Yes, American civilization is in decline. Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College, makes no bones about that.
Yet, his recent book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, is a joyous and hopeful book. You wouldn’t think such a thing would be possible for a book about the continuing collapse of the West.
Yet there it is: This book about truth exudes joy. A comprehensive commitment to Truth includes a commitment to beauty, goodness and love, and to calling things by their proper names. Above all, Truth is a Person: the Logos, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Esolen’s book is joyous because he is in love with Truth, in all of its manifestations.
Esolen wastes no time. He dives immediately into the heart of the issue in Chapter 1, “Giving Things Their Proper Names: The Restoration of Truth-Telling.”
“Why do we lie?” he asks. We lie to obstruct truths of which we are ashamed. “Are we a world of liars?” he asks. “In a word, yes,” he replies.
He then lists lie after socially-acceptable and even socially-required lie. “Family structure doesn’t matter.” “Sex is biological, but gender is social.” “Religion is the cause of almost all wars.” “A million American women died from illegal abortion prior to Roe v. Wade.”
Enough to turn your stomach? Perhaps. But he redeems the indigestion by an even longer list of joyous tangible realities. He finds them by time travel into earlier centuries. For instance, from the letters of anti-abortion Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, a 19th-century leader for the reform of abortion laws, he gets a glimpse into ordinary life of the 19th century. When Storer was a boy, he attended a boarding school on Cape Cod. His letters home to his parents are full of his daily activities: fishing, boating, clamming, gathering berries, riding horses and mules, stargazing and much more. Esolen catches the joy of this ordinary life of long ago. It tells us that a deeper life is possible to us, even now. All we have to do is claim it — and live it.
Esolen does not waste one moment on “religious liberty” or “academic freedom.” Not that there is anything wrong with either. But the truth is that these are fallback positions when an argument has already been lost. The only way to defend the ideas and institutions that made the West great is to defend them as good in themselves. They are not merely quirky antiquities.
He defends the differences between men and women. He defends marriage and childhood. He defends poetry, love and beauty. If people do not find these tangible things appealing, why in the world would they lift a finger to defend abstractions like “freedom of speech” or “separation of powers” or “federalism”?
Ever since the division of Christendom in the 16th century, the place of Christianity in society has been weakened. The state has moved into the void. The world the Church made receded into the background and became a distant memory. Somewhere around the 18th century, the world became unmistakably “modern.”
Today, people can hardly imagine another world, or any other way to live. It is as if we live in a historical valley, surrounded by tall mountains that no one has ever crossed or seen over.
But Esolen spends a lot of time on the other side of that chronological mountain range, in that world before the division. He is on intimate terms with Dante and Shakespeare and Milton and Spenser. He knows we have alternatives to the present madness. He loves those alternatives and gives us a glimpse into the world that created them.
Each chapter gives suggestions for restoring part of the lost culture. One of the most delightful chapters is “Restoring Beauty,” which deals with Church art and architecture and liturgical music. Becoming adept on the organ or the piano takes years of practice. But anyone can sing, he says.
I think to myself about the little schola cantorum at Our Lady Queen of Heaven, here in Lake Charles, Louisiana. We sing at 6:30am Mass on weekdays. We sometimes make mistakes, and some of us are better singers than others. But none of that matters. What matters is that, at a little parish in a little town, people are singing Gregorian chant five days a week. Beauty stands on its own and cannot be stopped.
Truth delights and intoxicates Esolen. He recognizes that the cause of Truth is never wholly lost. Neither is it definitively won. Every generation must discover it anew, embrace it, and make it its own. Buy this book. Read it. Pick out a few of its suggestions and implement them in your life. You will find joy, no matter what happens around you.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the founder and president
of the Ruth Institute, a global nonprofit organization
dedicated to finding Christlike solutions to
the problems of family breakdown.
Out of the Ashes
Rebuilding American Culture
By Anthony Esolen
Regnery Publishing, 2017
256 pages, $27.99
To order: regnery.com