Anthony Esolen

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There is no help from 'the culture,' because there is no longer any culture; only the rubble of what used to be a culture.

You can’t have a Culture of Life if you have no culture at all

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It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a moment that it is always far easier to destroy than to create.  One bomb or wrecking ball can shatter in an instant the cathedral that it took human hands and minds fifty years to build. 

What is true of buildings is true of culture generally. 

During the early and dark days of World War II, when the British army at Dunkirk had the sea behind them and the Germans before them, they sent a message back home consisting of three words: But if not. 

It was a brilliant message, because even if the Germans managed to intercept it and decode it, it wouldn't have done them any good. "But if not"...what? 

But the army knew that their countrymen would understand. It was more than a message regarding strategy.  It captured the heart of the war itself, a battle for the survival of European culture and civilization against the diseased fantasies of the Third Reich.

The reference comes from the story of the Hebrew youths Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in captivity in ancient Babylon, who refused to bow down in worship before the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar.  The king summoned them before him in a fury and demanded their submission, lest he cast them into the fiery furnace.  Their reply was manly and direct:

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. BUT IF NOT be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.

The British people then roused themselves to action – ordinary men, anyone with a boat and a heart that beat warmly for God and country.  They crossed the channel in defiance of the enemy and rescued more than three hundred thousand men.  

The incident reveals more than a common language.  It reveals a common way of life, and a common view of life.  The sterling words of the old King James Bible, a work of the highest culture, had long come to inform and vivify the ways of ordinary people. 

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That message could not now be sent, either to England or America. It would be incomprehensible.  That is not because the culture has changed.  It is because it has been destroyed, and the most energetic destroyers have been the very people whom we charge with its care: teachers, professors, statesmen, and artists.

Thomas Molnar had this to say about it:

Culture has come to mean . . . anything that happens to catch the fancy of a group: rock concerts, supposedly for the famished of the third world; the drug culture and other subcultures; sects and cults; sexual excess and aberration; blasphemy on stage and screen; frightening and obscene shapes; the plastic wrapping of Pont-Neuf or the California coast; to smashing of the family and other institutions; the display of the queer [that is, bizarre], abject, the sick.  These instant products, meant to provide instant gratification to a society itself unmoored from foundation and tradition, accordingly deny the work of mediation and maturation and favor the incoherent, the shapeless and the repulsive.

All in a day's work at your local school, CBS, the BBC, the CBC, The New York Times, the Guggenheim, Broadway, Harvard, Hollywood, your local school, Cosmopolitan, the Playboy Channel, Princeton, your local school, Young Adult Fiction, the halls of Congress, Planned Parenthood, the “Adult” bookstore with no windows, your local school.

We want to raise up young people in a culture of life. Well and good. But that means that we require a culture, and that doesn't happen by itself, especially not now, when all the forces of “education” and mass entertainment are ranged against the very possibility of a culture.  

Imagine a scene of wholesale destruction. Every old and venerable structure has been reduced to rubble. People relieve themselves in the street. Sometimes they copulate there, too. Their “music” is little more than grunting and groaning. Their rulers are on the take. There are hundreds of thousands of old books in the mountain of stone and mortar that used to be the library. Most of those books are far beyond the capacity of the people to read. They sneer and snort at Shakespeare, because they can't understand him. They've never even heard of Virgil. A lot of these people have taken to cannibalism. 

Now then – you have retained some vague memory of a more noble way of life.  You have therefore arrived at a great truth. It's perfectly obscure to most of your fellow rubble-pickers, who mock you and call you a prude, a Neanderthal, a medieval monk, a madman, a hater of the hungry, and so forth. Your precious truth is simply this: it is wrong to eat human flesh. 

Well, that is no great burst of enlightenment, but it is a beginning. So what do you do?  Will you be content to say, “My children will do everything that everyone else is doing, but they will not eat human flesh?” They will be subhuman and subcultural, but their taste in dining will be restricted just a little?  Is that all?  

Will you say, “Our family is not anthropophagous, but we will send our children to be taught by the same fellow that all the other parents use,” the one with the squalid leer, dabbling in excrement, contemptuous of any wisdom from the past?

