Book Review: Anthony Esolen's Out of the Ashes
By Brian Phillips
From the 2017 Summer Issue
"In this book I shall indulge myself in one of civilized man’s most cherished privileges. I shall decry the decay of civilization.” So begins Anthony Esolen’s newest work, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.
Through works like Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child; Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child; and Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Anthony Esolen has become a well-known cultural critic. But in Out of the Ashes, he offers perhaps his most far-reaching assessment of the state of American life. And, to the surprise of no one who is paying attention, it is not pretty.
Near the end of his introduction, Esolen writes,
“If your uncle gives you a magnificent Rolls-Royce, and a year later he wants to see how you have done with it, and you show him a tangled mess of metal and rubber, caused not by a freak accident but by your own habitual misuse, he will naturally conclude that you are incompetent to own a Rolls-Royce. We were given a republic that guaranteed a wide berth for liberty and for local oversight of local matters, with the central government reserved only for matters that were truly national. We now have what every single one of the founders, federalists and anti-federalists both, would have considered tyrannical. It is a tangled mess . . . When your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent. It is time to get to work, and that is what this book is about.”
While Esolen pulls no punches when assessing the dire condition of American culture, *Out of the Ashes* focuses on the work of rebuilding; he does more than point out problems. And, while the above quote addresses the condition of the American republic, Esolen covers far more than political or governmental matters: he argues for the restoration of truth-telling and beauty, and contemplates the future of our schools and colleges, what manhood and womanhood mean in 2017, how we think about work and play, and more.
Out of the Ashes arrives (January 2017) at around the same time as several other works of Christian social commentary. 2016-2017 has seen the arrival of Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land, R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and in the near future, James K.A. Smith’s Awaiting the King. Each of these works, in some way, addresses how Christians ought to respond to the direction of American culture, how we should live in “post-Christian” America.
Yet, Out of the Ashes speaks with a unique voice—an extremely blunt, unique voice. When writing of the need to restore American schools, for example, Esolen observes: “There are only two things wrong with our schools: everything that our children don’t learn there and everything they do. The public schools, with their vast political and bureaucratic machinery, are beyond reform. That does not mean that persons of good will should not offer themselves up as missionaries of truth and goodness and beauty, to teach there, as in partibus furibundis. But we would be quite mad to send our children there. We send missionaries to cannibals. We do not serve cannibals our boys and girls.” What many educators have thought, Esolen says.
Addressing how today’s graphic school sex education programs might be received by past generations, Esolen writes: “It is not that they would disagree with you. It is not that they would have an alternative opinion about behavior that makes old-fashioned sodomy look like a peck on the cheek. It is that they would think that you had lost your mind. They would believe that you were suffering a terrifying moral and psychological illness, nigh unto demonic possession, or perhaps well past it. Would they let you speak to their children? They would not want you to speak to their parents or friends or anybody, not because they would be afraid that you might persuade or entice one of them, but merely to spare their loved ones the experience of something so gross, so wicked, so repulsive, so sad. They themselves, in future years, would let the memory of it drop into the darkness and the silence. You do not make scrapbooks of slime.”
And he writes with similar candor in each chapter. Critics who decried Rod Dreher’s “acerbic tone” in The Benedict Option would likely never recover from reading Out of the Ashes. Yet, it would be a mistake to number Esolen among those who simply delight in declaring the end of the world or blasting his ideological enemies. He is no more insensitive than a parent who yells for his child to step back from a poisonous snake.
Esolen plainly diagnoses the diseases afflicting American culture, while also offering concrete remedies for them—or at least places to start. Lamenting our lost sense of beauty in chapter two, he proclaims that it is “time to rip out the plywood”—literally and metaphorically. Stop covering hardwood floors, return to singing the great hymns of the faith, invest in building and restoring beautiful churches. Our schools, Esolen writes, must return to the study of grammar, for “all human sciences are grammatical in structure.”
I fear Out of the Ashes cannot and will not be read by those who most need it. While it may serve as a cathartic read for those who already agree with Esolen, part of our cultural disease is the inability to talk and think among those with whom we disagree, a deadly problem he addresses, particularly in the context of higher education: “If a professor must negotiate an emotional and verbal and political mine field before he opens his mouth, then he is no professor any longer. He is a servile functionary, no matter his title and no matter how well he is paid. He instructs his students not in freedom but in his own servility.”
Yet, such a statement serves as an interesting case study. The above claim that freedom of speech and thought are at risk in American colleges is likely to be received with demands for gender-neutral pronouns in Esolen’s claim (“What do you mean, ‘his?’”). In this, I merely echo Livy, who when writing of Rome in his day, referred to “the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.”
But, Out of the Ashes was written as a call to restoration, not simply as a description of the ash heap. It is an honest and blunt appraisal of our sicknesses, with a call to labor in hope that we may rise from the ashes.