We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
And know the place for the first time.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
From two longtime contributors to The Catholic Thing come books about recovery. Not, of course, about that fashionable process by which men and women overcome one or another kind of addiction, but about the more radical reclamation of what’s most important: our souls and our civics. Both are worth saving.
Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture is a jeremiad in the best possible sense of the term. It is “a lamenting and denunciatory complaint” about the secular Left’s assault on reality, but a protest imbued with the spirit of the great “Weeping Prophet” himself.
Tears need to be shed, and not just for the manifest sins into which official America has fallen, but for the sin underlying it all: false witness. Pride is, in order, the first among the sins, but, according Scripture (Proverbs 6), it is followed by “a lying tongue.” Satan is the Father of Lies, and to read Out of the Ashes is to see clearly the devil’s influence in modern life. I know of no other writer who can make his arguments with such fire and ice. Esolen burns with passion for the truth, even as he coolly presents his case against falsehood. (I fear that, had I been subjected to the things Tony has recently had to endure at Providence College, I’d be locked up in jail or the loony bin.)
As Professor Esolen writes: “The lie rushes in to fill up the void left by truth in retreat.” And the filler is an unholy trinity, a “three-poisoned god”: self, sex, and the state. There will be some people – well, there will likely be many – who’ll accuse Esolen of nostalgia in the first degree, of longing for a lost world of simplicity and goodness, that never will be again and probably never was. Ah, but he knows this and anticipates it and refutes it, as in his recitation of questions many young men in the 19th century could, as a matter of course, answer:
What is that bright red star in the night sky that does not keep the same place among the constellations? If you wanted to find Jupiter in the sky, where would you generally look? . . .What makes the days so short in winter? If you want to make bricks, where would you be likely to find a good clay pit?
I interviewed historian David McCullough once, and after he spoke about the abilities of the Founders, men able to build a nation and a house, he asked me: “Have you any of those skills?” I told him that when I asked my professor father to teach me about tools, he led me to the telephone and handed me the Yellow Pages.
That’s funny, no? No. We’re neither smart nor experienced simply because we know how to consult online references. We dabble; we sip. Esolen quotes Alexander Pope’s paradoxical couplet about a little learning being a dangerous thing: “For one short draught intoxicates the brain,/But drinking largely sobers us again.”
It takes a sober man to appreciate the importance of beauty, truly liberal education, manliness, chastity, play, and the hearth. The beguilements of a culture of lying are both cultural and personal, making it essential to recover a sense that we are a pilgrim people, and to never forget the great prophet’s warning: “But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.” (JER 7:8)
The interwoven essays (several of which first appeared here at TCT) in Father Schall’s A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven are meditations on the manifold ways we fall short and on the love that lifts us up.
Some people – well, there are many – object to the idea of sin, because it seems to them to suggest a malevolent deity, a creator who brings us into temporal existence only, in some cases, to condemn us to eternal suffering. But as Father Schall writes:
The alternative to a sinful world, yet one within which we are to decide what we are to be, is probably not a sinless world. It is no world at all.
We are in a time now in which many acts formerly considered sinful have been gussied up as rights. You don’t need absolution for exercising your rights. In one of the many memorable aphorisms that flow from the Catholic mind of Schall: “The alternative to a world in which forgiveness is possible is, as we are rapidly learning, one in which it isn’t.”
We’re in Narnia before the return of Aslan: it’s always winter but never Christmas.
Reading Schall is an education. A Line Through the Human Heart connects such diverse minds as Aristotle and Voegelin, Leon Kass and Benedict XVI, Aquinas and Nietzsche. This last source may seem incongruous; he’s not. In Nietzsche is the wellspring of modernist discontent: Christianity has failed to make us good, so let’s move beyond good and evil. What Nietzsche – and his followers – failed to grasp is the redemption Christ brings.
The result of this failure is people behaving on earth as though they are in hell. Schall:
This is why we are the most interesting figures in the cosmos. We are the beings in the universe that can reject what we are.
There are twenty-five chapters in this wonderful book. I’d suggest reading one chapter each night over two-dozen-plus-one days, which will enrich your mind and feed your dreams.
Father Schall ends with an Appendix: “Fifteen Lies at the Basis of Our Culture,” which dovetails with Professor Esolen’s discussion in Out of the Ashes. I haven’t done justice here to either book, but trust me: you need to read both.