In the coming months we will learn whether America’s long experiment in ordered liberty must finally be declared dead.
It has of late been coughing up plenty of blood. Consider the public school system: nor forget that what is implied by the word “system” is a vast coordinated network of elementary and secondary schools nearly identical from place to place. Parents who send their children to these schools, like other taxpayers, pay heavily for the privilege, and yet their influence upon what is taught and how is negligible. Indeed, as far as the modern educationist is concerned, the influence is supposed to work in the other direction. One pays to have one’s children weaned away from the beliefs and customs of one’s own heritage, so that the children will then come home and proceed to indoctrinate mother and father in turn. I am only stating in bald language what the education establishment has openly professed to do.
Then there is what Richard Weaver called The Great Stereopticon, the vast machinery of propaganda, polling, self-serving media, and mass entertainment. Who frames the question wins the argument, if “argument” is the right word for what emerges from the swamp of ignorance, emotional manipulation, and mendacity that characterize our public “debates” and our electoral politics. A press that promotes liberty requires a people truly literate, and literacy means far more than being able to cipher out words like “run” and “hide.” It requires at least some experience of subtle thought or profound wisdom, or at least historical precedent; but our schools, eschewing the past titans of literature for modish mediocrities, replacing the careful study of language with self-expression, and converting the messy business of history and geography into more easily politicized “current events,” have given us one or two generations of people who not only cannot read The Federalist Papers, but do not even know that they exist.
Shall I add our supine acceptance of one affront to liberty after another? I am grateful that, by a single vote, our Supreme Court has upheld, on grounds as narrow as the edge of a sword, the freedom of a free association of people to choose what sort of association they will be and whom they will admit and on what terms. So, for now, the Boy Scouts, whose main strategy for dealing with politics is to get out of the path of the bulldozer, can remain the Boy Scouts, as its founders had envisaged. A single vote – when a truly free people should have been outraged that anyone should attempt to dictate, from without, what such an association must become. But it is not surprising, after all. Our actual political lives – the doings of people in a community, seeking the common good with their neighbors – have shriveled up, just as what is called, apparently without any sense of irony or contradiction, “national politics” has grown monstrous, omnivorous, and absurd.
This disregard for liberty should not be surprising. When, in Paradise Lost, Satan is found attempting to insinuate evil dreams into the ear of the sleeping Eve, the stripling cherubs who discover him ask him his name. Satan laughs with scorn. These youngsters surely must be the lowest of their platoon, not to know him. But one of the cherub responds:
Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminished brightness, to be known
As when thou stoodst in Heaven upright and pure;
That glory then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee, and thou resemblest now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul.
No goodness, no glory; no virtue, no liberty. So says Milton’s Michael to Adam, revealing the sad future of warring mankind:
Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being;
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart passions catch the government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.
The idea is a common one, or rather was once common enough. So Castiglione, in The Book of the Courtier, rejects the notion that freedom can be conceived apart from virtue. Rather, the breadth of action that peace provides requires in turn an even greater commitment to the virtues than does war: “Just as during times of war people should apply themselves to the practical virtues that are necessary to attain the objective of war, namely peace, so in peace, to attain the corresponding objective of tranquility they should apply themselves to the moral virtues to which the practical virtues lead.” Then the ruler – we may substitute “state” – will not be “imperious, like a master over his slaves, but sweet and calm,” like “a good father over his sons.”
On this subject, the great pagan philosophers and the Christians speak with one voice. Seneca writes that true liberty is the pursuit of wisdom. Aristotle writes that a free polis, the only true haven for human thriving, requires the virtue of friendship in pursuit of what is genuinely good. Plato writes that a man who gives himself over to base passions is no better than a slave. “What steals [man’s] liberty is sin alone,” writes Dante. Christians need look no further than the words of the Master: “Whosoever commits sin is the slave of sin” (Jn. 8:34).
Indeed, when we recognize that human liberty derives from God, or, for the agnostics among us, from what is objectively good and therefore to be sought, we have the strongest defense against the encroachments of tyrants, or an all-devouring State. This is so, writes Leo XIII in Libertas Praestantissimum, not only for each individual, but also for “the community and civil society which men constitute when united.” True liberty does not consist “in every man doing what he pleases,” but rather in obedience to the eternal law. That obedience liberates us in spirit and protects the civic freedom we have won: “Thus, an effectual barrier being opposed to tyranny, the authority in the State will not have it all its own way, but the interests and rights of all will be safeguarded – the rights of individuals, of domestic society, and of all the members of the commonwealth; all being free to live according to law and right reason; and in this, as we have shown, true liberty really consists.”
All these agree in condemning the tyranny of the state and the tyranny of vice. What we need to do is to show the connection between the two tyrannies, and in this the current American administration has obliged us. For the same government that is, in effect, commanding Jews to eat pork, as did Antiochus in the days of the Maccabees, or commanding a man to show his intellectual capitulation by spitting upon a crucifix, as does Professor Frost in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, is now commanding Catholics and other Christians to purchase the means and the guarantor of sexual vice – the falsely named “birth control,” pills or chemical-leaching devices designed to trick a woman’s body into a kind of childless pregnancy. It does so, moreover, against the mounting evidence to show the destruction of lower-class and now lower-middle-class communities occasioned by the devices and by the sexual profligacy they both encourage and entrench.
If it be argued that my analogies are inadequate, I agree. Unlike what the Pill has done, the eating of pork does not, in itself, bring harm. Nor does spitting upon a piece of carved wood. Catholics should boldly resist the toxin as such. But more is at stake here. If the Jews had capitulated to Antiochus, they would have ceased to be Jews, and we would hear little more of them now than we hear of Medes and Parthians. If Mark Studdock, the agnostic sociologist, had capitulated to his professorial enticer, he would have lost what little remained of his human integrity and his soul. And if Catholics capitulate to breaking the law of God as they see it, spitting upon the crucifix, they too will lose their soul; there will no longer be a Catholic Church worth troubling about, just as the State does not trouble itself about those innocuous denominations that have surrendered to the sexual revolution and to statist ambition.
The horrible secret is that the American people may well no longer wish to be free, because the practice of the virtues is too difficult. The teachings of the Catholic Church threaten them; they are openly gleeful when they can point to priests and laymen who violate those teachings. They prefer the servility of sexual license, made comfortable by levies from their neighbors. They are thus at the point of cheerfully giving away their most precious liberty, just so that they may do as they please with the zipper. Words cannot describe the baseness of it all.