When you Break Big Laws, You Get Small Laws. A Meditation on a Teaching By Chesterton

061313GK Chesterton once observed that “When you break the big laws you do not get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get small laws.” (Daily News, July 29, 1905).

Yes, small laws, lots of small laws. Trifling and irritating small laws that regulate every human interaction and transaction. It is death by a thousand cuts. And thus, when we as a society set aside the bigger picture of, say, respecting life, of mutual respect and consideration for the common good, we get ten thousand laws.

As of 2012 there were just over 160,000 pages of law and rules from the feds alone in the Federal Code and elsewhere. States and localities have likely doubled that. Even legal specialists can’t keep up. The tax code is incomprehensible, even the Secretary of the Treasury cannot file an accurate return. The nanny State only adds to the problem: enter Mayor Bloomberg, and his “law” forbidding the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 oz.

But the bottom line is, if we neglect the bigger laws;  if we neglect the biblical moral vision that insists on moderation, condemns greed and excess, prescribes sexual responsibility, faithfulness to commitments made, truthfulness, respect for the goods of another, obedience to lawful authority, and commands a reverential acknowledgement of God, and a holy fear for the consequences of unrepented moral turpitude; if we neglect that, this is what you get: a huge legal code regulating marriage, divorce, property rights, child support, alimony, child protection, family violence, “hate” speech, noise ordinances, public drunkenness, debt management, bankruptcy, liability, and on and on….

Frankly, an out of control Federal Legislature reflects our more personal and local tendency to be out of control and on moral vacation. Ignoring the big picture and the moral vision that used to be given us by the Scriptures, natural law, common sense and mutual respect, has now given way to an endless proliferation of small laws that regulate even when you can run your lawn mower.

I also want to note a couple of what I would call corollaries to Chesterton’s insight.

First, in failing to fear the Lord we seem to fear everything else. In our culture, fear is an industry. We are to fear crime, fear for every possible health issue, we fear infertility AND pregnancy, we fear economic setbacks, climate change, and even ordinary weather and storms. We fear asteroids and any number of other disaster scenarios. We fear asbestos and all sorts of other environmental threats. We fear that the “other party” will utterly end life in America as we know it if their candidate wins…., and on an on it goes.

Today there was an absurd illustration of the fear mongering here on the East Coast. This morning my clock radio came on with urgent news of a line of thunder storms coming in from the West. We were told to be afraid, to be VERY afraid. We were told, there could actually be high winds, hail, and heavy rain! Maybe even a tornado. Now of course such storms are a regular feature on the East Coast in Summer, and happen even dozens of times in the course of June, July and August. And yes, even occasionally a tornado is in the mix.

But honestly the absurdity of listening to a reporter telling us how to hunker down in our bathtub or other interior room was too much, and was topped only by the announcement of the Federal Government that workers could stay home and telecommute due to the coming thunderstorms.

Yes, that is right, the Federal Government advised workers to stay home because of thunderstorms. And by the way, it did rain, and we did survive. There were a few downed trees, and scattered power outages. Someone saw a twister north of DC too. Welcome to summer in Washington.

How have we come to the point that we can be baited to fear about ordinary weather? Actually it is not hard. Just abandon a proper and holy fear of God, and pretty soon you fear everyone and everything else.

It is a corollary to Chesterton’s  remark on Law above: Stop obeying big laws and you get lots of little laws. The corollary is, Stop fearing God, and you start fearing everything else.

I would like to recall that God has a better plan. In effect he counsels that we develop a Holy Fear of Him, and then we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else. The Apostles, when told to fear what the temple leaders could do to them responded respectfully, “We must obey God rather than men.” Life gets a lot simpler when we report to one ultimate authority.

And Holy Fear leads to trust, and trust abates a lot of lesser fears. When my focus is on God and the good things waiting for me in heaven, I am less fearful of property loss, whether or not I get the promotion, less fearful of health and even death. I fear and trust the Lord. Whatever happens, God wills it and will see me through it. All things work together for good to those that Love and trust the Lord and are called according to his purposes.”

