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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Those university demonstrations: mass madness

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By Anthony Esolen

Nov. 16, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - I am thinking about the demonstrations sweeping across the campuses of my country.

“Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,” wrote James Madison in The Federalist (55), “every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Madison was deeply suspicious of large numbers, not because they give power to a majority, but because they render an intelligent and dispassionate conversation impossible. 

A few days ago, the great Catholic literary critic and anthropologist Rene Girard passed away. Girard too knew about the power of numbers. Mankind, he argued, has always tried to cast out Satan by means of Satan. That is, men are riven with envy and frustration, and instead of settling their enmity by confessing their own sins and identifying with those they believe have hurt them, they seek to resolve their mutual hatreds by uniting in hatred of a scapegoat. They try to purge themselves – for a time it appears to work – by heaping onto the scapegoat their unacknowledged sins, and then destroying it, making it into a sacrifice to their false god.

So it was that the worthy Cato the Elder ended every one of his speeches before the Senate with the words Carthago delenda est, Carthage must be obliterated; yet all the while, the Roman state was growing too large to maintain its republican form, and Italian farmers, who could not grow grain as cheaply as they did in the valley of the Nile, lost their lands and swelled the cities with discontented and easily ignited mobs. The republic would not be destroyed by Carthage. It would be destroyed by nearly a century of civil warfare.

In the summer of 1984 I was living at a Catholic Worker house in Washington, D. C.  Jose Napoleon Duarte had just been elected President of El Salvador. He had long been involved in Salvadoran politics, trying to split the difference between the violent left and the violent right. His record was checkered, but on the whole fairly estimable, particularly in the context of the corruption and bloodshed of Central America. But partisans of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) were determined to bring him down by force of arms. Some of them were in Washington at the time, drumming up support for the cause. They showed me a movie about how terrible their opponents were, and I was persuaded. They invited me to take part in a demonstration one Saturday morning on the grounds of the Salvadoran embassy.

I seem to remember that Duarte had contracted cancer and was in poor health. That didn't stop the demonstrators. When I arrived at the embassy, I saw a crowd of about two hundred people, most of them young, many of them American college students, marching around the building, banging on the lids of trash cans, and shouting the same slogans over and over. I caught the countenance of one woman especially, contorted in wrath.

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I did not join them. Instead I sat on a stone wall and watched, in a kind of horrible fascination. Only two or three times in my life have I sensed that I was in the presence of evil so real that you could reach out your fingers and feel it, like the cold wet flesh of a creature creeping out of a hole. That was one such time. I went back to the Worker house, shaken. I did not know that Duarte was right. I did know that the demonstrators were wrong – if not politically wrong, spiritually wrong, wrong as human beings. Evil does not cast out evil.

That moment returns to me now. On display are all the characteristics of the madness of a mob.

There is the blank indifference to the suffering they cause to particular human beings. One does not lose one's humanity when one becomes a president of a college, a dean, or a professor. But the scapegoat ceases to be human. It is all right to kill the scapegoat. Louis XVI was not a bad man, but if he had to be ground to bits between the gears of revolution, what is the great loss? Of course, when the thrill of the kill has faded, the killers will have to seize upon another goat, and that is when they turn on one another. The Tsar will not suffice. Kerensky must die too.

There is the utter vagueness of the charges. As long as human beings are sinners, we will have rudeness, stupidity, nastiness, mockery, and, alas, scorn directed at innocent members of this or that group. The protesters do not have real sinners in mind. Instead they have elevated the sin to a cosmic status. It is pervasive, systemic, even unconscious; it is a parody of God Himself. To root it out, therefore, implies incessant revolution, incessant violence, re-education camps, purges, and no rest. No one can escape. To fail to be enthusiastic in the revolution is to be an intransigent opponent; it is to cast oneself on the side of the goat.

There is the multiplication of grievances and of the aggrieved, a parody of what in love God commanded of His creatures in the beginning. Anyone who believes we can come to an end by satisfying a finite number of demands pressed by a finite number of categories of the aggrieved does not understand the dynamic. The problem is not, finally, economic or political. It is spiritual. Suppose a man reviles the marriage of male and female, because he is a psychological cripple and cannot participate in it. Suppose in pity we play along with his madness and pretend that he can feasibly marry another man. Will that then be the end of it? It cannot be. The hatred born of insecurity will shift to another target. We see it playing out before our eyes, sexual disintegration without end.

There is the eager turn to violence. We have witnessed an irony too big to identify, like an elephant three inches from your nose: a feminist professor of journalism crying out for masculine “muscle” to threaten and suppress a journalist trying to film her demonstration. We have witnessed a football team holding a university hostage, threatening to cost it millions of dollars, as if they themselves were not the beneficiaries of a system that rewards football players and not skinny sons of carpenters or electricians. We have witnessed a police force soliciting complaints from aggrieved students, not about crime, but about hurtful words. “You better be thinking happy thoughts,” says the sociopathic little boy Anthony, in the famous episode of The Twilight Zone.

There is the refusal to look inside one's heart. True tolerance does not shrug. It bears with the faults in others, because we know that we have our own faults which they have to bear. This refusal fits well with the elevation of sin to a “system.” So long as evil is located in something too vague to identify and too large to comprehend, each man is free to indulge his sins and to revile the sins of others.

And finally, the heedlessness, the refusal to ask the most obvious question, “What do we expect will come from our actions?” If the aim is to bring friendship to people at odds with one another, it is hard to see how those friendships will be forged from enmity, accusations, shouting, and fury. But that is not the aim. The aim is to purge oneself by stoking the enmity, so that one can feel confident in one's righteousness. Noise and confusion are one's friends, because with silence and peace comes the dread moment when one must face one's demon, who has not after all been driven out. For the political lye has been at work, bleaching the heart clean, so that he invites in six more demons worse than he has ever been, and they have a grand time. I believe the sorry history of the last hundred years provides plenty of evidence for it.

Jesus is the answer. We all know it. That is why we kill Him too.


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U.S. Supreme Court Justices

Cobras in black robes

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By Anthony Esolen

As a man from the temperate north, I'm not well acquainted with the colorful array of deadly snakes that warmer and wetter regions swarm withal. I have never waded waist-deep in a bayou to “tickle” catfish, while trusting that the water moccasins are floating elsewhere. I have seen a coral snake only in pictures. But with those human snakes that lie outside of the herpetologist's purview, I have as much acquaintance as anyone, particularly as my work is in academe, where the nesting is very fine.

To which of the snakes, then, shall I liken serpens sapiens, serpens academicus? When I think of the outrages to common sense, common decency, and the common good that are regularly perpetrated by professors, politicians, and judges in my country, the cobra is the snake that comes to mind. Consider the cobra in action. He raises his head and a third of his body above the ground, spreads his hood wide, and begins to duck and weave, duck and weave, “fascinating” the little bird he is about to kill.

It's the fascination that I am after here. We have been fascinated by cobras – hoodwinked, played for suckers, picked clean, bled white.

If the serpents tell us that they alone possess the esoteric knowledge required to interpret something as difficult, as arcane, as slippery, as the Constitution, we must reply that they are the slippery liars.

The cobra is not more intelligent than is his supper, the bird. The Wizard of Oz, that more genial snake and scapegrace, was certainly not more intelligent than were the people he ruled. But he had a big projection machine with smoke and fire and thunder and other special effects produced by levers from behind the curtain. And he had big words. “You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk!” he roars to the Tin Man, when that mild fellow had the temerity to approach him. The cobra has a hood and a dance. Serpens sapiens has his impenetrable jargon, his barrage of minutiae, his theoretical considerations too elevated for the common man. Serpens sapiens has a black robe.

“We are the King Cobras of the court,” they say, ducking and weaving, “and when we speak, let all the world be still.” They are the mystical high interpreters of the Constitution, and the little birds, mere citizens, flutter before them, fascinated, helpless, waiting and hoping against hope that the Cobras will leave in their nests a hatchling or two of what once was a self-governing, republican people.

But why should we afford them that deference? In Canada, I'm told, the people's representatives now send drafts of legislation to the Den of Cobras, for prior approval – sparing the Cobras the effort it takes to dance. In the United States, what once was a Constitution, a Robert's Rules of Order governing the mutual relations of various bodies of government, has now become a Cultural Manifesto, or rather an Anti-cultural Manifesto. The amendments designed to set limits upon the ambitions of political men at the national level – thus far shalt thou go, and no farther – are now turned against ordinary people, their customs, their shared view of what it means to live a good life, and their free dealings with one another. It is now apparently “unconstitutional” to be a private citizen and to say and do a hundred things in public which the Ruling Class, the Cobras, do not approve. But it is not unconstitutional to compel ordinary people to participate in things they believe to be evil.

