Tumbleweeds and Freedom

This week, I went to a thought-provoking presentation on Plato’s critique of government sponsored by the Institute of Catholic Culture. You can watch the whole thing here soon.

But this post isn’t going to be about government. Something else caught my attention at the talk. At one point in his critique of government, Plato describes a man who:

lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom, and so he goes on.

When the speaker read this quote, I first thought about how well the words apply to New Girl’s Nick Miller, and how Nick so often exemplifies Northrop Frye’s descriptions of characters stuck in the ironic mode. But then my friend who was also at the talk said “well, that description is sort of every man” and I’ve been thinking about the truth of that over the last several days.

The person Plato describes isn’t particularly terrible. I picture him like a tumbleweed—off in one direction, then another, but always subject to the whims of the wind. In Heretics, G.K. Chesterton points out that

The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?” But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock, but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

The person Plato describes as living a “distracted existence” is like Chesterton’s rolling, lifeless stone or the dry and dusty tumbleweed. The person Plato describes moves in no particular, willful direction, but is rather the subject (or slave) of changing, hourly appetites that pull him this way and that. True freedom, it seems, has something to do with putting down roots.

When I first came to Virginia a few years ago, I avoided putting down any roots. I started at George Mason following a sort of strange period in my life. I felt lost, and I also felt that I didn’t want to be found—like I didn’t want to be known. I guess I didn’t want to be known because I didn’t want to be found out; I was ashamed of recent choices I’d made. So I planned to duck into Mason, finish my last two years of undergrad, and duck out again. I would go to church and enjoy Mass but would avoid getting to know anyone and would certainly not go down for coffee and donuts afterwards. I would attend some interesting lecture, get my little intellectual stimulation, and then leave without talking to anyone. I tried not to put down roots and I avoided becoming a part of the place I was living in.

In an essay called “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner considers the condition of such a non-placed or displaced person. It fits how I felt a few years ago, but also, Stegner suggests, this condition affects our country in general:

Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million . . . He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. . . . To the placed person he seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.

Stegner’s displaced person and Plato’s distracted man strike me as one in the same person. Interestingly, Plato’s distracted man appears in a section on the dangers of democracy—where Plato considers in what ways the democratic state and the democratic man are prone to corruption—and Stegner sees the displaced person as a particularly American problem. Both the distracted man and the displaced man equate freedom with escape from or avoidance of ties that bind men to particular people and places and values. Stegner’s displaced man “even seems to like and value his rootlessness;” Plato’s distracted man, living a life without law or order, terms his “distracted existence” “joy and bliss and freedom.” Yet something is lacking. As Stegner suggests, there is something deficient about this form of freedom through isolation; it does not nourish the soul. The story of the good Samaritan is not “well I’ll leave you alone and you leave me alone and we’ll all get along fine.”

Stegner continues:

Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it. In our displaced condition we are not unlike the mythless man that Carl Jung wrote about, who lives “like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. He . . . lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”

Freedom is not something we find doing whatever we want whenever we want in isolation and anonymity—that becomes a prison, a “subjective mania” of our own devising. We find freedom when we honor the significant bonds we share with others and with the places we exist in—and not just the physical places you can point to on a map but places like your place in the mystical body of Christ. Our Lord’s love for us binds us to one another and to God, and in that bond is freedom and sustenance for our souls.

That’s something I’ve been learning over the last few years. Putting down roots doesn’t happen overnight, but it is a work in progress.

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