Is Anthony Esolen a reactionary? No, but you should read him anyway.
Anthony Esolen is a scholar and teacher concentrating on the Renaissance and early Modern period, producing a notable English translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Esolen’s latest work is Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery 2017). Until recently a member of the faculty of Providence College, Esolen was subjected in the fall of 2016 to a mandatory “two-minutes hate” for not showing appropriate obsequiousness to the dictates of diversity when he penned “My College Succumbed to the Totalitarian Diversity Cult” for Crisis magazine. In the sort of incident that has become tiresomely familiar, after a student protest, he was disowned by the college’s president. The only novelty in Esolen’s case was his stature and Providence College’s nominal commitment to Roman Catholicism. The crisis and aftermath have been helpfully described by Rod Dreher and Esolen himself.
Even considering Esolen’s credibility, one might question the value of reading a mass market book from a Conservative Inc. publisher. First of all, Esolen’s prose is a pleasure. In making his points, he is unusually forceful and direct. But most importantly, each of the book’s ten chapters paints a vivid picture of what exactly has been lost in the lives of ordinary people, as what had been the flower of Western civilization has collapsed into soft totalitarian barbarism. Many, especially Millennials, have a sense that something has been lost without having any direct experience of what a more humane and traditional culture was actually like.
Esolen provides vivid portraits of this lost world. There are of course examples taken from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bunyan, Milton and other great works of the Western canon, including paintings and sculpture, illustrating how the past is indeed another country. But the best examples are when Esolen provides vividly rendered details about what has been lost “within living memory,” in the decades since the end of the Second World War and therefore solidly within the context of late Modernity.
In the first chapter, Esolen starts with truth. For Esolen, the fundamental truth to be affirmed is God as our Creator and Jesus Christ as our Savior. However, in contemporary America, we accept lies as a matter of course. Our first task says Esolen, asking us to take the advice of James Boswell to Samuel Johnson, is to “clear your mind of cant.” Words like democracy, diversity, equality and inclusivity have been emptied of content; they should no longer be used.
In his chapter on beauty, we meet find Henry Adams in Paris for the Great Exposition of 1900, which he disdains in favor of visiting the great cathedral of Chartes and other monuments to Christian Europe. Indeed, in the century since then, the aesthetics of the Exposition have entered the cathedral and the local parish, giving us plywood, moldy carpet, ugliness, folk masses and hymns that sound like Broadway show tunes. The Church in her liturgy needs to return to Gregorian chant and the other elements of high culture.
Esolen’s real passion is education, with two chapters on primary and post-secondary education. The first is centered around a description of a single-room schoolhouse in Orwell Corners on Prince Edward Islands in the Canadian Maritimes. Compared with the education offered to simple working people in a rural area, the modern educational edifice delivers little real education. In the one room school house, they learned Latin and Greek, assuring they knew grammar. Esolen laments “none of my college freshmen . . . knows any grammar.” He goes on to present a dialogue among young students at the old one room school house as the older children participate in helping the younger ones learn.
In Esolen’s view, the fundamental dilemma for secular education is that it is not possible to teach Western civilization to children without also teaching them the Christian religion. Efforts to present the world neutrally are a will-o’-the-wisp.
For the role of religion in human life is not little. It is essential: without it there is no culture at all, because culture is a cultivation of the things that a people considers most sacred. Those who talk glibly about the “multicultural” are, in my experience, mainly monolingual Westerners who have lost any strong sense of what any kind of culture must he about. Their “culture” is culinary or epidermal. They are tourists at best, self-satisfied and patronizing, sampling a little jazz on Tuesday and a little Japanese watercolor on Wednesday, and always remaining stolidly certain that the whole world is moving toward their own supposedly progressive ideals—and if it is not, there are always armies, dollars, and food to make damned sure it does. Thus does the “multicultural” act as a universal cultural solvent.
At the post-secondary level, the situation is even worse, for education as historically practiced is not even possible. “If a professor must negotiate an emotional and verbal and political mine field before he opens his mouth, then he is no professor any longer.” As a result, the students hold the whip hand and get exactly what they want. When Esolen was a student at Princeton, the most popular course was the freshman course in Shakespeare. Now it is Young Adult Fiction (“guerrillas, vampires, sluts and suicides”).
On the differences between men and women, boys and girls, as we say gender, in two chapters, Esolen warms to the subject that got him in the most hot water with Providence College and its diversity cult. His essential point is that boys must be molded into men by their fathers.