That is where pro-life parents find themselves now.

Should we expect any help from places like Yale? Those places sponsor weeks for show-and-tell by whores and peddlers of sex toys. Any help from your local school? That would be like expecting Belial to lead you in prayer. There is no help from “the culture,” because there is no longer any culture; only the rubble of what used to be a culture.

What do you do, then?  Turn back, O man.  It's time to recover and rebuild. 

More to come.

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The flagrant displays, the desperate (and childish, and sad) need to affirm the bizarre, the nudity, the raucousness, the distracting battery of one obscenity after another. It is not sane.

Gay ‘marriage’: it is not sane

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By Anthony Esolen

I have said that the proponents of the idea that a man can feasibly marry another man call their desire a trivial variation from a statistical norm, like being left-handed. I have shown that on the face of it that cannot be so, because the left-hander uses his hand as a hand, just as the right-hander uses his. But now suppose that the proponent concedes the point. “All right, I grant that it is not the same at all. But so what? We are just like everybody else in all important respects.”

The first answer to that is that the proponent is begging the question. On the one hand he wants us to treat this particular desire as so important, so determinative of who he is, that to refrain from giving it our blessing, from playing along with it, from recognizing it in law, is to affront his very humanity. Yet almost in the same breath he tells us that it is trivial, like having a taste for blondes rather than brunettes. But these are the claims precisely under contention. We deny that the desire determines the man himself, and we deny that it is trivial in itself or in its implications for marriage.

The second answer is that it is not to the point, whether the man is kind to his dog, works diligently at his job, and pays his taxes. An embezzler may be fond of small children. A drug dealer may work twelve hours a day. A pornographer may pay his taxes. The head of the Gambino crime family may be a regular raconteur at a dinner party. Elizabeth Taylor did her best, in her person, to ruin the integrity of marriage, but she has beautiful violet eyes and is by all accounts a loyal and tender friend. Hitler was quite partial to dogs. None of that is to the point.

But the third answer is that it is not true, even so. Madness is not so easily cordoned, and to be out of right relation to your own body is at least a profound psychological disorder. It must inevitably show up in other ways.

Let me illustrate with a couple of stories I have heard from other people. A boy growing up fifty years ago knows nothing of men who like men. Two men living across the street hire him to mow their lawn. After he finishes, they tell him he's free to take a dip in their swimming pool. So he does, and right away he sees the two men come in to join him. They are stark naked. He runs out of there as fast as he can.

Another story. A boy is hired to help two men move into their apartment. When he's done, they invite him in for a drink, and, seeing that he's vulnerable to their suggestions, they take down his trousers and proceed, one after the other, to bring him to climax. They laugh and tell him he's welcome to come back any time, for more “fun.”

Here is my question. Sometimes the things that are most obvious are hardest to notice. We may be appalled by such stories. Why are we not surprised?

And we are not in fact surprised. I pull into a secluded state park in Pennsylvania, because my daughter wants to check out the unique glacial phenomenon it features. I see a man in a parked car. I had hoped the lot would be empty, but there he is. After a few minutes he tears out of there, in frustration. Who is surprised? The family of one of my college roommates owned a beach house on Fire Island. Several of us spent a chilly spring break there, when the place was nearly empty. He showed us a park in the middle of the island, with a “sunken” garden, below sea level, lush with bushes and overhanging trees. “This is the meat market,” he said, and explained that in the summer, gay men would hang out down there, naked, waiting for whoever or whatever showed up. It was a sad and pathetic thing to hear about, but again it was no surprise.

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Change the situation. Suppose it is a married man and woman who hire the boy to mow the lawn, and who then show up in the pool stark naked. Of course you would call the police immediately. But you would also knit your brow with complete amazement. What married couple would do such a thing? Who ever heard of it?

What ordinary men and women show up in a parking lot, for nameless and forgettable sex? I grant that there are deranged and criminal people everywhere, but why is it that no one is surprised to hear that certain rest stops or parks or beaches are, as the gay men on Fire Island themselves named it, meat markets?

