see what is being done for his children, he is treated as an intruder or a spy. Blessings given to all manner of sexual expression are like bombs hurled against the castle walls, so that eventually many people lose the sense of what marriage and family even are. 

Many a law will favor you if you betray your kingdom, and the poor receive assistance not in building up castles of their own, but in being more or less permanent wards of the state. Better one big prison than a hundred free homes.

I am waiting for conservatives to remember the castles and their liberties. They will not remember, so long as they, too, believe that liberty is about choosing among prisons and factories, with a dash of sexual dissolution thrown in to fool people into thinking that they are free.

 

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is 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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