What’s Wrong with the World

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Thanksgiving, 2019 Edition

by Tony M.

We who are Christians and Americans have much to be thankful for, and I will here elaborate a few of those things.

First of all is the gift by God, that gift of infinite value: salvation by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, the God made man who gave his life for us sinners. The second is attached to it as the other side of the coin: the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, our savior; faith in the Church He founded, faith in all that He promised.

I put these before and above the gift of life itself, because they are worth far more: as the martyrs and prophets declared, faith is to be preferred over life itself, if God-hating men make it a choice between one or the other. But faith and salvation pre-suppose the gift of life, so we are thankful for that gift of life in the very midst of being thankful for salvation and faith. And necessarily, if we are thankful for the gift of life, we are also thankful for our parents and families, from whom we receive life and so much more – ideally, the first school of that permanent, faithful love that is our calling here in this world.

Like with our parents, we must be thankful also to our patria, our homeland, which comprises both the society in which we live (in particular, our nation) and the formal expression of that society in its overarching principles of organization (including, but not limited to, its government). St. Thomas confirmed what the earlier Fathers and Doctors taught, that we owe filial reverence to the patria, after the reverence we owe our parents, and for somewhat the same reasons (though in different way). This filial reverence is in part thankfulness, and the proper name of this virtue is patriotism.

Under this heading, one of the common features of America for which so many people express gratitude is our freedom. And indeed, this is something for which we should be immensely grateful.

But what does it mean? What is this freedom that we celebrate?

First, I must say what it is not: it is not license. The Founders (at least, the best of them) made it clear that what they had constructed was a government for a virtuous people, and they had no illusions that it would long remain should the people lose their virtues.

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. (Franklin)
Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men; so that we do not depend upon their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them. (Madison)
Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue. (Sam Adams)
A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. (Patrick Henry)

And importantly, Washington:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.

If this concept is so universally held by such important men in the founding of our political order, it should be taken seriously by us.

Let me offer a source which lies behind what these men had in mind: Christ told us “the truth shall set you free”. But he also said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. Jesus Christ himself is the truth that sets us free. That man is free who (a) first apprehends what it is that constitutes the flourishing of human life in its hierarchy of goods; and (b) is able to live out according to that apprehension a life conformed to human flourishing, especially in its highest elements, but then (ideally) in many of its secondary aspects as well. On the spiritual plane, this implies the virtues of faith, hope and charity; and the good to be enjoyed in them is (in this life) that joyful peace of mind and heart which the saints enjoyed, and (in the next) the beatific vision in union with God. On the mundane plane the virtues are justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence; and the goods to be enjoyed in them will (ideally) be that peaceful social order in which will thrive friendship and the goods of the temporal order.

And it is by being enlightened by faith, and being made spiritually alive in grace, that man is able to have even a hope of satisfying the first layer: knowing God and living according to his love (which is charity). For it is by grace that man can hope to overcome the interior and exterior impediments to virtue, which is otherwise impossible. These gifts, then, are naturally disposed to supporting and strengthening a man in his pursuit of the second layers, because TRUE flourishing in respect of the secondary aspects of happiness presuppose that those aspects are conformed to the man’s primary goals, his first and all-encompassing love that forms the ground for all other loves. As many saints and philosophers have testified, a man cannot be truly happy in this life if he is living in such a way that he knows his way of life cannot be sustained because it is incompatible with the ultimate end of man. He can only be “happy” insofar as he is capable of fooling himself into ignoring his final goals, thus ensuring that he never reaches them – and that is surely the very definition of a false happiness.

Thus life organized under a unifying theme of the virtues, in their proper hierarchy, is the context in which men have any true and fruitful hope of living out a wholesome and satisfying political life, living in the community of the polity in a flourishing way. In that context, “freedom” means the life of a man of virtue directing his life in a manner well conformed to the flourishing of the polity (which constitutes the highest of the secondary ends of life). And this requires that he know how to organize his life so as to contribute to that public flourishing, and then be able to carry forth his knowledge in activity well ordered and contributing to happiness. In the best of men, this will be found as well in directing, or at least in helping to direct, the polity itself in its flourishing; in the vast majority of men, it is more regularly found in their directing or helping to direct or support the vast interlocking array of lesser communities which constitute the fabric, the tissues and organs and sinews of the social order, (the schools, business firms, social clubs, and so on), where families constitute the individual cells making up the body politic.

Consequently, while freedom implies in essence the capacity to choose actions, it does not imply an undirected capacity to choose actions; rather it refers to the ready capacity to choose right actions. And (due to the variety of men’s conditions in development of virtue) it also implies that we will always have an array of different levels of ability to exercise freedom: a child can be free to choose red or blue socks, but cannot choose which doctors he will seek advice from, and requiring him to so choose is not a freeing opportunity to him; a high school student can choose some of his classes, but he cannot choose not to attend school and still call that “freedom”, it is something else. A young man may choose his profession, but he cannot choose a profession of thief and call it an act of freedom. Someone who is eligible to vote* has a choice among candidates, but using the franchise to vote for Mickey Mouse is not an exercise of freedom, it is an act of despair because of a (real or perceived) LACK of freedom.

