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A Book Review… An Ode To Truth And Beauty

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By CHRISTOPHER MANION

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen; 2017: Regnery; $27.99.

Anthony Esolen is one of America’s most penetrating cultural critics. Add to that his limpid and flowing style, and this book is the masterpiece we expected it to be.
Out of the Ashes travels comfortably through reminiscences, classical allusions selected with grace and wit, sober critiques of the arts delivered with sagacity and depth — and a hard-headed, no-nonsense willingness to confront modernity’s errors head-on, calling them what they are, articulating them better than their own advocates, and then blasting them into the oblivion that they deserve.
A professor but not a pedant, Esolen conducts us on a journey through the fundamentals of life, faith, family, and society that brims with lucidity and ease. His literary allusions come naturally, shedding just the proper light on the topic at hand; his opinions sparkle and occasionally burn, but only when they need to. Alas, given the ways of the fallen world he examines with such delicate care, his dire diagnoses come early, often, and on target: the perverted spirit of modernity has led the West by the nose to “collapse, not battered from without, but sagging into lethargy and indifference and stupor from within.”
He presents the challenge perceived by Livy, who saw “duty and severity giving way to ambition, avarice, and license, till his fellow Romans ‘sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to the present time, in which we can endure neither our vices nor their cure’.”
Is that the epitaph for our times? While he makes vivid and valiant suggestions here and there, Esolen’s task is not to prescribe but to understand. And Out of the Ashes demonstrates a clarity of understanding rarely seen in our day, offered by a lover of truth to an age that is desperate for it.
Reader, begin at your own risk: This book is not easy to put down. It begins with a sobering thought — we should call things by their proper names. Confucius teaches that, but Humpty Dumpty denies it: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’.”
Esolen honors Confucius for articulating the first step in our journey towards restored liberty; Humpty Dumpty defies him because he’s interested only in power: “The question is, which is to be master — that’s all,” he tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass.
Who shall rule? Esolen finds our modern masters to be fearful indeed. Orwell’s Memory Hole works overtime: “modernity is all too often the cult of erasure and oblivion. The ancients still had memory.”
But do we? Esolen does his best to remind us.
He devotes several chapters to the rearing and teaching of the young:
“We are incompetent in the ordinary things of life. We divorce more readily than we sell houses, yet for some reason we believe that we possess great wisdom as regards men and women that our benighted ancestors did not possess. We raise sons who are not weaned at age 25, yet for some reason we have contempt for the old institutions that used to turn boys into men. We raise daughters who emulate well-paid whores, but who do not actually make the money that the whores make, and yet we persist in believing that only in our time has a girl had half a chance to live a decent life.”
One cannot condense Esolen — only marvel at the way he sorts things out in a way that makes the reader think, “Say, that’s what I’ve thought all along.”
In fact, Esolen’s chosen task is to remind. To remind us who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and why we are here, as the classical question puts it. With this comes our duty to truth.
“We must not tell lies. We must not even speak the lie’s language.” As Orwell put it, that’s the foundation of tyranny.
The left hates the past because the past is true. Esolen loves the past. We can’t return there, although he revels in painting its simple joys and rewards (not long ago he asked, besides material advances, what has really “progressed” in the past fifty years?). To tell the truth about our past is to tell the truth about ourselves, about life. “If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie.”
So he confronts the liar’s lexicon: “Words like democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity, marginalization, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism, progressivism, autonomy.” All of them crimes against Confucius — and us.
Esolen focuses on beauty because no one else seems to any more. In art, in architecture, in music (including church “music” — that has today so often descended into doggerel and drivel). And he does this beautifully — because we are naturally attracted by beauty, including beautiful prose that invites us to reconsider our age’s flight from beauty with the same keen eye that we espy its flight from truth.

Signposts

And nowhere have we seen the flight from truth more tragically — and criminally — than in the flight from the truth of Humanae Vitae.
In a poignant plea, he observes that “manhood is risky. It must be publicly affirmed, and you can lose that affirmation by cowardice or effeminacy.”
And in Humanae Vitae we see the affirmation of the truth of man and woman by one Pope who did not shirk from that duty:
“Pope Paul VI…predicted that women would become the sexual plaything of man; he did not predict that plenty of women would aid the worst vices of their brothers and use men as playthings in turn. Paul consistently warned that contraception would lead to more, not fewer, children born out of wedlock; even he did not foresee the utter collapse of the family in vast regions of the West. Orthodox Catholics argued that to legalize abortion would naturally increase the numbers of abortions, rather than merely making safer for the mother the abortions that were already performed. Even they did not predict a million to a million and a half dead every year in the United States alone.
“The happy-preachers said that easy divorce would not increase the number of divorces but would only alleviate the pain of divorces that already were going to occur. Even they did not predict that from four to five out of ten marriages in the United States would end in divorce; and nobody at all foresaw what I called the index of familial disruption, that is, the percentage of sexual liaisons of at least a year’s duration that produce a child, whether or not it is allowed to live, and that end in failure. In fact, no one really knows what that evil number is. Marriage is in freefall and multitudes of ordinary people who in any healthy culture would be married and having a fine brood of children now live in a protracted adolescence or in loneliness and disillusionment.”
Yes, the state often foments these evils, while the powerful elites cheer them on. They represent the collapse of man, woman, the family, and the community — to which reality Esolen refers as the polis, to distinguish it radically from the state, from the Leviathan.
And what is to be done? We are pilgrims, returning home, he writes. Is it too much to ask that we come to our senses? This book is full of signposts to lead us on the way. “I am only describing what was and what may again be ordinary human life, with its ordinary joys and sorrows,” Esolen writes. And he does it in a truly extraordinary way.

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