On the contrary

November 6, 2009

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.

8 Responses to “On the contrary”

  1. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    Another book to add to my “to-read” list! And the list was already impossibly long. Still, that’s a good problem to have. –Esolen’s book sounds a lot like David Bentley Hart’s most recent, though, so maybe I could economize by reading only one. (But which? Sounds like a tough choice.)

    I’ve been re-reading Walker Percy’s novels lately, and your synopsis of Esolen’s “villains and heroes” of Westen culture reminded me of the exchange between Will Barrett and Sutter Vaught (one of my favorite characters ever) when they first meet in The Last Gentleman. Alluding to the poem “Abou Ben Adhem” by James Leigh Hunt, Sutter says:

    “There it is . . . the entire melancholy procession of disasters. First God; then a man who is extremely pleased with himself for serving man for man’s sake and leaving God out of it; then in the end God himself turned into a capricious sentimental Jean Hersholt or perhaps Judge Lee Cobb who is at first outraged by Abou’s effrontery and then thinks better of it: by heaven, says he, here is a stout fellow when you come to think of it to serve his fellow man with no thanks to me, and so God swallows his pride and packs off the angel to give Abou the good news–the new gospel. Do you know who did the West in? . . . It wasn’t Marx or immorality or the Communists or the atheists or any of those fellows. It was Leigh Hunt.”

    Even if Leigh Hunt can be more-or-less identified with Rousseau, I gather Esolen would disagree with pegging it ALL on Leigh Hunt. But I also gather that Esolen and Sutter would agree that virtue, conscience, community, human dignity, and responsibility are one thing when considered in the light of the Judeo-Christian revelation, and quite another when we “leave God out of it.” (Sutter’s label for what they become in the latter case is “meretricious [excrement].”)

  2. cburrell Says:

    If I had to choose between Esolen and Hart, I would probably choose Hart. They are not the same book, though. Hart’s focus is very much on antiquity and the transition to Christianity, with constant reference to late modernity. Esolen takes a more systematic approach, giving each period its due, and with a special emphasis on the history of the US (a special interest of his publisher, I take it). Esolen’s is also the more accessible of the two, with friendly side-bars, highlighted boxes, and that sort of thing.

    Thanks for the Percy quotation! Goodness, that man could write. You are ahead of me on this front; I’m still working through his novels for the first time, and have yet to reach The Last Gentlemen (I’m not going in order). It’s a wonder the folks at Korrektiv let me in, given my inadequate credentials, but maybe they don’t know.

    You make a good point that many of these concepts — dignity, conscience, virtue, and the good itself — are related to deeper philosophical and religious ideas. I am told that it used to be said, during the Cold War, that “Peace is a Communist plot”, because it seemed that those who talked a lot about peace tended to be Communists. One sometimes gets a similar feeling today when it comes to “human rights” and “dignity”. I feel like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

  3. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    You’re in for a treat when you do get to The Last Gentleman. It’s my favorite Percy novel so far, although I haven’t yet read Love In the Ruins, so there’s always some chance of an upset. (The Second Coming is the sequel to The Last Gentleman, so if you haven’t yet read that one, I recommend reading TLG first.)

    And the Inigo Montoya quote is spot-on. I had not applied it that way before. But no doubt I will from now on . . .

  4. Nick Milne Says:

    Another voice begs to be heard on the subject of Mr. Ben Adhem…

    THE PHILANTHROPIST
    (With Apologies to a Beautiful Poem)
    (C. 1918-21)

    Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe decrease
    By cautious birth-control and die in peace)
    Mellow with learning lightly took the word
    That marked him not with them that love the Lord,
    And told the angel of the book and pen
    “Write me as one that loves his fellow-men:
    For them alone I labour; to reclaim
    The ragged roaming Bedouin and to tame
    To ordered service; to uproot their vine
    Who mock the Prophet, being mad with wine;
    Let daylight through their tents and through their lives
    Number their camels, even count their wives;
    Plot out the desert into streets and squares,
    And count it a more fruitful work than theirs
    Who lift a vain and visionary love
    To your vague Allah in the skies above.”

    Gently replied the angel of the pen:
    “Labour in peace and love your fellow men:
    And love not God, since men alone are dear,
    Only fear God; for you have cause to fear.”

  5. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    Thanks for that, Nick–I’ve read a lot of Chesterton’s poems, but I’d never seen that one before. Which makes me wonder whether Percy had; certainly there’s a skepticism about “philanthropic” uses of science in all of his work, and it grows more pointed with time–culminating in The Thanatos Syndrome, in which the priest says, “Tenderness always leads to the gas chamber.” I wonder whether Chesterton’s poem might have prompted Percy to make the connection bewteen Hunt’s poem and that skepticism. But I suppose that’s pretty speculative.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Yes indeed, thank you for that poem, Nick. I had not seen it before either.


  7. […] On the contrary — Pagerank 4, referencing The Falling Fertility of Europe. […]


  8. […] On the contrary — Pagerank 4, referencing The Falling Fertility of Europe. […]


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