Sanity in a Time of Madness

A message from Robert Royal

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In a short and remarkable treatise, The Christian Idea of Man, Joseph Pieper explains why prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues, the one that “gives birth” to all the others. His reasoning is clear: “Good presupposes truth, and truth presupposes being.”  Therefore “realization of the good presupposes knowledge of reality,” for “one who does not know how things really are cannot do good; for the good accords with reality.”

Pieper notes that he is not talking about the empirical sciences, but about “real contact with objective reality,” especially as mediated by hearing. For the prudent man is eager to learn from “the genuine knowledge of reality enjoyed by a superior mind,” including the mind of God as revealed in Scripture.

So the prudent man “looks first at reality; and by virtue of and on the basis of his knowledge of reality he decides what is to be done and what not, and how it is to be done and how not.”  Therefore, “all virtue is dependent on prudence,” and every sin is a violation of prudence.

Prudence is sanity in moral action, and sanity, as the schoolmen teach us, is the adaequatio mentis ad rem: the equable adjustment of the mind in concord with the thing.

I know someone who is terrified of birds, no matter how small and harmless. She knows that the sparrow won’t hurt her, and so she understands that her fear is unjustified, and she attempts to fit her actions to the thing. It would be better if she could find delight in the cheerful fellows, but at least she has moved in the direction of sanity.

I know someone else who pretends to have no fear of the Lord, though he ducks and mutters in his pose of atheism. It would be better for him to fear, because the Lord ought to be feared; and his ducking and muttering is a stubbornly healthy remnant of sanity.

The opposite of this adequation is a willed embrace of unreality. We might call it the coercio rei ad phanstasiam: coercing things to accord with your phantasms. These days the phantasms have mostly to do with sex.

Now, it should be easier to go mad over abstractions than over realities that one can notice at a glance. It should be easier to be muddled over patriotism than over whether you are a boy or a girl. It should be easier to stray from the right path when you are trying to figure out what money is, than when you are trying to figure out what a baby is.

The depth of our madness may be fathomed accordingly. It is mad for Walter Mitty to believe that he is a leader of nations; but he has to check his mind and heart and the course of his life to see that he is not. It is madness within madness for him to believe that he is Napoleon. All he has to do then is to check his birth certificate.

So, suppose you have a boy. We’ll call him Jim. Jim is a boy. There’s no doubt about this. A hermaphrodite may have been born ten years ago in Spitzbergen, but for all that, Jim is a boy.

Barring injury or illness, Jim will soon be stronger and faster and more agile than his mother. Soon after that he will be taller than she is, too. His hands and feet will be bigger than hers. His voice will be deeper. His adrenal system will be quicker. His muscles and bones will thicken. All these are facts. We see them every day. 

He will bear in his loins the seeds of children. That is a fact. He will become a father in potentia. If his parents and teachers are sane, they will bring him up, day by day, into an adequation of his mind to the reality of his body. Long before he has the man’s form, he will be encouraged to adopt the man’s habits.

        The Allegory of Prudence by Titian (1645)

To see how this works, put Jim on a farm. Someday Jim will have to do the bulk of the harrowing and plowing, the sowing and reaping. He will have to wrestle with the cumbersome machinery and the large domestic animals. So you prepare him for those realities now. You lead him in mind and in habit towards the place where his body will be going. 

It is the same for his fatherhood. Jim is a boy. Boys marry girls and become fathers. Those are realities. So you train him up in fatherhood now. Sometimes you talk about it; mostly you show the reality in action. It isn’t a matter of stern determination. It is a matter of loving the boy in him and bringing that boy to manhood. You make manhood a matter of course. 

Because Jim bears the seeds of human children, and not of dogs or cats, you open his eyes every day to the reality of marriage. A dog has a life but no history. A cat curls up in the sun and that is her only intimation of eternity. But the human being turns his glance to the limits of the universe itself, and beyond.

Such a creature requires loving parents who turn their glance to the limits of his life, and beyond. That is a fact. 

When the time comes for Jim to know about it, his parents will teach him the reality of things: that he carries fatherhood with him, and that he is meant for a love that gives and never retracts. That is no fantasy. Life will be hard, and people are sinners. But a man’s word is his bond. 

The alternative is madness, what Pieper defines as ideology: “An unobjective perception of reality dictated by the will.”  It is to compel the world to obey the dictates of that will. It is to people the world with Napoleons.


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. 
© 2014 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Dear Dr. Esolan, Thank you for another brillaint and timely column. In just a few paragraphs you ahve conveyed the Catholic view of man’s nature and his relationshop to God and earthly realities using both faith-based knoweldge and the logic we were bequeathed by classical civilziation. Such clarity is in high demand in our age of ideologicially based distortions that can lead to both enslavement and damnation. I wonder, however, if you have had to deal with families who have Jims or even Jims themselves who have no idea why they have inclinations that are out of order. A Jim is objectively a Jim, and our culture is pernicious to enourage him and his family to imagine otherwise. Certainly you and I did not awake one day and say that we have the seeds of children, nor did we wait for our parents to tell us that before we discovered the loveliness of the female form. The cause of the ultimate sexual dysfunction is still outside of our knowledge, so all we can do is advise one to follow the teacings of Holy Mother Church and to pray for him or her pray. I fear that any suggestion that the unfortuante condition is the result of a parenting deficiency can only add to suffering and intensify resentment against the Bride of Christ, thereby adding to the enemy’s number.

  • DS

    So if a boy has difficulties growing into “manhood”, we should assume it was just bad parenting?

  • Other Joe

    It would seem that if free will exists, then parenting can not be thought of as programming (manipulating, conditioning) which is the contemporary view. The modern mind sees all corrective action as a manipulation and all human activity as power relationships. One makes the other do what is desired. Mr. Esolen seems not to be suggesting this, rather that the good parent aligns parenting with what is rather than what one wishes reality to be. When reality is treated as a consumerist salad bar where choice has primacy, the perception of reality is distorted. Attempting to navigate reality with distorted perception leads to trouble of all kinds. Bad parenting begins with a lack of prudence. There is a significant difference between a failure of loving concern and the collusion of enabling destructive behavior.

  • Rich in MN

    @Thomas Coleman,
    I think you answered your own (and DS’s) question when you state “our culture is pernicious to en[c]ourage…” (I would probably add the words “and foolish/short sighted” after “pernicious”). To the extent that a parent facilitates, by commission or omission, our “gender without borders” and “sexual expression without borders” national mentality and indoctrination programs, they would be deficient as parents. And you state that the “cause of the ultimate sexual dysfunction is still outside our knowledge.” Well, I think all of us struggle with specific negative dispositions and there are risk factors for their actualization. As children, we learn not to act on our destructive tendencies and, if possible, redirect those energies, because we are guided by the good adults in our lives. With SSA, I have heard it argued that there are definitely risk factors but, unfortunately, these arguments are simply dismissed as “hate speech”. But it makes as little sense to dismiss this argument by parading out a few hand-picked examples that may be exceptions, as it would be for me to use Eubie Blake as proof that cigarette smoking and eating lots of candy is good for you.

  • Rich in MN

    What “Other Joe” said!

  • grump

    …and cross your fingers Jim won’t grow up to be Jill.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    I sat with a young woman yesterday of college age and the daughter of a mother with mental illness. She’s had an unsettling adolescence at best. She asked a penetrating question of me which went something like this “How do you choose relationships?” By this she wanted to know how one went about acquiring friends and implied in her question the ultimate question of “How do I choose a husband?”

    I suggested to her that first she needed to know the purpose of her life and what its ends were. “To what is your life ultimately directed?” I asked her. And lastly, “For what purpose were you created/ why are you here?” I ended with this: “When you have begun to arrive at some notions about the answers to these questions, the matter of relationships is very simple: Choose friends who will support the answers you have arrived at and that certainly would include a spouse.”

    I would guess that this would be an exercise in prudential judgment – the knowledge of the reality of one’s life about “what is to be done and what not, and how it is to be done and how not.”

  • Stanley Anderson

    [from the column]:
    Pieper notes that he is not talking about the empirical sciences, but about “real contact with objective reality…”

    I haven’t read the treatise, so I don’t know if Pieper goes on to make this point or not, but the line above makes me think of how the modern “empirical scientist” with his reductionist/materialist “this is all there is — I will only accept what my senses show me” uses, more and more, ironically, methods and instruments that “show” him, indirectly, things he cannot see or hear or touch or smell or taste. Whether it is a microscope or a telescope or broken pieces of dry bones arranged into progressive patterns or reams of paper filled with tallies of quantum particle “hits” — appended with abstract formulae that coagulate into statistical conclusions of magnitude and probability, they are increasingly composed precisely of those things that we cannot, and will never be able to see or hear or touch or smell or taste.

    Not that this is a bad thing — unless it replaces and tosses out the very close and visible and audible things of “reality” that Dr. Esolen describes so beautifully in his column today.

    (And in connection with the replies above so far) About the role of parents — Anthony has not suggested that parents will be universally “successful” at producing a moral and God-fearing adult out of their child (One might wonder, in parallel to the Scriptural advice “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it”, if God is the ultimate Father, why his children went astray). “Other Joe” writes wisely, “…the good parent aligns parenting with what is…” and I would only add that what the good parents do when they “align parenting with what is” IS itself another of those “things” of reality that we can see before us that Anthony writes about.

    How successfully that translates into whether a child grows up to be a moral and God-fearing adult is something that the empirical scientist may decide to tally up and quantify statistically. But to suggest that it is like a law of gravity that “always produced the same result” is to deny free will and would turn parenting and individual moral decision into a dead materialistic billiard-ball-collision formula — something I guess the modern empirical scientist would love to be able to do.

  • Tony

    DS: Much of it is, and some of it isn’t.

    Rock Hudson’s father abandoned the boy and his mother. Montgomery Clift’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Liberace’s father made the boy support the family when he was six years old. Dirk Bogarde’s family broke in half, the boy was raised by a nanny and an older sister, and then he was raped (in a peculiarly grotesque and terrifying way) by a medical student when he was 13. You can find similar terrible things in the lives of Tab Hunter, Raymond Burr, Paul Lynde …

    Sometimes the father is not at fault for something he did, but perhaps at fault for not intervening and preventing something that someone else did. That is the case with boys who are molested by other males; or with sensitive and unathletic boys who are picked on by their peers; or with boys who are turned into ersatz girls by their mothers.

    Barring something bizarre like a rape, an ordinary father by doing ordinary things, keeping his eyes open, can prevent the syndrome of sexual confusion from occurring. That is, there are things he can do that are virtually sufficient to guarantee that the syndrome will NOT arise.

  • James

    This essay is without doubt deeply edifying. Even beautiful in passages. A fine theme for a retreat for young men, and for old men, too. Thank you.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Dr. Esolen: I am not sure how literally you intend us to understand the words; “…can prevent the syndrome of sexual confusion from occurring.” I will certainly accept that an alert father and mother can greatly reduce the likelihood of that and other syndromes from occurring. But I suspect that most of us know parents who did everything perfectly and yet were stunned to find that an adult child has not only that but other syndromes that impede normal human relations. Even if I grant that what you say is true in a majority of cases, I cannot pretend that we now have enough information of the etiology of the disorder in question to speak in absolute terms. One danger in doing so is that SSA individuals will invent reasons to hate their parents. That phenomenon is hardly unique to the question at hand,

  • DS

    And the cure for “hyper-orthdoxy syndrome” is reading the Catechism, which teaches that the “genesis of homosexuality remains largely unexplained.”

  • Ben from Two Catholic Men and a Blog

    If you like this post, you’ll love a book call “Theology & Sanity” by lay apologist Frank Sheed. It’s my favorite!

  • Patrick J. Sheahan

    Reading the article I find myself agreeing with Dr. Esolen and I wonder about a young person’s choices and influences in their lives.
    But then I also recall a young boy who went to school with me right up until the end of high school. As early as grade three I can recall that he was a boy physically but he definitely wasn’t one of us. He had no more interest in being with males or participating in male activities than any girl our age. When I return to my hometown now and run into him and meet his male partner I would have to say I would have been shocked if he had a female partner.
    I find it hard to believe that he ever thought there was a choice or that there was any sexual confusion, it was who he was.
    Did his parents have a role to play in his sexuality? They had 3 other boys who grew to be loving fathers.
    It’s a mystery and certainly outside of my knowledge.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Dear Patrick J. Sheehan, whether it was intended or not I read you second paragraph as similar in thought to my own. I think that, even given the general truths of what Dr. Esolen wrote, one has to proceed with caution as a parent. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that some men who grow up to be sexually normal have done so with resentment toward parents who took a dim view of their interests in the arts or who mocked the decions they made upon dicovering their lack of athletic prowess to concentrate on purely cerebral matters. These are very hard calls to make in the case of boys. but with girls no one is concered if they throw a baseball as well their brothers. Again, we just don’t know enough about the causes. No, mothers should not put tutus and lipstick on thier sons. But too many paprents have beat themselves up wondering what they did wrong in cases in which no one did anything wrong. It is both intellectually honest and cruel to insisit always that someone must have done something wrong.

  • Tony

    Let us suppose you have a boy who is obviously ill at ease with other boys. Very often this is a result of things that have nothing, zip, nada to do with sexuality. Maybe he is slow in growing. Maybe he doesn’t see well. Maybe his metabolism is too slow and he gets chubby. Maybe a lot of things, accidental things — whatever.

    Now, fathers in generations past had no idea that there would be anything either to do or not to do with that boy. And they would be right, in part, because everybody around the boy would eventually help to lead him back to sanity and health. They may well not be to blame (though some of them really were to blame; and yet had they known what the result would be, they never would have done what they did). That is not the case now. So I am saying that every father should quietly but consistently and firmly lead the boy to manhood, make him feel like a BOY, affirm him as a boy, with physical affirmation; and if the other boys nearby are worthless, to get him together with other boys and with their fathers.

    Everyone can do this. And again I say, barring something bizarre like a rape, it will be virtually sufficient as a protective. For we have to understand what male homosexuality IS, in essence: a longing for that masculine affirmation.

    The Catechism should be cautious about these things. That doesn’t mean that I have to shut my eyes. The most flagrant gay student I ever had, had a perfectly horrendous childhood. His father shot himself when the kid was nine. Then his mother married a man whom the boy hated. The kid fantasized about Elijah Wood, in class … I do not believe that the syndrome in this kid’s case was coincidental.

  • MJ Anderson

    @DS and others. This is a difficult subject, tender, with the potential to cause hurt where none is intended. Dr. Esolen is correct to advise that where a young boy is having difficulty fitting in with other boys that Dad, ( or Uncle, older brother) keeps guiding him toward the healthy goal of integrated body and identIty. SSA begins with gender identity disorder as a child. It is a developmental misstep.

    Because of our politically correct environment one cannot freely discuss the reasons for SSA for two reasons. Some refuse the description as a disorder and insist it is a positive good equal to heterosexuality. To suggest there is a preventative methodology implies it should BE prevented. A large portion of the population will not tolerate this proposal, much less try to understand. The second reason is clear from comments and replies above– parents of SSA children are already suffering. No one wants to suggest the syndrome could have been avoided as it implies the parents did, or did not, do something, and are therefore to blame.

    These two hurdles make it nearly impossible to communicate solid information. Parents as a rule love their child and would never endanger him deliberately. That circumstances can set up a perfect storm and a family can be caught in it is an enormous cause of grief, but not always “blame” which implies intent or negligence, and is often not true at all.

    To keep it as brief as possible: the human genome project found no gay gene. This is good news, as it means that the cause may be a physical predisposition that meets an environmental trigger.
    ( exp. sensitive artistic boy teased by peers for not being rough and tumble)Or, more likely from the data, it is a developmental misstep that can usually be prevented if parents are alert and have the knowledge of developmental stages for gender. Between 2-3 a little boy needs to be constantly reaffirmed about his maleness.

    If gender confusion is present in a three-six year old boy it can almost always be redirected and overcome within a year’s time with competent psychological assistance for child and parents. The danger zone is puberty. If a boy who exhibits gender confusion reaches puberty and is victimized by a male, it is very difficult to overcome. This is one reason why a father wants to be very alert and present to insure the boy is not victimized. Many boys who later grow tall are still slight at 10-12 years, and that fragile appearance attracts predatory males.

    Western cultures have become so insistent on the acceptance of homosexuality that it makes it difficult if not impossible for a pediatrician or a psychologist to suggest help. And yet here is help. Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a Catholic psychiatrist has a good article that may be of interest: