Edward Gibbon’s 1776 work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, remains the standard for literary works intimating civilizational collapse. Gibbon’s thesis: It was not enemies from without that sacked the Roman Empire, but rot from within that ultimately caused the demise of the greatest empire the world has ever known. From time to time books are written echoing Gibbon’s tone as the inexorable tendency remains to equate the downfall of a nation with certain observable events.
Anthony Esolen’s book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture is such a work – with a twist. He does not simply propound evidence showing “sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die,” but he offers ways to arrest the decline and rebuild the ruins. For Esolen, the signs are clear. The “erasure and oblivion” of history combines with a loss of civic virtue rendering modernity’s onslaught a victory over tradition and memory. Believing most people to be “incompetent in the ordinary things of life,” he presents the past as a more stable and substantive way of life than the technological and atomized present.
This can be dangerous, as he freely admits, but the risk of nostalgia is outweighed by exposing the “cant” of modern language. The corruption of language (to echo George Orwell) is the clearest indication that tyranny is close at hand. He believes one must be “educated into cant” because nature does not confer the “kind of stupidity” so prevalent in what Malcolm Muggeridge called “the great fraud and mumbo-jumbo of the age.”
An All-Eating Government
To state Esolen is convinced the largesse of modern government is corrupt would be to understate his disdain for “a government that has taken an all-eating life of its own.” Attempts to persuade others of the evils of government bureaucracy come by way of his opening “an artery every year for government at all levels.” Believing it to be “incompetent, destructive of ordinary social relations, tyrannical, redundant, parasitical, and perverse,” he would not exactly laud Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s statement in the 1927 dissent of Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” For Esolen, modern society is anything but civilized:
We spend far more money on social welfare, in real dollars and as a percentage of federal outlays, than Roosevelt did, and what do we have to show for it? Forty percent of children born out of wedlock, whole generations of broken and never quite-formed families, men checking out of productive work, and immense bloodsucking bureaucracies that perpetuate the pathologies they are supposed to cure.
These are the words of a man convinced modern culture is awash in lies. So pervasive and persuasive are modern lies that “it is almost impossible in the modern world not to accept lies as a matter of course.” As a Roman Catholic, the essence of what he believes “is contained in the Nicene Creed.” Truth for him, therefore, is grounded theologically, not politically. Although Aristotle famously said man is zoon politikon (a political animal), Esolen’s political theory would not incorporate the idea of the polis eclipsing the local and personal aspects of life where those who rule are known by those who are ruled.
The book is sectionalized to cover five thematic rubrics with an arc bending toward the restoration of a distinctly Christian worldview in order to rebuild American culture. For Esolen believes “the great questions of human existence are and always will be religious.”
Waiting to clearly define “culture” deep into the book in the chapter on K-12 education as “a cultivation of the things that a people considers most sacred,” religion is the indispensable factor in his moral calculus. Esolen understands “the health of a society” to be gauged “by how full the churches are.” If he is correct, then American society is quite ill.
As an example of just how corrosive American society has become, he believes knowledge and skill in English has plummeted to such a low level that “there is no beauty to grammar” because the intellectual capacity of modern students to “think grammatically” has been reduced to “an unorganized heap of apparently arbitrary rules.”
Ever the English professor, he builds the case for an “architectonic” understanding of grammar whereby language both builds concepts and connects ideas across academic disciplines. The better a student understands and uses grammar, the better she will find the “grammar” of geography and biology – subjects quite different and seemingly unrelated – more easily understood as “observable and rational” categories capable of being integrated into a holistic curriculum.
Why? Because the better students can recognize, analyze, and mobilize words, the better they will understand that “all human sciences are grammatical in structure.” Thus, investigation of “grammatical keys” opens doors of thought that stir curiosity and propel a lifelong quest of discovery and learning.
Treating Children Like Machines
Esolen laments the loss of schools that once looked like town halls. Once delivered in simple one-room schoolhouses with architectural beauty underscoring a personal connection to a particular land, community, and country, the local school has been replaced by “the world’s most brutal architecture” where children are taught as if they were machines.
The schools we have built in the last sixty or seventy years do not resemble town halls. If they resemble anything governmental, it is the bureau, the office building, where human business goes to be swallowed up, as Charlie Chaplin’s little factory worker in Modern Times is swallowed up in the gigantic gears of the mill or as the girl dancer in Return of the Jedi, after pleasing His Immensity is swallowed up by Jabba the Hutt.
He is no kinder to higher education. He believes the modern university has become a “secular polytechnicum.” College is now a place where no common bond of academic unity is forged because any semblance of unity in diversity is gone as people are “severed from one another and from the past.” The result is a sprawling development burdened with a “stifling and immensely expensive bureaucracy” with no true heart for learning or moral order.
This book seems to be Esolen’s parting word to a world he is determined to exit. He cannot abide a government where one of the most passionate moments of a major political party’s 2016 national convention was “when a woman stood before them and boasted that she had snuffed out the life of her child in the womb.” Neither can he stomach a more efficient Leviathan where the founding vision of federalism in America is now all but a centralized government monstrosity where the likes of a “national committee to send official Diaper Changers to every home with a little baby in it” is the norm. Reform of existing structures, however, is not possible.
Questions of Legitimacy
What to do? Esolen recommends a renewed investigation into subsidiarity where “social concerns should be left to the smallest group that can reasonably deal with them, the group that is nearest to the concerns in question.” This comes at his behest for others to be convinced “that the central government’s arrogation of power is illegitimate.” This is not to say he is advocating illegal action or needless civil disobedience. Rather, he suggests full compliance to the law, but not full obedience. That is to say, not to take illegitimate edicts into the mind and heart as if they possessed “legitimate authority.”
Leveraging what remains of liberty under law should be the practice of all who desire a localism to take root absent the encroachments of government regulations and bureaucratic protocols. His ultimate aim is a return to a local and personal focus of society that would eviscerate the power of state-sanctioned intrusions into the most intimate areas of life. His is a quiet revolution – a return to a simpler time when the so-called progress of the technocratic age did not stifle creativity and regulate life’s closest relationships.
At bottom, Esolen’s vision is closely bound with nostalgia – a very dangerous and forbidden place to linger for very long. Holy Scripture warns in Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Modern life is just that – modern. While many of the realities Esolen reveals are as dastardly as he describes, the challenge remains to balance the prescription of an escape toward home with an engagement in the public square where policies that once were written by men can be changed by men in restoration of what has been lost.