While the believer is not called to fool-hardy actions, neither is fear easily incited in him or her. The fear of the Lord ushers in a serenity that is not easily disturbed by the threats of human beings or by silly fears incited by a media trying to sell ads and to rivet us to the TV in fear.

Thus, fear the Lord and other fears largely diminish and go away. But fail to fear the Lord and the result is not no fear, it is ten thousand little fears and vulnerability to endless manipulation through fear.

And Second and related corollary is related to our obsession with physical health. The modern secular world celebrates a kind of “liberation” from: concerns about the soul, a sense of guilt, and concerns for the effects of sin and so forth.

But what happens when the soul is neglected is not a liberation from concerns, guilt or the effects of sin at all. Rather, to neglect the bigger and lasting concern about the soul, is to receive ten thousand concerns about the body: This causes cancer, that makes you fat, this has cholesterol, watch your pressure, don’t eat salt, drink more water, eat more fiber, exercise! And even the normal effects of aging are to be feared: hot flashes, “Low-T” gray hair… And even normal functions such as fertility are feared and must be medicated away. Pregnancy is treated as a potentially deadly condition. Women must be sterilized, others rush to remove their breasts, BEFORE cancer ever touches them.

Gad zooks! We have never lived so long and been so healthy, and yet, we have never been so anxious about our health. Never mind that our body is going to decline and die anyway no matter what we do.

There is a proper love and concern we should have for our body, this is part of a well-ordered self love. But when we do not integrate and balance our love for our body with our love for our soul, things go out of order and, as experience shows, we do not have less concerns but more. And those concerns are ultimately futile, for the body will die anyway.

Thus the corollary to Chesterton’s rule is When you set aside the most critical concerns necessary for the soul, you do not get fewer concerns. You get lots of small concerns that pile up unreasonably. You do not get less guilt, you get more of it wherein the list of bad or forbidden foods grows ever longer, as does the list of duties regarding exercise, dietary supplements, medicines and so forth. There are not less dos and don’ts, there are far more.

Yes, welcome to the modern world of “out of wack” and out of balance notions. When you break the big laws you do not get freedom. You do not even get anarchy. You get small laws.” It is death by a thousand cuts.

This video reminds that it is better to have a salutary fear of death and judgment than most of the stuff we get worked up about:

15 Replies to “When you Break Big Laws, You Get Small Laws. A Meditation on a Teaching By Chesterton”

  1. Reminds me of the Billy Crystal character on SNL where he is the host of the talk show Fernando’s Hideaway. He always ended the guest interview with, “Well, like Fernando always say, it’s better to look good than feel good, and you look marvelous.” We have become a tensel town world and victims of our own false idols.

  2. Yes!!! Thank you, thank you!!! The Lord will open our minds and hearts to have “good understanding” which is something that can not be obtained when “the mind is governed by the flesh”: THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM….

    Psalm 111: 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.

    (all of Romans 8 is so Good!!) Romans 8: 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

    Romans 8: 28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. 31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

  3. I know some people don’t like it when we call out Msgr on typos- but this seems like a kinda important one:
    In paragraph 4: “…and a holy fear for the consequences of UNREPEATED moral turpitude…” I’m sure you meant UNREPENTED, right?

    1. Yeah, I think the problem isn’t the mere indication of an error, which is appreciated. But I think it’s more the “attitude” that is annoying to me and, it would seem to other readers. There’s a kind of (as a opposed to kinda) “gotcha” tone that irritates. You yourself describe what you do as “call out Msgr.” But why is it necessary to “call me out” as if typographical error were the same as malfeasance?

