Out of the Ashes
by Anthony Esolen.
Regnery Publishing, 2017.
Hardcover, 203 pages, $18.
The year was 1974, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was well into his decades-long exile from Mother Russia after having been subjected to the Gulag for possessing the audacity to criticize the Soviet war effort against the Axis. The Soviet Union at this time was itself entering the terminal stages of its ruinous liaison with Communism. In his exile, Solzhenitsyn experienced far greater freedom than did his fellow dissidents still imprisoned under the ever-watchful eye that wielded hammer and sickle. To dissent requires courage, and it was with courage that Solzhenitsyn and some of his fellow dissenters wrote a much-overlooked volume entitled From Under the Rubble. Their aim was simple: to discuss how Russia may regain its surrendered soul following the inevitable fall of the calamity communism.
As one might expect from Solzhenitsyn, this volume bears a striking relevance to the present state of Western affairs, and it is in this same spirit that Professor Anthony Esolen’s offers his latest, Out of the Ashes. Where once the West was the light in the window of the castle on the hill, that candle has since been knocked into the drapes; the castle is now aflame. Quoting Livy and echoingSt. Augustine, Esolen points out that Western society, and particularly American society, is in the process of decay, and that this decay is entirely of our own choosing. “We need to clear out the garbage,” he writes, “admit our errors, and rebuild. That requires humility, patience, and determination. But nothing else will do. When your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent” (emphasis mine).
Esolen’s work shines a light on a critical point, namely, his contention that the West has forsaken itself, has forsaken its own traditions and its history, choosing instead to write anew what the West is and what it stands for. As it turns out, what it stands for is as impossible to define as the color of the wind or the scent of the number seven. The West, according to Esolen, has progressed itself into irrelevance, all in the name of tolerance and inclusion, and under the banner of modernity. Whether in adherence to truths once held or beauty once perceived; whether it is in the purpose of education or the nature of work, Esolen suggests that all that once was has been turned on its head, that God and all that directs us to him has been replaced. To wit, Esolen writes, “We have no choice now but to live in a world whose governments and most successful businesses are mills for the mass production of deceit.” In a culture built on lies, all within must be a lie. Only with moral restoration will social restoration follow.
Beginning with a chapter titled “Giving Things Their Proper Name: The Restoration of Truth-Telling,” he alludes to Chesterton, pointing out that it is not the problem of modern man that he believes in nothing, but rather that he believes in anything; and that this gullibility creates an environment rife for lies, as there is no popular belief in objective truth. This credulousness takes many forms, from the rise of “fake news” to Internet hoaxes to the return of paganism. One may presume that a chapter on truth to open a book about social reform must imply that any hoped-for reformation must germinate from the seedling of truth, without which there can be no true or healthy civilization. Alluding to lies, then, are the proclamations of relativism, but in a relative society, what is a lie? “Does man any longer have a sense of honor?” asks Esolen. How can there be honor without a foundation of truth upon which to rest? Honor makes sense only when a civilization has a common set of standards about how one ought to behave. The West now has in many respects adopted anti-standards; instead of dictating our own conduct for a common good, such anti-standards require others to bow to individual narcissism.
A practicing Catholic, Esolen is an evangelist of what T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk would refer to as the Permanent Things—that which is good, beautiful, and true. As such, Esolen turns his attention early and often to the restoration of beauty. His main thrust is simple: how can societies as wealthy as those in the West claim an inability to afford to make beautiful things? It is a choice, because we no longer value or even believe in beauty, preferring instead the drab. Our music all sounds alike, our art is no more transcendent than a mirror, our architecture is Soviet Bloc Chic but with more glass, and our natural spaces simply are not.
Western civilization no longer values truth or beauty, so it should be no surprise that the light has gone out. In the main Western philosophical tradition, truth, beauty, and goodness have generally been considered to be one. Why is that? For truth to be good, it must be universally true, which is to say that it must transcend the muddling ways of the world. Its transcendence is what makes its good, and its goodness makes it beautiful, because it is eternal. The same circular logic applies to beauty and goodness as well. All three taken together offer us in our mortal flesh glimpse of the eternal and unchanging other. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:
“For they are not the thing itself [eternity]; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not yet visited.”
Esolen argues eloquently for the things that one would expect from a principled Catholic intellectual, but this is not an intellectual treatise. Esolen, a great lover of poetry and literature, makes no qualms about his intellectual gifts, but he does not browbeat to prove his mettle. Rather, he argues emotionally, and nowhere more evidently than in his chapters about education. Eschewing the dry policy issues of school choice or tuition costs, he instead uses Anne Shirley, of the Anne of Green Gables stories. Her bucolic world and bookish love of education provide the contrast for the tangled confusion that passes of the modern system. A particularly engaging passage envisions Anne Shirley, now grown and a teacher herself, speaking to a state official about how to discuss gender issues with her school children, and having no choice but to submit to the will of the state.
Esolen writes with conviction about the value of education, but he never mentions more than in passing the idea that a good education may lead to a lucrative career or worldly power. Esolen makes it clear that he believes in the true and good value of education—that it is intended to shape us as members of the human race and, more specifically, as distinct members therein. Education is intended to instruct us not on where we must go, but rather from where we have come. His recent travails at his own Catholic institution make his arguments here all the more poignant.
Out of the Ashes is a work of heartfelt counter-culturalism, as it espouses the eternal truths and teachings of the church in a time when such notions are held by the elites as superstition and ridiculed in popular culture. It draws a new dividing line—no longer between progressives and conservatives, but between traditionalists and modernists. The book highlights that no longer is the culture divided between the political left and right, but between those who cling to goodness, beauty, and truth, and those who seek to destroy them.
Esolen offers a most bucolically appealing vision of what could be, taken from the muck and the mire of what is. Rather than wallowing in the despair of the age, he instead offers a vision of hope. Furthermore, he offers this vision, perhaps less by intention than by providence, in a time when a literature of post-dystopian hope is flourishing. This volume of his would serve as a fine complement to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Professor Deneen’s Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents, and Archbishop Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land, all of which consider different aspects of the same problem—what has become of our Western civilization, and how we might preserve that which is good from the ravages of institutionalized heresy.
The value of this collection of casual but serious essays might not be found as much in their practicality as in their ever-present hopefulness. Pragmatists may not enjoy this book, but then, pragmatists are one reason that books such as this are necessary. For those who relate to the sentimental label laudator temporis acti, read this book and enjoy.
Jeremy Kee is a counselor, writer, and editor in Dallas, Texas, and is the founder of Further-In.com.