Sanctity and Liberty

It should be obvious that if you view social life in the light of what individuals are or are not permitted to do, even if you take into account something like an aggregate good or a more equitable distribution of wealth, you are not dealing with the social at all. It is an error we would not make if we were discussing any social animal other than man. 

We do not, for example, talk about how to reconcile the good of individual wolves with the “society” made up of all wolves across the continent. We would understand that the pack is the thing to protect and promote, as little Mowgli learned when he was adopted into the Seeonee, and the leader Akela sang out over the Council Rock.

Man is not less social than the wolf, but because he is provided with an apparently endless field of decision, he can pretend to be free of all bonds but those of his deliberate choice, even as he forms (and is formed by) packs, so to speak, of a wide variety. Some of these social groups and relationships are, I believe, sacred: that is, they are real and not notional; they make real claims upon our loyalty, service, and obedience; they are prior to and superior to all organizations that we make up for our convenience; and, within a narrower range than we care to admit, they have their characteristic forms and modes of being, forms that we must honor.

A Great Society 

It may be difficult for some of our fellows, long trained into the habits of the spiritual agnostic, to agree that anything at all is sacred. I have no leisure here to argue that point, except to note that unless modern man holds some bonds to be sacred, these most fundamental societies must disintegrate under the constant attacks of the mass phenomena—for men will buy their brands in these as they buy automobiles and deodorant, and with as little real significance. There will still be things that go by the name, but the full, powerful, socially formidable reality will have ceased to be.

Though I do not have in mind the family alone, it—and not some well-intended political program—is a great society, extending into the future and back to the immemorial past. It subsists by virtue of relationships that must also be held as sacred: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling and sibling. These in turn rest upon the sacred ground of sexual differentiation.

If you see a small boy or a small girl, and you are not struck by the beauty of that form—of that man or woman in the child, a beauty that is sacred, not to be sullied with sin and surely not to be thwarted, corrupted, or mutilated—then there is something wrong with you. Your heart, or some other organ of perception, is not in the right place. Perhaps it is simply missing, or you have destroyed it. 

Imagine someone in the magnificent Monument Valley of Utah, who thinks it would be a good thing to smash the natural bridges, to scribble the walls with great painted slogans, and to take a pile driver to the pillars, for the creative fun of destruction, or, who knows, for some plan to build a new kind of tourist attraction, for the “transgressive” tourist. We would look upon such a person with horror and incomprehension. How can he not see the beauty he wishes to ruin? Or, seeing it, how can he not be moved to regard it as sacred, with its prescriptive claims upon us, before all statutory law, and before the whims of self-promotion and advertisement?

How Moral Law Liberates

It may seem strange, to those who do not see or do not wish to see the inner relations among things, to suggest that a sense of the sacred is a protector of liberty—but people with a puerile view of their rights to do as they please without consideration beyond their desires are not distinguished by insight or sober thought. Let us take for example the taboo against incest, a taboo that some among us now wish to obliterate. 

Freud got a great deal wrong, but not this: he saw the taboo as a sine qua non, if the family were to exist at all, and thrive. The relation of brother and sister must be protected from confusion with the relation between husband and wife, not only because otherwise the family would degenerate into a seething pit of sexual predation, but because that relation, beautiful and sacred, must be affirmed as the special kind of thing it is. There must be the injunction against, that there may be the dynamism for: and this is but an instance of the general liberating power of moral law.

Our freedom is not to be measured by what our laws permit us to do, but by what our habits and all the innumerable features of our culture give us the power to accomplish without the oversight of law, and often beside or beyond its reach. 

They who hate liberty must hate the strong, stable, child-rich, sexually straightforward, and clean family, because that institution is like a princedom to itself. It does not need a viceroy. If misfortune strikes, it may need help from its neighbors, but far more often it is the source of help to others. It is like the healthy pack of the Seeonee wolves in Kipling’s stories, with this important amplification: it rejoices in the forming of other packs, other families, and when clan unites with clan, the very earth does tremble.

Every feature of the moral law as regards sex, at the least, is for the protection and promotion of these societies—these regions of self-government, authority, social memory, and power. The state as distinct from a homeland—think of a Welshman’s real and tender regard for Wales, his homeland—is not sacred, but a thing, a machine; and the men in charge of the machine will want to employ it wherever their inconsiderate benevolence, their caprice, their ambition, or their hatred may take them.

What stands against that machine are not rules made from within the design of the machine. What stands against it are real and natural societies, whose members say to those in the cabs of the bulldozers and backhoes, “Thus far and no farther. This ground is sacred.”

Should someone object, “I want to believe in this sanctity but I cannot, because I do not believe in God,” I will give him credit for consistency, but say that he has drawn the wrong conclusion: it is his unbelief he should question, and not what measure of health he still retains in his soul. Let him say instead, “Because I hold these things sacred, I must believe in God.”

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).

Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images

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