The point is simple enough. Sanity integrates, madness disintegrates. If for some jocular reason, left-handers should ever decide to parade down the street, we would not know them for left-handers at all, because they would be indistinguishable from right-handers, except that they might be driving a British-made car on the right side of the road, or wearing baseball gloves on the right hand, or swinging left-handed golf clubs. They would be as sane as everyone else.

Imagine now a parade in honor of couples who have been married for thirty years. Here they come with their grown children, and some grandchildren too. They smile and wave to their neighbors. The wives are wearing decent dresses, the men are mostly in coats and ties. Old soldiers wear their uniforms, as do members of the Knights of Columbus, and the Shriners. Every once in a while the parade stops as the band plays, “O Promise Me,” and “Juanita,” and “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” and other old love songs. The grand marshal and mistress of the parade are old Mr. and Mrs. Santoro, who used to run a small grocery and candy store; they are riding high in an open carriage, ninety years young.

Nobody is naked. Nobody is near naked. Nobody is simulating sexual intercourse. Nobody is wearing leather underpants. Nobody is plying a whip. Nobody is engaging in the act in public. Nobody is flaunting porn. Nobody is singing obscenities. Nobody is promoting threesomes and foursomes. Nobody is preoccupied, in a pathetically puerile way, with the size and stamina of a body part. Nobody has made a poster mocking Jesus or the Pope or Mary or anyone. Nobody is doing anything that would embarrass a decent person. Nobody is doing anything that would make their fathers hang their heads in shame if they had to look at it. They are not insane.

This is no coincidence. The ordinary men and women have more or less integrated their sexual powers into the reality of human existence. They don't have to advert to what they do between the sheets, because that is not an end in itself. They don't have to assign arbitrary meanings to their favorite ways to derive bodily pleasure, because the meanings are already inherent in the acts: there are children and grandchildren to prove it. They don't have to insist upon the duration of their affection, because marriage by its very nature assumes permanence of duties: what a man and woman do with one another is oriented towards the time-transcending creature known as a human being, who will always have the same mother, always have the same father. Indeed, if one of the couples in the parade should call attention to their sexual habits, we would find it something of a profanation of the holy, a pollution of clear water, a small-minded reduction of the grand to the trivial. It would be as if someone had spray painted graffiti on a church or a town hall.

By contrast, the gay men must advert to what they do between the sheets, or in the bathhouses, or wherever, with whomever, in whatever permutations and combinations of human confusion, sin, and longing. That is because what they do has no inherent meaning, or its inherent meaning is not one we would enjoy considering in any sober fashion. What is it, in fact, to sow the seed of new life not in the haven of new life, but in the place of evacuation and disease and decay – in a sewer? That then explains the flagrant displays, the desperate (and childish, and sad) need to affirm the bizarre, the nudity, the raucousness, the distracting battery of one obscenity after another.

It is not sane.

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Sexual love, if it is to remain sane, must be rooted in the reality of the human body, male and female.

‘Such love is hate’: the fundamental unreality of same-sex ‘marriage’

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By Anthony Esolen

The recent decision of the Supreme Court Royal of the United States, to declare that a man has the physiological capacity to mate with another man, has been hailed as a victory for “love.” We have heard that before. The whole sexual revolution was hailed as a victory for “love.” It requires a sensible person to pause and say, “Love of what, exactly? And what do you mean by that word?”

It cannot be an orgy of sexual license. “Such love is hate,” says the poet Edmund Spenser, putting matters as bluntly as possible. Nor is it indifference, going by the name of tolerance; hardness of heart for the weakling. “An amiable niceness to everybody,” says Frank Sheed in Society and Sanity, “was not what Christ made into the second greatest commandment.”

A normal man accepts womanhood on its own terms, as the real thing it is, and desires that it should be fulfilled – usually and most obviously in marriage. He looks upon another man as, like himself, the begetter of children, obviously made for a woman.

If I am going to love a human being, I have to know what that is. Now, a dog, who acts reliably according to his doggish instinct, can give me a pretty fair idea as to his nature, if I bother to attend to it. But man is not so. “Man is a rational animal,” says Sheed, and “if one knew only the definition and had never met a man, one would assume that a rational animal meant a reasonable animal. In fact, we know that man is, just as often, unreasonable.”

