The Catholic Thing
What Is the Purpose of Law? Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 19 June 2013


onsider two towns, of about the same population.
 One is named Coventry, the other Chester.
 Coventry hasn’t had a murder this year. Neither has Chester.
Coventry hasn’t had a break-in this year. Neither has Chester.
No felonies have been committed in Coventry this year. None in Chester, either. 

There were drunken and disorderly incidents in both towns. In Coventry, a couple of teenagers threw a rock through a drug store window, apparently on a dare. In Chester, a couple of teenagers were rounded up for setting up a corn-mash still up by the dam.  

So far, we could say that Coventry is a safe place to live, and so is Chester. The crime rate is about the same, and is negligible.  Law and order reign in both towns.
 Or do they? 

What I am trying to get at here is the limited usefulness of numerical evaluations in human affairs. I’ve said only how many crimes of various sorts were committed in Coventry and Chester, but I’ve said nothing about life in those places, and therefore I’ve said nothing about what even the criminal law is really about.

In Coventry, no one knows his neighbors. Everyone spends ten hours a day in front of a screen. The stores bristle with cameras and sensors.  Even street corners have surveillance devices, for collecting money from people who don’t come to a full stop. Coventry has a police force of about one man for every 500 citizens, and the police prowl neighborhoods in tinted-glass cars, all day and night. 

The schools in Coventry have armed guards, and the students’ lockers are subject to random search.  Every payment made by one Coventry resident to another, for services rendered, must be logged, subject to a thicket of tax laws at all governmental levels.

The people of Coventry scoff at virtue. They don’t trouble to marry. The convenience stores are stocked with porn, and ordinary grocery stores and doctors’ offices stock what once would have been considered pornographic, but is now met with a shrug. They produce no art or music worthy the name, nor do they play great music composed by others. There is no town band, no town parades, because no holidays sacred or civic are celebrated. There is no town baseball team, no town interest in the many sports boasted by the various schools.  There is, in short, no common life at all.

In Chester, everyone knows his neighbors, and his neighbors’ families back at least three generations. Everyone spends most of his time among other people, and much of it outdoors, on farms, in the town streets, in shops, in the iron mines, and on the canal. The only security device that any store has is a slide-bolt for the front door, but most of the time storeowners don’t even bother with it. People don’t need to lock their doors. A child who is still out at nine o’clock on a summer evening does not occasion a call to the police, first because he will be coming home soon, and second because there are no policemen. 

        Chester-like: Bennington by Grandma Moses (1945)

There are no armed personnel at the school, which, not coincidentally, is right in the heart of the town. People pay cash for everything, and don’t ask for receipts, because only very rarely is a receipt needed.

There aren’t any original composers in Chester, but there’s a town band that can play John Philip Sousa, a Ladies’ Choir, a Men’s Choir, the Ladies’ Beneficent Society, and a Chautauqua Society for public education (that is, education of ordinary people), a Philosophical Lyceum, mainly peopled by argumentative young men, and the Chester Browns, a ball club that competes against the Roxbury Reds and the Bethlehem Batsmen and the Belvidere Braves. 

Life isn’t perfect in Chester, by a long shot. Some men drink too much and trade fists in the street. One woman had to be instructed about strong drink by her husband and pastor. There’s a Temperance Society meeting every couple of weeks, pressing for laws against all consumption of alcohol, and recruiting both men and women to swear off the stuff, for the good of their families and town.

There’s a lot of talk of sinning, too, in Chester – there must be, to witness the churches filled for hours on a Sunday, and the very high esteem in which powerful and unimpeachable preachers are held. When the Reverend Horton of the Congregational Church died last year, he was given a parade worthy of a military hero, and the men of the Cincinnati Club came out in full uniform to the graveyard to give him a rifle salute.

