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

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Ken Tremendous

    This is interesting. It is pretty much a wholesale rejection of the changes in marriage and sexuality in the last 50 years.

    OK. I’d take that. Let’s stipulate that the family and community life of say 1910 to 1965 was more conducive to human happiness and flourishing that post 1965 to 2014. I think that view is eminently defensible. No argument here.

    But here is the thing. On the balance the economy in the earlier period was also more tightly regulated..protections for labor were stronger, restrictions on finance were tighter, taxes on the wealthy were higher, people tended to work longer and the same firms etc. and where the law did not intervene social mores did. CEO’s in the earlier period usually did not take pay packages that were 1500 times what the ordinary line worker made because to do so would be unseemly.

    Then in the latter period with the liberation of sexual mores also came the liberation of the economy as well. Wages stagnated for most of the bottom 3/4 and actually fell for many but taxes also generally fell for the wealthy. Corporations saw profits soar as they cut payrolls to the bone, seeking automation and cheaper foreign labor where possible overseas and where impossible through waves of unskilled immigration at home. Private sector labor unions collapsed but CEO’s and financiers did fabulously well and had plenty of money to enjoy the sexual freedom and the slide toward liberated plutocracy blithely unconcerned that marriage rates were falling and illegitimacy rates were soaring for much of the rest of the country. Yes government spending grew right along with CEO compensation packages and student loan debts but not nearly enough to keep up the lack of stable employment opportunities for the working class. There are ten times the number of men on disability now than in 1965, not because work is more dangerous but because remunerative jobs have basically disappeared in much of the country. People do what they need to do to survive.

    I could go on but you get the idea, Dr. Esolen. The problem with conservatives in America is that they get the part about the sex but the totally miss the part about economics. The two have been a package deal and the rich of both parties basically like it that way. Neither Rubert Murdoch nor George Soros has any basic quibble with this. Social liberalization has been very bad for most people, but so has economic liberalization. Solid families and communities go hand in hand with solid jobs. It is partisan loyalty to the GOP and its plutocratic agenda that obscures this. The Democrats are even worse of course but that is beside the point.

  • DeGaulle

    Ken, you’re the one who seems the conservative(perhaps you and I could best describe this position as “reactionary”?). Certainly, in my concept of the best possible world achievable in this vale of tears a worker would live in the same neighbourhood as his boss. Fair enough, the latter would have a bigger house and a larger garden and rightly so, but he would share the community, most likely as a great pillar of it, with his employees. Now, his equivalent lives, to all intents and purposes, on a different planet. Mammon can be as corrupting as Sodom. To alleviate confusion, I must show my credentials and declare that I am a Catholic who considers “socialism” and its outgrowths as heresy and incompatible with Catholicism.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, would have agreed. “διὸ ἐν οἰκίᾳ πρῶτον ἀρχαὶ καὶ πηγαὶ φιλίας καὶ πολιτείας καὶ δικαίου.” [Hence in the household are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of political organization and of justice.] Eudemian Ethics Book 7

    Without this education, a people is incapable of freedom – of living under laws of their own making and magistrates of their own choosing.

  • Sue

    “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? ”
    Watch for the family tree to be attached as the next realm of bigotry against those “families” who derive from the anonymous testtube.

    Ken T, Murdoch and Soros are on the same team, as are the Dems and Repubs, all of them playing either good cop or bad cop. True conservatives totally get the part about economics, a word which traces back to the household, which should be the most fundamental unit of economics, as the cell is the most fundamental unit of life. The bad guys, rather, see society as a technocratic organism more akin to an inorganic robot drone, with no messy blobs of family life. All control comes from the top in the NWO.

  • Gian

    Teachers are delegates of the parents collectively and not of parents individually. Thus, the political context enters. All healthy societies have regarded education of the young as a collective responsibility, that is, the education has always been regarded as a State matter and not individual matter.
    Of course, in normal healthy societies, there is no or little conflict between the individuals and the state. All obey and follow the same vision.

  • Gian

    Ken is right. Conservatives celebrate entrepreneurs but disregard the social instability that capitalism invariably introduces.
    It is a great pity that the insights of Chesterton and Belloc on economic matters have been disparaged by the Conservatives who otherwise take these writers as prophetic. But the conservatives do not like to hear a word against the Crystal Palace of technocratic and libertarian utopia.

  • Richard A

    Gian, you and Ken are mostly wrong. Most conservatives despise big business almost as much as big government. You conflated entrepreneurship and capitalism, and it would probably be helpful not to.

  • Rich in MN

    It seems we as a society have become so fragmented in our thinking, so bad at “connecting the dots,” and so deluded in measuring of our own wisdom and blamelessness, that we unconsciously slip into a manner of living that could be summed up by either of the following related axioms:
    “It is always my turn and it is never my fault.”
    “These are MY rights, this is what I want — how are YOU going to pay for them?” I.e., will it be with your money, with your time, or with your very life?