My dog Jasper cannot be unreasonable. He has no reason to abuse. My wife can be unreasonable. I can be unreasonable. Every single human being on earth can be unreasonable, and often is. And what are we most unreasonable about? Those things we desire. Let me but desire something, and suppose I am not in the habit of thinking about things as they are, and listening to the stern warning of my conscience. I will inevitably have developed the habit of thinking about things as they are not, or not thinking about them at all; and instead of listening to my conscience, I will have trained it to speak what I want, like a ventriloquist's dummy.

Can we not agree that what it is wrong to do, it is wrong even to have the desire to do? And some desires are like dynamite. It is foolish to play with them. Or they are like tigers. It is foolish to bring them out of the jungle to prowl about the neighborhood. Sexual desire is like the tiger.

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Now, marriage, says Sheed, is the realm in which that most potent desire can be what it really is. Marriage is by its physical nature oriented towards new life, and children, by their nature, are those time-transcending beings who dwell in history, as the other animals do not. The apes, for all their animal cleverness, do not reminisce about their forgotten ancestors. To engage in the child-making act, while pretending that it is not what it is, is to turn your gaze aside from reality.

Sexual love, if it is to remain sane, must be rooted in the reality of the human body, male and female. I can best illustrate the point by turning aside from the point of recent neuralgia, because the clamor of politics and incessant sloganeering make for clumsy thought. Suppose a bridegroom were to say to his bride, “I have no desire to do the child-making thing with you. What I really want, and what I have to have, is this,” and he names an act which is contrary to the nature of male and female, or contrary to the nature of the body. He can only be aroused by a part of the body that is not reproductive. Or he can only be aroused by food, or the smell of waste. Or he can only complete the marital act if someone else is watching, or if he is gazing at a picture of himself.

Anyone who is not deranged by ideology or by evil habits of his own would say that there was something wrong with that bridegroom. We would not just say that it is wrong of him to do the things he wants to do. It is wrong for him to desire them, to insist upon them. He is out of touch with reality.

The plain fact is that he cannot possibly love his bride as a woman, because it is precisely what distinguishes her as a woman that he rejects or wishes to pervert. He does not love her womanhood; he does not wish its fulfillment. He is caught in the grips of lust, for a fetish, and reduces her in his mind to a human machine, a thing that will fulfill his cravings. The desires themselves are glaringly unreal. We would not be surprised to find that he was in other ways also not in his right mind, not in a right relationship with the real. “Touched in the head,” says the old man at the general store, as he watches that bridegroom trying to look at the girl on the cereal box upside down.

A normal man accepts womanhood on its own terms, as the real thing it is, and desires that it should be fulfilled – usually and most obviously in marriage. He looks upon another man as, like himself, the begetter of children, obviously made for a woman.

But suppose now that he is in the grip of a fantasy, dreaming that the manhood of his good-looking friend is really for him, in some body-abusing act that mimics the genuine act of sexual intercourse. He is in the same case as the man who cannot make love to his wife after the ordinary way of nature. He does not love the manhood of his friend, because he wants to frustrate that manhood's natural end. He may crave all he wants, he may fixate upon the part of his friend's body that most excites his desire, and he may try mightily to introduce his friend into the seamy world of his imagination, an unreal world.

In none of this will there be any genuine desire that the much-desired man should be fulfilled as a man. Or imagine a woman who is still throwing slumber parties at age thirty, and who tries to instill into her female friends her own frustration with and contempt for the opposite sex. “Never grew up,” says the grandmother hanging her laundry on the line to dry. Far from really loving her female friends, her greatest fear is that they should meet good men and marry. 

None of that is love, as powerful as the desires may be.

More to come.

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The U.S. Supreme Royal Court decrees: 2+2=5

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By Anthony Esolen

The Supreme Court Royal of the United States, employing its high priestly power to decide the most profound questions of human existence, has recently decreed that two and two are five, that a man has the physical capacity to perform the conjugal act with another man, and that anyone who believes otherwise is merely and offensively irrational.

