It seems that every organization and business that has my e-mail address plagues me with notes concerning these “unprecedented,” “challenging” times. Many have awoken from a long slumber, startled to learn that reality is sometimes stern, even cruel. Many, apparently, had thought themselves to be sheltered from the terrors of famine, pestilence, poverty, and unrest, as if the sword did not dangle by a thread but were rather fixed and bolted in place. Now they again recognize the perennial human problems, at least momentarily, and some seem shocked at their reappearance. We were supposed to have solved these problems and left them in the dustbin of history. Isn’t that what modernity promised to deliver?

An Exhausted Project

The French political theorist Pierre Manent defines modernity as a project entailing a “great faith [or] . . . sense of confidence in [our] own strength” or ability to act and, through our action, to transform ourselves and the world. Modernity has a “transforming ambition” to control nature, organize production, engineer society, conquer space, bring about peace, and end disease—that is, to fundamentally alter the human condition.

As Manent sees it, much of this project is exhausted, even as it “continues to drift along.” Consider, for instance, how parliaments and legislatures seem incapable of action, let alone responsible action. Political speech is reduced to empty promises and slogans, which no longer have “the purpose of preparing a possible action” but rather pretend to prepare to act. It is as if “shaping the narrative” is what renders a political agent effective and successful, whether or not the narrative ever actualizes.

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According to Rémi Brague, the modern project assumed that “mankind could determine itself, by itself, and only by itself,” and it attempted to ground the value and dignity of the human by this same power of self-determination. Being autonomous, we determined for ourselves why humanity was valuable and why it was worth being a human. But this attempt at self-valuing has run aground, as starkly evidenced by the refusal of Western people to marry or even to reproduce. The human future no longer seems worth it—and, indeed, more than a few believe it is immoral to have children, that humans are the virus, and that voluntary extinction would be better than perpetuating the species. (Many have noted, for instance, how few leading European politicians have children—how they are not in reality invested in the future of Europe, despite what they say.)

In other words, the pretensions of the modern project are increasingly viewed as somewhat absurd. As speech severs from action, it is as if the Fates and Fortune have returned—with a vengeance. Unknown “causes” and “forces and “structures” beyond our control now control us; before them we are powerless. The typically modern assumption of Progress now seems quaint and ridiculous, at least in any human domain other than technology, where many now place their hope.

Pre-modern people, according to Manent, did not pretend to such power, for they “[left] the greatest room for the gods, and they hamper[ed] themselves as much as possible by all sorts of prohibitions, rites, and sacred constraints.” As Brague puts it, the pre-moderns were not engaged in a project of self-definition and self-determination, but rather viewed themselves as having the task of working out their freedom within the structures of nature or creation or providence. That task—whether they called it living according to nature, or attaining righteousness, or working out salvation—was assigned to them by nature or nature’s God, and they became more fully human and more fully free as they accomplished it.

The modern person, however, “toys with the idea,” in Brague’s formulation, “of weighing the anchors and of reaching a total self-determination that would make him some sort of quasi-angel.” Radical freedom, on this false vision, is something analogous to self-creation, willing ourselves and our very nature into being through fiat. In that understanding, to be free is to be empty and unencumbered, the way a taxi, or a chair at a concert, is “free” when no one is in it and occupying the space. The individual is free when he is “denuded,” as I’ve suggested in a previous Public Discourse essay—a stark individual, who remains undefined and without obligation or duty, until he constitutes himself and his obligations through an act of will.

In the contemporary moment, self-creation takes the form of constructing one’s own pronouns and gender, or of redefining marriage. In an earlier political moment, it took the form of the social contract theory of thinkers like Hobbes or Locke, among others. As Roger Scruton frames it, correctly in my view, conservatism “opposed the view that political order is founded on a contract, as well as the parallel suggestion that the individual enjoys freedom, sovereignty, and rights in a state of nature. . . . For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions.” This is not the usual claim that, “There never was a historical state of nature, since it’s merely a thought experiment,” but rather a direct rejection of the vision of freedom that the social contract assumes. For conservatives, we are not most free when we are individuals outside of the law, nor when we are not yet curtailed by obligations and encumbrances, nor when we are empty or denuded; nor do we give up some of our “most free” situations in order to live securely and safely under law and government—not at all.

Institutions of Belonging, Not Isolated Individuals

Instead, we are always encumbered and duty-bound—tasked in Brague’s term, born not only into a universe that is informed and governed by reason and providence, but also into concrete institutions and traditions that themselves contain and provide the foundations of order and freedom. Liberty does not create and legitimize institutions; institutions create liberty and order the legitimate exercises of that liberty. (An illegitimate institution is one that fails to do so or that does so counter to the natural law.)

As Scruton articulates elsewhere, humans require institutions even to form and exercise their humanity. We are neither angels nor beasts, but mortal and dependent rational animals. We are “naturally persons, since it is natural to us to become persons” or, to put it slightly differently, to develop our freedom, since “something in our nature remains unfulfilled if we do not do so.” According to conservatives, we are ill-equipped to possess or develop freedom outside of institutions, for it “is through ties of membership that we become fully persons.” We derive from institutions “the sense of identity without which the natural person remains incomplete and unfulfilled.” This is why, after all, we treat some institutions as if they were legally akin to persons; for even if “the corporate person has no self of its own, it may actively penetrate the self-identity of its members, so linking their consciousness to a larger tradition of thought and feeling, amplifying their projects and telling them who they are.”