*I am speaking generically here of having the legal right to vote, not merely of America of the current day: it was a mistake of law and a degeneration of freedom to insist on giving the franchise to every person 18 and older. In a properly ordered society, more capacity to direct the activity of the polity will flow to those whose virtue and wisdom is manifest, and while there are different ways of organizing this, giving equal vote to every quasi-adult is not one of them. In general, a wholesome society plans to allow men to make free choices up to – and not normally far beyond – their capacity to apprehend in suitable detail the hierarchy of interrelated goods and suitable means to achieve them. Sometimes a man is well suited to leading his own family but not a neighborhood, much less a town, state, or country. Freedom for such a man is not found in forcing him to direct the activity of the polity; if he is virtuous, he himself would find such not only a burden, but an insupportable one; it would bind him in dire straits, not free him.

So freedom properly understood is essentially connected to the virtues that are necessary for human flourishing. And freedom in the political sense is then a freedom ordered by reference to the higher virtues – especially faith, hope, and charity – because it is per se an excellence relating to the secondary aspects of human flourishing, which are themselves ordered by reference to the primary elements. This, then, explains why so often the Founders were convinced that only a virtuous – and religious – people could fully sustain a polity conceived in freedom. And by religious, here, I mean primarily “Christian”, because first, that’s what they would have meant by it (with a few qualifiers), and second because it is Christianity that has the greatest truth about human excellence (for it has Christ himself), and has the tools for overcoming the sin and degeneracy that is endemic to the human condition.

So it is interesting that while the very men who set us on the path of political freedom thought of that freedom as intimately connected to virtue and religion, and imagined the maturing of that freedom being aided or even led by religion, today we have instead a nation that is trying its hardest to re-conceive freedom as being essentially a freedom from religion, freedom without regard to morals, and that what little remains of religion is treated more as a chain holding us back from freedom. I don’t think that our Founders would agree with this direction.

So for today, I thank God that I still have the freedom to object to the modern morass of errors about what is true freedom and how it is achieved. Maybe we will still have that freedom tomorrow and next week, but we can hardly be highly confident that it will continue.

Comments (4)

Excellent post, Tony, thank you! It's definitely a sign of "what's wrong with the world" that freedoms are so reversed, and this is a sign in turn of the loss of virtue. Hence, in California, it is illegal for a restaurant spontaneously to offer plastic straws to its customers. But it is perfectly legal to kill an unborn infant right up until birth. Similarly, it is illegal in all states to take your child for a ride in a car without a highly specific and expensive type of child restraint system installed. But not only is it legal to kill that child prior to birth, it is also legal to have that child given hormones to prevent his going through normal puberty, legal to teach him that he has no specific sex until he chooses it, and *may* be functionally illegal *not* to do these things if the local public school decides that your boy is really a girl.

So our society has corporately lost its mind, and freedom is being undermined at every turn.

Nonetheless, we can for now still give thanks that we can say these things without being arrested and also that we can meet and worship God and say these things in our churches. All the more need for us to exercise these freedoms while we have them.


You said "St. Thomas confirmed what the earlier Fathers and Doctors taught, that we owe filial reverence to the patria".

Could you name some of these fathers? I'm interested in how early church fathers struggled with issues like patriotism. I'm familiar with Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition, I'd love to see what was said earlier in the tradition especially when Christianity hadnt been accepted by the Roman emperor.

Callum, I am sorry, but I cannot seem to locate the details. I was thinking specifically of Augustine, whom (I feel sure) was quite clear in support of the duty of reverent loyalty to the state. Perhaps in the City of God. But I cannot locate it. The same with Doctors. I seem to recall looking up this specific issue quite some time ago, and finding passages that gave such clear support, but I don't recall the particulars. I should have saved them in a file somewhere.

Thus life organized under a unifying theme of the virtues, in their proper hierarchy, is the context in which men have any true and fruitful hope of living out a wholesome and satisfying political life, living in the community of the polity in a flourishing way. In that context, “freedom” means the life of a man of virtue directing his life in a manner well conformed to the flourishing of the polity (which constitutes the highest of the secondary ends of life).

Just great stuff, Tony. Thanks for this wise and penetrating post.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Here in Atlanta, the Cellas' holiday was forcibly postponed, due to an outbreak of a (mercifully mild) stomach virus. No fun, especially when folks have been long anticipating all the delicious morsels. Fortunately, everyone had recovered to nearly full health by Saturday, and as we all know, Thanksgiving leftovers can often exceed in deliciousness the original meal.

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