This essay is authored by Anthony Esolen, and it is republished here with permission from Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.
To what may I liken the law?
The law is a barricade. It can protect your walls against barbarians rushing from the mountains with bows and arrows. But it can’t protect your walls from termites. It can protect you from noisy squatters pitching a tent in your backyard. But it can’t protect you from noisy neighbors pitching a tent in their own backyard. It can protect you, sometimes, from being socked in the jaw. But it can’t protect you from people saying things that merit a sock in the jaw.
Or the law is like a big awkward machine. It can, in some places, compel you to send your child to an accredited school, but it cannot compel your child to learn anything there. It can compel you to pay taxes. It cannot compel the collectors to use them well.
Or the law is like a half-blind giant looking to catch the bad things he can see. It can catch the woman who puts a bullet through her husband’s heart. It cannot catch the woman who drives a stake through her husband’s soul. It can, once in a century, catch the congressman taking a bribe from a rich constituent. It cannot catch the many thousands of congressmen and lobbyists subtly trading upon the public interest over a friendly meal.
If the law is blunt, a Constitution, the law over the laws, the law at a second remove, is a regular fumbler when we require it to do what it is not meant to do. It’s as if the half-blind giant, missing a hand and a foot, were to sit behind a steering wheel and a clutch and an array of levers—trying to use a wrecking ball to knock down an outhouse, or a backhoe to dig a row in front of the porch for pansies and petunias, or a cannon to wipe out a wasps’ nest.
Supposing that all human problems may be addressed by machinery is a characteristic mistake for a people dazed by technology. If boys don’t treat girls well, we should pass a law requiring a certain percentage of titanium in the wings—pardon me, requiring “sensitivity training” in the schools. If Lorna is poor because she has taken up with three boys in quick succession and gotten pregnant by two of them, and she can’t cook and won’t clean and is bad with figures and is surly with strangers, then we must build a chute from Lynn’s house to Lorna’s, and send money down it. If kids are fat because they are indoors, eating junk and gaping at screens, then we must erect a vast Rube Goldberg device with bureaucrats on one end and regulatory wires in the middle and electrodes surgically implanted into the children’s posteriors on the other end to jolt them into jumping-jacks at appointed times, while visions of broccoli dance in their heads.
The wrongheadedness of this way of thinking was borne home to me by my first conversation with my great-aunt Concetta, in the mountaintop Italian village where she had lived her whole life. My grandfather had migrated to America when he was eighteen years old. Fifty-six years later—when I was a teenager who knew no Italian—his sister Concetta flew to Pennsylvania to visit him for a two-month stay. Their pictures made the newspapers, and everybody in our large family tried to make her feel welcome. She loved my grandfather dearly, but after a couple of weeks she changed her plans and returned to Italy.
Seven years later, I was sitting with her on the back stoop of her place, one in a row of connected stone dwellings on an old cobbled street.
“Why did you leave so soon, Aunt Concetta?”
“I left because I hated the life you have in America,” she replied. “You have no freedom.”
I was thunderstruck. “But of course we have freedom! We can vote for whomever we please, we can go to one college or another, we can move anywhere in the country—America is the freest country in the world!” This was 1983, and no doubt I had in mind the two billion people who had been liberated into peonage by the machinery of communism.
“No, you have no freedom,” she said, unmoved. “When the sun goes down, you are all in your houses. Your grandmother told me she cannot even walk on the main street at night. No one talks to his neighbors. There is no life. You are not free.”
She was right, I had to admit. In her village, anyone could walk anywhere, anytime—and everyone did, old and young, boys and girls. It wasn’t that everyone liked everyone else, but that everyone could depend on everyone else. If there was the odd drunk or brawler, everyone knew him, and could see to it that he didn’t get out of hand. The national law had nothing to do with it. I came to jest that the best thing you could say about the Germans was that they obeyed all their laws, and the best thing you could say about the Italians was that they didn’t obey any.
If I may venture another simile, law is like the ordinary carbon with which iron is alloyed at great temperatures to produce steel. By itself the carbon is useless. You can crush charcoal in your fingers. Even the glossiest anthracite will splinter into shards under one blow of a hammer. The carbon is necessary to make steel, but it is not of the essence.