There are no playgrounds in Chester, but there are children; the town is crawling with them. After school and chores, they are everywhere, at all seasons. They play rounders in the street, slide down snow covered hills in the winter, hunt mushrooms, climb trees, fish, build little cabins in the woods, collect birds’ nests, catch butterflies, play pranks, get into scuffles, fall in love – and once in a while do things that earn them a whipping, with birch switches or a real leather whip. 

There are plenty of playgrounds in Coventry, but they are usually empty. We cannot evaluate Coventry (where I live) and Chester (where my wife’s great-grandparents lived) without seeing them whole; and that means that we cannot judge the wisdom or effectiveness of their laws looking only at numbers. 

Because the purpose of law is not like that of a machine. Criminal law, for instance, does not exist simply to deter people from committing crimes and punishing them when they do. It exists also to teach. It assumes its place among the other laws and the customs of a people, which are meant, in the end, to secure a good life: to help make people good.

Chester is a better place to live, because its laws and customs are better: it has better people. And that, no number can capture.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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Comments (21)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, June 19, 2013
Pascal observes that “Custom creates the whole of equity, for the simple reason that it is accepted. It is the mystical foundation of its authority; whoever carries it back to first principles destroys it. Nothing is so faulty as those laws which correct faults.” Hence, “He who obeys them [the laws] because they are just, obeys a justice which is imaginary and not the essence of law; it is quite self-contained [elle est toute ramassée en soi], it is law and nothing more.”
written by Stanley Anderson, June 19, 2013
I am reminded of the epiphany I had many years ago about not only a difference of degree, but about an entirely different manner of thinking about “security”. We had been talking about how in this current time (here in Southern California), we make absolutely sure we lock all our doors and windows at night and before we go out for any length of time at all. My mother then mentioned living on a farm in Iowa when she was growing up. Of course I expected her to say that they didn’t need to lock their doors then because they felt safer and that they didn’t need to worry about their homes being invaded. And I’m sure they did feel safer. But her unexpected comment was that her mother left the back porch door open so that if they were out in the field working and a wandering tramp came walking by, he would be able to let himself in to get a cup of water if he were thirsty.

Gulp. Huh? Not locking the doors wasn’t for lack of fear of people entering, but specifically so people COULD enter when they weren’t around. Does such a place or a mode of thought even exist any more?

Above, Anthony Esloen wrote, “Because the purpose of law is not like that of a machine...It exists also to teach…to help make people good.” Like the complete difference of orientation about my grandmother’s manner of thinking on the Iowa farm, I remember having a hard time thinking about or appreciating what I would read in the 176 verses of Psalm 119 where the author would “delight in your law, O Lord” or about how the blessed are those who keep his testimonies or walk in his ways or learn his judgments or precepts or statutes, over and over interminably it seemed. What a legalistic, bureaucratic, law-infested, personal space-invading way of living, from one point of view. Maybe necessary, but “delighting” in it? Hardly. But from another point of view, a way of allowing people to come together in life and goodness and joy and love, and even to allow God, perhaps in the seeming guise of wandering tramp looking for a glass of water, to enter in unexpectedly.
written by Jane, June 19, 2013
I have read this writer before and Mr. Esolen often exagerates the difference between things and puts things in such stark, black and white, all or none terms, to make his point. I get it. Past good, present-not so much.
Well things are just not that way. I live in Portland Maine, where there is some crime (unfortunately, a small amount of it violent). Not a perfect place to be sure.
But the schools are thriving communities where people come out and cheer the teams, kids play outside in the neighborhoods, we have parades and bands, and even a very well received symphony. Our wonderful art museum is free on Thursdays, and we have an outdoor Christmas tree lighting, attended by everyone in town.

I could go on and on but I must get ready for our neighborhood block party-I am making cupcakes..))
written by Athanasius, June 19, 2013
The late Stephen R. Covey, author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", wrote that, "Where the mores of the people are sufficient, laws are unnecessary. Where the mores of the people are deficient, laws are unenforceable."

