Professor Anthony Esolen, who teaches Renaissance Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College, talks about the restoration of American culture.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Professor Anthony Esolen, who teaches Renaissance Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Esolen is well known for his translations of classical works, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, and we are going to be talking with him today about the restoration of American culture.
A prolific and poignant writer, Dr. Esolen is a senior editor of Touchstone magazine and has written more than a dozen books on topics ranging from literature and culture, education, spirituality, and theology, including his newest book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. Dr. Anthony Esolen, welcome to Family Policy Matters, it’s great to have you with us on the show.
ANTHONY ESOLEN: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
JOHN RUSTIN: Professor Esolen, I think we all recognize that there has been a pretty monumental shift or decay, as some like to put it, in American culture, which has become particularly noticeable and dramatic in recent decades. What are, in your opinion, the most clear and concerning indications of this change?
ANTHONY ESOLEN: It’s almost everything that you can point to, OK. So for instance, right now for the first time in American history—and perhaps for the first time in the history of any culture that we know of—a majority of people of the age of 30 are not married. The divorce rate has peaked, and maybe leveled off, but that doesn’t tell the whole story because nobody’s getting married to begin with. That’s another indicator. We have more people living alone than ever before. Fewer children per family and still just an unsustainable and inexcusable divorce rate hovering between 40 and 50 percent. All that is terrible. One of the things that I do is collect very, very old school books, say 100-120 years old, and very, very old magazines, popular magazines, what ordinary, rather intelligent people would have been reading in 1880. I look at the stuff there, I look at the language there, the sophistication that ordinary people were reading and I compare that with newspapers now. It’s as if everybody has been taking mind-suppressing drugs. It’s a colossal collapse in general knowledge, intelligence, linguistic sophistication, vocabulary, grammar, all across the board. You look at the buildings, look at public buildings that ordinary people built. I’m not talking about great architectural firms. We’re talking about your local coalminers who would put together their town hall. Look at what they did 100 years ago, 140 years ago, the churches, the post offices, the town halls, the schools that they built, and compare that now with whatever it is that ordinary people can do by way of building public buildings. The public buildings are ugly and drab. Everybody know this, right, everybody who goes to an antique store immediately say, “What craftsmanship!” Where is it now? I’m told now that you could not possibly, you could not conceivably build—you go to an old Victorian house, maybe a big old house built by a former governor of a state. I’ve just been recently in a house built by the former governor of New Hampshire about 120 years ago and an architect has said, “Listen, it would cost 7 million dollars to build this house now,” and you probably couldn’t even build it at that because we don’t have the people who can do that work with wood and plaster. We don’t have them. So I point to anything, point to the collapse of manhood. It’s all over the place, everywhere we turn. So, I write this book saying to people, “You know, let’s not put a pretty fact on it anymore. There’s all this rubble out there. You can’t deal with everything but you, in your own person, you can deal with something. Everybody can do something.”
JOHN RUSTIN: You talk about craftsmanship, and of course with craftsmanship, creativity goes hand-in-hand. And I know that one of the things that you do as you open your book, Out of the Ashes, is to begin with a fairly in-depth discussion of the great liturgical music of ages past. I’d love to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about that.
ANTHONY ESOLEN: Oh boy. Okay. So, let’s suppose that I was writing a hymn and I was a pretty—I have a decent education, that is I finished high school, maybe I even went to a university, maybe not. But I read a lot, I’ve read poetry in my native tongue and I’ve read the Christian classics like Pilgrim’s Progress, I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, so I’m steeped in scripture. So I’m going to write a hymn. I have centuries of experience of hymns in my soul, or at my fingertips. I don’t have to be a particularly learned man either. I just absorbed all of this, right? And so when those guys wrote hymns—what I see, when I pause and actually take note of them, I say holy cow, these are very sophisticated little theological poems here! They’re not just off-the-cuff expressions of feeling. They’re not bad at all. “The King of love my shepherd is…” that’s a wonderful, deeply theological New Testament meditation on the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd….” Right? I saw this and these guys knew what they were doing. When we sing those to real melodies that a congregation can sing we’re doing something different with our minds than when you’re just sort of absorbed into a lot of noise, singing things that linguistically don’t really make a whole lot of sense, and sometimes they’re heretical at best, and sometimes they’re just dumb. And you know people will say you’re just an elitist. I don’t even go there because I’m talking about what common, ordinary people used to produce. And, in fact, nobody says that about his own house. Nobody says, “You know what, I’m going to hang a piece of junk over my fireplace in bright orange and green. I know it’s junk. It’s a painting but it’s junk, but that’s OK. I’m not an elitist.” No, you want to put something over your fireplace that looks handsome. All the Christian denominations are guilty of this.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Esolen, what is it about your experiences in higher education for over 30 years in both a large public university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and at smaller religiously-affiliated colleges, like Furman and Providence, that lead you to conclude, and I quote, “The public schools … are beyond reform” and “we must build new colleges.” Talk about that a little bit.