That would be the iron—the thousands of customs, manners, and traditions of a people, any one of which might be held up to scorn by the sophomoric mind, but which persist because, more or less, they answer to human nature, human needs, and human longings. I hesitate to press the simile too far, lest I give the impression that these customs are inert and homogeneous. On the contrary, they are more like the fibers and cells of a living thing, connected with one another in ways that escape number and observation.
We who conceive of things as mechanisms must be reminded that a part of a machine is not like a part of something alive. The distributor in my car does one thing and one alone for the pistons, which also do one thing and one thing alone. They are connected with one another, but they are not related to one another. Someone can invent another tool, another part, which will improve upon the work of the distributor, and the rest of the car won’t miss it.
That is not the case with customs, manners, and traditions. Parts of a machine may be replaced. Money is fungible. One voter may cancel out another. But you can’t exchange one brother for another. Mothers and fathers are not interchangeable parts, and no social mechanism or stopgap can take their place. We do not have robots or government programs kiss our children goodnight.
But, as far as the simile will allow, I say that the customs, manners, and traditions of a people, their practical and their social know-how, as regards the ordinary affairs of life, such as work, play, eating and drinking, building houses, trading, giving, marrying, raising children, and praying, are the iron.
Here we may dispense with prattle about “pluralism.” No culture is a straitjacket; but all cultures, like all living things, must be coherent. We can have a culture like that of the pagan Irish, whose great epic was the tale of a cattle raid; we can have the British culture of shopkeepers that Napoleon sneered at; but we cannot have both at once. We can have a culture that allows men to challenge one another to a duel when they believe their honor has been besmirched; we can have a culture in which the weakest among us may speak slander without fear of physical reprisal; but we cannot have both at once. The call for “pluralism” is a dodge, a way to excuse oneself from having to justify the single counter-cultural thing one wishes to promote. Many people are “pluralistic” about marriage these days. Not nearly so many are “pluralistic” about property, or revenge, or war—or education, or even unbridled speech.
A people without iron have no culture—a miserable and subhuman state of affairs made possible by wealth and mass distractions. The shepherds on the plains of Mesopotamia had iron. The Inuit on the delta of the Mackenzie once had iron; now they have television and welfare. The Guarani in the jungles of the Amazon still have iron. The people who lived in my great aunt’s village in Calabria had iron—quite a lot of it, though the intrusion of the technopoly has been rusting it.
The purpose of law is to corroborate and invigorate the ways of a people. That’s what the carbon does to iron. It makes it harder and stronger; it makes it more like iron and less like coal.
If a people understand that one day in a week ought to be set free from labor, so that they may come together as a people in the most important and solemn and joyous thing that people do—rather than working every day, or rather than subjugating the human community to the needs of the machine, giving John a “free” Monday to slug alone at home in an empty neighborhood, and Jim a “free” Tuesday to do the same—then they will naturally seek to use the carbon of the law to corroborate the iron of their ways.
If they understand that children actually thrive best in the quiet world of the home, looked after by the woman who gave them life and who loves them and knows them best, then they will seek to use the law to invigorate that world, if any development from without should threaten it; to remove obstacles from its natural and healthy growth.
What Americans suffer now is an imaginary and disintegrative “Constitution” which declares that, in one way or another, the law shall not perform that most important work of the law, because culture itself is “unconstitutional.” Mass education, mass politics, mass entertainment, and mass distraction masquerading as news—they are now what we take for culture, but those things bear the same relation to a living culture as the scattered members of a raccoon have with the beautiful and innocent animal that failed to cross the superhighway.
The true Constitution was one part blueprint outlining the mechanical relations among bodies of government, and one part guarantee of ordinary life against the threat of that machine. The “Constitution” is another thing altogether. It is what declares that there shall be neither steel nor simple iron, but only the mechanically adduced “will” of numbers—and of those most mechanical governors of the machine, with the levers and clutches before them, unable to resist “doing something,” without the slightest idea of what they will accomplish, or how much they will destroy.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This essay originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. It is reprinted here with permission.