The Questions That Matter

In the introduction to his recent book, Life Under Compulsion, Anthony Esolen writes about:

The Questions That Matter

How to raise children who can sit with a good book and read? Who are moved by beauty? Who delight in innocence? Who can walk outdoors and enjoy the beauty of weeds and sparrows? Who still possess youth, which lends them both a frolic childlikeness and a wisdom beyond their years?  Who have no compulsions–who don’t have to attend to the constant buzzing of a smartphone, or click on the next link and the next link and the next link, or buy the latest gadget, or submit to the instant urge?

These questions pass unnoticed by technocratic utilitarians left and right, by the “progressives” who have to move, move, move, who knows where, and even by lovers of the humanities, who don’t wish to acknowledge the disease, because we are all infected.

But they are the questions that matter.  Even more to the point: What sort of child shall you raise, my readers?

To resist Life Under Compulsion, to raise children who can throw off the shackles and enjoy truly free, and full, lives, we must affirm the old meaning of the English word free, which is related to joy and greatness of heart–associations now dim in English but still clear in our German cousins: freude, joy; frieden, peace, “Freely ye have received,” says Jesus to His disciples: “freely give.”  He does not mean that the apostles should charge no fees for their teaching. He means to invite them into relationships of love.  They have received the love of God freely; it is not compelled.  He wants them to be free with themselves, to have free hearts for the love of others, bringing a peace that is full and alive, not merely the absence of war.

This older, fuller meaning points to the practical contradiction at the heart of the vision of freedom as noninterference.  Unless we are to live as beasts ranging the fields, we must have order.  But order implies hierarchy, those who must govern and those who must be governed.  These groups may overlap considerably in one respect or another: even a senator is not supposed to cheat on his taxes, and even a day laborer can (still) tell his small son when it is time to go to bed.  Obedience is inevitable.  Satan himself says, when it suits his purposes, that “Orders and Degrees / Jar not with liberty, but well consist.”

Freedom, in the end, is an intrinsic virtue, not an extrinsic condition, an accident of politics.  It is not a negative–freedom from, instead it is a positive- freedom for.  This freedom is not for oneself but for others.  Our bonds and responsibilities do not constrict our freedom but rather define our very humanity.

When the pilgrim Dante stands upon the shores of the Mountain of Purgatory, he looks to the heavens and sees the beautiful morning star in the East:

The radiant planet fostering love like rain,
made all the orient heavens laugh with light,
veiling the starry Fishes in her train.

It is Venus, the star of love. What should that have to do with Purgatory?  Everything, as it turns out, for evil clamps the heart and crushes the soul.  To free oneself from the accumulated sludge of sin is to free oneself for the freedom of heart that is love. “He seeks his freedom,” says Virgil to Cato, the guardian of Purgatory, as he begs to allow Dante to climb the mountain.  Virgil does not mean that Dante is looking for a democratic republic.  He wishes for Dante to learn about sin, but more, to learn about the wonders of love.  He wishes for Dante to grow wings, so to speak.  Without wings, you may say that you are free to fly, and say it all day long, but you will not get one foot off the ground.

On this matter the great pagans and the Christians, the poets and the philosophers, speak with one voice.  In his soaring dialogue of love, the Phaedrus, Plato says that the soul in love grows wings, and that this is actually the purpose of a truly human education.  His pupil and rival Aristotle was less given to poetic flights, as far as we can determine from the lecture notes that have survived, but for him, too, freedom was the unimpeded capacity of a creature to make real the fulfillment that is built into its very nature. For man, that meant the attainment of practical and intellectual virtue: to contemplate what is good and to act in accord with it.  The brave Stoic Epictetus boasted that no one could put fetters upon him.  What enslaves us is not the will of another but our own will when we turn to vice.  when Boethius was in prison, awaiting execution on a charge of treason trumped up by his political, religious, and cultural enemies.  Lady Philosophy came to console him and to remind him that only he had the power to wander away from the true path.

I seek in this book to echo those voices as I look at how we raise our children.  But I caution the reader. Those voices also warn us that virtue is difficult, hard-won.  If freedom is a virtue, and if Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is right in saying that most people flee in terror from freedom, then you may wish to raise up Contented Cows, placidly chewing their cuds in a field of creature comforts, or Harried Hamsters, racing on the Mill of the World.  If so, you,too, can read this book for profit.  I will show you ten ways in which we are raising up people who enjoy a certain political license (though even that is starting to rasp our wrists and ankles) but who have all the genuine spiritual liberty of an opium addict.  The chains are right here, if you like.

Yes so is the window.









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