“When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder,” wrote Richard Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences, “we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason.” Weaver meant by “sentiment” something far more profound and illuminating than a fleeting emotion: “Surmounting all is an intuitive feeling about the immanent nature of reality, and this is the sanction to which both ideas and beliefs are ultimately referred for verification.” To put it another way, “culture is originally a matter of yea-saying,” that is, of intuiting the natures of things about us, things that make a moral claim upon us. That intuition or seeing-into is what the author of Genesis suggests when Adam names the animals. It is not that he assigns to each individual creature an arbitrary name, but that he gives each kind of creature a name in accordance with its nature.
Weaver understood that to uncouple a word from the universal reality it is meant to denote is to degrade words themselves: “If words no longer correspond to objective realities, it seems no great wrong to take liberties with words.” Let us take for example the word “dog.” If it names a merely arbitrary category, then it makes no moral claim upon us; there is no way a dog “ought” to be treated, according to its doggy nature, since there is no such nature to bind us. Yet most people would rebel against such a conclusion, because most people, or most Americans anyway, would recognize that a creature meant to run with a pack ought at least to run with his human masters, and a creature so sagacious in his sense of smell ought to have plenty of opportunities to use it, out in the world of grass and trees and rocks and, best of all, other dogs. So true is this, that we have laws against the “inhumane” treatment of dogs, a remarkable conundrum. For we assume that it is the humane thing, the humanly appropriate thing, to recognize the caninely appropriate thing, and treat man’s best friend as he deserves. There are no calls to keep the government (by which is meant, here, the force of the moral intuitions of one’s fellow men) out of the doghouse.
But we will not do to dogs what we will do to mankind—to ourselves and to one another. Naturally, we will dress up our betrayals in fancy words. We will say, with the Supreme Court of the United States, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that the capacity, nay the duty, of determining for oneself the meaning of the entire universe is inseparable from freedom; and this by way of legitimizing the snuffing out of that small part of the universe whose existence is owing to one’s voluntary and irresponsible action. What appears here as a Promethean omnipotence is in fact a declaration of complete unmeaning. We are left with what Weaver calls the “abysm,” the fall into a dark nothingness. For we feel, somehow, that we human beings are meant for something, not individually and arbitrarily, but together and truly, and yet we lack the language and even the political sanction to think along those lines. We cannot ask, “Does this new tool actually assist us in attaining the good toward which we are drawn by our nature?” We have denied the nature; and so the tools come, and we submit to them.
A sad and absurd example of the abysm of unmeaning has recently come to my attention. A seven-year-old boy, whose mother has encouraged him in the fantasy that he is “transgendered,” has attempted to join the Girl Scouts—and the Girl Scouts have allowed it. In a saner age, the mother would be subjected to severe reproach. Again, we would not do to a dog what we allow to be done to a boy. The child is a boy—that is a plain fact—and boys have boyish natures, which imply boyish ends toward which they strive: boys are to become men. These boyish natures are made manifest in a million ways; not all boys will play baseball, but all boys do need affirmation in their masculine nature, usually by their fathers and brothers and playfellows. But because we refuse to acknowledge any human ends that apply to us all universally, especially in matters of sex, we allow the word “boy” to be emptied of significance. Now, it appears, a “boy” or a “girl” is what some arbitrary determiner says it will be, and the rest of us must wink and play along in fantasyland.
Here someone may object, “The self is the determiner! Our new policy grants freedom to everyone.” The reverse is true. It robs us of freedom; but to see that, we need again to acknowledge nature and ends. If I place a dog in the middle of a prairie and drive away, I have set him “free” in the trivial sense that now he can go where he pleases; but he is alone and likely to die without the support of the pack, human or canine. That is, if his life is a race to attain a dog’s fulfillment, I have just cut his hamstrings. If I say, “You may call yourself a girl even if you are genetically male,” I have not only hamstrung the child in my care. I have, by one apparently libertarian diktat, robbed all other boys and girls of their right to claim from us what will assist them in their development as boys or girls, for I no longer really recognize such creatures as boys and girls at all. They are mere arbitrary groupings.
Such a position is not only insane; it is also impious, and therefore fatal to just and limited government. Piety, writes Weaver, “admits the right to exist of things larger than the ego, of things different from the ego,” while “it is the nature of unlimited egotism to deny any source of right ordering outside itself.” Impiety is a state of belligerence against what is.
Among the ancient Romans, piety was bound up with a strong sense of the limits imposed by things greater and more reverend than oneself. So the Romans worshiped Terminus, the god of boundary stones. Thus it was that the pious duty they owed to the state was one with the duty they owed to their families—to their fathers, living and deceased; to the gods of hearth and home. The state could not encroach upon the hearth, any more than a man can invent his own ancestry; it was considered an absurdity, by the very nature of things.
But when that piety is denied, we deny the boundary stones along with it. There is no hearth, there is no home. There is no male, no female, no family, not even a common human nature. In appearing to hand to the individual a right to construe the universe, we have swept away the grounds upon which, as individuals, as families, and as free associations of human beings, we can claim priority to the State. For if each of us is to be an egotist, then the State will be one, too—the largest and most dangerous egotist of all.
Thus it is absurd to cry out, “The State should keep out of our bedrooms,” when what one really means is, “There is no recognizable order to human sexual relations, and so I, in my role as Prometheus, should be able to marry as many people as I want, of such sexes as I shall choose, without the slightest interference from my neighbors.” That is because, as soon as we say so, we have granted to the Great Egotist the power not simply to enter our bedrooms, which of course it will do anyway, but to enter and corrupt the very language we speak. The State may as well then write our dictionaries for us. “This,” sayeth the State, “will constitute a family,” and “this,” sayeth the State, “will be a male,” or a female, or whatnot.
And that will reverse the order of Adam naming the animals. “Adam,” says the spanking new deity, “you shall call this that, and that this. Don’t grouch, either. It’s not that they or you mean anything anyway.”
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.