      Perhaps your own annoyance is rooted in expecting a blog post to be like a newspaper column. But, columnists for the Newspapers have access to editors, presentation editors, style editors and so forth. People are actually paid to comb through the submitted columns. I don’t have that, and even if I were a perfect grammarian, it is almost impossible to proof-read one’s own materials flawlessly since one “reads back” the error and cannot see it even after several read-throughs. Such is the nature of a blog which is a low budget thing.

      So I guess the message is that corrections are appreciated, the perceived attitude stuff is not.

      1. My own concern is not with correct grammar or spelling, but when a “typo” could cause actual misunderstanding. In this case the changed word completely reverses the meaning of the phrase. Careful readers of course get the true meaning from context, but not everyone is a careful reader. If my comment seemed to carry any attitude of annoyance, it was accidental- the use of caps to highlight the word in question (if that is what causes that impression) is only because I am unsophisticated enough with technology that I could not find any way to use bold or italics. “…call out” was perhaps an unfortunate phrase that I used without thinking. ” …point out typos” perhaps would have been more appropriate choice. And why is this exchange making me think of a recent article I read somewhere…? 😉
        BTW- wondering if the “typo” was in fact another instance of auto-correct run amok? When I type “unrepented” it shows up as a spelling error. An insidious conspiracy to remove certain words from our vocabulary 😉

  4. Excellent post, Monsignor.

    Chesterton was brilliant. His comment on “small laws” is, I think, closely related to another of his great sayings: “A man who won’t believe in God will believe in anything.”

  5. Wonderful post Msgr! We need continual reminders like these blogs to keep our eyes to God (it helps me reorient when I’m too concerned with worldly matters). Please keep up the great work.

  6. I love hearing your thoughts, Monsignor. You often post issues that are on my heart at the time and spell them out in ways that help me to wrestle with those ideas. I just read John 8 yesterday, when Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” We are only free when we do what we ought to, not what we can do. When we do whatever we want, a million barricades have to be put up to try and herd the out of control cats to one common area, which obviously doesn’t work so well. But discipline and following God’s Word sets us on the right path without need for so many laws.

    I do have one critique about the content of this post. I am not only a devout Catholic, but also a Meteorologist (a real one, not a reporter-playing-TV Meteorologist). I cringe when TV weather casts over-hype weather events to scare people into watching their shows for ratings. For those of us behind the scenes, it loses our credibility and taints our purpose. We are not in it to scare people or have the attention on us. But we have studied many years to understand the weather. When a storm goes bad anywhere in the country, whether it gets publicity or not, we feel it to our core. We put the burdens and responsibilities on ourselves when people die or get injured because of the very thing that we love. And when deaths are preventable, we get the word out and sometimes it takes a sense of urgency to get folks to pay attention. We have seen too many senseless deaths to just let our forecasts out with a whisper. And as a Christian, deaths by nature seem to be the biggest wedge between people and God. Murder and terrorists we understand that humans can be evil. But weather? An “act of God”? How can a non-believer or someone struggling with their faith look to a loving God when lightning just killed their loved one? Or a tornado just ripped through their child’s school? No one has to die from weather events and that is our purpose. It gets over-hyped by media weather outlets, but if it saves one life then so be it. God gave us the understanding into His most complex world of weather and instead of burying this talent, it is our duty to bear fruit.

    1. I think balance was lost yesterday. We cannot cancel life because there are dangers, especially ordinary and recurring dangers. Staying home from work and canceling schools, as happened yesterday because of thunderstorms was wrong. We cannot live in the world without risk. The information is helpful in terms of weather and I am not asking for a whisper. I am asking all of us to remained balanced. The fear mongering occurred at a number of levels and I don’t blame the meteorologists who do their work. However, I have come to lament the Weather Channel and Accuweather which I think are now more about selling ads than good science. We had a previous and silly snowmaggedon thing from them last March as well. All we got was a little wet snow – also a common occurrence in March in DC. They used to be places where one could go to get away from the insanity of the local TV weather guys who were seeing snowstorms where there weren’t any to get us to “tune in at 11” Since the WC and AW were more national I got more of the real picture rather than the local hype. But now WC and AW are also in on the fix. I think we agree on this point.

