The indispensable Tony Esolen, invoking the themes of place, limits, and liberty with great eloquence.


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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. So, who gets to impose his, and I do mean HIS, as I’ve read enough of Esolen to know his very low opinion of women, will? What male gets to decide for me where I”ll live and what I’ll do and who I’ll marry? Someone gets to make decisions; please identify that person.

  2. Karen,

    Rather than considering your precise question, I think it would be better to investigate the presuppositions behind them:

    First, there is a supersessionary logic at work in your thinking. Note that Mr. Esolen indulges an analysis of scripture, literature, and the thinkings of the ancient. Whether one accepts his analysis in toto or not, it strives to be grounded in the Christian tradition.

    Your analysis, on the other hand, seems preoccupied with choice as a great good — and not just choice per se, but choice in a vacuum of circumstance as a self-ruling sovereign as the greatest good. This view of freedom is entirely voluntaristic: to be truly human is to be a realized individual who rules himself or herself through sheer expression of will. This liberal voluntaristic anthropology animates your question and superscedes Christian anthropology.

    Christian thinking is that we have a nature as creatures made in God’s image. Freedom is not sheer willing, but comportment with said nature. It is not about making choice divorced from context, as if this were a good in itself, but about making the right choices.

    Second, the very idea of free choice is by now a much discredited myth. Individuals cannot exist as sovereign entities in control of their passions and reason. Instead, we are born into a world with a history and with discourses that are a product of that history. These discourses shape the way you think and the choices before you in very subtle ways. They also identify the objects of choice that are acceptable. Choosing to lower oneself to an animal by indulging in libertine behavior is credible, but choosing to join a community of Christians who follow through on the biblical declaration that Jesus is Lord in this life and at this moment is prohibited. The state demands a monopoly over public space and the market prevents communities from managing their lives. Instead, Christianity, which is supposed to be an all encompassing way of life realized in the community of the Church, is boxed into what has been discursively defined as “religion,” i.e. system of private and interior beliefs for the individual.

    So choice is not unconstrained, nor will it ever be. This leads into the next point.

    Third, the correct question to ask is not to what degree choices will be constrained — as they will be in any social formation — but toward what ENDS are we to live? If, as I claim above, the sovereign individual is a myth and people can only realize their natures in community, then our current way of life, which treats persons as atomistic individuals, is a form of bondage.

    Fourth, your question has no one answer. For people to live in community is to forsake the drive toward subduing nature, including our own. It is to give up theis fatuous and satanic quest for absolute control, including control over ourselves. It is to once again be governed by custom, honor, and duty. Asking, then, who will decide who you can marry has as many possible answers as there are communities — communities each with their own traditions and ways that will emerge organically. But to submit to such would be to grasp the gift of finitude that God has granted us with both hands. It is to submit to our natures and the ennobling force of social creation, rather than the enfeebling one of attempting to be God by grasping at total control of our natures by engineering a modern utopia.

  3. JA,

    You are absolutely correct. A close look at the Story of Creation and its setting in the Garden tells us that God did not say to Adam: “You are a magnificent creature whom I have endowed with the singular attribute of choice, which shall become so important to you that you shall be able to choose something other than Me. For instance, you might choose the Tree of Good and Evil, a means to knowledge without having to be pestered with an eternal relationship with Me. Am I not a grand God, Adam?”

    What God did say was that if Adam chose by his actions to eat of said tree he would surely die. This highmindedness about choosing is misplaced. There is no choice, unless you count acting such that you bring physical, spiritual and eternal death upon you, but that of the Author, Creator, Sustainer and Finisher of the created order, including living within the limitations which that order imposes on you the creature.

  4. One notes that the quest for power is the quest for the means to attempt to escape, live outside of or subdue the limitations of the created order. True wealth is no better expressed with real money than with gold and silver, beautiful and pleasing with an excellent weight to value ratio.

    The created order has imposed a finite limit on gold and silver, finite in how much there actually is and finite in how much thereof can be found and made into coin.

    Yet, those questing for power and the means to overcome the limitations of creative order have conspired over history to overcome this limitations by trimming of the edges of coins or by debasing the coins by add other metals. Today, our governments have simply cast specie aside and create “wealth” and “money” out of thin air, ex nihilo, so that they can get rich, have even more power and fund their welfare state and their warfare state. It would appear, but only appear, that the alchemist have actually created gold in the form of paper and even more modern in the form of digits, as trillions of dollars are transferred hither, thither and yon as electrons. It is, however, a fools gold; for the created order demonstrating the mind of the Creator whose words brought it into existence will not be mocked. The limitations will ultimately impose themselves.

