Strategy from the Abyss

“The use of Fashions in thought,” writes C. S. Lewis’ Uncle Screwtape, of evil memory, “is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.”  A simple strategy, but eminently effective:


We direct the cry of each generation against those vices of which it is in least danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm. . . .Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism.


The reader may well think of plenty of current examples of the phenomenon. Just when Islam bids fair to drive every Christian and Jew out of the Middle East, and its jihadists around the world are decapitating reporters, blowing out the brains of little boys, and burning whole villages full of women and children, people in the religiously indifferent and sleepwalking West wring their hands over Islamophobia. 

Just when it has become nigh unto treason to suggest that women are beset by any shortcomings or limitations, of body or spirit or mind, and when working class men have seen their jobs vanish or their wages sag, we become exercised over whether a female graduate student at a posh university should have to pay a few dollars of her own to purchase synthetic hormones, so that she can continue a carefree life of dissolution.

Recently, an all-star running back for the Minnesota Vikings was accused of abusing his four-year-old son. He had taken a switch to the boy and lashed his legs with it, over and over. The pictures of the result are not pretty.
 Ever since that day, the airwaves have been filled with discussions over what his employer should do about it, and the severest condemnations, if the employer should do nothing. 

I hold no brief for switch-wielding football players. But it seems to me to be a case of the Screwtape strategy. Ours is hardly an age in which children are too severely disciplined. I have very little good to say about public education, but it is a plain fact that in many schools no real education can go on, because the classrooms are out of control. The problem is particularly acute in places where children grow up without fathers. 

The danger proceeds from at least two directions. A willful and insolent child can hold over the parents head the threat of a false report of abuse; mainly that comes from girls wanting to get even with single mothers. 

Meanwhile, boys growing up without fathers never learn to keep their aggressiveness in check. They loom over the mother, the teacher, the school nurse, and the lady principal. It does not worry him if his impudence brings chaos, or confrontations. Those are the salt of the day.

          Saturn Devouring His Children by Goya (c. 1820)

This is not to say that children are “running wild” out of doors, because generally speaking they are wild within regimentation. They know neither the whispers of the old library nor the cry of hawks on the wing.  

So we are doing our children plenty of harm, and very little of it comes at the end of a stick. Return to the running backs employer, and to the sports reporters and fans who are calling for him to be fired. I take no position on what his punishment should be. I note only the astonishing blindness of the people following this particular moral fashion.

The boys legs will have suffered no permanent harm. But what if the running back had done something infinitely more harmful to his son? Suppose he had said to his wife, “Im leaving you for another woman,” and simply ducked out of the boys life, sending in a hefty check every month to salve his conscience?

Who would then be crying out that he should lose his job? No one at all. But why not? Abandonment opens a wound that never heals, and it is a wound not upon the skin of the legs, but in the heart.  

Here it will not do to say that divorce and the dissolving of other domestic arrangements are legal, but raising welts on a boys legs is not. No one denies that the running back should face the law. But the critics are calling for punishment far beyond what the law will impose. They are calling upon the National Football League to dissociate themselves from such moral heinousness. And this seems strange to me.

If the man had abandoned the child, no one would bat an eyelash. It would be interesting to find out how many children the numerous critics have fathered or borne out of wedlock, how many they have abandoned by walking away, and how many they have corrupted by flaunting their sexual misdeeds or by leaving pornography in their childrens sight. That is not to mention the children they have cut to pieces in the womb. Those switches leave no child behind to form a scar.

We will not, of course, hear any sportscaster recommending a zero tolerance policy regarding divorce, illegitimacy, or abortion.  Those sins are fashionable. They are also ubiquitous.  

Termites are gnawing your rafters to dust, and you are worried about a crack in your basement slab. Your bones are riddled with cancer, and you are worried about your waistline. And when you caulk the little crack and lose the two pounds and fire the running back, you hug yourself for being so responsible, and say that all will be just fine.

The Uncle snickers.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
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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.

  • Manfred

    Dr. Esolen: Thank you for another high quality column. Fr. John Hardon, S.J.+ had a wonderful counter: “It is a wonderful time to be alive. We are in the Church Militant. We are at war, you know.” When the chattering classes discuss any pro sports figure who makes more in two months than they make in their lives, when no one insists that the U.S. Senate “fire” Sen. Ted Kennedy after the Kopechne woman is allowed to drown in his car after he abandons her, when Bill Clinton, a President who was impeached for suborning perjury, who perjured himself, who was disbarred and heavily fined is the grand figure of the Democratic Party whose daughter Chelsea, who was paid $600K per year by NBC for doing nothing, marries a man whose father went to prison for bilking friends and acquaintances out of $10 million, is anyone looking for logic?

    People are being attracted to the traditional Catholic Faith and I meet them at our FSSP chapel. These are mature, serious people who say quietly they no longer watch TV, they do not read papers or magazines, and they have no interest in what antics the present “pope” or bishops are up to. One person told me: you know the climate is bad when you begin to envy the dead.

    I am very encouraged as I see people beginning to take control of their lives. They know that this fetid world holds nothing for them and they must “focus only on that which is above.”

  • Jon S.

    Even though what Peterson did made me shudder, I found myself unable to jump on the bandwagon to tar and feather him. But I couldn’t put my finger on why. Thank you, Professor Esolen, for a truly Catholic take on this issue. I am also profiting from your series in Magnificat on “How the Church Has Changed the World.”

