Tag Archives: Anthony Esolen

The revelation of an anti-world.

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman is a thorough treatment of the history of Expressive Individualism and what modernity has come to. The author is a good thinker and writer, but he wearied me by incorporating into his thesis every possible thought and phenomenon that might contribute to the conclusion that “We are all expressive individualists now.” It’s a long book. After a hundred pages I jumped to the last fifty pages, and read the end first, to find out if it was worth the slog. I decided it was: I read every word, and underlined thought-provoking passages on every page.

So I’m glad I read it, and I’m much more glad that Anthony Esolen read it, because his writing is not just good, but sublime, and he calls the book a “mountaintop work.” He wrote a great review, which I heartily recommend. Because you probably want to know if you really are an Expressive Individualist, right?

To Strut and Fret an Hour Upon the Stage by Anthony Esolen

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

 

Wooed by beauty and delight.

Just this morning I reread an old post in which I was musing on the Kasses’ research on young people who don’t fall in love the way previous generations did; I switched from there to my cup of tea and print copy of the current Touchstone Magazine, where Anthony Esolen happened to be exploring a related question in “Surprised by Delight: Divine Love and the Love of Man and Woman Surpass Mere Consent.” He skillfully brings together passages from Paradise Lost, John Donne, the Bible, and other sources to flesh out what he means by the delight of both types of love, and asks also, Why did our grandparents, in spite of hard lives full of suffering, retain a memory of delight in their relationships with the opposite sex? One excerpt, from a passage quoting Milton:

The “virgin majesty of Eve” needs no political program to protect or promote her. Virtue itself, embodied in distinctly feminine form, builds in her its lovely seat of authority, and guards her round about with awe. Eve, too, will acknowledge the superior power of Adam, when she describes her submission to his wooing, saying that from that moment on, she sees “how beauty is excelled by manly grace, / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.”

So should we stress that each sex is for the other, raising boys and girls to be both separate from one another and destined to be united with one another; to use that separate development to endow each sex with peculiar gifts for the other, which the other will experience with surprise and gratitude. Common sense. Familiarity breeds contempt, and nobody ever said, “I love her, because I find nothing surprising in her.” We are swept away not by what we possess in ourselves, but by what we could never imagine in ourselves. If boys and girls are treated indifferently, should we expect them to treat one another as specifically members of the opposite sex with anything but indifference?

I’ve been wanting for a long time to post the poem below, trying and failing to find a painting to go with it. Maybe the descriptions from Esolen’s article (the whole article appears to be available: here) are better at placing the poem in a universal context of the delight of love and beauty and thankfulness, of which we all have our own concrete and sweet examples.

PART OF PLENTY

When she carries food to the table and stoops down
–Doing this out of love–and lays soup with its good
Tickling smell, or fry winking from the fire
And I look up, perhaps from a book I am reading
Or other work: there is an importance of beauty
Which can’t be accounted for by there and then,
And attacks me, but not separately from the welcome
Of the food, or the grace of her arms.
When she puts a sheaf of tulips in a jug
And pours in water and presses to one side
The upright stems and leaves that you hear creak,
Or loosens them, or holds them up to show me,
So that I see the tangle of their necks and cups
With the curls of her hair, and the body they are held
Against, and the stalk of the small waist rising
And flowering in the shape of breasts;
Whether in the bringing of the flowers or of the food
She offers plenty, and is part of plenty,
And whether I see her stooping, or leaning with the flowers,
What she does is ages old, and she is not simply,
No, but lovely in that way.

-Bernard Spencer

Gleanings – What is Man?

Anthony Esolen reflects on the significance of Catholics dropping the word “man” from the Ash Wednesday service:

A little consideration shows that there is no substitute in English for man. None of the alternatives do the necessary work. Human being is singular and somewhat personal, but it is not a universal term; we do not conceive of the fall of human being. Humanity is abstract and impersonal, and names a quality rather than a being. People is plural, and not necessarily universal; I am not people, and the sin of people might mean the sin of John and Mary and Agnes and Bill, but not the sin of all people considered as one. Mankind is a universal, but not personal. The priest could never say, “Remember, mankind, that thou art dust,” because he would then seem to be speaking not to the penitent, but to a vast generality. Men and women is not universal—it excludes children!—and introduces an irrelevant distinction of sex. Person is singular but not universal, and is in any case not limited to man; angels, too, have personal being, as do the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

…why should we not have a word that corresponds to our mysterious sense that each one of us carries the burden of all, and that the good of all is oriented towards the good of each?

-Anthony Esolen

Read the whole article in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone