Thursday, February 9, 2017

Out of the Ashes

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
© 2017 Anthony Esolen
256 pages

Some things, like a Roman bridge, can last for millennia through the virtue of their design, the simplicity of their use, and the inherent strength of their materials. Other things, like the Golden Gate Bridge,  or a house, require more steady attention. It isn't that they're built in an inferior fashion, but they are far more complicated and ambitious.  A culture is a thing that requires attention; it must be renewed generation to generation. In Out of the Ashes,  Anthony Esolen calls attention of Americans to the fact that western culture  is past need for attention: it has sat too long exposed to the elements without refreshing layers of paint, the termites and mice of base creation have withered away its walls and support posts, and the foundation has sunk and cracked. What is needed is rebuilding and restoration. No one can do everything, but everyone must do something, and here Esolen offers hearty arguments for resurrecting education, play, a society based on marriage, family, and the home, politics reoriented towards the local, and the veneration of beauty and virtue. In short, he bids us deny the unholy trinity of Self, Sex, and the State, and  to become participants in our own lives once more.

In interviews and lectures Esolen maintains that what  we must realize about American culture is that there isn't a culture there at all, merely memories and leftover habits. It is as we are walking through a dry creekbed; the impression of the creek is still there upon the land, even as the water itself is a far-distant trickle.  The role of culture in Esolen's sense isn't the mere transmission of music and games from generation to generation, with improvisation and growth along the way. Instead, culture is more broadly applied to civil institutions supporting a common appreciation of man and the cosmos, supporting human life -- the cultivation of man as it were, the garden in which we are watered, thrive, and  create anew the next generation.  Society formerly relied on the  subtle, consistent, and constant pressure of civil society -- of places like the home, the church, and the school. These were all institutions which people not only participated in, they were in complete control of them.   These institutions not only shared a common architectural language, in that schoolhouses, homes, and village churches might look like, but they shared a common mission in promoting human welfare.  That mission was also shared by social organization (the organization of dances to allow young people to meet one another, for instance) and ordinary habit, like allowing children to run outside and play unattended.   In 2001, Robert Putnam decried the decline of civil institutions -- churches, civic groups, bowling clubs, local political moments -- and attempted to figure out what caused their decline. Now the fall is complete:  state schools are such failures that colleges must teach remedial English (prior to their English Literature courses on Twilight and Fifty Shades, Dickens and Stoker having been dumped);   young adults raised in the hookup miasma have no socialization in creating a bonafide  soul-speaks-to-soul relationship,  and every romantic encounter must be  carefully navigated lest someone be sued because the old culture what ensured everyone knew what was appropriate and what was not is lost.

There is no use complaining; we can only rebuild, and the place to start is the family.  Esolen emphatically rejects the modern primacy of the individual, maintaining the family is the foundation of every human society. The home and family are where children are created, nurtured, and taught to become authentic members of their society, their polis.   Speaking of the polis, it too needs awakening:   the State has taken away every prerogative of local communities, leaving them a few pittances like garbage pickup. This is wrong in that it takes away from people the ability to be effective citizens of their community.  Citizenship in the national government means nothing; the individual is grist in the mill.  Yet there is little point in running for something like the school board nowadays, because the decisions have already been decided by far-distant strangers who know better than people what and how to teach their children.   Esolen thus encourages people to create alternative institutions, to  homeschool their children and work together to create private colleges in response to the past-pathetic state of university education today, a place that provides safe spaces and coloring books to its wards instead of teaching them to grapple, body and soul, with adversity and ignorance.   Yet helping to participate in the restoration of society isn't as formidable as creating new and virile sources of education like St. John's and Christendom College;   it can be as simple as learning to appreciate the poetic beauty of traditional hymns,  so much more potent than the happy-clappy praisesongs favored by megachurches -- or leaving the television behind to use one's leisure time to build something with their hands.   Fight ugliness with beauty, lies with truth, decay with work. Participation is the thing -- walking one's neighborhood and picking up litter is more effective than parading about D.C. dressed up as a vagina.

Esolen's concerns are not necessarily exclusive to Christians;  the Swedish eudaimonic philosopher Alain de Botton, for instance,  has written extensively on the role of art, literature, and architecture in human flourishing,  seeing them as important as philosophy in allowing human beings to grow to fulness.  Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman are both emphatic voices for subsidiarity,  but rarely refer to religion.  Robert Putnam also delivered the essential book on civil culture's decline in his Bowling Alone, which was not religious in the least.  Nevertheless, Esolen is indisputably writing primarily to Christians,  because the west’s civil culture has been Christian, and he is  inspired and rooted by the Catholic social doctrine, referring to papal encyclical at times. At the end Esolen doubles down that he is writing a defense of Christian civilization.   As he urges readers to devote themselves once more to truth and beauty amid the constant babble-babble of lies coming from politicians, the news, and , the amazon of banality that is social media, he bids them to realize that truth remains treason in the empire of lies, and that  ultimately, we pursue the good and true because it is Good, not to create a heaven on Earth. That can never be, for all Christians are ultimately pilgrims on a journey to another world.