  • Mike Able

    Manfred, you forgot to itemize the mass-murderer George Bush who killed tens of thousands of innocent Muslims in an act of hubris. And when it comes to Bill Clinton, well, give me a good old boy adulterer any day over a pack of witch hunters who would psychologically bludgeon and publicly disgrace a young woman in order to dig dirt to score cheap political victories when they couldn’t score them any other way.

  • Rich in MN

    Yes, it truly was a “Circus of Indignation” around here (Minnesota) after the Vikings organization initially decided that AP would be allowed to play. To allow him to play was to value football above child welfare, plain and simple. Any pleas by AP and others from his hometown that he was not an abuser, that this discipline was within the parameters of “prudential judgment” in his community and based on his personal experience as a child, pretty much fell on deaf ears. It was considered a dual standard to dismiss one player for drug offenses or assaulting someone in a bar, and not dismiss AP for his actions. I suspect much more will be revealed as this all plays out in court.

    On a different note, Dr. Esolen, I just had to smile when reading your column. Last night was the monthly meeting of a Chesterton reading group I attend. This month our only assignment was to bring in our favorite Chesterton quote/passage. When our “acting czar,” Dale Ahlquist, called on me, all I could think to read was the last page and a half of the Father Brown story, “The Chief Mourner of Marne.” It has one of the most brilliant, ironic turns of a phrase as Fr Brown describes Catholic priests as “vampires of the night.” But instead of imparting eternal death to the living, they offer eternal life to the dead.

  • pgepps

    Well said. It is a timely moment to go read Dorothy Sayers’ very late Wimsey story, “Talboys.” (You’ll need to find a copy of the collected Wimsey stories to read it.)

  • Karen

    Excellent! TCT gives us the world’s most articulate clear thinkers!

    Thank you for exposing humanity’s contradictions so that we may be ecclesial missionaries who respond fully to Francis’ appeal to bring Christ to persons on the economic or spiritual peripheries. Thank you! Thank you!

    You reveal how a life following the methods and contradictions of the world leads to more misery and enslavement. Whereas, following the life of Christ, the Sign of Contradiction, leads to authentic freedom and joy.

    Vatican II recognized humanity’s flight from irritation and discomfort, and from the sufferings the world placed on its people. The Christ-like, but the humanly contradictory response was to put the Church back into the world. As adult Catholics we – I – need to be there.

    Like the Apostles in the Upper Room, I need a deeper understanding of who Christ is in my life and then, how to share Him in the language of my world. I am fortunate to have a weekly ‘upper room’ experience of reading and discussing the Gospels. This essential aspect of my Christian life keeps me focused on Christ who loved me first and showers me with continuous mercy.

    Alas, I can not stay in my comfy upper room. His gift of love and mercy demands I go out and share the joy of the Gospels. I am not afraid. I am not alone. We are together.

  • grump

    Nothing wrong with a good spanking. Our old-fashioned Italian mother came after my brother and me with a wooden spoon and my father often wielded the belt or a shoe with just the right precision and effect. Most of the time we deserved it. Years later, from time to time we applied similar measures to own own children and they turned out OK. Corporal punishment has its place but the line is thin.

    In the Navy I once got kicked hard in the butt by the Company Commander in boot camp for failing to secure my ditty bag properly. The incident occurred more than 50 years ago and took place in front of fellow recruits but to this day I vividly remember how a kick in the pants can inspire one to aim toward more neatness.

    The legality of corporal punishment varies by region but generally Southern states allow it in the home and schools while Northern states are more restrictive. Peterson hails from Texas, a red state.

    This fact is not necessarily mitigating but one’s outlook on life is shaped early on: At age 7, Peterson saw his 9-year-old brother Brian killed by a drunk driver as he rode his bicycle. Later on, their father was arrested for dealing in drugs and served time in prison. Who knows what impact, if any, this had on Peterson’s disciplining of his son.

  • Mack Hall

    So did everyone here vote in his or her last local school board election?

  • Manfred

    Mike Able: “And when it comes to Bill Clinton,well, give me a good old by adulterer any day over…” Really? If your twenty-one year old daughter/White House intern came home with Clinton’s ejaculate on her blue dress, would you feel as sanguine then?
    TCT “is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary.”

  • Tony Esolen

    Thank you, my kind friends.

    A young lady I’ve known since she was a little girl has recently gotten married, and she has a beautiful new baby. Recently, at some kind of a political event, she and the baby were present, and one of the supporters of the Democrat feminist who is running for governor came up to her to praise the baby. The Democrat feminist preaches that abortion should be available to any woman at any time during pregnancy and for any reason.

    My young friend held her tongue — this time. She did not say, “But if I had chosen several weeks ago to have the baby’s brains sucked out, you’d have thought that that was all right.”

    The moral, as regards Mr. Peterson the running back and his critics: Other People’s Sins are always the unforgivable ones. My Sins can be explained. The sin of lashing your kid with a switch is not one likely to be committed by writers for the AP. Therefore it is Far More Serious than the sins they are likely to commit. It is Far More Serious than Divorce, for example. After all, there are Explanations for My Sin. Who could live with that woman? And I do support my child with money. No, My Sins are Respectable. My Sins are not Violent — My Sins are in Good Taste….

  • Rich in MN

    Dr Esolen, you drive home beautifully a point very similar to the one Chesterton addresses in “The Chief Mourner of Marne.” After a climactic turn of events, Father Brown addresses his accusers: “You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”

  • Mike Able

    Manfred, I would certainly prefer that my daughter stained her dress in a consensual and privately conducted sexual encounter than for her to be entrapped, bullied and publicly humiliated by a dirt digger out to destroy a democratically elected president of the United States. Wouldn’t you? Or are you merely an “intelligent” commenter and not a morally informed and sensitive one?