Of course, this applies to a community in general. You will always need laws for the few scoundrels. But really, it doesn't matter to me that it is against positive law to not murder, rape, or burglarize. Even if these laws were not on the books, I would not do these acts, nor would any of my neighbors, because we were taught that these things were against God's law. That's all that really matters in a good community.

On the other side, it doesn't matter if it is illegal to go through stop signs if the mores of the people are aggressive and selfish when they are driving.

Stanley Anderson's grandmother shows a powerful example of someone who knows right from wrong, and acts in a loving way regardless of what the law says.
written by Ernest Miller, June 19, 2013

Sounds like a very thoughtful utopia with lots of entertainment. However, what struck me was all the materialism and no reference to God, except for the Christmas not holiday tree.

Nevertheless, life is best not secular focused rather best when aimed beyond. How about putting crosses on the cupcakes.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 19, 2013
All laws are not equal. There are laws which are external to us and those which are internal. The external laws, when excessive are oppressive but the internal laws - those hard-wired into our hearts are freeing.
Not being allowed to sell 'super-sized' soft drinks in NYC is oppressive; only marrying human persons of opposite sex and spouses engaging in sexual relations that are open to new life is freedom.
written by Jane, June 19, 2013

With all due respect let me add: First off it is a Christmas tree (Not holiday-and evreyone calls it such)! Secondly,I am of the Jewish faith and attend a lighting of the Menorah and holy brunch with my wonderful community each year,there are churches and synagogues filled with worshipers and events, and many many church Christmas fairs-I can go on and on-

So let's stop looking for demons and enemies where none exist. I am sure you will agree that plenty enough exist already.

Utopia? Not at all. A wonderful community, with caring people and plenty of Civic and religious events that bring these caring people together-yes.
Never forget-The teachers who died defending the children at Sandy Hook were part of the so called "secular-materialistic culture", whatever that means.
written by Tony, June 19, 2013
Dear Jane -- but I have the evidence. I do live in Coventry, and it is as I have described (actually, a good deal worse). And I have documents from Chester, and it is as I have described (actually, a good deal more foreign to our way of life now).

I'd ask you: what is the out-of-wedlock birth rate in Portland and its county? How many divorces are there? What is mass entertainment like? How many people are in the churches on a Sunday? What perversions are NOT tacitly or explicitly encouraged in the schools?

When was the last time you passed by a group of boys playing baseball in a field, on their own? I am not talking about adult-organized things here. When was the last time you saw kids gathering, on their own, on the side of your river to go rafting or fishing?

How many policemen are there in Portland? How many policemen were there in Portland in 1850? What kinds of books are in your library? What kinds of books were in it in 1850?

I am interested in the facts here ... many of which can be discovered from primary sources, such as newspapers ...
written by Ken Tremendous, June 19, 2013
In a way I commend Tony's honesty. He believes American culture is in decline and would like to tell that story with hard data. But the trouble is the hard data are complex and don't necessarily support facile conclusions or recommend solutions. Crime rates are down in most of the country and have been for the last two decades or so. So you can't point to soaring crime rates as evidence of anything. On the other hand conservatives like Tony are right to insist that crime rates are not the only measure of quality of life or healthy culture so its possible that communities are really much worse and more fragmented even though its hard to find a good metric for that.

Tony is right that many people don't know or even want to know their neighbors. And affluent parents tend to stuff their kids' schedule with organized activities that tend to weaken kids' attachment to their own neighborhoods and the typical spontaneous fun stuff neighborhood kids used to do together in earlier generations.

But what's the cause of this? and what's the solution. I gather Tony would claim that the real culprit is rooted in sexual immorality and vague forces like "secularism."

But I think just as strong a case can be made (which doesn't necessarily rule out what Tony is saying) is that this is the result of a culture completely driven by money. People are moving constantly in search of more lucrative jobs and bigger houses and better schools systems and also want to spend the surplus on buying expensive organized activities for their kids--with the idea that this will help the kids secure more advantages for themselves and thus perpetuate the cycle. Its a completely ego-centric model of family and community life

What's the cultural answer to this? It's not about banning abortion and birth control I'm afraid. You could zero out the abortion rate and still have this problem in all too many "communities" in this country.

