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Not Fully Human: Anthony Esolen’s compelling verdict on personal formation today

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 27, 2015

The modern notion of freedom is a kind of slavery. Over the years, I’ve tried to make this point by explaining that we are free only when we have the power to direct ourselves toward the good. Insofar as we fall into evil or sin, it is because we are enslaved by vice.

To take but one example, consider the libertine (a name which immediately correlates liberty with vice). The libertine claims his very profligacy demonstrates his freedom from convention. But let him try to do without any one of his capricious indulgences for, say, thirty days, or even a week. He will be unable to do so. Like the drug addict, he is really in chains.

This is something that struck me the first time I read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans as an adult (see especially Rom 6:16-23). In 2009, I tried to capture it spiritually on CatholicCulture.org in the installment on freedom in the “Why Be Catholic?” series. The following year, I briefly applied the concept socially in Enslaved by the Dictatorship of Relativism. But human freedom in Christ is a great mystery. These were just two of many attempts to grasp it.

Sadly the West, which once cherished a keen Christian sense of freedom as rooted in virtue (and therefore in grace), has deteriorated to the point that the dominant culture now defines freedom as the breaking of the constraints that virtue places upon human behavior. Thus we have entered an age which is most obviously characterized by a kind of continual blasphemy: Calling what is good evil and what is evil good, the modern world manifests a hideous malformation of freedom which is nothing less than a comprehensive assault on being itself.

Trained for Slavery

One wonders how much of this is politically calculated. A great deal has been written in recent years about the growing divide between the upper classes and everybody else. It turns out that the upper classes, despite their nominal hedonism, tend to build social capital through stable families, devoted care of children, persistent education, and behaviors governed by significant social conventions. I do not wish to make too much of this morally or spiritually, but it contrasts markedly with the lower classes, who tend to live out all the “freedoms” that our cultural elites claim to support but very frequently do not exemplify.

The result is that the lower classes have largely abandoned the familial, educational, and social patterns which tend toward a stable prosperity. I would not be the first to argue (should I choose to argue it) that, through a combination of the influences of government and the chattering classes, the poor are more or less deliberately shaped and molded into a permanently dependent class.

However, the degree to which this is true (for example, in compulsory public education, ever-growing morally invasive regulations, and public assistance programs) is not my primary concern here. What seems clear is that through our normal cultural patterns we have all gradually forgotten what it means to be free, and we also increasingly raise children who do not know how to be free. We are instead consistently subservient to fashionable conventions which ruthlessly govern both what we are allowed to think and what we are allowed to do, if we wish to be considered successful members of society. How much more our children!

Anthony Esolen has written a penetrating new book about this pattern. He calls it Life under Compulsion. It will be available in May, from ISI Books.

Destroying Humanity

A few years ago, Esolen wrote a similar book entitled Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. I reviewed it in 2011 (see Our Lost World: Anthony Esolen on Killing the Imagination). It is an excellent guide for parents on the many ways our modern conventions of parenting tend to stifle the imagination. These include, among others, keeping children indoors, never leaving them to themselves, replacing fairy tales with fads, belittling the heroic and the patriotic, reducing love to sex, leveling the distinctions between man and woman, and denying the transcendent.

Esolen’s latest book, which is subtitled “Ten ways to destroy the humanity of your child”, takes the same form. However, it cannot serve so easily as a guide for parents. It is a more far-reaching indictment of our entire culture, a culture which so shapes all of our lives that it becomes difficult to escape its baleful influence. Life under Compulsion is an extended statement not so much of the silly notions we have about raising children as of what we are all up against at every moment of our lives.

In ten chapters, Esolen explores the following: Our utilitarian education which, in the name of teaching critical thinking, actually roots the mind in vain opinions which seem obvious only because they are fleetingly fashionable; the contempt of humanity at the root of our conceptions of worth; the stress on defining ourselves through work; the refusal to think deeply; the celebration of lust over love; the emphasis on tolerance without the notions of guilt or forgiveness; our blind insistence on the inevitability of history as a justification for what we call progress; the contemporary flight from the family; the constant modern encouragement to be part of the in-group (the mob); and our culture’s dramatic fear of both self-reflection and contemplation.

Beautifully and Evocatively Written

Anthony Esolen is an English professor at Providence College. He has a deep familiarity with the great classics of the Western tradition. This, coupled with an excellent memory and a vivid imagination, enables him to write on such serious topics without falling into endless abstraction. He draws constantly on characters and situations which have been brought to life in great literature—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Solzhenitsyn and many more—so that we can actually see and even experience the problems he describes, feeling them in our bones even as our minds begin to grasp the compelling outline of his argument.

Esolen’s prose is effortlessly concrete. This makes for a rich experience. To take but one example from his chapter on “Lusts, Not Love”, Esolen rightly notes that our schools provide no refuge from our culture’s incessant promotion of our lusts. “They are,” rather, “the insanatoria where the law of the itch is taught. They lace their textbooks with the oil of poison ivy.” Our children are advised to protect themselves from certain diseases “because they must yield to the disease they have already caught. There are human choices only around the edges of the rash—how to scratch, not whether.”

He continues:

[By the time a teacher who truly cares might happen on the scene,] the children have been itching and scratching for years. They skitter from video game to video game. They don’t read. If they do, it’s puerile websites or sniggering celebrity magazines, or “novels” whose dialogues range from the grunt to the sneer. These young people are precociously senescent. They cannot be moved by the feelings of Mr. Knightley for Emma. They need scratching. And unwise or prurient teachers oblige. Hence the choice for “controversial” or “relevant” works to spur real “discussion,” because only a text seasoned with obscenities and profanities, or cruelty, or perversion, will do. That is called being on the “cutting edge”: the scratching edge. [p. 119]

Recommendation

Once again, this book is not just about what is happening to our children. On reading it, to modify the words of Christ, parents may well weep not so much for their children as for themselves. In fact, Life under Compulsion is for anyone who wants to understand how thoroughly our contemporary culture has weakened and warped our fundamental humanity. This is at once a deeply entertaining and a seriously impressive book. Dare to approach it with an open mind, and you will not put it down unchanged.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 30, 2015 7:19 PM ET USA

    Your excerpted quotation describes precisely the situation that I and my colleagues have been facing in the university classroom for at least the last 15 years. Three days ago a student explained to me that many of the students try to keep up, but their vocabulary is so deficient that they lose their train of thought when the professor uses a single word they don't understand, such as the word "percent." After a sprinkling of half a dozen such words, they give up for the remainder of the period.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Apr. 27, 2015 11:31 PM ET USA

    I'm afraid that reading such a book would push me to the brink of despair.