The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization
Anthony Esolen (Regnary, 2007)
340 p. First reading.
Normally I would not bother with a book that flaunts its “politically incorrect” credentials. It is almost certainly going to generate more heat than light. My native reluctance was overcome in this case because of the author. Anthony Esolen is a translator, essayist, and author whom I admire. He is robustly politically incorrect, to be sure, but in a thoughtful and eloquent way, and I thought the book would be worthwhile.
By and large, I was right. There are a few cases in which he goes a little too far out of his way to get in a “zinger”, and the tone does occasionally tip over into stridency, but those are exceptions. Essentially the book is an accessible but intelligent survey of Western culture, from the Greeks through to the present, in which Esolen systematically challenges received wisdom.
He admires the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans and acknowledges our debt to them. In some circles that is already politically incorrect, especially when accompanied (as here) by the claim that Greek and Roman culture was, in various ways, superior to that found among other peoples. Going a step further, both in historical chronology and in political incorrectness, he then argues that our debt to the Jewish people and to Jesus is at least as great as that owed to Greco-Roman civilization. This is a truth which a great many people today would rather forget. His discussion of the medieval era is perhaps a little rosier than is strictly warranted, but this is a justifiable strategy given the absurd views most people have about the period. He challenges the common view of the Renaissance as a triumph of reason over superstition, and argues that the Enlightenment laid the groundwork for the tyrannies and violence of the last 150 years. Both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries he sees as periods of decline and decadence, characterized especially by debasement in politics, the arts, and education. By our own day, the West has become alienated from itself, embarrassed of its origins and its history, and is consequently dying — in some quarters, literally so. There is no joy in Esolen’s prognosis: he loves Western culture and would see it restored if possible, but he believes that this cannot happen unless we return to our roots.
As in any good story, there are villains and heroes. Among the villains are Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and Dewey; the heroes include Plato, Aquinas, Pascal, Johnson, Shakespeare, Browning, Dostoyevsky. Esolen praises those who have honoured tradition, taught the importance of virtue, conscience, and community, defended human dignity, respected the natural law, and sought to preserve an expansive liberty for a man to shoulder his own responsibilities and to order his life, in concert with those of his neighbours, as he thinks best. Consequently, he opposes those who seek to sever us from our traditions, who regard human beings as mere animals, who despise religion, who regard our nature as malleable and our customs as prejudices, who deny the moral law, and who would cede their rightful liberties and responsibilities to the state in exchange for security and creature comforts. Clearly, there is a certain kind of reader who will find this very unpalatable.
For me the best part of the book was the early chapter on Israel. It follows chapters on Greece and on Rome, and as much as I enjoy reading about Aristotle and the Stoics and Roman civic virtue, there is something missing. When we turn to the Jews, we find a world of fresh wind and fire: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing,” said God to Abraham; “Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world,” said Jesus. Socrates, for all his merits, never said anything like that. Esolen does a superb job is showing how the faith of Israel brought a new thing into history, one that affected a deep change in our understanding of the human person, of the nature of political power and of nature, and of the possibilities of human life. More than that — and here we reach a fevered pitch of political incorrectness — Esolen believes that this inheritance is the most important element of Western culture, and that only if we cease our rebellion against it will we restore our health.
I share Esolen’s love for Western civilization, and I have dedicated many hours of study to the hope that, in some real if modest way, this great inheritance will find in me a receptive heart and mind able to pass it forward to the next generation as a living thing. I am startled to realize that, if Esolen’s thesis is correct, this love and this commitment make me politically incorrect. Well, don’t tell anyone.