Those "irrational" madmen and cads would include almost everyone who has ever walked the earth, liberals as well as conservatives. There is a simple explanation for that practical unanimity. It is not that men agree about everything. It is not that they are consistently good reasoners. It is not that they share the same religious faith. It is that the fact of the matter is right in front of their noses in all its gaudy bloom, and you have to think yourself into pretzels of unreality in order to miss it or deny it.  

“That don't go there,” said the farmer.

Here we have to return to reality. “The growth of a world in which men can live as men,” writes Frank Sheed in Society and Sanity, “has been the growth of reason's domination over the instincts – all the instincts, including the instinct of sex. There is no special privilege exempting sex alone from the control of reason. That it is more exciting than the others does not make it less in need of control but more.”  

Perhaps we can see the principle more clearly if we change the subject. Imagine a world of unfettered rapacity, in which the instinct to get and keep were not under the control of reason. Imagine a world of free-swinging bloodlust, in which the craving for glory and the exhilaration of war were not under the control of reason. Imagine a world of unchecked ambition. Imagine a world wherein the fear of death so dominates the minds of men, they will give up every freedom in order to keep off the dreaded day as long as possible. If you asked people who lived in these worlds to justify themselves, they would certainly come up with arguments, for men are glib and voluble, especially when they need to excuse what is wrong. They would have “reasons,” but not reason. In every case, they would be failing to take account of reality. For reason is the mind's adjustment of itself to what is real. It is not the mind's distortion of what is real in order to suit the passions. The thief can call himself transproprietary – he is still a thief. The invader can call himself translimitary – he is still an invader. A skunk by any other name / Will be malodorous all the same.

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So we must look at what is real. Now, one of the current excuses for a certain predilection for abusing the sexual powers is that it is a natural and incidental variation, like being left-handed.

Let's think about that for a moment. As it happens, I am a lefty. What does that mean?

In ordinary things, it means nothing. Nature has endowed human beings with a marked asymmetry when it comes to work with the hands. Most people are more agile with one hand than the other. They throw or write or handle delicate instruments with the same hand, usually the right hand, but in about a tenth of people it is the left. But the left-hander uses his left hand exactly as the right-hander uses his right hand. The left-hander is left-handed in the very same way that the right-hander is right-handed. He does not walk on his left hand, nor does the right-hander walk on his right hand. He does not see with his left hand, nor does the right-hander see with his right hand. He has no desire to mangle his left hand, nor does the right-hander want to mangle his right hand.  

There are perhaps a few interesting differences, noticeable across the populations of left-handers and right-handers. The lefties may be more ambidextrous, perhaps in part because they have to use tools that right-handers have crafted for themselves: screwdrivers, scissors, the pull-chains on lawn mowers, circular saws, and gear shifts. I myself use a knife with my right hand, and punt with my right leg. There are neurological reasons why lefties are more prone to asthma, deficiencies in the immune system, and speech impediments. Lefties are also much more likely to be geniuses. But the fact is that a left-hander's left hand is the same as a right-hander's right hand. They are hands, not legs, livers, spleens, ears, or intestines.

When a male says, “My desire to couple with another male is just like another man's desire to couple with a woman,” that cannot possibly be true. First there is the reality of his body. His genitals are designed for reproduction. It is not pleasure-fluid that he ejaculates, but the seed of new human life. It does not go in the rectum, the troublesome terminus of the body's sewage system. If you try to force it in there, you will cause the body quite a few problems, just as if you insist on driving your truck in reverse gear at high speed, you will end up with a ruined transmission. That is not how the truck is designed to be driven. It is not where the male organ is designed to go, and we can call to witness the wide range of diseases, some of them virtually nonexistent otherwise, to which the abusers of the organs in question are prone.

So the gay man is not using his body as the ordinary man uses his, nor as the ordinary woman uses hers. That is plain physiological fact. He is not analogous to a left-hander writing a letter, but to someone with a fetish for using his hand in a way for which hands are not designed; chewing on his hand, thrusting his fingers into his fundament, sticking his fingers down his throat, or banging his knuckles with a hammer. If he said to us, “But it gives me pleasure to do these things,” we would shrug and say that we expected as much, but that it did not alter the nature of the case. Hands are hands, not sandwiches or suppositories or anvils.

