The Forgotten Freedom

“Man is a political animal,” said Aristotle, meaning that man is that sort of living creature who thrives best in the context of a polis, a free and self-governing city state. St. Thomas Aquinas would take up this dictum of Aristotle’s and flesh out its implications for a Christian culture, but before we consider that, we should at least try to recall what it meant for Aristotle and his Greek interlocutors. When the Greeks looked upon the Persians, often their enemies in war, as barbaroi, it was not a function of their racism. For they were not racists at all. Solon was not the only wise man to travel beyond his native Greek world to see the men and manners of foreign peoples. So did Xenophon, fighting in the armies of Cyrus of Persia. So did Herodotus, conducting his researches into the customs of the Egyptians. So did Plato, invited by the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse to teach that half-barbaric people his philosophy of government.

No, the Greeks pitied the barbarians — see Aeschylus’s remarkable tragedy, The Persians, for an early instance of literary sympathy for an enemy defeated by a smaller and outmanned populace. They pitied them because they had to adore their pharaoh as a god upon earth, or had to prostrate themselves before the emperor at Susa, surrounded with his mercenary soldiers and his eunuch bureaucrats and his spies. Such people had little choice but to live as the Cyclopes in the Odyssey live. Those one-eyed, not-quite-human monsters never meet for assembly. They do not argue among themselves about the common good. They do not unite as free people to protect their own. “Every family ignores its neighbors,” says Homer.

It may be unjust to say of contemporary Americans that we ignore our neighbors, when we very possibly know too little about them to ignore them or not. It is hard to be accused of showing disrespect to someone whose name one does not even know. “We have a political life anyway,” we might be ready to insist; except that when Aristotle used the word polis, he specifically meant what the Greeks had grown accustomed to: a smallish state, about the size of an American county or two, wherein everyone would know everyone else by face or by reputation or by family. According to this definition of the political, “local politics” is something of a redundancy; and if there is no vibrant local life of the polis, there is nothing properly political at all.

Oh, there may well be government, and plenty of it; the barbarians had cities and government. But they did not enjoy the full freedom of people uniting to celebrate, to worship, to fight, and to employ their practical reason and their passions to secure the common good of the polis, and other goods that only exist by virtue of their being shared with others — the most prominent among them, friendship.


Would Aristotle grant that we have a genuinely political life? Let me attempt an answer by suggesting that the most important thing that any generation does, in any neighborhood or village or city, is to educate its children. It is even more important than keeping public order; for unlike the work of policemen and firemen, trained to meet emergencies in the present, the work of the teacher should unite his pupils with people of generations past and to come, so that the village will have a life through time, rather than being subject to the skitters of pointless alteration.

Now then: In 1940, when the United States had a population of 140 million, there were 117,000 school boards across the country. Think of that: a school board for every village or neighborhood of 1,200 people. It is hard to get more local than that. At present, the population of the United States is 310 million, and there are but 15,000 school boards, one for every 21,000 people. Add to that the thousands of directives issuing from Washington, teachers’ unions, and state legislatures, and one sees that the effective influence that local people have upon their schools is basically nil. Indeed, if a candidate for high office should have the temerity to suggest that local people should determine what curricula their schools should use, what teachers should be hired and fired, and what extracurricular activities for boys alone and for girls alone and for both together the schools should offer, that person would immediately be accused of lunacy. By which definition every Greek from Croton in Italy to Colossae in Asia Minor would be a lunatic, to be joined in madness by the Puritan fathers and by townsmen everywhere in America until the progressivism of 20th-century pantocrats sent them all packing to their little padded houses, to watch television and be quiet.

The forgotten freedom is the freedom of association, both in local public institutions and in private groups that benefit the public. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling that prayer in public schools, which had been going on for the whole history of the republic, was unconstitutional — a ruling that would have struck the drafters of the Constitution with astonishment — the appropriate response from the miners of Donora, Pennsylvania, the farmers of Milledgeville, Georgia, and the mill workers of Grand Rapids, Michigan, should have been, “And who appointed you the archons of our school systems? So you are telling us that we cannot say a prayer to begin the school day. You and whose army?”