  5. Karen,
    Right now, rather than our fathers who used to be the heads of households, it is the abstract corporation known as the Hobbesian state with a monopoly on coercion and with the ability to define the limits of its own power which first declares most of what we would do in a healthy social order to be illicit or illegal and then gives us a license to do that which is otherwise illicit (think secular indulgence) such as when we can drink, when we can drive, when we can “legally” have sex, when and how we can marry, how we can dissolve a marriage, even what marriage is. So, if one wants to be emancipated from all of the willful males in one’s life -God, father, brother, fiancé, husband, etc. – one only has to turn to the great abstract father – the Hobbesian state. It will neutralize all institutions – family, Church, local associations – which interfere with your will. You may then join the collective of autonomous individuals with their abstract rights, would-be Promethean selves who would shake their fists in the face of any god. But before you join the collective look more closely at the would-be Promethean selves. A close look at them reveals that they are not autonomous Promethean selves but estranged, alienated and shriveled selves.

    The Beatitudes of the 5th Chapter of Matthew are the sojourn of submission and the ultimate fruits of submission, i.e. coming to live under Christ-imposed limitations.

    Blessed are the poor in spirit -they realize for the first time that they are fallen creatures and what the fall ultimately means. Billions of people will never take this first step to submission.

    Blessed are they that mourn -they, having realized their condition, cry over it; their hearts are broken at who they are. Fewer still reach this state of submission.

    Blessed are the meek – these are the ones out of the first two groups who submit to the authority and the training of the Christ; who allow Him to be their yoke partner. They are the one’s who allow the Master to take their raw personality and acquire character.

    Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness – these are the one’s who have realized the sweetness of freedom in submission, i.e. becoming meek, and who want more, to seek righteousness which ultimately is a submitted and humble relationship with the Christ who is righteousness.

    Blessed are the merciful – these are those who have become so much like Christ in His righteousness, in Christ, that they show the first fruits of being a Christian – showing mercy to those who do not deserve it.

    Blessed are the pure in heart – those who can show mercy are considered by our Lord to be pure in heart

    Blessed are the peacemakers – those who have learned to show mercy and those who have pure hearts can be peacemakers, beginning with the level of the family: peace between siblings; peace with parents; peace with spouses. (Never achieved without a sense of submission on all parties.)

    Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake – this is our ultimate reward as Christians: because we are meek, because we show mercy, because we are pure in heart, because we are peacemakers, because we follow the Righteous One, we get the privilege of getting persecuted.

    To answer your question: it is God who ultimately gets to make the decision, no just for you, not just for women, but for all of us. I have identified the “who” in your question.

  6. Two more points to add some needed elaboration. The first is really long. The second is much shorter:

    1) I probably shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to add a stronger Foucauldian spin to all of this to really demonstrate how coercive our society already is.

    Communitarian society, while still possessing hierarchies, require greater levels of consent to operate. The conditions are such that human relations become symmetrical and more equal. I’m sure you’ve noticed this in your own social experiences. Smaller groups are more intimate and information is more widely shared. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to manage. This goes especially for the modern nation-state. To reference some of the ideas of David Graeber (the author of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” which was recently reviewed positively by our very own John Medaille), modern society is governed through bureaucracies — whether the public bureaucracies of the IRS and the DMV or the private ones of HMOS, banks, and nursing homes — which operate by threat of force. This threat is necessary to the prosecution of their power, which is essentially stupidity. Symmetrical relations take a lot of work. One has to enjoin the messy business of actually understanding the way others think, the circumstances of the situation at hand, etc. Bureaucracies bypass this dynamic by regulation and fiat backed up by the threat of violence. To illustrate how this operates, we can take Graeber’s example: a restaurant kitchen:

    “Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, for example, knows that if something goes terribly wrong and an angry boss appears to size things up, he is unlikely to carry out a detailed investigation, or even, to pay serious attention to the workers all scrambling to explain their version of what happened. He is much more likely to tell them all to shut up and arbitrarily impose a story that allows instant judgment: i.e., ‘you’re the new guy, you messed up—if you do it again, you’re fired.’ It’s those who do not have the power to hire and fire who are left with the work of figuring out what actually did go wrong so as to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

    The same thing happens in bureaucracy. A story becomes imposed by the bureaucrats themselves — again, whether that bureaucrat is behind the counter at Bank of America or the DMV — and a ruling is compelled through regulation and legal networks. This leaves us with fewer opportunities for consensual, egalitarian, and symmetric engagement than premoderns, who were supposedly subject to unending oppression by tyrants, but in reality largely lived under conditions of subsidiarity, where most decisions were made in communities that were more symmetrical than anything that we have.

