What’s Wrong with the World

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Esolen on masculinity.

The Catholic news service ZENIT interviewed Professor Anthony Esolen recently on the subject of masculinity and civilization. The result is a tour-de-force of probing intellect and wisdom.

Men have a passion for the truth, and they seek that truth not generally by means of the affections, but by complex structures of various sorts. These may be structures of authority or intellect, so you have the great university system invented by the friars and the student guilds in Europe, whose curriculum was often a kind of Euclidean geometry or Newtonian calculus of theological and philosophical propositions. Men fashion “grammars” — means of organizing and understanding almost impossibly disparate phenomena. Even the humble back of a baseball card, with its grid work of subtle statistics, testifies to this fascination. Without this literal “discernment,” I mean the clear separation of what may be predicated of a thing and what may not, with systematic means for judging the matter, there can be nothing so intricate as law, the government of a city, higher learning, a church — not to mention philosophy and theology. Even men who do not possess powerful intellects naturally fall in with such structures of order, and here the affections do play a vital role; men will fall in admiration of a leader, with a powerful combination of loyalty and friendship, as naturally as they will fall in love with a woman they may wish to marry. If a society does not train boys to become such men, or if it does not allow mature men to form such natural alliances with other men for the benefit of civic life, it will degenerate.
Later, Prof. Esolen is asked for some prescriptive and even remedial analysis, based on his “study of ancient and medieval works, such as Dante.” He responds:
People can learn from both the Catholic and the Protestant literature of the past an appreciation for the wonder of the body, and of the virtue of chaste love. They can learn from Dante that the love of man and woman is a glorious motif in the symphony of love fashioned by him who moves the sun and the other stars. From Torquato Tasso and Edmund Spenser they can learn that the typical sin against love, occasioned by unchastity, does not so much stoke the flame of desire as it dampens it, making both the heart and the mind feeble, ineffectual. From Spenser they can learn that marriage is not a private matter — one of our greatest and silliest errors — but a deeply social bond that unites those two fascinatingly different sorts of creatures, man and woman, in such a way as to link them to the families who have gone before them and to the families that will be born from their love. If you have a view of marriage that does not include all mankind, all the natural world, the physical cosmos, heaven and earth, the dawn of time and its consummation in eternity, then your view of marriage is a cramped and hole-and-corner affair. So at least the old poets teach. Maybe the most important thing they teach, though, is the delightfulness of the good: the lovely and modest woman — Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest -- and the brave and gentle young man — Florizel in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Our children’s imaginations now are a war zone, or what is left of fields and hills after the bombs have blasted them and the poison gas has infested them for 15 years. Even fairy tales, those deeply Christian and incarnational folk parables of the West have been poisoned by feminist revisers. So I guess I am saying that we will cure none of those ills, not one, unless we rediscover the virtue of purity, and we will not rediscover that virtue unless our imaginations are engaged by its beauty, and that from our childhoods.
The whole interview is worth a careful read. As with so much sagacious commentary on the social state of the West, what immediately strikes the reader is the extreme deprivation under which modern men must toil: we are deracinated creatures, largely uprooted from the stability of a living tradition of thought and action. Frustration and bewilderment is our lot.

Comments (1)

Quotes are excellent. And let me add that some of even what I might call the "mediocre" books of the past provide good food for a child's imagination. Here for girls (say, ages 8-10, depending on reading level) I recommend Elizabeth Goudge's two books for children, _The Little White Horse_ and _Linnets and Valerians_, both still available in paperback. For boys the historical novels of Henty are good here, and girls who like adventure can enjoy them, too. Some John Buchan is very good. I especially recommend _The Island of Sheep_ for young teens and adults alike for a sheerly adventurous and fun read. _Sherlock Holmes_, too.

One of my points here is that books from a hundred years ago (sometimes less) may not be highbrow or difficult at all, but they often convey the air of a purer cultural age by their very unselfconsciousness. Buchan, for example, has manly British heroes, and he has them almost without thinking about it. I think in some ways it is the unconscious assumptions of popular fiction that can be the most influential, either for good or for bad.

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