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The Mystery of Esolen: Who Are They? Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 09 May 2013
 

I had a bet going with a friend of mine, a priest who spends a lot of time reading Catholic magazines and web sites, who is convinced that “Anthony Esolen” isn’t just one person. It’s the pen name of a group of writers, feverishly working simultaneously, who all send out their stuff under the same name. 

“Look,” said my friend, “here’s ‘Esolen’ on The Catholic Thing today.  ‘Esolen’ had another piece on Crisis yesterday, and I saw three pieces by ‘Esolen’ in Touchstone last week.  In the past week alone, this so-called ‘Esolen’ has pieces in Public Discourse, First Things, and the Catholic World Report.  You can’t open up a Catholic blog without seeing ‘Esolen’ these days. And this same guy has supposedly translated all of Dante’s Commedia, written The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child?  And then, while I’m reading my copy of Magnificat daily, I regularly see reflections by the same guy?  Don’t tell me that’s all one person.”

I had to admit he had a point. 

Anthony Esolen is probably just some coded acronym that stands for something,” my friend insisted. 

“Like what?” I asked, still somewhat doubtful. 

“Well, Anthony suggests oneness, like the hermit St. Anthony of the Desert.  And then the name Esolen probably stands for the six different writers who produce all this stuff in concert with one another, like Edward, Simon, Oscar, Luke, Earnest, and Nigel, or something like that.”

I still wasn’t convinced, so we went to one of our colleagues who specializes in historical-critical biblical studies to see what light he might shed on the question.  Sure enough, after a very short time, he was able to discern a host of different sources who were responsible not only for the various articles in all those different journals, but indeed whose work could be distinguished within each individual article.  In no time, he had diagrammed out for us the pieces of the article that had come from the E source, and compared them with the very different agenda and writing style that characterized the S source – and the L source. 

“I am a particular fan of the N source,” said our friend, “but I can’t say I much like the point-of-view and theological presuppositions that characterize the work of L.”  When I pointed out that there were actually two E’s in “Esolen,” he agreed that we would have to designate the first as the E1 source and the second as the E2 source, someone he was increasingly convinced was actually a woman.  “She’s quite a bit smarter than the rest of them,” our colleague assured us, “but she doesn’t want to let on how much smarter she actually is.  The others are holding her back.” 

We later passed this man’s theory by another one of our biblical studies colleagues, a feminist scholar, who disagreed vigorously.  Looking over the work of our first colleague, she quickly became convinced that “L” was actually two women:  one a lesbian Marxist Ecuadoran and the other a bi-sexual Freudian Jew from the Czech Republic, both of whom shared a deep hatred of capitalist men, she insisted.



            



       
         Who are that man?

“Wow,” I thought, “there’s so much more going on here than I thought.”  “Which one of them did the translation of Dante?” I asked the first biblical scholar, somewhat naively, as it turns out. 

“If I had to guess,” said our colleague, “I would say it was likely L, probably with some help from E2, but it’s more likely that none of them did.” 

“How’s that?” I asked. 

“Well, since it’s well known that Matthew didn’t write Matthew, that Mark didn’t write Mark, and that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare,” replied my colleague, “it’s very unlikely that ‘Esolen’ translated anything by ‘Esolen.’” 

“But then, who did translate the ‘Esolen’ translation of Dante?” I asked out loud before I could stop myself. 

“Someone else,” my colleague said dryly, with no small amount of exasperation. 

“But this seems strange to me,” I said.  “A whole host of people writing one thing or under one name?  Are there any other examples of this kind of multiple authorship?”

“Of course there are,” said my priest friend, breaking back into the conversation, happy to have had his position on the “Esolen” question so gloriously confirmed by the rich resources of modern critical scholarship.  “There’s the well-known group of eight Jesuits who, working round the clock, produce the endless articles and books that appear under the name ‘James Schall.’  Then there was the even stranger case of the ten writers who published novels, mystery stories, popular articles, and cutting-edge Thomistic scholarship under the name ‘Ralph McInerny.’  And don’t even get me started on the three guys at Amherst who all publish under the name ‘Hadley Arkes.’”

“Yes, yes,” I said, “this all make a lot of sense now.  In fact, it makes a lot more sense than thinking that one person could have written all those different things.” 

Feeling pleased to have been dispossessed of my childish naiveté, I paid off the bet to my priest friend.  “Here you go,” I said, handing over the five dollars I owed him.  “I feel pretty silly now.  But I’m glad to have learned something.”   

“Anthony Esolen,” whoever you really are, you can’t fool me anymore.  I know you don’t really exist, that you don’t really teach at Providence College, that you aren’t really “married,” don’t really have any “children,” and haven’t really “written” anything.  You’re a committee of people, a small cottage industry in fact, that produces more written works than any human being possibly could.  I will feel guilty and intimidated no more. 

Oh, and by the way E2, I loved your piece on raising unisex scouts in last week’s Public Discourse.  The parts in it by L weren’t as good as yours, of course, but I suppose you already knew that.  Don’t let the others hold you back.

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (28)Add Comment
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written by Sherry McMahon, May 09, 2013
Dr. Esolen has been a professor to far more people than just his students at Providence College. Not only is he a prolific author, he is also a strong man of deep faith, and knowledge, and wisdom - and courage - who is able to address the significant moral issues of our time - with truth, beauty and goodness. His articles serve as an evangelizing tool when I pass them on to others. Thanks be to God that we have been blessed with the gift of Anthony Esolen!

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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, May 09, 2013
I must admit that I have resident on my hard drive among many other major categories of saved files, a folder entitled: "Anthony Esolen Writings." No fooling! Now 'fess up' the rest of you, how many of you have done the same? I have even tossed out my former translation of the Divine Comedy in order to replace it with Dr. Esolen's. This is almost sounding like a cult.
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written by debby, May 09, 2013
HaHaHaHa! THAT WAS HYSTERICAL!

maybe the Real Anthony Esolen is an example of a living capital "S" Saint among us - they always seem to get so much more done than the rest of us....i know i can't keep up with reading his thoughts!

have a great day, Anthony E-1, S, O, L, E-2, N!
and thanks for starting my day with such a grin on my face prof. smith!
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written by Mack Hall, HSG, May 09, 2013
Good fun!

As an 'umble, part-time, no-status adjunct teacher I often quote Professor Esolen's PIG GUIDE TO WESTERN CIVILIZATION in my fish English classes.

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written by M., May 09, 2013
Classic. Great read. The esteem Mr. Esolen has earned is clearly impressive. His 'key that fits the lock' series of posts here, I would imagine, would make a great little book on Genesis. I can't get enough of them.
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written by Grump, May 09, 2013
I thought Anthony Esolen was an anagram for "Annoys The Noel"
or "A Lenten Oh Nosy" or "Nay then loosen"

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written by Achilles, May 09, 2013
Professor Esolen is a great man whose heart is on fire for God. He relentlessly, lovingly, courageously and truthfully screams the truth from the rooftops. He is an instrument of God's peace and a fisher of men and he gives the glory to God our father. He is a great consolation to us all! Thank you for this very entertaining essay and thankyou Dr. Esolen for all you do for the Body of Christ!
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written by Briana, May 09, 2013
Very funny. :)
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written by Briana, May 09, 2013
Very funny. :)
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written by Beth, May 09, 2013
Okay, Deacon Ed, you beat me. I cannot attest to having a dedicated file to all things Esolen, but I can tell you I cannot count the number of times I have visited this site to pull up the list of his writings to reread as well as pass on to friends. I cheered when in my Magnificat I read that his article should appear more frequently. He has helped me realize an ideal for family life--my family's life; and to understand that it is indeed attainable.

More Esolen!
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written by Brad Miner, May 09, 2013
I have to add one thing to Randy's wonderful column. Tony Esolen and I are Facebook "friends," and I'm graced with the opportunity to read his disquisitions on language: usage and word origins especially. The depth of his knowledge and understanding is stupefying. I'm reluctant to embrace the Multi-Esolen Hypothesis, but it does seem that knowledge is somehow infused into this man. Then again, I suppose that's how it always seems with great scholars.
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written by Sue, May 09, 2013
I too have been led sparklingly through Dante by Esolen's chapter notes, as I have been drawn towards heaven through this mortal coil by his (almost) daily articles.

As I have observed before, we may have to rechristen the superlative noun to "esolence".
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written by Athanasius, May 09, 2013
Clever article. I enjoyed reading it.

Please let me go off topic for a moment. Today is Ascension Thursday. In my part of the country, the Northeast, it is still a holy day of obligation. I understand that in many parts of the country the Ascension has been moved to Sunday and essentially replaces the 7th Sunday of Easter.

I think this is a lamentable situation. Acts 1:3 specifically mentions 40 days, and today is the 40th day of Easter. Further, it is my understanding that our practice of praying novenas comes from the fact that there are 9 days between the Ascension and Pentecost during which the apostles prayed while waiting for the Holy Spirit. I think there is a theological richness to this that is lost when the feast is moved to Sunday.

Are we really that busy that we can't take the time to go to mass on one Thursday a year? Blessed Pope John Paul II said that the Ascension is the fulfillment of the Incarnation. I think this is a day that deserves some special recognition.
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written by Randall B. Smith, May 09, 2013
What you people don't seem to understand is that modern critical scholarship has PROVEN --- this is SCIENCE people --- that this guy doesn't exist. Now, if you want to keep "believing" in him in order to give some sort of "meaning" to your lives, then okay, I suppose that's your "right" to do so in the privacy of your own home (as long as you don't try to apply any of those "Esolen" writings to anything in public).

But you're certainly not (un)reading the so-called "Esolen" texts properly unless you read them through the modern historical-critical lens of multiple authorship. When read rigorously through that critical lens, it becomes clear that "Esolen" isn't actually a Christian and doesn't hold any of the things that "Esolen" was previously thought to hold or teach. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Whatever you thought Esolen was saying previously, just reverse it, and that's the actual message of the text.

But then again, I suppose there are some people who will insist on continuing to read "Esolen" as though it were just a series of sweet, pious stories instead of the cutting-edge psycho-sexual Freudian-Marxist-deconstructionist critique of contemporary society that "it" (they) is (are).
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written by Wilton Greens, May 09, 2013
Yes Mr. Smith. The science is settled.
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written by Randall B. Smith, May 09, 2013
I've been getting some disturbed (and disturbing) e-mails from people who claim to have actually "seen" Esolen in person. Others claim to have actually "studied with" Schall. There's no need to go into the sort of psychological "wish-fulfillment" or the sorts of sociological mass hysteria that produces these sorts of "sightings" or "meetings." Suffice it to say that modern science has debunked them thoroughly and they need not bother us further.

I am concerned, however, that people who report actually "meeting" Esolen (whatever that would mean) or "studying with" Schall (as opposed to studying various "Schalls") might be predisposed to fanaticism of various sorts and, one hardly need add, violence. No doubt the federal government should fund a study by Harvard-trained PhDs on the potential dangers to society. And soon.
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written by Louise, May 09, 2013
Randall, I really wanted to be amused by this but this parody of what is often passing for Scripture scholarship today only makes the reality more painful! Thanks for trying. I always enjoy your writing.
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written by Layman Tom, May 09, 2013
Whoa! I might not be a biblical scholar, or have degrees in letters or philosophy, but pure wiseacre hilarity is something I am properly credentialed to comment upon. That was AWESOME!

I have no doubt that God has a better sense of humor than folks give him credit for. He did make us in his image after all. I'll bet he's up there chuckling.

Wait...I started this and had to return to it after the good professor weighed back in. You are a sneaky devil Prof. Smith! They say that most great humor has a strain of truth to it.

Sure, sure. It's SCIENCE! Why, all the experts agree. Never heard that before. Guess I'll keep "believing" in an single, all-powerfull Tony! No matter how backwards that makes me. Hate to break it to you, but you might be a genius.

Peace.
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written by Randall, May 09, 2013
I've enjoyed both Mr. Smith's article and all the comments. Funny stuff! I do love 'all those Esolen guys.'
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written by T.D., May 09, 2013
Curiously, "Mr. Esolen" hasn't shown up to comment as "Mr. Esolen" has been known to do on other TCT columns. Apparently the real "Mr. Esolen", AKA the Esolen Writing Team has realized that we've figured them out and is hiding in shame.
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written by Phil Brown, May 09, 2013
Actually, "Anthony Esolen" is a pseudonym used by Mark Steyn. Or the other way around - I'm not sure which.
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written by MTDave, May 09, 2013
I would like to add my own small contribution to the burgeoning field of Esolen scholarship by proposing the following:
E(1) shall henceforth be identified with the writings from the pen of the person(s) known as ESS-O-LEN.
E(2) shall henceforth be identified with the writings from the pen of the person(s) known as EES-0-LEN.

This will provide much fodder for discussion between the ESSOLENITES and the EESOLENITES.
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written by Tony , May 09, 2013
Dear readers, and Professor Smith: You are most kind! Thank you, and bless you. But you seem to have overlooked one possibility, and that is that this "Esolen" whom I claim sometimes to be is one person, but multiple personalities. That's what a fellow named Julian Jaynes once claimed about the prophet Isaiah: essentially that one Ike was talking to another Ike. Not that First Isaiah was talking to ol' Deutero-Isaiah; no, First Isaiah the First was talking to First Isaiah the Second, and Second Isaiah the First was talking to Second Isaiah the Second. This gets really pretty if you stitch it in bright colors, say blue for first firsts and gold for first seconds and red for second firsts and green for second seconds.

With us, there's Tony, who does most of the e-mailing, and who to students is known as Doctor E. But the lefty who likes baseball is Lou, the hardheaded competitor is Bob, the folksy fellow who grew up in Pennsylvania is Stan, the wordsmith is Ozzie, the guy who fools around with languages is Orlando, and the philosopher, of course, is Bruce.

This all becomes clear if we remember that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of George Eliot, whose real name was Christopher Marlowe.
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written by Louise, May 09, 2013
Layman Tom, I know. I'm being a wet blanket. In this case there is more than "a strain of truth to it" and there lies the rub...
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written by Randall B. Smith, May 09, 2013
There seem to be some readers put out by my comment that we need “Harvard-trained” scholars to study the problem of those who “believe in” Esolen. That was just short-hand. In truth, any Ivy League trained scholar would likely do. And please do remember that most of the best and brightest professors at the other major research universities were trained at one of the Ivies, so it’s not really as “discriminatory” as it might have sounded.

My basic point, though, was simply this: Any study of claims made of the existence of “Esolen” obviously can’t be made by anyone who claims to have actually seen him or met him. Such claims would demonstrate the lack of a necessary objectivity on the question. So no one, for example, from, say, Providence College would be allowed to comment on the matter, given that there are way too many “scholars” from that institution who claim to have a “personal relationship” with this man, and since it is an institution too thoroughly committed to the Esolen thesis, which (it has been reported) they have used far too often as a means of exerting anachronistic forms of hierarchical and patriarchal control over their students.

So too, arguments (such as they are) for the “single Esolen authorship” of the Esolen corpus cannot be accepted from any of those who claim to love those writings or to have been deeply inspired by them. The arguments over multiple or single authorship can only be made by scholars with decades of study in philology who have spent years poring over every word of the corpus of texts with the most recent advances in higher critical scholarship until they have become utterly bored to tears with them. Only they are qualified to judge their authorship, their authenticity, and their meaning.

I mean, that’s just common sense.
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written by Layman Tom, May 10, 2013
Louise,

I think we were typing at he same time, or the delay got us. I promise I wasn't responding to your comment. Actually, I'm highly impressed that you clued in long before I did. I actually was just enjoying the farse on it's face value. As I said, I came back to my reply just after the good professor's further comments posted. Usually, I'm a little quicker on the uptake, but the damn thing was so funny I got blinded to the deeper meaning.

I would like to mention something though. I've always enjoyed your replies. You have always struck me as incisive and compassionate. Always cordial to those with whom you disagree and thoughtfull in your replies. This time was no different. Me, on the other hand, I've sometimes been quick to rise up and meet whatever level of bologna happens to be flying around. Sometimes they call this meeting force with force. It's a burden and has caused me trouble at times. However, I'm ususally jovial and mischevious (again sometimes to the point of causing me trouble). The point is, that during the hard times in my life, times when when others tried to get to me or provoke me, or frankly just didn't like me, If I didn't get mad or down it generally worked out way better for me. In other words: sometimes it's good to enjoy a hearty laugh. Even when the wolves are at the gate. Nothing seems to scare the bad guys (or get under their skin) more than someone grinning ear to ear and moving on regardless of what evil they throw at you.

Peace.
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written by Louise, May 11, 2013
Laymen Tom, thank you for the compliment...it was most kind of you and appreciated. Even though I'm not laughing that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the article. In fact, I think reading it could serve as an inoculation and perhaps in some cases even a cure! it is a clever mirror. I do hope it is widely read.
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written by James, May 26, 2013
Now we all know that we are suppose to use the Straussian method. Apparently these "Esolen" folks are trying to disguise themselves so they don't end up like Socrates. Disregard all that "history" stuff about 'his' background and read his text subjectively, er... I mean esoterically.

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