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Big Rock Candy Nation, Part Two Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 03 November 2011
 
Oh the sinnin’ and the sleaze
On the DVD’s,
And the easy fornication,
Where the grownups play
And the children pay
For that Big Rock Candy Nation.

Thomas Edison, alas, bestowed upon us one of the flattest platitudes of our time, when he said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Edmund Spenser put it more nicely, writing that the “happy mansion” of honor is not for the slothful, because:

     Before her gate high God did sweat ordain,
     And wakeful watches ever to abide:
     But easy is the way, and passage plain
     To pleasure’s palace; it may soon be spied,
     And day and night her doors to all stand open wide.

We forget, however, what Edison surely did not forget, namely that all the perspiration in the world will not of itself invent the phonograph. And we forget what Spenser is careful to illustrate most clearly and disconcertingly, namely that sweat is often spent for objects that, of themselves, are dishonorable and that conduce neither to the individual’s good nor to the common good. We may sweat for things that destroy. We may sweat for vanity. We may sweat – it is one of the canniest devices of the great Perspirer below – for pleasures that soon cease to please.

It’s a strange place, this Big Rock Candy Nation. For much of the sticky candy is overlaid with dust and grime. We work hard, we sweat – well, it is mostly metaphorical sweat, since few of us actually spend any time clearing a field or quarrying slate from a mountain. And we believe we are owed a living from our sweat. 

The young man with the degree in sociology believes that somehow that degree, and the many thousands of dollars he has spent to obtain it, should be convertible, by a kind of magic, into a decent living for himself and for a family, in that time when he and his bedmate shall think it well to marry and to allow nature, for a change, to take its course. 

The young woman studying criminal justice believes that somehow that degree will endow her small and shapely frame with sufficient momentum and authority that chiefs of police will strew her path with roses, and malefactors of twice her strength will submit – so long as she eats her spinach, or her oat bran muffins, as the case may be. 

Absent is the notion that one must work to attain an excellence in something real, so that one might sell a sculpture, or teach Latin, or cook fine meals, or whatever one may invent to meet the needs of one’s fellow men. 


            Virtues on display: The Allegory of Good Government (Ambrogio Lorenzetti, c, 1340)

On the RC Mountain, The relationship between the worker and the public is subtly reversed. The worker no longer says to himself, “There are people out there who need their old houses repaired, and I will see to it that I can provide for that need.” That would be to adjust himself to circumstances. Rather he says to himself, “I should like to train myself in this field, and of course there will be a job waiting for me when I am done.” That is to expect that circumstances will adjust to oneself.

I do not wish to be insensitive to people who lose their jobs in hard times. My point is that there is a subtle connection between believing that by mere activity, even sweaty activity, I gain a moral claim upon my fellows, and believing that virtue depends upon my needs, or on my (often strongly held) beliefs. 

In this new dispensation, I claim the right to assert something, as for instance the goodness of fornication, just as I claim the right to a job of my choosing. It does not occur to anyone that virtue – here the Latin source, virtus, manhood, is instructive – is by nature difficult, involving the kind of self-denial that is preparation for greatness of soul. 

I merely claim virtue by holding “virtuous” beliefs, as for instance that carbon emissions should be squelched (by other people), or that higher taxes should be paid (by other people), or that free education should be provided (by other people). I comfort myself with correct policies whose consequences I do not have to examine, and whose costs I do not have to pay. 

If I affirm, from my comfortable distance, that open homosexuals ought to serve in the military, I get to enjoy the Rock Candy lollipop. I’m a good fellow, unlike those others who don’t see as far as I do.

All of the virtues, even the grayish one called tolerance, are difficult to attain. But we on the RC Mountain have come to expect them, just from being the people we are. So long as we don’t shoot pigeons or smoke cigarettes, and we pull the right lever in a voting booth, we are all right. And if we sweat a lot, even if it is for emptiness, we are worthy of everyone’s admiration. 

Justice is what we are owed, not what we owe. Temperance is for the waistline, nothing else. Courage is to be offensive, prudence is to be sly, and chastity is strictly for the time being. We will be the spiritual equivalent of a skinny kid with a sunken chest, but we will move mountains. 

Or somebody will move them for us.

 
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.  



