Speak Truth to Power?

“But what, Quintus Propertius, sir,” says the old bearded fellow, wringing his hands as he tugs at the reins of the centurion’s horse, “do you have to offer us, the defeated peoples of Iberia? Let us reason this out, we and you, together. Is it right by the gods that you should impose your laws upon us at the point of a sword? What have we done to you to warrant it?”

“You have lost,” says the centurion. “I’m a soldier, not a philosopher. You’re an old man, not a soldier. And if you don’t let go of those reins, you will cease to be an old man, too.”

Because of recent events at the school where I teach, Providence College, I have come to see that the winning side of the so-called culture wars has no interest in rational or equable conversation about the neuralgic issues of our time. I use the word interest advisedly. They have nothing to gain by it.

We can ask, till we are exhausted from asking, what they mean by “marriage,” if the thing is not rooted in the fundamental biology of the human race, and exactly what justifies any boundaries at all wherewith they suppose they can limit the definition. If man and man, why not man and woman and woman?

Why not plan for and even intend impermanence? Why not plan for and intend what used to be called adultery? Why not two elderly brothers who live together and do not engage in sodomy?

It won’t matter. The aim was never rational coherence, or even a concern for the common good. The aim was power: to get what they wanted, to keep it, and to crush those who would question their right to it.

So they have the power now, power gained not by argument, whereof there has been very little, but by a combination of political force, mass media sentimentalism, public lassitude, and an anti-culture of licentiousness and the neglect of children.

Why bother to argue? The centurion on his horse does not argue. He brandishes the sword. We can ask, till we are exhausted from asking, what they mean by “culture” when they use the term “multicultural.”

I’m a passionate defender of cultures – their folkways, their worship, their languages, their venerable traditions, their art, their song, and the essential goodness of their very existence. My nightmare is of a homogeneous post-Christian west, spread like a fungus over the globe, reducing all cultures to the same-old secular weariness, world without end.

Manuscript illustration, Beatus of Liébana’s 8th-century Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 1100 [British Library, London]
Manuscript illustration, Beatus of Liébana’s 8th-century Commentary on the Apocalypse, c. 1100 [British Library, London]

Universal Seattle appalls me. When I hear that western governments and philanthropic societies use food itself to bribe the poorer nations of Africa into accepting a western secular ethic, my chest swells with indignation. When I hear that only one out of six Welshmen can speak yr heniaith, the old tongue, and that Welsh is the healthiest of the Celtic languages at that, I shake my head with disappointment.

I do not want “first nation” tribes in Canada to govern themselves so as to win the approval of the radically secular and feminist New Democratic Party. I want them to be their own nation first.

I can want these things, and I can teach my students about cultures Babylonian, Hebrew, Greek, Roman, early Christian, Germanic, medieval European (different in Italy from what it was in England), Renaissance (different in Spain from what it was in Germany), and so on, learning original languages so that I can teach them all the better, and somehow none of it matters, neither the obvious and dizzying multi nor the cultures.

I can point to all these things, and it’s like trying to reason with the centurion. It doesn’t matter now, because it never did matter. What matters now is what mattered before: political victory.

Show that the child in the womb feels pain? Big deal. Show that fatherless boys are vulnerable to all kinds of bad things, including prison? And what gave you the strange idea that boys count for anything? Show the glories of English literature, to which you are eager to introduce all students without exception? Yawn; what’s the political use of it?

Say that for the sake of the rest of the world a Catholic college ought to be obviously Catholic, to be different from other places, to offer young people a real diversity among colleges to choose from, and for your vision of a breadth of educational options you will be called narrow and backwards.

Play the fool, and assume that at a college all human things are up for rational discussion, and you had better not have a mortgage hanging over your head. You will soon learn that professors value “academic freedom” as much as, and in the same way as, centurions value the horse. It is for getting them where they want to go, and for trampling their enemies.

Such professors are by nature no better and no worse than anyone else. It’s just that they have, whether they acknowledge it or not, exchanged the God of heaven for a god of prestige and power. Politics is the god.

Nor does it matter what kind of politics it is. I’ve seen a similar dynamic play out at a conservative college. As long as you possess the “right” politics, you are like the pagan who has secured divine favor by the “right” sacrificial rituals.

You may then do as you please. You may, for example, go out of your way to ruin reputations and careers and turn families upside down; all justified, all for the good of the “cause.”

Are there virtuous secularists with a high sense of honor who will stand up for your liberty? Yes, certainly. I number one among my friends. In my experience they are rare, like saints. Sift every college in the country right now and you may find enough to make up a small platoon.

Be advised.

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.

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