The men who wrote the great apologia for our federal system — James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay — were at pains to allay the fears of those who were suspicious of a central government, arguing that the interlocking checks and balances built into the federal structure would secure stability for the nation while allowing for the freedom of states and of localities. Why, in those days, the states in their governmental bodies exercised a profound influence over the national government, inasmuch as senators were chosen by state legislatures and not by popular vote. What on earth would the three great federalists, not to mention that temperamental revolutionary Thomas Jefferson, have thought of a government that saw fit to determine whether a football coach in Pine Bluff could lead his team in a halftime prayer? They would ask, “Have you all forgotten what it is to have a civic life?”

And that extends to private organizations, too. When the Supreme Court determined that the Kiwanis Club and the Jaycees were “accommodations” like restaurants and hotels, and that they could thus not restrict their memberships to men alone, there should have been rioting in the streets. Not that those organizations should have remained all male; but what is the state’s business in telling a private organization how it should choose its membership? The argument was that men in those organizations also transacted business — in other words, they did things that redounded to the common good, and therefore they were to be regulated; had they restricted their activity to getting drunk on the weekend, they could have done as they pleased. This is not only nonsensical; it should offend any lover of freedom and of a vital polis.

Or take the Boy Scouts, for another example. They are almost the only organization left that actually cares a damn about the healthy upbringing of boys, to turn them into confident and happy young men. That surely is a boon to the common good; and of course the boys share that good of masculine camaraderie and cheerful play. Why should anyone care to tell the Boy Scouts, as innocent of partisan politics as they are, that they must do what no one within living memory would have done, and that is to saddle the boys with homosexual scoutmasters — with men for leaders and role models who have failed in the single most momentous and fearful transition that the boy must negotiate, and that is the passage from boyhood to manhood; from being dependent upon mama, to being the sort of man who will marry and have children? Set aside the contempt for the boy’s needs. What gives anyone the right to dictate to a private organization how they should choose their volunteers?


We say that everything in our nation is political, but in a deeper sense of the word, almost nothing anymore in our nation is political, and that is the problem. Almost nothing is left to the determination of people, uniting in groups as they see fit to build a common life far more satisfying and more human than anything that a state can rig up or mandate. This freedom of association that I am calling for is nothing other than the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, given explicit sanction in our Constitution, though it has been plowed under by the ambitions of legislators from far away and by the illuminati among our archon-judges. In this sense, the Catholic wants more political life, not less, as we understand that the size and ambition of the state, like the sprawling (and actually efficient) bureaucracies of the Persian empire, tend to strangle the political at the level where we do most of our living: at the level of the neighborhood, the school, the village, the club, the ball field, the library, the town hall, the mill, the church.

Because I have a high view of education, and of our responsibilities to raise our children in knowledge and wisdom, I want the Department of Education eliminated, the sooner the better. Because I have a high view of the ability, and the duty, of men to come together and craft a thriving public life, I want the Supreme Court to recognize due limits to its jurisdiction and not prescribe nanny-like to us their supposed wards. Because I have a high view of reason and its application to virtue, I will cheerfully agree to allow my townsmen to determine what shall and what shall not grace the shelves of their libraries, regardless of what lawyers from Harvard may have to say.

And because I understand that men are united not from below — by the gratification of their appetites — but from above, by their common celebration and worship, may I be damned if ever I agree to the self-serving pronouncements of enlightened satraps everywhere, who say that the people of Cranston can no longer put a crèche on the grounds in front of the town hall. I want a government crafted by families, and not families (or whatever conglomeration of relations bodily and affectual are deemed fitting by the archons) crafted by the government. I want a civic life in its fullness: in part because I am Catholic, and the subsidiarity that Catholicism teaches gives birth to that full life, but in part because I am a human being and am tired of being robbed of my humanity. I am tired of Susa on the Potomac. I want to live in Athens, or Jerusalem, or Rome — not Persia.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen 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); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • MRA

    Nice reminder of the true meaning of politics. I just want to add that man’s political nature not only shows why statism is wrong, but also why the opposite error – the fortress family – is wrong,too. Lots of conservative catholics and other christians seem to overreact against statism by advocating the family as sovereign, with government relegated to a merely supporting and subservient role. As the Greeks would point out, this too means living a less than fully human life. It’s not good to be a Cyclops – even if you’re a Catholic, home-schooling Cyclops.

  • Tony Esolen

    Thank you, MRA. I’ll just say, though, as a homeschooling father, that most of the homeschoolers I know are pretty sociable people. They get together constantly for co-op classes, play dates, sports, and celebrations. Aside from the considerable hindrance caused by their not necessarily living in the same geographical area, they really do revive an ideal of local education. Our own homeschooling organization in Rhode Island has been a kind of extended family of extended families, with the children getting to know dozens of parents of other children, along with their siblings too, because homeschoolers aren’t segregated by age.

