The Catholic Thing
The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Six Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 26 September 2012

And the proud men in the valley of Shinar said, “Go to, let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” (Gen. 11:4)

“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing . . . and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)

If any man ever tasted the blessings of the twentieth century and found them insipid, that man was Malcolm Muggeridge. He was tutored in the Fabian social vision of his father: earnest improvers of the lot of mankind, quite innocent in their way, and quite ineffectual, lacking any solid foundation for their ideals, which turned to vapor once the heat was on. He taught English at a school in India, enjoying the Spartan perks of a sahib, and sensing the absurdity of it all – that a doddering empire should command such respect, as to make otherwise sensible Hindu natives value themselves for learning about Wordsworth and cricket. 

He risked disrepute when, unlike Pulitzer Prize winning Soviet apologist Walter Duranty of The New York Times, he revealed to the world Stalin’s program of starving millions of Ukrainians. Amazed by the credulity and sycophancy of the “intellectual” class, he attributed it to a powerful drug: the quest for power. He witnessed what that drug did for Nazi Germany. Working for British Intelligence during World War II, he, like his friend George Orwell, saw that his nation’s information engine, the British Broadcasting Corporation, was simply in the business of spreading propaganda and lies.

Muggeridge was grateful that the less degenerate side won that war.  He was also quite happy to live in Britain (and for a few years in the United States, which he did not enjoy) rather than in the drab misery of the Soviet Union.  But, like Solzhenitsyn, whom he admired, he saw that the West and the East had made the same mistake.

Each “culture,” if we may dignify the masses of the West or the collectives of the East with that name, was based upon vulgar materialism.  One form was, surely, more pleasant and less obviously inhumane than the other, but it amounted to the same thing in the end: a heap of broken stones, and babbling incoherence.

The account of the Tower of Babel, so concise, is the story of communist Russia, Nazi Germany, the British Empire, and the United States – if we have indeed no firmer foundation than the pursuit of power, wealth, and prestige.  The builders of Babel wanted to make “a name” for themselves: and I defy the greatest novelist of our age to pack as much insight into two little words, as our sacred author has done. 

      Malcolm Muggeridge: seeking Life

A name, a phantasm. What Muggeridge called The Legend, an existence under the lights of glory. The exaltation of the self, madness.  Note also the implicit enmity. They do not trust their neighbors. Nor do they call upon God. The Tower is thus the continuation of the original sin: ye shall be as gods, or if not, at least dominate others.

We must read the Tower beside the story of Abram, who dwelt in Ur of the Chaldees, and was called by God to leave his home and kindred, that God might make of him a great nation, and that all peoples everywhere should be blessed in him. What is the difference?

For one thing, Abram is called to leave the New York, the London, the Moscow of his day. He leaves the great empire of Babylon. He departs from the shadow of the Tower. Even his kindred, the bestowers of whatever prestige he might enjoy as a respected member of a large clan, he must leave behind. God will make of him a great nation: the greatness is in God’s gift, not in Abram’s attainment.  “Unless the Lord build the house,” says the Psalmist, “they labor in vain that build it.”

The rest of Abram’s story (soon to be called Ab-raham, Father of Many) is too long to deal with here. But several general observations are in order.  Abraham is not Gilgamesh, conqueror of the cedar forest and pilgrim to the land of immortality. He is not Odysseus, man of many wiles, who fought on the windy plains of Troy. He is not Priam, with his fifty sons and fifty daughters. He is not Nimrod, mighty hunter, or Lamech, boastful murderer. 

He is, by outward appearances, a rather ordinary old man, whose principal preoccupation is that his aged wife Sarah has borne him no children.  

He does not seek the Legend. He seeks what Muggeridge called Life: a realm of quiet music, darkness, self-denial, suffering, and sanity. That is, Abraham is called again and again to leave behind the most precious thing in his possession: his own self. 

The way of Abraham, the way of faith, cuts athwart the way of the world, just as the man himself traveled across one land after another, always essentially the stranger in a strange country. His story is trivial, in the world’s eyes. And yet it is the essential story. It is the story of the Hebrew people, the Church, every prophet and every saint, and every muddling ordinary fellow casting an eye away from the Babel of his time.

And note the astounding fulfillment. The promise of this ancient text has come to pass: in Abraham all peoples have been blessed.  Every empire the world has ever known has been reduced to dust. 

Father Abraham abides. The God of Abraham has made it so.

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 (7)Add Comment
written by Achilles, September 26, 2012
How very sober and vigilant are your words Professor Esolen! Would that the world could hear them. Peace on earth to all men of good will.
written by W.E., September 26, 2012
What a great way to start the day with this read. Esolen, keep it coming.
written by Dan Deeny, September 26, 2012
I like Muggeridge, but I have a question and some criticism. Question: Did he have a family? Children?
Criticism: He wrote in one of his books that he agreed with St. Augustine who said that the caress of a woman brings us down (to this world, I guess, instead of up to God). Without that caress, neither Muggeridge nor Augustine would have made it into the world!
written by debby, September 26, 2012
Whoa, Prof! GREAT! A-GAIN!

and just my "womanly" take @ Dan Deeny's question/comment:
i have read St. Augustine and about St. Augustine and prayed for years to St. Augustine. my understanding of him from almost 1700 years distance is that for St. Augustine, the caress of a woman did always bring him down. he could never rise above his lust to the point of self-giving, sacrificial love. he was always seeking dominance and satisfaction at a woman's, and at one point "any" woman's, expense. she was an enjoyable though considerably lower being in his exalted self. i would surmise that since his true conversion came so late in his life and his sexual habit so deeply rooted, he was one who had to completely turn away from female company. SHE was a source of sin and temptation for him. i would guess that this is the case for some men. to be fully MAN united to a WOMAN self must be sacrificed on the Cross of Love. then the two are one and both fly closer to the Image they were created in. sure, it takes years of practice, but can be done. and thank God, He makes good of all things so we don't need to worry about the condition of our parents' souls at the moments of our conceptions, or even that of our own during our children's......or most of us shouldn't be here! maybe Malcolm was in the same place in his soul. better for a man to have a wrong idea about a woman than marry one and be abusive in his heart toward her, wouldn't you agree?
written by Randall, September 26, 2012
I love this series, Mr Esolen. Any thought of working this series into book form? If so, when can I pre-order?
written by Steve S, September 26, 2012
Thank you, Prof. Esolen, for this and your other wonderful essays.

My friend, who is more educated in sacred scripture than I, has pointed out to me that the basic pattern in Gen. 1-11 is the following:
1. human sin
2. consequences of sin
3. God responds with grace and a sign of hope
So Adam and Eve sin, they are ashamed of their nakedness, and God gives them leather garments. Cain murders Abel, is banished, but God marks him for protection. Humanity's sin is out of control, the flood, God's promise to never do that again and the rainbow. Finally, the Tower of Babel, it crumbles as humanity is scattered, and then immediately Abraham's genealogy. I never understood exactly how the latter is a sign of grace and hope since the others were much more obvious. And then my friend pointed out to me what should have been the most obvious of them all. The scattering of humanity is healed in Abraham since Christ, his descendant, will gather all people to Himself. Thanks be to God!
written by Tony, September 28, 2012
Dear Folks, Thanks for your kind words! Yes, I am thinking about working this up into a book. (By the way, parts 7-13 are already written; TCT has them in the hopper.)

On Augustine: Sometimes it's hardest to notice what's right in front of our noses. Augustine's tribute to his mother Monica is the first extensive tribute to the virtue and wisdom of a flesh-and-blood woman in the history of the world -- either that, or St. Gregory of Nyssa's tribute to his sister, St. Macrina. Both are astonishing ... I cannot imagine a Cicero admitting that he derived his faith and his insights from his big sister.

Sigrid Undset helps here, too -- she who noticed that Christians were the first to look to the wisdom of women. She writes that there's a darned good reason why men like Jerome (whose personal dealings with women were uncommonly friendly and generous) wrote so vehemently against the Temptress. It's because they understood how weak men are, sexually, and how dangerous the Temptress is. Good women understand it, too, and that's why THEY, and not men, have been most severe against them.

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