The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

Many people seem to think that politics will save us, that if we could just get the right people, or “our people” in office, they would begin to set things right, however we envision that. Anthony Esolen in the article Listening Up, in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine, discusses some reasons for this idea, and its often corresponding impulse to judge our human forefathers for their sins, judgment not “by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the ‘political.'”

He believes we lack historical imagination, and he sets out to consider the different ways one might make better use of stories and history in general, giving examples first from antiquity:

“So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with ‘political’ questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.

“Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.”

Esolen goes on to mention American leaders of note, and of complex history and character, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson, “a genuinely kindly owner of slaves.” And then he comes to his “three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell”: The Man of Faith, The Man of Wistful Unbelief, and the Man of Superstition.

I found his categories to be very helpful in understanding differences between people in the first two groups especially, and their stories that nourish our hearts. Oh, if only the third group would quiet down and listen to some true stories! But they don’t like the stories of the other two groups, and have their own ever-changing and doubtful heroes.

“History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State.”

“They are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart…. they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions.”

You can read the whole article here: “Listening Up.”

People who make history know nothing about history.
You can see that in the sort of history they make.
-G.K. Chesterton


8 thoughts on “The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

  1. As always I come here and many times I am challenged! And in this thought provoking post there is more than I can grasp in one sitting, yet I like that my brain does go somewhere🙃. So this is where my brain went…my first thoughts…take it as you will…

    Moses, a mere man chosen by God, led and governed a large group of people and he knew whom to depend on. From my point of view his most shining moment, of which he had many, was his intercession for a sinful, hard-hearted, disobedient people, and he was even willing to have his name written out of the Book of Life for them. His “political” ways were beyond human thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m in the middle of teaching a series on Moses in church school. Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” That sets him apart in an astonishing way.

      The church fathers tell us it was because of his humility that God could reveal Himself and his plans to Moses and work His signs through him. I agree that we should pray for those who have the opposite attitude!


  2. I went to the full article, and it got me thinking, but I need to read it again, slowly. Thanks for calling attention to it. The part about “American leaders of note, and of complex history and character” opens paths to discussing contemporary political figures, even though Esolen doesn’t want to go that way. With the friends I have, it happens a lot. So now I find myself wondering who in our day will become heroes for later generations, and whether their complexities of character will be an issue, as it seems to be now. Flaws and failings abound, and it seems easy to make judgments, and somehow wrong not to. Difficult times. But I suppose they all were, and will be. Good post, Gretchen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I had read it, and I am thankful to you for telling me of it. I will print it and read it again, because you are right, it is wonderfully true and enduring – “…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.” Thank you, Linda!!

      Liked by 1 person

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