Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture

Esolen, Anthony.  Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. Regnery, 2016.

Imagine if The Benedict Option were more focused and geared, not for running away, but for running towards the battle.  This is what Anthony Esolen has given us.  To borrow a line from his criticism of universities–the criticism being that there is no overarching truth in the university that unites all the disciplines–this book is united, not in a mere attack on modern education, but in a positive portrayal of the transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty.  What happens to society when we sacrifice those transcendentals?

In the ancient Greek world life was united around the polis, a small city-state that ordered society.  Early America had something similar: the township (also see de Tocqueville). 

Speaking Truth: Proper Names

The only way to “live not by lies” is to call things what they are.  This is a metaphysical claim, since it presupposes that things have natures, essences.  There is an older English word, cant, that means something along the lines of meaningless small talk.  By itself, it isn’t evil.  It only becomes evil when it reaches the political arena, where it then becomes sloganeering.  Think of inane drivel such as “equality, democracy, inclusivity, anti-colonialism.”  These are all abstract.  The only way to counter such abstract drivel is by returning to the thing-ness of things.  Things can’t be changed by lies (Esolen 26).

Architecture and Beauty

While America may not be able to boast of Gothic cathedrals, she has the simple beauty of the small township.  The buildings of a small town–the church, the school house, the city hall–reflect the life of a people.  Literally.  The structure of these buildings communicates a certain home-ness about life.  The easiest way to see it is to compare it with any building from a government bureaucracy.  As Esolen notes, “We never sense, when we are in a government office building, that we are the creators and masters of the government. We sense that we are its wards, its clients, and perhaps its victim and its food” (63).

In this same chapter–and largely for the same reason–Esolen proposes a renewal of school life. The form of the school should follow, not function, but essence (56).  Unpacking that is difficult, but worth it.  We must begin with grammar.  No one will do this today.  It is almost forbidden to teach in secondary school, never mind that grammar is literally the architecture of language and mind. Grammar gives you the keys to study–well, everything.

Esolen then attacks foreign language study.  Everyone knows that the conversational method to learning a foreign language is best.  But is it?  True, if you are stuck in Paris you will probably pick up French better than by memorizing a grammar book.  But does this really work in the schools?  Think about it: how many people graduate high school able to read Cervantes in Spanish (or English, for that matter)?  True, they are able to ask for directions to the bathroom in Juarez.

Almost without telling us, Esolen highlights the key reason for studying the humanities.  Aristotle said that young men were not ready to study politics because they had not yet amassed any great experience of human nature (67).  That’s why we study literature, to get such knowledge.

Colleges

Here Esolen comes close to what Dreher advocated in The Benedict Option.  We’ll start by mentioning the main problem with modern universities (aside from not teaching, or even believing in, knowledge).  “You sink yourself in debt to discover that your sons and daughters have been severed from their faith, their morals, and their reason.  Whorehouses and mental wards would be much cheaper. They might well be healthier, too” (75).

So what’s the solution? To answer that question, we need to answer the following: what is the relationship between reading Chaucer and studying the stars in the heavens?  If a university can’t answer that question, then it shouldn’t exist. We’ll try.  Esolen argues that since all knowledge is one, and if we as knowing subjects participate in that knowledge, “then to have the intellectual equivalent of an urban sprawl, wherein the teacher of poetry does not converse about history with the teacher of chemistry,” then we don’t have a college.  Literally, there is no collegium. 

Here we need to acknowledge that we aren’t saying that the hard sciences shouldn’t exist.  They should. That was never in doubt.  This existential crisis is more acutely felt in the humanities, so most of the attention is there. We’ll start with pedagogy.  Forget the fads.  Focus on what Russell Kirk called “permanent things” (81). There is nothing magical about the word “classical” or the “Great Book Series.”  The reason people are drawn to them is that they understand the unity of knowledge and they represent the widest and deepest gamut of human experience.

This book will make you angry (cf., Kipling’s “When the Saxon Learned to Hate”), but it is a call to battle.

Notable Quotables

On love for country: “Unless he is taught otherwise, by some serpent of envy or by a cynical dog sniffling about the back alleys for garbage, the child will naturally love his country, just as he naturally loves his mother and father, not because they are perfect, but because they are his” (64).

Multiculturalism: “Those who talk glibly about the ‘multicultural’ are, in my experience, mainly monolingual Westerners who have lost any strong sense of what culture must be about….[They always remain] stolidly certain that the whole world is moving toward their own supposedly progressive ideals–and if not, there are always armise, dollars, and food to make damned certain it does” (68).

Sexuality: “If you got a girl pregnant, her brothers would show up at your door and congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials” (91).

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