And until American Catholic intellectuals can get beyond mere moralizing, right wing tinged nostalgia and start to promote more genuinely communitarian ways of thinking and acting, I think we will stay stuck.

In this way I think I see where Jane is coming from.
written by DS, June 19, 2013
Some other inconvenient facts around 1850: Chester (if it was in the South) had slaves, church attendance nationally was not much better than today (it began going up later in the 19th century and peaked in the post-WW2 years), Catholics were systematically and legally discriminated against, prostitution was rampant during the Civil War.....

Jesus did not live in Chester. He lived in a brutally occupied, cultural backwater that probably looked a lot more like Coventry. The New Testament abounds with stories of sinful and uncivil behavior in Nazareth and its environs.

God made us to live today - in 2013, not 1850 - for a purpose. If our culture is not pointed in the direction of God's Kingdom, then we have work to do.

I suggest we act like Jesus: meet people and the culture where it is and work to improve it. Jane, our Jewish sister, seems to get it.
written by Hal, June 19, 2013
"In Chester, everyone knows his neighbors, and his neighbors’ families back at least three generations"

No one has moved in or out of Chester in three generations? Did I misunderstand?
Are the residents serfs?
written by Hal, June 19, 2013
"help the kids secure more advantages for themselves and thus perpetuate the cycle"

Choosing where to live and to what schools to send your kids in the hope that they are better off materially than you is now a bad thing?

The vibe I am getting from the article and comments is nostalgia for a world of zero mobility, both residential and economic. "All of us have been farmers for generations and will be forever. We all work in the mine and our children will too. No one lives the Village."
written by Walter, June 19, 2013
Jesus came into the world to save Coventry.
written by Achilles, June 19, 2013
Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics talks about judgment:

“Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general….” He goes onto explain that for the young man to attend political science lectures it is fruitless, because his object is action, not knowledge and he further characterizes this student by explaining “since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable…. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.”

There is this qualitative difference between several commenters who are trying to dissect Professor Esolen’s educated, mature and common sense observations of reality as it is. We are not all equal here in understanding. I am going to listen to the professor because the data matches reality.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, June 20, 2013
I gave a Sunday homily two weeks ago against the backdrop of the woman washing Jesus' hair with her tears when he was dining at the home of the Pharisee. The main point: sinfulness, not just the surface evidences of it in people's lives - a fundamental state of 'being in sin', is the cause of all our woes. Sinfulness, as in alienation/separation from God, which also leads to alienation from self and others. Tony describes the symptoms. At the root is sin. Let's name it for what it is.
written by Tony, June 20, 2013
Dear Ken -- I've written about everything you mention here, including the pursuit of prestige and money. I've been shouting from the housetops about those things, and so have plenty of my conservative colleagues. We've shouted ourselves hoarse. But the things you describe all go together; there's one kind of vapid hedonism for the working classes, who provide for us the majority of unwed mothers; and a more dogged and calculating hedonism for the "educated", who are more poisonous still.

I've written about these things in at least two books, and in a series on another blogsite. But nobody listens to anything you say these days UNLESS it has to do with the only thing to penetrate the carapace of their inattention, and that's sex.
written by Tony, June 20, 2013
I am continually astonished by the refusal of my contemporaries to exercise even the slightest skepticism towards the belief in steady and cheerful moral and civic progress. Yes, I'm quite aware of slavery in the South. That's the trump card, always. That is supposed to shut down any serious moral evaluation of the people we used to be, and the people we are now. Our forefathers countenanced the great evil of slavery.

Except that many of them did not. Many of them -- including people in Chester, New Jersey -- fought it, at great expense not only during the war but for decades before it. What I am trying to do is to see the society-forming functions of law and civic habits, civic virtues, and to remind people that numbers not only do not tell the whole story; they hardly tell any story at all.