Esolen -- whom I've heard described as a "fun Jeremiah" --  is a joy to listen to and to read, a man of passion with a deep bench of literary references. In a lecture on the decline of culture, for instance,  he once used an obscure play by Ben Johnson to make his point. In an interview, someone off-handedly mentions a hymn -- "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" -- and Esolen recognizes it, seizes on it with joy, and at once begins lovingly reciting it.  He is capable of slinging barbs as his foes, but animosity is largely absent here. Instead he writes here in a mood of intense concern, driven on by hope in redemption.   For those who  look at the American landscape -- all the lonely people, the dehumanizing stretches of asphalt and smoke, the constant presence of the foul beast of Jabba the State, who forever demands attention and obedience -- this is a handbook to what went wrong, and a bracing cup to cheer to begin the work of restoring a more humane culture.

Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam


  1. powerful stuff... but what about the "poor, huddled masses, yearning to be free"... like muslims, zoroastrians, hindus, zenners: et alia... America was supposed to be for all belief systems, a goal that kind of shatters the togetherness idea of culture, it seems to me...

  2. Culture isn't necessarily an ethnic or religious thing. One can turn the philosophical conceits of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into a political ideology that unites us, but these days precious few care for that. I don't even mean the libertarian purist view of the Constitution, but the broad things that everyone used to take for granted like the First Amendment. Now one can actually hear it described as a sacred cow. A big problem today I think is the contempt for any sort of assimilation: now everyone wants to play identity politics and fly their seperate flags, and you can't have a country where everyone is constantly fighting for their little gang. But the main problem, I think, is that we now try to solve everything politically, and not just through city and state governments but through D.C., so everyone is constantly fighting for attention. That's part of Esolen's argument: he's fighting for the recovery of civil culture, of people solving their problems by working together instead of using the power of coercion.

    1. i see your point; even so, i'm afraid that civil strife is inherent in human nature, given that men are the way they are: tribal and self-centered... a system of national laws seems imperative to prevent more civil disturbances and cultural wars... i sympathize with "working together", but i've never seen it happen very successfully... reading what i just wrote, it seems rather fascist, but i haven't thought about it nearly as much as you have, undoubtedly, so maybe i would think differently if i did...

  3. Culture is rather strange - hard to define, hard to pin down, hard to agree on.... Interesting to discuss though! I don't think we've figured out the best type of culture yet. Maybe we will one day, who knows.

  4. First off, fascinating review. This is a topic that has been coming up again and again in my own mind, due to current events. I had not heard of this book, but will be looking into it now.

    One of the difficult points for me is the concept of "a society based on marriage, family, and the home." As a Christian (and, in many ways, conservative), this idea seems philosophically appealing, one that is shared by many cultures. But as a voluntarily single female, with no intention of building a family, how would I participate in a such a society? Would I be accepted, pressured to change, or (worse yet) rejected as a "lesser" contributor, a "feminist" in the derogatory sense of the word?

    I do believe it's possible to achieve balance and commonality between different groups. In unique pockets of history, it has happened. The trouble is, how to get there, and how to prevent human nature from doing what it does best, swinging between different extremes...

  5. Participation is the key word, I think. Historically, Christian Europe had plenty of adults who were not married -- yet they were still bound to a community, having joined monasteries (male and female) or the priesthood. In America, formed more by protestant cultures than a Catholic one, adults still participated in civic life through their occupation -- or vocation, rather. Think of the village schoolmaster. Intentionality is important: are we living the way we are to Do Good, to participate in the larger community we find ourselves in, to build it -- or are we simply living like atoms in the void, idly pursuing our jollies until we wink out? We don't necessarily have to have sworn oaths to participate in the common good, but I do think the purpose has to be ever in our mind.

    The balance you speak of is one I personally struggle with -- I commented once in a journal of mine that I was a spiritual itinerant, sometimes wanting to live like a Viking and sometimes like a monk. I'm personally someone who would want a family, but having none I live more like a monk -- constantly studying and using my time to help others. I could easily switch occupations -- driving personnel vans for the railroad company, for instance -- but what would be the point of my existence then? Produce, consume, die? I prefer to contribute to something, beyond the psuedo-consumer activism of giving money and nothing more.


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