From Anthony Esolen’s “Culture? What Culture”, a speech I heard on Youtube and began to transcribe until I did a google search and realized he’s already posted the full text of it. The speech is rather long and begins by revisiting an obscure English play. I’m a great fan of Esolen’s oratory, though mere text does not convey his voice.
We have just endured the great quadrennial national exam. Neither one of the major candidates referred to the wisdom of the Constitution. Neither one reminded us of what our revered statesmen once said and did. The so-called conservative did not broach the shrewd pessimism of John Adams; the leftist did not turn one page of the pamphlets of Tom Paine. Just as we have lost a sense of the holy, so have we lost our national and cultural memories, for without reverence the past is but a burden of irrelevant particularities, which historians may study if they so choose, but which most of us will cheerfully ignore. And that amnesia is one of the conditions of enslavement. For just as our apparent freedom from worship helps to enslave us to the State and its tentacles in mass entertainment, mass education, and mass technology—since there will be no Sunday against which to judge the everlasting Mondays of modern life—so our apparent freedom from memory only enslaves us to manipulation by what I call the Anticulture, the infantile fads we take in helplessly from our keepers in the media and the schools. A man worshiping God on a Sunday with his brothers in a tumbledown chapel is free, receiving the gift of the world, and giving praise freely in return. A man commemorating the birthday of Stonewall Jackson is free, receiving his heritage in gratitude, and passing it along in turn as a gift to his children.
But when I am in an airport, that most harried image of the eternal tarmac of Hell, crowded without community, noisy without celebration, technologically sophisticated without beauty, and see people engaged in loud conversations not with one another but with a business partner in Chicago or a spouse and children far away, I see not freedom but confinement. And above them all, as if to remind us of our unhappy state, blare the everlasting televisions, telling us What Has Just Happened and What it Means, and preventing us from ever experiencing a moment not of loneliness but of solitude, not of idleness but of peace. It too is a tool of the Anticulture. For culture by its nature is conservative. It remembers, it reveres, it gives thanks, and it cherishes. A farmer tilling the land his father tilled, whistling an air from of old, in the shadow of the church where his people heard the word of God and let it take root in their hearts—that is a man of culture. He might live only fifty years, but he lives them in an expanse of centuries; indeed, under the eye of eternity. How thin and paltry our four score and ten seem by comparison! For we are imprisoned in irreverence. Our preachers are neither the birds nor the old pastor peering over Holy Writ, but the nagging, needling, desire-pricking, noisome voice of the mass educator, or of the headline, or of the television, which could never have won our attention without encouraging in us amnesia, indifference, petulance, and scorn, all destroyers of culture.