ANTHONY ESOLEN: Some public schools are not that horrible. There are a very few though—much fewer than people know. Almost all the public schools are a dead loss because you can’t talk, in any of those schools, about the most important human things. You cannot talk about who we are as human beings and where we’re going. I’m sorry, I mean, that’s an amputated education. And our forbearers in public schools 100 years ago, they did not think that they were required to give students an amputated education. They were not allergic to religious talk as we are now. But also, I mean think about what the public schools don’t even do. You’re not going to graduate from those public schools knowing a heck of a lot about world history or American history. They teach no grammar anymore. That’s gone! They don’t teach the great heritage of English literature; my students don’t even know the names, they don’t recognize the names of great English poets, the greatest. That’s like living in Italy and never having heard the name of Leonardo da Vinci. I mean the people who run the schools and the people who teach in them, there’s no reforming it. That meal was laced with rat poison. You can’t pick the rat poison out piece by piece. Forget it! It’s gone! We need to build schools now from the bottom-up all over again. There’s no alternative.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Esolen, you dedicate entire chapters of Out of the Ashes to the topics of restoring manhood and womanhood, which you’ve just been talking about, writing that the harms of the sexual revolution and the rejection of natural law and order as it pertains to the sexes has been particularly harmful. You’ve already addressed this a little bit but I imagine this is a pretty fundamental issue as you have discussed so far throughout our discussion. Can you expound on that. We have been dealing with, as I’m sure you know in North Carolina, particularly issues of bathroom access and transgender rights, and those types of things. And our culture seems to have made in this particular arena a huge shift in that direction, and it is going to have profound impacts on our culture, depending on how we deal with that.
ANTHONY ESOLEN: It’s as if the whole society has gone mad, I teach material that spans 4,000 years and I read a lot of languages and I teach about a lot of different cultures. When something pops up like this, and you know that no matter where you went in the ancient world, the medieval world, the renaissance, the Near East, North Africa, Europe, North America, wherever you went, people would look at you and say, “Are you people crazy? Have you gone insane?” Nobody in the history of the world is confused about these things, except for us. I think I said it once in the book, our grandparents who did not have ultrasound used to wonder about the sex of a child before it was born. We’re more sophisticated now, we wonder about it afterwards. The problem with this bill is worse, and opponents should be very clear about this, the problem is not the first and foremost that it poses danger to girls and women, it does. But the problem first and foremost is that it’s unreal. This is caving into unreality. You cave in here and there’s nothing sensible that you will ever again have to say about the sexes. And the one thing that is most constitutive of the common good in any culture will be the stability of the male/female bond and the bond that they have with the children that they make. But this sort thing sweeps right off the board any notion that there are such things as men and women.
JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Esolen, you state also that, “The health of a society may be gauged by how full the churches are.” Do you think it is possible to restore the role of faith and religion in America and if so, as we conclude, how will this be accomplished?
ANTHONY ESOLEN: Of course it’s possible, because with God all things are possible. And the history of the church over 2,000 years—the church has probably died 15 times! And it died most notably on a Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem on Calvary, and yet has come back to life. This is a feature of the church at all times. That doesn’t mean that the particular culture comes back to life. Cultures do die. The faith will outlive every culture, the question for us is whether we want to grow-up finally and admit our mistakes and get our sorry carcasses back inside the church doors and learn something again, or to keep just going on our merry way, in which case we’ll be yet another society dumped on the ash heap of history, like the Soviet Union for instance. There is no future in a society that does not have an orientation toward God, toward the transcendent, however that is imagined. And when a society loses that orientation toward heaven, it dies and it dies pretty fast. And we’re seeing it in Europe and North America now.
JOHN RUSTIN: No doubt. Dr. Esolen, this has been a fascinating discussion, and I know that many of our listeners are interested in obtaining a copy of your book to dig into this deeper. There’s so much to talk about and unfortunately we are just about out of time. But before we go, I do want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to get a copy of Out of the Ashes?
ANTHONY ESOLEN: It’s on Amazon, but it’s published by Regnery Press, so the Regnery website should have it.
JOHN RUSTIN: Very good. They can just Google Dr. Anthony Esolen and obtain a copy of Out of the Ashes, which again is just a fascinating, in-depth look into American culture, where we are, where we need to be, and especially comparisons made in light of prior generations. And historically accurate information and changes in our culture that will be, I think, a strong encouragement and also a challenge to those who are willing and interested to delve into that.
And with that Dr. Anthony Esolen, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for offering such an interesting exploration of these deep truths in your book, Out of the Ashes.
ANTHONY ESOLEN: Thank you very much.
– END –