We must have government, so we must have courts, and I will concede some form of “judicial review” to the highest court in the land. But I cannot concede to them any final constitutional authority, not unless I concede the whole republican project; and I certainly do not concede to them any cultural authority. They are not wiser or more virtuous than the rest of us; and these days they cannot even be credited with any great breadth of human experience or learning.  They know neither how to clear a field nor how to parse a verse in Homer. So why should we look upon them as deities, or even wizards? Nor does the Constitution require that we do so. For there is a fourth branch of government, tangentially acknowledged in the Constitution, though all but forgotten now. That fourth branch needs to snap out of its fascinated stasis, and resume its authority.

What it is, I'd like to suggest by turning to an old textbook, The Eighth Year Literature Reader (1917), edited by one Leroy Armstrong. Of the considerable merits of this humane book, a careful and intelligent and sweet introduction to the art of poetry, there is much to say. But it's what the book takes simply for granted that is most telling: that much of the greatest poetry is religious, and that it is good and noble to heed the lessons of piety and humility, or duty and magnanimity, especially if those lessons come from the very faith that gave birth to one's civilization and culture.

Let me take one example: Whittier's short narrative poem, “Abraham Davenport.” The setting is simple enough. Mr. Davenport and the other legislators had assembled in the state house in Hartford, when suddenly so great a storm hit, it seemed the world was about to end: “It is the Lord's Great Day!” cried the lawmakers. “Let us adjourn.”

But Abraham Davenport rose, with steady voice:

“This well may be
The Day of Judgment which the world awaits,
But be it so or not, I only know
My present duty, and my Lord's command
To occupy till He come. So at the post
Where He hath set me in His providence,
I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face, –
No faithless servant frightened from my task,
But ready when the Lord of harvest calls,
And therefore, with all reverence, I would say,
Let God do His work, we will see to ours.
Bring in the candles.” And they brought them in.

Armstrong then asks the students some searching questions about the poem, and not only about Whittier's choice of words or phrases. “Was the confidence of the lawmakers in Abraham Davenport well placed?”“What was the keynote of this old Puritan's life?”

In Armstrong's time, the King Cobras had not yet fascinated the birdie politic; and the national government had not yet transformed itself into a feudal lord, dispensing its confiscated largesse to its favorites, but threatening to starve those who dare to question his wisdom or beneficence. So the State of California commissioned Armstrong to produce a series of textbooks. This book is one of those. The copyright is held by “the people of the State of California.”

The fourth branch of government to which I am appealing is not a branch that comes into existence by statute. It is not a congress, an executive, a judiciary, a state, or a municipality. It is perhaps not best considered a branch, but a trunk, a source of whatever delegated civic authority the branches may possess. When Leroy Armstrong judged that it was good for young people in a public school to read great poetry, even if it was religious, and to think about its beauty and truth, even if they were inseparable from religious faith – I intend the mordant irony here, because we behave as if the words of Jesus were infected with cholera, but not the words of Cicero or Franklin, or the murderous Chairman Mao – when he so judged, and acted upon his judgment, he was interpreting the constitution of his country, which was his also to interpret. The people of California who copyrighted the book interpreted the Constitution when they did so. The teachers who taught from it, the parents who cherished it, the students who learned from it, they were all interpreters of the Constitution, by their deeds. What they did was no more controversial than breathing. It was also no less fundamental and necessary.

That is the trunk of government, the people themselves. It is our constitution too. It was not written for lawyers, to benefit lawyers. So what if the cobras dance? If the serpents tell us that they alone possess the esoteric knowledge required to interpret something as difficult, as arcane, as slippery, as the Constitution, we must reply that they are the slippery liars, that they are not geniuses, that the range and the degree of their authority are limited, and that we reserve the right to pass judgment upon their judgment, when such judgment overrules the immemorial habits of ordinary people doing ordinary things. We will be fascinated no more.

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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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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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