The Personalist Project

New York wants to outlaw the Slurpee.  School bake sales and homemade lunches have fallen under suspicion.  Exorbitant fines have been levied on a peace-loving Idaho couple for moving some dirt onto a dry plot of ground that--sure enough--turned out not to be a wetland after all.  Rules and regulations are sprouting faster than the weeds on our lawn since the three-year-old has learned to turn on the sprinkler.


But I fondly remember an institution that took a very different approach.

On my first day of college, President Peter V. Sampo (center, below) of the Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts sat us down to lay out the rules.

There were three of them. 

Number One: No hanging out in the bedrooms of the opposite sex.

Number Two: No alcohol on campus. 

Number Three was a recent addition, promulgated a couple of years earlier when a guy named Tony had enrolled.  Tony was a hunter, and he was fond of carrying his rifle around.  So, after imagining the misgivings of the other students’ parents for a minute, Dr. Sampo reluctantly instituted Rule Number Three: No firearms.

Why reluctantly?  Because the whole point of our liberal arts education was to form people on the inside, not micromanage them from the outside.  To form, not to brainwash: not the wily “consensus-building” of politicians, nor the bogus “tools and techniques” so beloved of MBA’s for making underlings conform to corporate culture and like it.  Rather, this was an appeal to the heart and intellect, so as to elicit the free consent of the person, who could then wholeheartedly say, “These are the ideas I want to live by.”  Or not.

St. Augustine has a still more streamlined rule: "Love and do as you will."

Granted, that would be an impractical blueprint for running a country, a college, or even a family.  Our intellects are clouded, our wills weakened.  Our love is not that perfect, and our minds can’t reliably discern which actions would be in accordance with perfect love, anyway.

Where, then, can we draw a reasonable line? 

Clearly, some rules and regulations are necessary.  As a new mother, I was astounded by the sheer quantity of instructions I’d never imagined a person would need to give.  I started jotting them down:

  • Don’t leave your crayons on the radiator. 
  • Don’t keep balloons in the oven. 
  • Don’t kiss the baby while he’s spitting up.   

It wasn’t their fault.  They had no experience, no common sense, no civilization.  To give them liberty would have been to give them death. 

They didn’t much like my rules.  They never did learn to.  But they did gradually outgrow the need for the bulk of them. 

The thing is, the more rules and regulations you impose, the less free range you’re allowing for common sense, prudence and mature judgment.  And the less of those you have--the more atrophied they become--the more you’re forced to rely on rules and regulations.  The question is not so much “What’s the correct amount of regulation?” as “How can we develop persons who can thrive without it?” or “How can we promote the ability to outgrow the need for it?”

As I noted a few weeks ago, God doesn’t overregulate: He doesn’t impose uniformity.  He lets us stew in our own juices, up to a point.  The prodigal son’s father doesn’t prevent his departure, doesn’t chase him down.  He waits in continual readiness to take his son back, once he freely makes up his mind to return. 

In the movement from Old to the New Testament you can see the progression away from burdensome “rules and regulations” towards the “glorious freedom of the children of God,” although, contrary to stereotype, Judaism is no lifeless, heartless collection of rubrics.

In the Torah, God laid down two principles for his people:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God

with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.


Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

This was espressed in the Ten Commandments and elaborated into the 613 Mitzvot—and then Jesus distilled it all back down again.  The rules were given, the regulations were developed, and then we were reminded what it was all for.  The Law was not abolished, but fulfilled.

You might be wondering: What does this have to do with the abolition of Slurpees in New York?  

Well, it doesn't specify how many ounces of an obesity-inducing drink a citizen may legally consume.  

It indicates, though, that the answer doesn't lie in an ever-more-detailed, ever-more-intrusive tangle of government regulations.  That would be a lot like giving my preschooler sole discretion over the use of the sprinkler.

Nor do we need to abolish rules and regulations altogether.  We don't want all our little boys skateboarding into the sea.

But we don't want to remain little boys forever, either.

If you give people as much freedom as possible, they may or may not learn to use it well.  If you give them as little as possible, they never will.

Comments (9)

Tim Cronin

#1, Jun 1, 2012 1:12pm

I agree that love fulfills the laws and that when we come to mature love we have no need of laws. The law serves an anamnetic role for our conscience when it is a correctly formed law. It helps us recall the logos of our origin and end. If we really want to address the obesity issue I think we need to look at consumption and a consumer economy. Man is being viewed as home economis. The government tries to induce us to spend when the economy is down. Marketers try to make us feel inadequate with what we have or that what they have conforms to our liberty. We need freedom from the unfree market. (  

Tim Cronin

#2, Jun 1, 2012 1:15pm

An example of a very balanced rule is the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Lisa in NH

#3, Jun 1, 2012 1:56pm

Excellent, Devra!  Thanks for writing this.

Devra Torres

#4, Jun 1, 2012 6:25pm

Tim, welcome!  It's true: there's something deeply wrong and unhealthy with the way the market works in practice--something that no regulation is going to cure.  Marketing specialists are running around creating "felt needs" in consumers; people have a very hard time distinguishing between needs and wants, and everyone ends up more unfree than they were before.  We have very little inner freedom, and very little resistance to manipulation.  Then the politicians step in and tell us that overconsumption is patriotic.  There's really no solution other than one that addresses what goes on inside the human being.

Devra Torres

#5, Jun 1, 2012 6:26pm

Lisa, thank you! (It was fun, and I got to use one of my favorite pictures of Gabe...)

Tim Cronin

#6, Jun 2, 2012 9:43am

Hi Devra, I agree that we need inner freedom. A more ascetic path.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 2, 2012 9:39pm

Devra, you remind me of some verses in Isaiah that I love. 

“Who is it he is trying to teach?
    To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
    to those just taken from the breast?

For it is:
    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that[a];
    a little here, a little there. ”

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said,

“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”—

but they would not listen.

So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:

    Do this, do that,
    a rule for this, a rule for that;
    a little here, a little there —
so that as they go they will fall backward;
    they will be injured and snared and captured.

Here we see clearly that the rules necessary for children do not befit adults, made in God's Image.  We also see that fallen men have a tendency to substitute rules for interior transformation.

Devra Torres

#8, Jun 2, 2012 10:02pm

That's exactly it.  And it's true--I see it in the business ethics and law my husband teaches.  Managers and other authorities are convinced that it's not their place to form the human being, but just to regulate external behavior, so they end up developing elaborate codes of "ethics," which only encourage the underlings to develop more devious ways around them, which only encourages the higher-up's to add more details to the codes--until nobody actually knows what's expected, unless he's an expert in decoding the abstruse language of the regulations.

Tim Cronin

#9, Jun 3, 2012 9:26pm

I read somewhere recently that law is combative

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