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.

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Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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