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Before Running Into The Streets To Tell Other People What To Do, Try Governing Yourself

Today’s youth attach themselves to a public moral cause in large part because there is no longer any private battlefield worth occupying.


The new school year is upon us, with its familiar fall traditions: homecoming, pumpkin carving, and cancel mobs. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression finds two-thirds of college students support shouting down speakers they disagree with; the more recently a person has been in school, it seems, the more likely she is to embrace authoritarianism. And here you thought the worst part of Common Core was the math.

It doesn’t have to be this way. You can fight back. What better place to start than with Common Core’s ancient nemesis, the moral imagination? Besides all the other benefits of imaginative immersion in great literature, a quality reading list will go a long way towards ensuring your children don’t join the thought police.

Nothing dulls the totalitarian impulse, for instance, like a lesson from that great moral philosopher Jane Austen. For today’s illustration, however, let us turn to a very different Jane — Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”

Rochester, the love of Jane Eyre’s life, is begging her to overlook the slight technicality of his mad wife in the attic and be his: “Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law — no man being injured by the breach?” Eyre’s reaction, perhaps the most powerful affirmation of virtue in our literature, deserves quoting in full:

[a]nd while he spoke my very Conscience and Reason turned traitors against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger — look at his state when left alone: remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair — soothe him; save him; love him: tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’

Still indomitable was the reply — ‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad — as I am now.

‘Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour: stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth — so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane — quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.’

Two observations follow. The first is that this once universally beloved masterpiece has become so foreign to the moral sensibilities of our time it might as well be written in Aramaic. The second, that this does not seem the sort of young woman who would feel the need to validate herself by throwing things at a commencement speaker.

The Death of Private Virtue

Whether it’s Bronte or Jane Austen — or William Shakespeare, or Charles Dickens, or some other boogeyman from a canon as yet uncolonized by the New Atheism — a study of the classics offers a powerful explanation for our totalitarian moment: the death of private virtue. To understand what went wrong at commencement, we have to look back to prom night.

I worry that our young men and women have so much time to spend on ridiculous antics in the public sphere because they deny the importance of the private one. Until recently, it was commonplace to believe that many of the most consequential battles of one’s life — those to reject sin and “keep the law given by God” — were waged in silence, within the recesses of one’s soul. This inner struggle mattered just as much, if not more, than who you voted for, or who you protested against.

Today, not only do we minimize the importance of that struggle, we ignore its very existence — as G.K. Chesterton put it, we deny the cat. The impulse to goodness persists but can find only outward expression. Is your soul rising up in mutiny? There’s no hashtag for that. Today’s youth attach themselves to a public moral cause, and if necessary invent one, in large part because there is no longer any private battlefield worth occupying.

Police Your Own Thoughts

This new totalitarianism is based not in fear, or even conformity, but in moral necessity. Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer puts his sign up in the window to keep the authorities off his case. It is an act of submission, no doubt, but the sign now gives him some small measure of space to live out his own private dramas.

Today’s greengrocer, on the other hand, positively plasters his storefront with all manner of signs, posters, and petitions not out of fear, but because that storefront is all he has, there is meaning only in the public struggle. There is no private window to the soul — there is no soul! There is only the public window to the world. Havel’s grocer, coward though he may be, needs the sign to protect his life. Today’s students are in no way cowards: their signs are their life.

Commentators routinely point out that politics has become a new religion. Such depictions of the modern secular mindset miss an important insight. Religion at its most intense is often at its most private. Epiphanies tend not to be experienced loudly in groups.

How does this affect our secular saviors? Well, in a world without a personal God, it is not possible to win a personal victory. A petition of one gets you nowhere. If politics is a religion, it is one that cannot be accessed through monastic retreat, only through public cannonades.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Well, we need to bring the moral imagination back to education and revive the private sphere of the virtues, or we may never have a free public sphere again. I never would have thought I’d call for kids today to be any more self-centered, but perhaps if they spent more time policing their own thoughts, they will have less of a need to police ours.  

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