Consider the institutions that used to guide the boy’s natural risk-taking towards healthy objects. . . . The Boy Scouts of America now seem to believe that men who are sexually attracted to boys, men who have not negotiated the passage from boyhood to full manhood, ought to be scoutmasters. That is either insane or cruel or both, and it shows that, at least officially, the Boy Scouts do not believe there is such a thing as boyhood that is to become manhood. They do not know what boys are, or they pretend they do not. They might then be called the Physically Immature Male Scouts of America. Traitors.
Fundamental to the difference is the tendency of men to gather together in bands and hash out rough dominance hierarchies out of the sight of women, of which American football is so typical.
Not all boys like football, of course. Some would like to roam the woods hunting for food, if there were woods, and if we did not live in a police state, where the natural is illegal and the perverse is protected and promoted.
The evidence is everywhere that patriarchy is necessary, but it is not believed:
We are told by our cultural "betters" that the 1950s were years of repression and false cheerfulness. Well, in that culture of repression people were free to leave their keys in the ignition of the car, to leave their doors unlocked at night, to let their children range all over town without Supervision, to have shooting clubs in the public schools, to leave bicycles outside of a store without worrying that they would be pinched, to ride in the back of a pickup truck without getting stopped by the police, to tell children to get out of the house and stay out till suppertime, to have those kids walk a mile or two to school and back every day without worrying about kidnappers or perverts, to call on their neighbors (whose names they knew) when they needed some sugar or flour or when they wanted to play cards, to send their children to a parochial school without paying any tuition, to show up at a movie theater or a bowling alley at nine years old without arousing suspicion, to belong to men’s clubs and women’s clubs (whereof there were plenty to choose from) without being accused of hate or bigotry; and so forth.
One of Esolen’s greatest laments is that our public spaces have become so drab and ugly. No one is prepared to pay for craftsmanship anymore and the craftsmen are gone. It is not so much that our society does not have the resources, but a question of where they are directed and by whom. Esolen describes trips to a lake for vacation with his large Italian family during boyhood that cost much less and were more fulfilling that the ersatz amusement parks that must be reached by air travel.
Given the touted increase in leisure, it may be a shock that our play is so degraded. Looking at a Winslow Homer painting, Esolen notes that, while there was plenty of equipment for doing various tasks, there was no equipment for the exercise of the body. Young people spend endless hours on stationary bicycles that don’t actually go anywhere. When left to themselves, away from the “Schedule,” boys know how to play a game of baseball in an empty lot, choosing up sides and inventing ground rules.
In the last chapter, the sole one on political issues, Esolen in essence bemoans the decline of subsidiarity, or to use the secular American term, federalism. Here his emphasis is on education, his first love, where local control of public schools has been so clearly deformed by progressive diktats from Washington. Esolen observes that government is actually run by the bureaucracies, who makes regulations rather than enforce the laws made by the people’s representatives. Esolen believes in the Aristotelean ideal of the polis, where free men would participate in the affairs of the community.
A conservative may become a reactionary when a fulsome critique of Modernity leads to the unwelcome conclusion that liberal democracy, rather than its glory, is the main illness leading to the West’s sickness and death. This conclusion is rarely if ever welcomed, as it is an even greater social faux pas in contemporary America than smoking. Esolen provides no thoughts in this direction, and indeed his remarks on the polis indicate a typically wistful view of the decline of the Founders’ vision. His inclusion of “democracy” among today’s meaningless buzz words (“avoid cant”) and his extolling hierarchy (“There is no building the Brooklyn Bridge without hierarchy”) will not be alien to the reactionary. Heeding the proper limits of criticism, I will not speculate why this is for Esolen. But it is related to the next point.
Esolen tells us what needs to be done, but he does not offer a program of how it is to be done. Out of the Ashes is thus different from the superficially similar The Benedict Option. Nor does Esolen call for the creation of an activist collective that would do the things he proposes, a sort of civilizational Woman's Christian Temperance Union. It is left purposely vague, suggesting any actions taken would be local, distributed and uncoordinated. In the area of higher education, Esolen gives specific recommendations for the new, small religious liberal art colleges where it is still possible to be educated. Esolen’s current institution, Thomas More in New Hampshire, is typical of this type.
Reading Out of the Ashes will help you see what has been lost and what needs to be done. It is up to the reader to figure out how to do it.