    We now live in a world in which the self evident must be defended to a judge and jury who regard “feelings” as more substantial evidence. We must throw ourselves at the mercy of a kangaroo court, asking, “Your Honor, and you women, you men, and you transgendered of the jury, is it UNREASONABLE to believe that there is a physical and emotional complementarity to men and women that two men or two women do not share? Is it UNREASONABLE to believe that children are created out of, and benefit in their nurturing from, this complementarity? Is it UNREASONABLE to believe, given the preponderance of embryological evidence, that a child developing in her or his (or whatever the trangender pronoun might be) mother’s womb is, in fact, a human being?

    Sadly, such questioning seems largely incoherent and immaterial — and “hate speech” — to the court of “feelings.” But, of course, there are a number of kangaroo courts besides that of “feelings.” For example, there are also the courts of “Well, I earned it!” and “I have a duty to my stockholders!” that too many of the wealthy occupy. I’m sure an analogous sets of questions could be posed to them as well.

  • Tony

    Ken: That is why I included, most pointedly, the demand that in economic matters the good of the household should come first. I am with Chesterton (and Dickens) in that regard, and against the libertarians. The thing about big business is that those who run them behave as if competition were an evil to be crushed at all costs. We certainly do need a recovery of thinking about how to secure the good of households. What would that involve, practically? Tariffs? A wholesale reform of regulations written by those who can afford them, to squeeze out of play their smaller competitors? I am not enough of an economist to prescribe the specifics, alas. In the town where I grew up, the richest man probably made about two or three times as much as the poorest man. That richest man was either the doctor, the owner of what was to be the nation’s oldest family-run pharmacy, or the owner of the biggest (and still small) grocery store. The poorest man was probably the father of one of my fellow students in our parochial school. We didn’t have any experience of great wealth or poverty…

    Gian, I don’t agree with you in principle. Until the United States made schooling compulsory, education was not considered a state matter at all, but the duty of families and churches. State involvement in education is, in western Europe, a relatively recent thing. The mediocrity and uniformity that it produces is quite depressing …

  • Jack,CT

    Mr Esolen,
    IF: Idea of “New Ideas” and moving forward
    for a better life for all peoples is The “Progressive”.

    Those who want Justice for all and equal rights despite
    our disagreements,are they “Progressives?”

    65 percent of all RC voted for change when they voted for
    “Hope And Change”. (Twice)
    The point is you super generalize the entire topic from

    social to spiritual and it is frankly insulting.

  • Paul V

    Their aim is to achieve a man made paradise “having the appearance of godliness, but denying the power thereof”. Students of the Bible realize how that will end.

    Because of the nature of fallen man I agree we can never have paradise on earth till Our Lord and Savior returns. Although I’m troubled by the growing acceptance of what I would call sins as listed in your article, I’m much more troubled by the steps my government has taken to prevent people from speaking out against certain behaviors (ie. hate speech laws and human rights commissions which are now used to silent disagreement) and the growing number of people who agree with these restrictions that reduce or freedoms.

  • DeGaulle

    There seems some confusion here. I think Sue has the right of it. Most so-called “conservatives” nowadays are just more cautious liberals-they just introduce a more slowed down liberal agenda. That is why I prefer the term “reactionary”. Gian I disagree with completely in his blanket condemnation of capitalism as he neglects or disregards one of the most astute of Chesterton’s observations-that the only problem with capitalists is that there aren’t enough of them.

  • Dennis Larkin

    I like what political philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote about the conservative attitude:

    “To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, and the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate, and to enjoy.”

  • Seanachie

    Anthony, seems like the criteria you suggest for Paradise describes, for the most part, the U.S. until the mid-1960’s. What caused us to veer off this “values” driven, reasonably stable and predictable path?

  • Gian

    De Gaulle,
    Capitalism is defined by popes as the divorce between labor and ownership. In this sense, Chesterton says that we have too few owners. Hayek also says that the really important thing is not private property per se, but several property (his term) or distributed property (as Catholic writers say).

    Late capitalism is characterized by an evaporation of true ownership into fragmented and anonymous patterns of ownership of financial assets. This sort of ownership does not seem to have either good social effects nor good results of due stewardship.

    True ownership consists of a stable and public relation between a person and the thing owned. The “ownership society” beloved of conservatives does not cut it when ownership refers only to anonymous and unstable holding of financial assets like units in mutual funds.

  • Gian

    Mr Esolen,
    Teachers are hired by parents collectively and not individually. That makes schooling a social matter, over and above the level of any individual family.

    I also point out that the polis (or the nation) is the unit of cultural transmission. A family is not; it is too fragile, in itself, and dependent upon other families and also upon the polis.

    A polis is defined by Aristotle as a self-sustained unit of human organization that is capable of independent existence. It absolutely requires common culture and thus a common education of young.
    It is entirely irrelevant how this common education is provided–by the families or by churches or by Govt. But there has to be a commonality otherwise you do not get a nation or a polis.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Prof Esolen writes: 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?”

    The answer to this question is depicted in the recently-released film, The Giver.

  • pgepps

    Well said, sir.

    In response to your very first commenter: Yes, in an earthly Paradise, there would also be no usury; people would be humans, not consumers.