I note too that I am criticized on one side for not being a champion of "mobility" -- and I am in fact no great champion of it; it is a euphemism for rootlessness; and on the other side for not criticizing it enough.
written by Ken Tremendous, June 20, 2013
Tony I read this page almost every day and I rarely see anyone--writers or commenters-- with the courage to blame the forces of capitalism itself for alot of the social fragmentation we're having and continue to have. It's one thing to have a market economy...but quite another to have a market society, which America has become now more than ever.

The discussion of culture rarely gets beyond sex and abortion and the discussion of the economy rarely gets beyond Obama and his "socialism" coupled with the usual free market anti-government cliches of the post-Reagan era.

Though it has long been buried down the memory hole of conservative Catholics today, there is a long tradition on the Catholic right of skepticism of markets and their effects on the social fabric. It would be heartening to see a few writers on this page with the courage to "go there" even if it meant standing up to Republican orthodoxy.

I've read your stuff here and occasionally at Crisis. On social commentary, I don't detect much difference from the standard fare post Reagan religious conservatism that hates abortion and government but worships markets and thinks their unfettered operation fits seamlessly with personal morality and a strong social fabric.

But the changes in individuals and communities that you are trying to account for cannot be explained only with the grammar of personal morality. Alot of it has to do with the way markets are allowed to work too which account for many of broader cultural forces in society.

For one thing people in Chester today (as opposed to th3e 19th century) depend overwhelmingly on being able to commute to NYC, and having two earner families with a median household. income of $162,000. This goes to paying for expensive college for their kids, (which is preceded by years of amply funded K-12 schools) and housing. It takes a ton of income after all, Tony to afford a house in Chester, NJ whose median price is well north of $600 K. So this cuts down on family time, which is increasingly filled with shuffling kids to soccer practice (gotta build up those extra curriculars so that those kids can get into the schools like Providence College so they in turn can make the big salaries that will enable them to live in Chester too. )

On the other hand, Chester does have high rates of married couples with children, so they must be doing soemthing right.

So how exactly does your narrative of "hedonism" explain what has happened to places like Chester and Coventry in the last century?

And how does it explain what has happened to many other cities in the US which have not done nearly so well?

You wanted hard-data... I just gave you some.

written by St Donatus, June 20, 2013
I lived in two towns similar to those mentioned in the article. The sad thing is that they are the same town, one was 50 years ago and the other is today. Yet they match exactly the description above. Fifty years ago, if someone had a problem, most everyone in town would turn out to help them. This might be to rebuild a flood damaged house, to feeding someone who is sick in bed. Today, if someone has a problem, some will talk about the problem, but no one will do anything to help. The town festival is gone, as well as most other community activities including church attendance. Some of the things that have changed is the suicide rate, divorce rate, and drug use rate have gone up by probably 10 times what it was 50 years ago. Were the people poorer in this town fifty years ago, most definitely, are people happier now, most definitely not.

I can see one cause of this problem and that is we are becoming more isolated due to our gadgets. My grandmother and grandfather would play cards, go to dances, entertain for 'entertainment'. Then the TV came on the scene and slowly but surely, they were not doing any of these activities. My parents also stopped doing these things. Us children just never grew up doing them at all. We let the government help the needy, but they can't help the soul.
written by Ben, June 20, 2013

I don't want to speak out of turn, but I think you're talking past Prof. Esolen here. From what I've read of him, he's strongly in favor of "genuinely communitarian ways of thinking," and he's no great fan of the unrestricted free market. I might also suggest that what you call "the market," Prof. Esolen includes under his broader term "hedonism." If I'm mistaken, I'm ready to be corrected.

Of course, the real key is to read the articles he alluded to. Given your interests, the series on Catholic Social Teaching over at Crisis might be a good place to start.
written by jason taylor, July 12, 2014
No Walter. Jesus came into the world to save Coventry AND Chester. But mortals are not Jesus and are already in the world.

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