    I think that our public schools are irremediable in their current structure.

  • Perelandra

    Prof. Esolen asks why there is no local outrage at such schemes. In the ’50s, the first wave of school consolidations in Indiana provoked such anger that embattled farmers armed with shotguns defended their small high schools. Alas, they were not protesting loss of local education control but the loss of their local basketball team. (cf the film HOOSIERS for the passions involved.)

  • AV

    That being said, the most wrongheaded part of the essay centers on the idea that it is the federal government which is destroying local action on the part of citizens. That is complete rubbish, as the government does not create the social order, but at most facilitates the forces that shape late capitalist society. If you want to know why people are so atomized, look not to the Supreme Court, but the local strip mall; not to the federal bureacracy, but to the office of the multinational corporation that moved the local factory to China. Conservatives speak about social malaise as if capitalism didn

  • Tony Esolen

    Well, Arturo, I could have talked more about the television. That’s a culture corroder too.

    Why do you insist upon putting words in my mouth?

    You will notice that I do not cheer capitalism. I’ve often compared laissez-faire with laissez-foutre (please excuse my French here). You will also notice that I spoke little here about the federal government’s executive branch, and a great deal more about the courts. I think I’ve written a decent amount about the false god of “choice,” which is an idol that is worshipped across the political spectrum. If I inveigh against the thug on Maple Street who beats up some kid and robs him, is it an argument against me that there’s a bigger thug on Oak Street who has done the same thing?

    But, with all its many faults, it was not capitalism per se that caused us to commit the colossal mistake of consolidating school districts and building ever larger and more anonymous schools, although capitalism might well have provided the convenient model of the huge hulking factory. I don’t see that it was capitalism that caused the courts to intrude more and more into the running of those schools. It was the worship of “choice,” but not capitalism per se, that caused us to make all the rotten mistakes attendant upon the sexual revolution, mistakes that tend to destroy the social order, especially at the local level, and worst in urban areas. I’ll freely grant that the big capitalists have often been the “progressives” in the social wars — encouraging women to leave the home to work, for instance. Margaret Sanger was pretty darned popular among Republican women’s groups, the blue-bloods, back in the day.

    You’ll blame Wal-Mart. Fine, I have no great love for Wal-Mart. But I don’t see what Wal-Mart has to do with no-fault divorce, or with the mistaken welfare policies that discouraged the formation of stable families, or with the Pill, or with the general perception that a State (or Washington) gets to set the rules for our schools, or with the refusal of the Supreme Court to honor the actual text of the Constitution.

    Maybe you and I are sensitive to different problems. I find the very idea that nine judges in Washington can have anything to say, one way or the other, about the Boy Scouts, to be deeply offensive — but far worse than that is the fact that we’ve gotten so used to their tinkering with social affairs that we take their jurisdiction for granted.

    As for pornography: yes, sure, capitalists will peddle anything that sells. But who was it that progressively struck down all the local laws against the stuff? Please don’t say that it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t a market for it. In part the availability creates the market.

  • Martial Artist

    The difficulty with your argument seems to me to be that you assume the United States has a truly “capitalist” (more correctly, free market) economy. If that appearance is not deceiving then most of your argument reduces to the idea that businesses somehow magically coerce the public into purchasing things of which you (and in at least some instances, I) think undesirable, e.g., Xboxes.

    Before you publicly address economic matters, it might be a worthwhile exercise if you were actually to study economics, including the Austrian school. Were it not for government’s all too frequent, and economically ignorant, intervention in the marketplace, most of the evils that you identify (possibly excluding pornography) would not exist. Most of them are the result of government’s economic power coupled to its economic ineptitude and arrogance and partnered with a society which worships at the altar of materialism.

    When you can wrap your head around that reality, you might actually have something positive to contribute to the discussion. If you want to reject my assertion, kindly first compare the statements of the former and current Secretaries of the Treasury, and most particularly those of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, made both before and after the recent downturn in the economy. You will, if you have an open mind, find an amazing set of internally contradictory statements, not simply a small volte-face, from those august gentlemen, into whose hands has been committed the economic fate of this nation.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • ochlophobist

    I fear that with Austrian schoolers “actually studying economics” means actually studying and accepting Austrian economics. I am not an economist, but I know a few, and they at least seem to think Austrian economics as mature an intellectual arena as I consider, say, the abysmal works of Ayn Rand.