    But to answer the question about who well tell Karen who she can marry, we need to apply that Foucauldian spin that I mentioned earlier. Not only are people controlled in modern society directly by bureaucratic fiat backed up by the threat of force, but also by the manipulation of subjectivity and identity. Let me back up. In premodern societies, soul and body were understood to be an organic whole. People were made good citizens through disciplinary practices directed toward the body. These could include virtually any practice: prayer, meditation, fasting, labor, administering and receiving the Eucharist, martial arts training, routines, etc. If someone violated the customs of her day, the response was discipline in regard to the act. So, for instance, intercourse outside of marriage or between two people of the same sex was disciplined as a sinful or inappropriate behavior.

    In modern life, this formula is inverted. To condense a very long story that involves a discussion of Cartesian philosophy and German Idealism and Romanticism, in modern life we understand the body and the soul to be separate and intensely focus on the subject. What does this mean? It means that we obsess over the interior life of the person. This should be rather self-evident. Moderns are always striving to “be authentic” and concerned with the maintenance of the inner person. Witness the attention given to therapy and psychology, or how these approaches suffuse even our churches and schools, where there is an obsession to give the parishioner an emotionally fulfilling experience where they are “touched” or the student the opportunity to become “self-actualized.” These interior identities are typically expressed through modes of confession. Churches have alter calls, Oprah and other talk show hosts have guests who confess themselves to the audience, and Facebook grants us opportunity to confess our political and religious affiliations on the profile page.

    Back to the inversion of the formula, because we now obsess over the subject and increasingly consider the body to be an inviolate locus of rights, modern society disciplines through control over subjectivities. Some of this is like what can be found in the restaurant example above where the situation is identified asymmetrically by the boss or by bureaucrats who rule by fiat, fitting everything into their procedural system. But it also runs much deeper than this. The very identities that we have access to are defined and formulated through various discourses, whether by the government or by other authorities (e.g. psychiatrists). In our society, subjectivity has been thoroughly mapped, classified, divided, and schematized. The so-called choice that we have is to select from pre-packaged manufactured identities that the “powers and principalities” of our age fashion through “discursive formations of power,” to use the Foucauldian phrase, by a process that, while unintentional, operates as a means of control. That is, we are handed pre-packaged identities to “choose” from. All these identities are assimilated to the market and liberal society and thus already under control.

    In other words, the argument is that in modern society we only have the illusion of choice, but in reality are controlled through the colonization of our subjectivities by social and political forces. The view of choice that liberals espouse is a myth.

    Look at, for instance, three of the forms of subjectivity that are of recent invention: race, religion, and sexual orientation. In some sense, race is the most demythologized of all of these subjectivities. It is clear and widely known that it is tied to a discourse of imperialism and civilizational hierarchy. No one in premodern times understood themselves as embodying a racial identity, but instead understood themselves as members of tribes, families, cults, etc. The very idea of race was used to contrast the white, rational, and civilized European with the colored, irrational, and save Other. It was a discourse that legitimized violence. And even when this discourse was resisted, this was accomplished with the internalization of this identity. Thus, even when concessions are extracted, it is done by accepting the original identity and thus involves a co-option by the resistors who come to accept the new order.

    Religion is a powerful example of this. In case you were unaware, there is no such thing as “religion” and its binary opposite, “secular.” Both of these are social constructions of early modern life. Prior to this, people disciplined themselves through Christian practices as part of the community of the Church. This is what it has historically meant to be a Christian. It was a way of life that directed and formed every aspect of human life as an organic whole. The emergence of the state and the relocation of political life and power away from community and toward the emergent state required that the Church be marginalized. Eventually, religion emerged as a private (as opposed to public and all encompassing), interiorized and subjective (as opposed to exterior and objective), and individual (as opposed to corporate) system of beliefs (as opposed to practices that combined both theory and praxis). “Religion” also came to be understood as irrationally leading to violence, which the “secular” state needed to contain with its rational violence. Today, we confess religions as part of our identities, believing that we have this as a choice and an expression of our authenticity, when in reality this very category marginalizes our most deepest commitments so that the state can monopolize the public square. And this also appears in imperial practices. Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, were reformulated as private, interior, and individualized belief systems that could be compared to Protestant Christianity and marginalized as inferior. Do you have any idea what an egregious act of violence this was? Calling the traditions of the Indian subcontinent a single “religion” known as “Hinduism” is like taking all of the patron deities, mystery cults, ancestor worship, the cult of the emperor, gnosticism, and philosophies of first century Rome and calling it “Hellenism” or “Romanism,” while attempting to distill all of this into a system of religious beliefs. This is the colonization of peoples’ most sacred customs. Sadly, the people of the colony of India resisted by internalizing this very identity, which forever changed their traditions. Now they have “religions,” like we do, that have faced the same marginalization as Christianity.