That is, in order to flourish and develop in freedom, persons must belong somewhere—in the sense of membership, not the sense of property—and it is belonging that forms affections and loyalties, duties and obligations, shaping us into fully free persons. It is not emptiness but fullness that is the most free condition. We do not start fully free and then sacrifice freedom for security. Rather, we start by belonging, and then, if things go well, we become fully free with the help of those institutions. The legitimacy of an institution comes not from empty souls’ contracting to that institution, but from the ability of that institution to form people such that they become fully persons and fully free.

Social Conservatives Are Right, Especially Now

This is why social conservatives are not just moralizing when they reject so much of what passes for liberation in our time. It’s not that we’re against self-determination, but rather that we are for the flourishing and well-being of persons, and thus we insist on fostering the institutions that are essential to this task.

Consider the debates over sex and marriage. From the freedom-as-emptiness point of view, social conservatives look like kill-joys (at best) or puritanical tyrants (maybe even worse). But from the freedom-as-fullness point of view, freedom is not some empty ideological abstraction but a concrete accomplishment—a particular ability to reason and choose in keeping with what is really flourishing for the kind of beings we are.

Already before the coronavirus lockdowns, commentators were noticing an epidemic of loneliness in American society, with harmful consequences on mental and physical health. Loneliness, it turns out, is a public health risk. Now, thanks to self-isolation and quarantines, the situation is even worse, as many, many people are alone. This isn’t some abstract claim: the U.S. marriage rate is at a historic low, at 6.5 marriages per 1000 people, the lowest rate since 1867, the first year for which data are available. Unsurprisingly, a CDC report notes that “marriage is less central to the lives of Americans,” and this might have “implications,” since “marital status is correlated with health and economic outcomes.” What about children? On this, too, the U.S. is in a “record slump.”

So, we’re not only bowling alone, we’re living alone. But we are not alone together, to borrow from the current slogan, for without the real membership of belonging, we “no longer exist as a people, but only a crowd,” in Scruton’s phrase. We can say all we want that we are “alone together,” but it’s not true; we’re mostly just alone—empty.

But such aloneness isn’t necessary, nor is it freedom. A productive household isn’t lonely or alone together; it’s “together”—under quarantine very, very together—because its members belong to it, and because in that institution they live and move and have their being. When defenders of traditional marriage describe it as one-flesh union, they aren’t resorting to poesy but are identifying a truth about marriage and sex, one with political implications. In the traditional understanding of marriage, many (two, for precision) become one; out of that one, come many. The institution of marriage is the real e pluribus unum, but a generative union, a fecund uniting. In a household that is buzzing and bouncing with the energy of children, loneliness is less a problem than is finding some space to (finally) be alone. Further, children aren’t empty, autonomous beings, but members of the household, with duties to honor their parents and to provide for their parents when they become aged or infirm. In the same way, those parents have obligations (and thus rights) to provide for, protect, educate, nourish, and rear their children. The ties bind, but these are the bonds that sustain the ability to be fully free.

This isn’t an abstraction—it’s the concrete way that freedom exists. In a good marriage—and no one pretends they’re all good—there’s simply no contradiction between liberty and the common good. Insofar as a spouse seeks the good of the marriage, he or she constitutes and actualizes part of what it means to be free and flourishing as a spouse, as having a real identity rather than empty possibility. Insofar as the spouses seek the good of marriage, to belong to each other, their united action naturally tends to produce offspring, perhaps many. This generative tendency is part of the fullness that accompanies their free acts, and it constitutes the new freedom to parent their children. Again, this is not the emptiness of abstraction: no one has the right to parenthood in the abstract. But this parent has the freedom to rear that child. And the child is a member of the household: she just belongs by virtue of her birth, with obligations to and claims upon that household. In it, she will—if all goes well—become more fully capable of exercising her personhood. But even if it doesn’t go well (and too often it does not) there is more chance of her flourishing than if she were bereft of membership and remained an empty possibility.

The Enemies of Freedom

As Augusto Del Noce has argued, the family transmits (in Latin tradit, or “hands on,” as in “tradition”) a vital sense of belonging to a long story of grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents. Thus the family implicitly teaches the old metaphysics, that is, that there are realities beyond the moment, and that the child belongs to something trans-historical and enduring. The family is the basic means by which to refute relativism and historicism. It is also the theater in which the Platonic account of the Good is demonstrated, for the Good is the source of being and knowledge. In fact, it is the power of the family to form persons with a taste or sensitivity for tradition—and thus for the old metaphysics—that makes the family so antithetical to the modern and progressive project. This power explains why productive households, such as those that homeschool, are thought anathema by those “on the right side of history.” It is why revolutionaries of all stripes long to sever this particular sense of belonging. It is the particularity of belonging to this family that gives one the powerful experience of belonging to something that is abiding and eternal, something that resists the dual enemies of freedom: individualism and statism.

In a moment of pestilence, the empty account of freedom that our culture enforces has left many alone and exhibiting the all but hysterical fragility of those who do not experience belonging. It’s a perfect moment, thus, for conservatives to rid themselves of the deadly trappings of the libertarians—the dead-end of the old fusionism—and present again the case for the institutions of freedom, starting with marriage.