I read everything I find by Anthony Esolen. His 2012 essay, “The Lovely Dragon of Choice: The Freedom Not to Be Free” is the latest “Timeless Essay” from The Imaginative Conservative.
I found it difficult to choose just one passage to share, that would hopefully entice someone else to read the entire essay, and decided to focus on some of Esolen’s remarks specifically about choice, but I had to start at the beginning, because I like it:
But all things come to them that wait. Into sight silently draws a ship, draped in black silk, with a maiden of radiant beauty aboard, eager to speak to Percival and to him alone. She asks him the obvious question, “Percival, what are you doing here? Who brought you to this mountain, so lonely that your rescue hangs on a quirk of chance, and so utterly desolate that you will die of hunger and distress before anyone notices your presence?” The simple knight Percival, on the quest for the Holy Grail, had not been much of a planner. Had he been, he would not have lost the trail of his desired companion, Galahad. He would not have lost both his own horse and the horse he persuaded a stable-boy to lend him. He would not now be sitting, arms across his knees, on a bare cliff overlooking the sea, expectant and hungry and disgusted with himself and his poor fortune.
It is a rule of the questing life: Beware of maidens in black silk. Those maidens ask reasonable questions like this. Gentle and reasonable are the slopes to eternal loss.
Choice is the dragon of our day. It smuggles into its charcoal-smelling barrow not goblets and gilt pommels but human souls, one after another after another, enticing them there with “choices,” all of them more or less trivial, while it sits upon the horde and snores away in its inhuman sleep.
We like that dragon. We eat the fruit of the land in season, out of season. We surf the speckled Internet for spiky games and delights, or for the sheer satiation of ennui, only a click away. We shop for schools, we demand “electives.” We shop for churches (alas that we should have to shop for churches), even shop for creeds. We will give the dragon our gold for the privilege of wider choice in how we may put our brain waves to sleep for a couple of hours a day, irritable and unaccountable as those brain waves are.
We even believe in the “freedom to choose,” a lizardly slogan that darts past the silent object of the infinitive: as if we feared that the children of our own wombs would be reptiles themselves, now come to prey upon our precious choice. We like that dragon. We like our choice.
I used to believe, when I was young and dumber than Percival, that the “freedom to choose” was a legitimate freedom so long as the object of the infinitive was legitimate. If it is legitimate to live in New Jersey, then it is legitimate for me to choose to live in New Jersey. But now I pray, rather, that God will give me the faith to reject “choice” as the standard whereby I measure my freedom even in the licit disposition of worldly things.
I am not merely saying that there is a freedom higher and more blissful than the freedom to choose how one spends one’s money or where one buys a house or whom one marries. I assert that even regarding questions of money or dwelling or spouse or any earthly thing, there is a freedom that slays the freedom to choose. Call it the wisdom of tossing the choice away. Call it the hope not in choosing but in being chosen.