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Even my freedom to say what I want depends on others “tolerating” what I have to say, which means that they refrain from taking severe measures to punish me for my words.Today, we are increasingly aware of how much all of us depend on such toleration of our views, how quickly it can be revoked, and how frightening it is to find oneself publicly disgraced where such toleration is no longer extended.
If I wish to be able to play the guitar or piano, or to prepare cooked meals, or to defeat an armed opponent bare-handed using aikido, I gain the necessary skills not by insisting on my freedom, but through constraint: Through studying and practicing at length every day, even when I find it disagreeable and feel overwhelmed by the desire to be doing something else.
In the same way, my marriage, remaining faithful to my wife and bringing children into the world and raising them, involves a massive, daily curtailment of my freedom.
Yet it is never capable of consolidating a stable alternative.
Conservative political thought breaks with Enlightenment rationalism in that it is concerned not only with freedom, but also with its opposite, which is .
But if constraint is the key to everything productive and good, then Enlightenment rationalism’s emphasis on freedom has deceived us, and the only way to return to a life that is productive and good is by reviving the inherited norms that offered us self-constraint and the hope of escaping tyranny. What would be required to build up our national and religious common sense, rather than ceaselessly working to destroy it?
A discussion of how to build up a people’s norms of self-constraint must focus on one key idea, which has largely disappeared from the schools and universities, and from the public life of Western nations, since the Second World War: The idea of .But where a people is incapable of self-discipline, a mild government will only encourage licentiousness and division, hatred and violence, eventually forcing a choice between civil war and tyranny.This means that the best an undisciplined people can hope for is a benevolent autocrat.These inherited norms provided the framework within which reason was able to operate, yet without overthrowing every inherited institution as today’s adulation of perfectly free reason does.Today, these inherited norms are under fire in the name of the freely reasoning individual and his right to be rid of these constraints. We associate freedom with pleasure and ease, whereas constraint—God and religion, nation and government, marriage and children and caring for the aged—immediately presents itself as burdensome and difficult and something we’d prefer to avoid.They relegate the entire matter to an unopened box that is labeled “civil society” or “mediating institutions” or “little platoons”—on the assumption that while freedom needs to be endlessly discussed and vigorously defended, constraint will somehow arise of its own accord. It is both more difficult to understand and more difficult to carry out than freedom.And a political education that does not focus on this critical point will not produce conservatives, but fakers with a sentimental attachment to a dying order, and no ability or will to do much to save it. To begin with, constraint creates the space in which each of us can be free.“, Toward a Philosophy of Constraint In the first part of this essay, I criticized the idea that the exercise of “free and untrammeled reason,” which is the cornerstone of Enlightenment rationalism, is sufficient by itself to determine the political good of a given nation.Conservative thought suggests that such free reasoning about political and moral matters can produce no consensus and is in the end self-defeating: It progressively uproots and discards whatever has been inherited from the past.With this in mind, let’s come back to our present troubles.For centuries, foreign observers have admired the British and Americans for their political freedom—made possible by their great capacity for self-discipline or self-constraint.