At this point he may say, “But we do all kinds of things that transcend the capacities of the body. We ride in cars, don't we? The human body was not made for such speed. What I am doing is like that.”

Again we return to reality. The human body is certainly made for locomotion. That is why we have legs. The inventive human mind has come up with ways to enhance the locomotion, to enhance the power of the legs. So we ride a horse or a cart or a train, or we fly in an airplane. These are tools that are in accord with reason and reality. They elevate the powers inherent in man. They do not pervert them. There are drugs that assist the heart in pumping the blood through the body. There are prostheses that partially replace the function of a lost limb. Writing makes it possible for us to “speak” to people far away from our voices in place and time.  

But it would not be an enhancement of the power of locomotion to bind up a girl's feet so that she could only walk slowly and with pain. It is not an extension of the power of speech to pierce the tongue with nails. It does not heal the body to amputate a healthy arm. We do not see more clearly when we bathe our eyes in hydrochloric acid.  

“I grant that the use of the body is drastically different from the norm,” he will say. “But my desire is just like the normal man's desire.” That is not true either.

More to follow.

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The dubious education of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan

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By Anthony Esolen

(LifeSiteNews) - I'm thinking about the education of two women.

One of them was born to wealth and privilege, and continued in both. She's now a member of a cultural archonate, a super-legislature whose decrees are binding upon 300 million people. She's never been married, she has no children, and, like almost all women of our time and most men, she's never been near to hard daily manual labor, or war, or the imminent threats of famine, pestilence, violence, and the wild caprice of nature. It would take more than a prolonged storm, or an attack of hungry bears – it would take a colossal global breakdown to cause her, and almost all of the rest of us who live in the western world, weary in our riches, to wonder where to find meat for the table tonight.

The other woman was also born to wealth and privilege, and also continued in both. She married, twice, and she wanted children, though none came. When she was 32 she and her first husband bought an orange grove in northern Florida, near the swamplands and live-oak forests called the Big Scrub. Her husband hated the place and left her, but she remained, and spoke endlessly with the old men who had lived thereabouts and along the even wilder banks of the Saint John's River. From close observation she learned about the wild things that teemed there; such edibles as gallberries, red mayhaws, persimmon, wild plum, and scuppernong grapes; but also wolves, foxes, lynx, panthers, possums, squirrels, raccoons, deer, black bears, and, in the water, alligators and the deadly cottonmouth. Her second and richer education began in Florida, listening to the stories told by those old men. They were half wild themselves, hunting, trapping, farming, fishing, trading, drinking, marrying and begetting children and burying some of them and raising the rest to adulthood.

I know a good deal about the education the first woman had. I had it myself. She is Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, graduate of Princeton, class of 1981; my class.

It's hard for me to disentangle the good from the bad, when I think about Princeton. At that time, classes in the humanities were held for four hours a week, three for lectures and one for a “precept,” when the class was divided into small groups, ostensibly for more personal discussion of the text at hand. Only professors lectured, and many of them were masters of the art, beloved and admired for their eloquence. Thomas Roche, John Fleming, and Robert Hollander will be an influence upon my “style,” until the sad day when I bid farewell to teaching forever. In most departments (mathematics was a notorious exception) professors seemed to pride themselves on winning the hearts and minds of their students. Graduate students were permitted to lead some of the precepts, but that was it.  

There were brilliant minds, no doubt. My professors included scholars of world renown: Hollander (Dante and Italian literature), Saul Kripke (analytical philosophy), Goru Shimura (mathematics), Fouad Ajami (middle eastern politics). There was also the arrogance that comes with the Ivy brand – arrogance, avarice, and ambition. These evils were not counterbalanced by anything that would lift one's gaze to the heavens, in gratitude or humility. Among my close friends, only two or three regularly attended religious services. The impressive Gothic chapel was dark and cavernous and usually empty.  

There was also no curriculum. Could you leave Princeton without having read Augustine? Probably most people left Princeton without having heard of Augustine, or, at most, knowing of him only as a name out of the dark backward and abysm of time. In the old days, Princeton's entrance exam was Latin, but none of that classical education survived the sixties. All you had to do was to take two courses in each of four large areas – a requirement you might easily fulfill by accident, taking what you pleased. You also had to be proficient in one foreign language. That was it. Many Princetonians did read great works on their own; at any moment of the day you could walk past a conversation about Dostoyevsky or modern classical music. But there was no coherence to it all.  

