Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
© 2017 Anthony Esolen
Some things, like a Roman bridge, can last for millennia through the virtue of their design, the simplicity of their use, and the inherent strength of their materials. Other things, like the Golden Gate Bridge, or a house, require more steady attention. It isn’t that they’re built in an inferior fashion, but they are far more complicated and ambitious. A culture is a thing that requires attention; it must be renewed generation to generation. In Out of the Ashes, Anthony Esolen calls attention of Americans to the fact that western culture is past need for attention: it has sat too long exposed to the elements without refreshing layers of paint, the termites and mice of base creation have withered away its walls and support posts, and the foundation has sunk and cracked. What is needed is rebuilding and restoration. No one can do everything, but everyone must do something, and here Esolen offers hearty arguments for resurrecting education, play, a society based on marriage, family, and the home, politics reoriented towards the local, and the veneration of beauty and virtue. In short, he bids us deny the unholy trinity of Self, Sex, and the State, and to become participants in our own lives once more.
In interviews and lectures Esolen maintains that what we must realize about American culture is that there isn’t a culture there at all, merely memories and leftover habits. It is as we are walking through a dry creekbed; the impression of the creek is still there upon the land, even as the water itself is a far-distant trickle. The role of culture in Esolen’s sense isn’t the mere transmission of music and games from generation to generation, with improvisation and growth along the way. Instead, culture is more broadly applied to civil institutions supporting a common appreciation of man and the cosmos, supporting human life — the cultivation of man as it were, the garden in which we are watered, thrive, and create anew the next generation. Society formerly relied on the subtle, consistent, and constant pressure of civil society — of places like the home, the church, and the school. These were all institutions which people not only participated in, they were in complete control of them. These institutions not only shared a common architectural language, in that schoolhouses, homes, and village churches might look like, but they shared a common mission in promoting human welfare. That mission was also shared by social organization (the organization of dances to allow young people to meet one another, for instance) and ordinary habit, like allowing children to run outside and play unattended. In 2001, Robert Putnam decried the decline of civil institutions — churches, civic groups, bowling clubs, local political moments — and attempted to figure out what caused their decline. Now the fall is complete: state schools are such failures that colleges must teach remedial English (prior to their English Literature courses on Twilight and Fifty Shades, Dickens and Stoker having been dumped); young adults raised in the hookup miasma have no socialization in creating a bonafide soul-speaks-to-soul relationship, and every romantic encounter must be carefully navigated lest someone be sued because the old culture what ensured everyone knew what was appropriate and what was not is lost.
There is no use complaining; we can only rebuild, and the place to start is the family. Esolen emphatically rejects the modern primacy of the individual, maintaining the family is the foundation of every human society. The home and family are where children are created, nurtured, and taught to become authentic members of their society, their polis. Speaking of the polis, it too needs awakening: the State has taken away every prerogative of local communities, leaving them a few pittances like garbage pickup. This is wrong in that it takes away from people the ability to be effective citizens of their community. Citizenship in the national government means nothing; the individual is grist in the mill. Yet there is little point in running for something like the school board nowadays, because the decisions have already been decided by far-distant strangers who know better than people what and how to teach their children. Esolen thus encourages people to create alternative institutions, to homeschool their children and work together to create private colleges in response to the past-pathetic state of university education today, a place that provides safe spaces and coloring books to its wards instead of teaching them to grapple, body and soul, with adversity and ignorance. Yet helping to participate in the restoration of society isn’t as formidable as creating new and virile sources of education like St. John’s and Christendom College; it can be as simple as learning to appreciate the poetic beauty of traditional hymns, so much more potent than the happy-clappy praisesongs favored by megachurches — or leaving the television behind to use one’s leisure time to build something with their hands. Fight ugliness with beauty, lies with truth, decay with work. Participation is the thing — walking one’s neighborhood and picking up litter is more effective than parading about D.C. dressed up as a vagina.
Esolen’s concerns are not necessarily exclusive to Christians; the Swedish eudaimonic philosopher Alain de Botton, for instance, has written extensively on the role of art, literature, and architecture in human flourishing, seeing them as important as philosophy in allowing human beings to grow to fulness. Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman are both emphatic voices for subsidiarity, but rarely refer to religion. Robert Putnam also delivered the essential book on civil culture’s decline in his Bowling Alone, which was not religious in the least. Nevertheless, Esolen is indisputably writing primarily to Christians, because the west’s civil culture has been Christian, and he is inspired and rooted by the Catholic social doctrine, referring to papal encyclical at times. At the end Esolen doubles down that he is writing a defense of Christian civilization. As he urges readers to devote themselves once more to truth and beauty amid the constant babble-babble of lies coming from politicians, the news, and , the amazon of banality that is social media, he bids them to realize that truth remains treason in the empire of lies, and that ultimately, we pursue the good and true because it is Good, not to create a heaven on Earth. That can never be, for all Christians are ultimately pilgrims on a journey to another world.
Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam