What’s the Aim?

W. H. Auden once said that all critics should show their credentials before they write about literature. The credentials he had in mind had nothing to do with college degrees or records of publication. Auden said that they should confess to their readers what they believed Paradise should look like.

I think that Auden’s requirement should apply also to social critics and to all who propose fundamental changes in law or custom. To self-styled progressives, the obvious form of the question is, “Where are we going? Why do we want to go there?” 

Set aside for the moment that no paradise upon earth is possible, since that would require a perfection of virtue among fallen men. As Solzhenitsyn said, the battle line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

Set aside the vain trust that if we follow the yellow brick road, the one labeled “science” or “democracy” or “equality” or “sexual freedom,” we will reach the Land of Oz, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Set aside the means for reaching that Promised Land. The question for progressives is, “What is that Land you are promising? What makes it your goal? What is it like? What is your vision of Paradise?”

For the true conservative, the question is milder and less urgent. That’s because the true conservative does not believe in Paradise upon earth. “What do you believe a Paradise would be? Given the frailties of human nature, what faint reflection of that Paradise do you believe we or our ancestors have already secured? If we have lost some of that good, how can we recover it?”

We should see straightaway that the question bears upon the great debate of our time, that of so-called sexual liberation.
 So we ask the sexual progressive: What is your vision of Paradise? Where are you taking us?

Is it a land in which most people in the young prime of life are married, so that men and women spend little time unattached to the virtue-making and bond-forging discipline of family life?

Is it a land in which almost no marriages end in divorce?

Is it a land in which almost all children are born within the haven of marriage and a vow of stability and perpetuity?

Is it a land whose popular culture celebrates what is noblest in man, and not what is coarse, base, and selfish? A land in which boys and girls are taught that it is contemptible to lead a life of pleasure-seeking?

Is it a land in which pornography is called “smut,” because it defiles the body and the mind?

     Paradise? (center panel: The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500)

Is it a land in which men are full of good things to say about women, and women are full of good things to say about men? 

Is it a land whose marriages are so strong, that those who fall prey to gross misfortune or misbehavior can find ready assistance among their neighbors and their kin?

Is it a land whose churches are full on Sunday? 

Is it a land whose families are so stable and so prominent in local life that politicians, teachers, and businessmen must reckon with them? A land in which families supervise the schools, with the teachers understood as the delegates of the parents, appointed at their pleasure?

Is it a land of productive and vibrant family life, so that, rather than mass entertainment being pumped into the home, a genuine popular culture blossoms from the home?

Is it a land in which virtues that strengthen and protect the family are honored? A land in which chastity is not despised as prudishness, but prized as embracing self-control, reverence for the goodness of the sexual powers, and the holiness of marriage?

Is it a land in which the first question of economics is the question of the good of the household? A land whose laws and customs strengthen family life, by making it more likely that children will spend most of their time at home with one of the parents present? A land, therefore, of neighborhood and not mere proximity, in which families know families all around the block, so that there’s a kind of extended family in which children go about their playful business, with plenty of trusty glances turned their way?

Is it a land in which state and federal governments can mind their own business, because almost all of the really important matters in life are well taken care of by households, neighborhoods, and parishes? 

Is it a land in which children are allowed the blessed time of sexual latency, so that they can learn how to be human, and how to be boys or girls, before they enter the straits of puberty? A land in which someone who expressed a desire to insinuate himself into the sexual feelings of a child would be looked upon as monstrous? A land which would no more celebrate the fraud and pervert, Alfred Kinsey, than they would name a highway for a mass murderer?

Is it a land in which a yearly parade might be held for people celebrating their fortieth anniversary, with all their children and grandchildren in their train? A land in which the word “pure” is not a term of mockery, and “decadent” not a term of praise?

So to proponents of the biological absurdity, that a man can marry another man, we ask, “Is that a land where you would be happy? You want us to pretend that we can have this one thing you say you want – without having to give up every single one of these good things that ordinary people have always wanted, and that they have often been able to enjoy. But isn’t that a deception? Isn’t it true that you don’t really want any of these other things?

Where are you taking us? Why should we want to go there?” 

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.