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Nor did Princetonians have to worry about money. At that time, tuition amounted to about a third of the median household income. If you didn't have it, Princeton made up the difference. Many students came from wealth: country clubs, elite boarding schools, vacations in Europe. We did no physical labor to maintain the campus. The rooms in the older dormitories were handsome, and even we freshmen had a separate living room and bedroom. The meal plan allowed you to eat all you wanted. Drink and debauchery – managed well, so as not to interfere with ambition – were matters of moral indifference.

It had the failings of the parochial, without the virtues. It was narrow, but not bound by piety to any place or people, or duty to God. It could bring forth some phenomenally learned people, but not by design, and not, I think, with great frequency. It confirmed students in their high opinion of themselves and their right to visit their schemes upon their less advantaged countrymen.

And now, one of my own classmates can rule “unconstitutional” millennia of human history and culture. That anybody should do so is appalling under any circumstances; utterly baffling in what used to be a democratic republic. Perhaps only a hothouse orchid from a place like Princeton would consider it.

Then there is the other woman, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling. You may think that it is a sweet novel about a child and a pet, a deer named Flag. It is not sweet. It is an utterly unsentimental story about a boy who loses his boyhood and learns the sadness of being a man. Rawlings wove all the tales she heard from the old men into one many-colored tapestry of risk and responsibility, danger, destruction, beauty, human vice from “frolicsome” irresponsibility to vengeance and violence, and human virtues – manly integrity and womanly perseverance.  

It isn't simply that the work to be done in a place like the Big Scrub could break your health, as it does to the boy Jody's father, who is the hero of The Yearling. It could break your will too, if you did not set your face like flint – for who would want to go on a two-day-long hunt in the dead of winter, through swamps and across cold streams, for the most thieving bear in the county? Or, with Jody's longsuffering mother, knife off the rotten ends of unripe sweet potatoes, one after another, hundreds and hundreds of them, after the crop was ruined in a week-long storm? You had to do a hundred things requiring skill and judgment and muscle. But you had to be a man, you had to be a woman; and those were not the same things, and they required more than having the body of an adult.

At the end of the novel, Jody has to shoot his yearling deer, because it has been ruining the crops. He does it, and runs away from home in a rage, returning a week later, sadder and wiser. His father speaks to him.

“You figgered I went back on you,” he says. “Now there's a thing ever' man has got to know. Mebbe you now it a'ready.  'Twa'n't only me. 'Twa'n't only your yearlin' deer havin' to be destroyed. Boy, life goes back on you.”  

Jody looks at his father and nods.

“You've seed how things goes in the world o' men. You've knowed men to be low-down and mean. You've seed ol' Death at his tricks. You've messed around with ol' Starvation. Ever' man wants life to be a fine thing, and a easy. 'Tis fine, boy, powerful fine, but 'tain't easy. Life knocks a man down and he gits up and it knocks him down agin. I've been uneasy all my life.

“I've wanted life to be easy for you. Easier'n' 'twas for me. A man's heart aches, seein' his young uns face the world. Knowin' they got to git their guts tore out, the way his was tore. I wanted to spare you, long as I could. I wanted you to frolic with your yearlin'. I knowed the lonesomeness he eased for you. But ever' man's lonesome. What's he to do then? What's he to do when he gits knocked down? Why, take it for his share and go on.”

If I had to have somebody rule over me as a Cultural Goddess, it would be someone who listened to the men who with their trusty wives braved a land of predators and fever and teeming life and danger ever near. It would be somebody like Marjorie Rawlings. But she would be too wise to take the job. With what choice words, heard among old men with whisky, vinegar, and tobacco spit in their veins, would she reduce to shame anyone so base as to make the offer!

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Anthony Esolen

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Anthony currently serves as professor of English at Providence College, and is perhaps best known for his widely acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He has also authored several original works, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization and the satirically titled Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He regularly writes for publications including The Catholic Thing and Crisis Magazine.

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