    Of course Foucault’s favorite example was sexual orientation. In premodern times, if someone committed a sexual sin, the behavior was recognized as evil and disciplined. Beginning in the 19th century, however, a new need arose to control sexual behavior in mass society. With the village gone, customs and mores were insufficient for such work. The result was the now infamous Victorian Era. During this period, psychiatry emerged as a discipline. Early psychiatrists deviated from the past focus on behavior and shifted to identities. If a man was engaging in intercourse with another man, it was now because he had a disease of the mind. Something was wrong with him! This became interiorized and “sexual orientation” emerged as a new social reality. Instead of focusing on the behavior of the body, the sin itself, now people are encouraged or condemned based upon their identity. One side wants to grant “homosexuals” equal access to marriage so that they are no longer oppressed. This is an attempt to assimilate and control their identities by bringing them into social institutions (marriage) that are regulated by state law and directed by the market. This is about control. The market comes to flatten and penetrate all areas of human life, even what was traditionally considered deviant. For another concrete example, witness, for instance, the recent furor over the contraception mandate in the health care ruling. The state is trying to guarantee the “sexual liberation” of the individual. This is, of course, another act of control. By making itself a necessary part of the “sexual revolution” the state can both solidify its position and further attenuate local, familial, and communal institutions.

    In short, people are now controlled through the threat of violence wielded by bureaucracies and discourses that control subjectivities. These mechanisms are intractable and exist under conditions that are sustained by asymmetric, inegalitarian, and non-consensual arrangements. The implication is that we now live under one of the most coercive societies in human history. Choice is an illusion. We are governed by social forces beyond our ability to change them. True choice is only realizable in community without the coercive dominance of the state and the market. In this arrangement, you can change these categories. It is the delightful and ennobling arrangement whereby we see various cultures emerge with all of their deliciously organic eccentricities. It is the beauty in the possibilities of finitude. The modern state, on the other hand, seeks to control all culture and turn every community into an aggregation of liberal individuals.

    2) You should know that this obsession with choice has a historical origin that is very recent. Specifically, I am referring to late scholastic developments in the 14th century. To spare you a lengthy explanation, let’s just say that Christians once understood freedom and choice in vaguely Neo-Platonic terms. This implied that everything in existence had its place. God was the Creator and sustainer of the world. Mankind was made in His image and participated in God through seeking to be like Him. To be free was to comport with this nature, to choose wisely. Some of the late scholastics didn’t like this because they thought that it limited God’s freedom by binding Him to an ordained order. They responded with nominalism and theological voluntarism. This transformed the fundamental understanding of human existence as one that was participatory into one that it is voluntaristic. In other words, as humans ceased to participate in universals and in God, they, like God, expressed themselves through acts of the will untethered to context, through sheer choice.

    My point is that the view of choice and freedom underlying your thinking is a very particular late theological innovation in Western Christian theology. It is a deviation from early Christianity. Of course, virtually all modern thinking assumes this view of freedom. The result is our current apostasy, which was largely inevitable. With the participatory understanding shattered, an antagonism between God and man emerged. When existence became a matter of the expression of will, it also became one of domination. In this case, God’s will dominating and suppressing human will. For man to be truly free and self-autonomous in the nominalist sense, it had to spurn God’s will.

    This is the view of freedom underlying liberalism. It is ultimately a nihilistic rebellion against God. True freedom is instead seeking God, who is the Truth, the Beautiful, and the Good. It is coming to embody and to know such. Absolute choice to do what one likes regardless of the circumstances is a form of bondage that denies who we are.

  7. Karen, forgive my brethren here for ignoring your question. I’d say the best way todetermine the answer would be to triangulate between John Calvin, John Winthrop, and John Calhoun.

    Ie, watch out for those Johns.


    John Haas

  8. Ha! I knew it — this ‘Karen’ is the same one that used to foul up the waters over at Touchstone’s ‘Mere Comments’ blog, where Tony Esolen posts fairly often. Basically, you’ll get a mixture of animosity and feminist claptrap. Don’t waste your time, folks. It’s a lost cause.

    By the way, thanks for posting this, Jeffrey. Possibly my all-time favorite Esolen piece — I’ve sent it around and referred it to numerous people over the past few years. And I can highly recommend an essay to be read in tandem with it: David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing” (available online or in his book “In The Aftermath”). It touches on some of the same issues.

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