    I realize that there is a bit of “which came first, chicken or egg?” quality to discussions of big, invasive, social-engineering government and mass capitalist / late capitalist corporatism. And I suppose in the study of the history of different economic arenas it would be easier to draw different conclusions as to which comes first. Based on my own studies, I share Arturo’s position, corporations have manipulated the American state more than the other way around, and the American state follows the lead of mass capitalism.

    To consider but two arenas, I would ask folks to read Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity by Amy Bentley and The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto.

    Bentley makes it exquisitely clear that the transition to an America that has no real connection to hearth or family table came about because of rationing policies in WWII. For instance, in the rationing of sugar corporations were given the highest per serving rations, restaurants the next highest, and families, by far, the least. This caused a near immediate transition from an America where most cakes were made by scratch to an America where most were from boxes bought in stores. She gives many more examples along these lines. In each instance of rationing policy, the government did exactly as corporate lobbies told it to do. Corporate lobbies gained a foothold in agricultural and food sales policy which would never be reversed. There is no question that corporations are primarily responsible for the anti-family transition in American eating rituals, which no doubt had a profound impact on the changing nature of American family life.

    Perhaps more readers here are familiar with Gatto, and you may recall that he describes how American public education followed social theories which had been developed in Germany in the 19th century. You may also recall that Gatto argues that the purpose of creating a society in which 80% were taught via public schooling techniques not to question or to even think but rather to be mere rote functionaries in a bureaucratic machine (and remember that Gatto argues America increased this to 90% of the population) was not, primarily, to create servants of the state, per se. These German educational theories were not first propagated by socialists (though many Americans who later adopted them in the early 20th century were socialists) – the purpose of creating masses who did not question or think was to create “good” employees. That would mean good employees who primarily worked for large capitalist interests and not the state. Indeed, Gatto, no friend of the large modern state, points out that many of the theories concerning how to make education more efficient and how to “manufacture” education on a larger scale mimic modern manufacturing ideas. Gatto goes even further, stating that the great industrialists

  • Benjamin Rosenzweig

    Excellent article Professor Esolen!

    In regards to many of the disparaging comments, I would think it quite prejudice to suggest that only one type of formal organization or informal group within American society is responsible for the United States widespread cultural deterioration. It seems quite simply a result of the tribal mentality, of the irrational herd instinct that is the basis for so many of our blatantly oversimplified sociopolitical paradigms.

    Both the private sector and the public sector has problems in need of being addressed as well as benevolent elements worthy of being appropriately recognized and appreciated. However, what you do see in both cases is that as wealth and power is further centralized, both in government and in the market, there tends a greater degree of control by special interests (as opposed to the general populace), less accountability and more corruption. An overbearing federal government and corporate oligopolies and monopolies go hand-in-hand; corporate lobbyists write most of our US Congressional legislation in the interests of receiving special privileges and immunities as well as to prevent ease of entry for entrepeneurs into their respected markets. They hate the free market because it is a threat to their wealth, power and prestige: “competition is a sin”.

    Thomas Jefferson wrote of this “artificial aristocracy” born into wealth and power with little virtue or talent in his letters to John Adams. And Woodrow Wilson wrote of the special interest takeover of the federal government in The New Freedom: : A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People (1913). We are all to familiar with stories of the Robber Barons of the 19th Century and the Mercantilists that dominated much of the 15th to 18th Centuries. Little has changed in terms of the continued societal issues created by super-rich families who shelter their wealth, lobby for special treatment for their respected government bodies and corporate industries and for the most part have nothing but contempt for the general populace.

    It doesn’t matter if its a fake “Republican” or a “Democrat” at the federal legislative level; upwards of 90% of US Congressmen are bought and paid for by some special interest group, some tribal-like social circle that cares nothing for the “outsiders” of the middle class. They are the politicians we disparage in our common jokes, giving lip service to Americans values while remaining blatantly obsessed with wealth, glory and social status.

    Esolen is right to look to our state and local governments; they are filled with hard-working middle class Americans who identify themselves with us, who generally care about their electorate. Power needs to be decentralized both in the government and in the market by appealing to the 10th Amendment to nullify federal laws (starting with No Child Left Behind) and getting the People to once again become actively involved in their governance.

    “If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” – Aristotle