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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by Achilles, November 03, 2011
Dr. Esolen, you have quickly become one of my favorite living voices. I can hear the nails on the chalkboard for the entitled, PC, radically individual, UN human rights watch people. Thank you for putting it our there straight. Just reading your First things article on the Mass, beautifully done!
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written by Ray Hunkins, November 03, 2011
According to a poll out this morning, 76% of the population think the Big Rock Candy Nation is headed in the wrong direction. Do you think that is because they want more candy, or is it possible those disatisfied see Big Rock Candy Nation for what it is - a cruel ruse designed by a segment of the political class to perpetuate its power? I pray it is the latter and if it is, you and your colleagues, those with intelect, courage and megaphone, deserve a good part of the credit.
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written by Patrick, November 03, 2011
To be fair, some of these liberal arts and soft science majors were led to believe by their parents that any college degree is an adequate qualification for a middle class job. And that was true to some extent for Baby Boomers. But, yes, at some point you need to start taking responsibility for your own life.
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written by Chris in Maryland, November 03, 2011
Patrick, all:

Some clarity is needed with the current discussions about colleges and what may be lumped under "liberal arts" nowadays in the "build-your-own-burger" cafeteria we now call "college."

The WSJ editorial earlier this week by Wm. McGurn actually recommends what amounts to a "classical" liberal arts core curriculum as the best prep for what the working world needs, i.e., people who are so well rounded that they have "leaned how to learn." His article rejected technical specialties such as "education, business and communication."

His point made me harken back to what colleges and universities used to offer undergrads in a BA degree, something much more aligned with the old Trivium/Quadrivium forming the 7 liberal arts: after preparation in fundamentals of the Trivium of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric (i.e., the things taht teach you to learn how to learn); these form the foundation for the Quadrivium of Arithmetic (numbers), Geometry (numbers in space), Music (Numbers in time) and Astronomy (numbers in motion - i.e., space and time).

Then - at the graduate level - philosophy and theology...
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written by Achilles, November 03, 2011
Chris, excellent point! I would only add to that the danger that results from the linguistic holocaust that found its articulation in deconstructionism, presents a communication gap. When you say ‘grammar’, how many school teachers know what you mean? Almost none. And worse still, they don’t know that they don’t know.
Looking back at the ancient Roman grammarian is very helpful. Dionysius Thrax, 100 B.C. describes 6 levels of Grammar: prosody, literary devices, phraseology, etymology, analogy and metaphor, and Exegesis. A correct understanding of these would be nearly impossible through the lenses of “modern education”. The hyper scientized and empirically driven educational culture has strayed so far a field as to make a true education unrecognizable, not to mention the true nature of humanity. Language is not a subject, it is a medium. The abandonment of the Good, True and Beautiful, in favor of technique and measurable results that cater to all manor of ideology rooted in radical individualism is a quagmire from which we will not easily escape. What I am trying to say is that new external standards, even as wonderful as you describe, will not change the fruit on the tree of American Education. We need to replant the field in the soil of Truth.
My comment doesn’t touch what passes for logic today, rooted in subjectivism, also, not to mention rhetoric, which finds its most effective articulation in illogical pathos.
Chris, I always appreciate your comments. Pax et bonum
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written by Martial Artist, November 03, 2011
@Chris in Maryland,

Actually, as one who sensed that there was something wrong with the "liberal arts" of the 1960s public universities, but didn't know what it was until I saw a listing of the curriculum on the Wyoming Catholic College website, I would think that your last sentence might well read instead: "Then—at the graduate level—whatever discipline you believe yourself suited to master.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
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written by James, November 04, 2011
@Manfred:

I find it of note that you critique Dr. Esolen for being "too critical of the secular world," and then offer up a rather harsher criticism of it yourself. If one were to read your comment, one would assume that the entire world is absolutely falling to pieces, something which Dr. Esolen never ventures--rather, the liberal Catholic movement concerns itself with noting the problems seen in the world today, and attempting to fix them using the Truth of Catholic doctrine, the scholasticism the Church gave birth to in the Middle Ages built on the wisdom of the ancient world, and the Hope that Our Lord brought us in the Incarnation, not to simply critique as so many other intellectual movements insist on doing. Furthermore, "the collapse of the Catholic Church in the 1960's"? I strongly suggest you look at what is going on in the Church. A college student, I attended mass on All Saint's day, and the Church was literally packed, people standing in the aisles and having to take seats in the choir loft. Sunday masses are the same thing. There was no collapse, I can assure you of that.
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written by Manfred, November 04, 2011
@James: A sincere thank you for your comments. Let's parse what I said. Dr. Esolen refers to the hedonism of the modern, secular world. His comments are accurate as far as they go. My comments concern the CAUSE of why this has happened. Let's address your comment on attending All Saint's Day Mass THREE DAYS AGO. What does 2011 have to do with 1961? Why could not the Church collapse fifty years ago and new growth be beginning now? Let's take a practical example: What do you think the chances would be that you could pass a "same-sex" marriage bill in New York State in 1951? What is the difference now? Most Catholics of your generation support it! Why? They have never been taught Moral Theology. Why? Because the Church collapsed fifty years ago and Moral Theology, Apologetics, and Scholastic Philosophy (Thomism) have not been taught in the Church's schools for fifty years! The Church's collapse allowed the secular society to follow suit. By the way, how many Catholics you saw at Mass are really Catholic? It is not their fault. They have never been taught the teachings of the Church. They reflect the Jane Fonda syndrome-"How can I be wrong when I mean so well?" Thank you for your time.
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written by Tony Esolen, November 06, 2011
Thank you all, for your kind words, and for stepping into the breach to contend for sanity and truth.

On higher education, that great scam that helps to put food on my table, alas: I wonder how many college graduates, let alone teachers in high school, could answer the following questions:

You take out a loan of $3000 at 8 percent interest, compounded monthly. How much do you owe after three months?

Parse the following sentence: He who laughs last, laughs best.

Identify three of the following persons: Henry Clay, Robert Fulton, William Jennings Bryan, Alger Hiss, William Tecumseh Sherman.

Date the following, within 50 years:

The onset of the Civil War
The signing of Magna Carta
The end of World War II
The death of Julius Caesar

What does a batting average of .280 mean?

What is a participle?

Give one notable fact about the following:

ancient Athens
Mecca
Constantinople
Kiev
the Rhine River
the Suez Canal

I wonder what the result would be ....
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written by jason taylor, November 07, 2011
written by Tony Esolen, November 06, 2011
Thank you all, for your kind words, and for stepping into the breach to contend for sanity and truth.

On higher education, that great scam that helps to put food on my table, alas: I wonder how many college graduates, let alone teachers in high school, could answer the following questions:

You take out a loan of $3000 at 8 percent interest, compounded monthly. How much do you owe after three months?

Parse the following sentence: He who laughs last, laughs best.

Identify three of the following persons: Henry Clay, Robert Fulton, William Jennings Bryan, Alger Hiss, William Tecumseh Sherman.

Date the following, within 50 years:

The onset of the Civil War
The signing of Magna Carta
The end of World War II
The death of Julius Caesar

What does a batting average of .280 mean?

What is a participle?

Give one notable fact about the following:

ancient Athens
Mecca
Constantinople
Kiev
the Rhine River
the Suez Canal

I wonder what the result would be ....
--------------------------------------------------

Henry Clay was an early nineteenth century orator and politician. Robert Fulton was an experimenter in new shipbuilding technology. Bryan was a late nineteenth century orator and politician. Alger Hiss was a Russian spy. Sherman marched through Georgia.

The civil war started in 1861
The Magna Carta was signed in the 1200's during the reign of John Plantangenet
World War II ended in 1945
Julius Caesar died no more then a few decades BC

A batting average of .280 means a batter hits 2.8 times at bat.
Can't remember what a Participle is but it is a grammatical term.
Ancient Athens was the home of Socrates.
Mecca is the destination of the Islamic Haji pilgrimage.
Constantinople was the capital of both the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires.
Kiev was founded by Scandinavian migrants along the Russian river routes.
The Rhine forms the border between Germany and Russia and is one of the most fought over battle grounds in Europe.
The Suez Canal links the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

And I don't have a paying job either.
On the other hand I learned most of that myself not at college. And I am not occupying anything but the chair in front of my laptop.
And I don't know what all that has to do with anything either.

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