      But frankly, this article isn’t about them, it is about us. And we need to get on with our day and keep information in perspective. It is a very common thing to get strong thunderstorms in the summer and even tornado warnings. There is even some damage that occurs and the occasional sad loss of life. But such things happen in very local and fixed areas and to shut down the DC area was way over the top. Life is filled with possible risk. Be informed ought to help us keep an eye on things, but it ought not paralyze us. Your “If it saves one life…” rule is too broad. Because frankly, it saves one life if we all stop driving, or if we never leave our home. But to cancel life in order to “save one life” is not a reasonable standard. Risk and opportunity must be balanced, the common good must also be considered. What happened yesterday was way off balance. And we folks out here need to stop being played like that and stop tuning in. I have largely turned off even the radio these days and am reconfirmed in my decision to be more strict. TV news went dark years ago in my life.

      As for the problem of evil which you also raise, we have discussed that here before and I really don’t have time to go into it. But again, it is a problem that has always been with us and panicked news announcers isn’t going to answer the question.

      So I guess we just have to disagree on this one. I would put the balance in a very different place than you, or so it would seem.

  7. “Gad zooks!”–Well said.

    I lost my internet connection for about twelve hours. Though I could cancel my internet service and spend the free time writing sonnets, I have to admit that I prefer having the internet. I don’t have the strength or inclination to be that deep.

    Isaiah 52:12-13 “[12] I, I myself will comfort you: who art thou, that thou shouldst be afraid of a mortal man, and of the son of man, who shall wither away like grass? [13] And thou hast forgotten the Lord thy maker, who stretched out the heavens, and founded the earth: and thee hast been afraid continually all the day at the presence of his fury who afflicted thee, and had prepared himself to destroy thee: where is now the fury of the oppressor? “

  8. Thank you Monsignor. I am glad I am not the only imperfect one, absolutely not one of us is (perfect). Still God does so much Love His creatures, even to come to be one of us (to help us, to save us), except He IS Perfection. I still have a hard time fully comprehending that the one and only All God came here to be all human too, but He certainly did… He does Love us so much, if only the world could realize that and Love Him so much too, enough to want to follow Him.

    As for the weather, I understand what you are saying. I have lived through many Florida hurricanes long before they had the technology they have today. It is funny, as a child, how much I didn’t fear them. In fact I would like to go climb a tree to sway in the wind and rain (where were my parents!). I remember one with the fiercest of winds and then an almost sudden calm as the eye of the hurricane passed over and the sun even came out for a few minutes. Little did I understand the devastation and impact they have until I was older. Still I think the technology we now have can and does help to inform us (such as when to watch out for the weather) but at the same time our technology can enslave us and fear can be a catalyst for that.

  9. If you have options, most of the country should only watch TV for 2 hours a day or less. Forget about the repeated pics of storm damage, forest fires (actually mostly brush fires), etc. Read a good book. Pray a rosary with your spouse.
    I liked the observation about “Fear of the Lord” being the beginning of Wisdom. We should also live our lives so that death, when it comes, does not terrorize us.

  10. A bane of the Human Resources professional’s existence is the mindset that there must be a Policy about everything.

    This mindset comes out of a reluctance for a manager to actually MANAGE his/her staff. (Or when we are feeling less than charitable, out of spinelessness.) Instead of telling an employee “no you can’t take a whole month off this summer because we don’t have enough staff to cover that long of an absence” the manager would rather say “no you can’t because HR policy says you can only take two weeks.” In other words they just want to pass the buck because they don’t want to look like the bad guy.

    As we bad guys (HR) like to say, you really can write someone up for peeing in a wastebasket even if there isn’t a Policy. Some things really do not need to be spelled out.

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