Jon Elsby

Cultural jeremiads by American conservatives have become so numerous of late that they practically constitute a separate genre of literature. Many, although not all, of these conservatives are Catholics. Some are philosophers, some are theologians, and others have a background in the humanities. I have written in the past about many of them whose work I have read: Charles Chaput, Bill Donohue, Rod Dreher, Anthony Esolen, Robert P. George, Scott Hahn, Deal Hudson, Peter Kreeft, Daniel J. Mahoney, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Royal, James V. Schall, George Weigel, Benjamin Wiker, and Thomas E. Woods Jr, for example. The latest work in this burgeoning category to have come my way is Anthony Esolen’s Nostalgia (2018).

Professor Esolen is no stranger to the culture wars. His previous book – Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (2017) – made many of the same points he makes in Nostalgia: the loss of cultural memory, the decline of humanistic education, the anti-religious bias in schools, the proliferation of undemanding non-subjects in the academic curriculum, the inability of most modern men and women to read and understand complex texts or think clearly, the deracinated nature of postmodern culture, the widespread ignorance of history (especially intellectual history), the mean-spirited identitarian politics and grievance-nurturing circular arguments of liberal multi-culturalists, and so on. Professor Esolen’s arguments are not without merit. But he argues with passion, which makes it easy for those who like their arguments to be presented dispassionately and with logical rigour to reject his views as emotive. He also conflates cultural conservatism with a political conservatism (or perhaps with a neo- or paleo-conservatism) of a peculiarly American kind. Thus he regards almost any intervention by a government not as a benign and legitimate state action to redress the imbalances and injustices of a dysfunctional market, but as a sinister and unwarranted encroachment upon the personal liberty of free citizens by an Orwellian or Kafkaesque bureaucracy. This bureaucracy’s impenetrably labyrinthine structures and assiduously cultivated ambiguities are purposely designed to render it impervious to scrutiny and fundamentally incomprehensible, thus abstracting it from the sphere of rational public accountability.

Professor Esolen uses the Greek term ‘nostalgia’ in its etymological sense of longing for home. It is therefore approximately equivalent to the English ‘homesickness’, or the German words ‘Sehnsucht’ and ‘Heimweh’ (this last meaning, literally, home-woe). It signifies the sense of belonging (and the accompanying sentiment of fidelity or loyalty), to a particular place. It does not mean viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles or with the sentimentalism of the laudator temporis acti. Nostalgia, understood in Professor Esolen’s sense, is what the English philosopher, Roger Scruton, expressed by the term ‘oikophilia’ (love of home), and Professor Esolen’s arguments in favour of nostalgia are very similar to the apologias for oikophilia put forward by Scruton in a series of works dating back more than thirty years.

A jeremiad, by definition, is a polemic: it is not a philosophical treatise aimed at impartially inquiring into a disputed question and establishing the truth. The author of a jeremiad is already convinced that he knows the truth, and he aims at so convincing others. He is not a judge but an advocate. Of course, to say that is not to dismiss his case. But it is to suggest that there are counter-arguments which must be heard and duly considered before we deliver a verdict.

It is hard to take issue with the general tenor of the cultural argument presented by Professor Esolen. The evidence is all around us. For at least two generations, perhaps more, a majority of students have completed their secondary and even their tertiary education without learning anything to the purpose about the general history of ideas or about the recognized canons and orthodoxies of Western[1] art, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, or theology. A few fortunate exceptions notwithstanding, that is an accurate description of the present state of affairs throughout the anglophone world. Nor do those who have been thus deprived of their cultural patrimony have any sense of what they have lost. They have been reared either on an intellectually and spiritually impoverished popular culture, or on a supposedly high culture that takes for granted the dogmas of eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century romanticism – and, for them, that is enough. From the perspective afforded by those biased and mutually contradictory viewpoints, they contemptuously dismiss the canonical works of Western culture as boring, antiquated, irrelevant, and the creations of dwems (dead, white European males), and brand the teaching of that culture as institutionally oppressive, misogynistic, patriarchal, and racist. As these conclusions are presented as if they were irrefragable facts rather than tendentious opinions which have to be argued for, the apologist for the Western cultural canon is left without recourse. His logic and his arguments fall on deaf ears. They have not been rejected, let alone refuted, for they have not even been heard. His opponents have stopped listening before he starts to speak.

In such an adversarial climate, it is doubtful whether jeremiads, however skilfully written or forcefully argued they may be, will make any headway. They may well encourage and fortify those who already share their authors’ convictions, but it is doubtful whether they will have any effect on those who are yet to be persuaded to that way of thinking. The idea that ‘change’ and ‘progress’ – which are seen as equivalent terms in most public discourse today – are self-evidently desirable, is now uncritically and almost universally accepted. The facts that change encompasses many things which are not, on the face of it, desirable – e.g. decline, degeneration, deterioration, dilapidation, destruction, decay, and decomposition – and that progress is, in Chesterton’s words, ‘a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative’, will seem strange, even perverse, to the modern mind.

Unfortunately, Professor Esolen sometimes proves his own worst enemy, as (for example) when he says

As I write these words, the people of a once noble and now silly nation, Great Britain, are considering giving the vote to sixteen-year-old children.

This will gratuitously offend British readers, including some who might otherwise sympathize with at least parts of Professor Esolen’s argument. More importantly, it is a foolish thing to say. Qualities such as nobility and silliness may fairly be predicated of individual persons or of their actions including their speech acts, but they cannot reasonably be predicated of entire nations.[2] Nor is giving the vote to sixteen-year-olds so obviously irrational that it should be declared out of the question. Under English law, sixteen-year-olds may marry. They may also enlist in the armed forces. As they are permitted by law both to beget children and to fight for their country, it is not self-evident why they should be denied a voice in its governance. The age at which minors attain their majority, and are therefore entitled to assume all the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, varies from country to country. There is no reason why the customs of the USA should be normative for other nations.[3]

Here, as in all his writings, Professor Esolen’s tone is so certain, his pronouncements so definite, and his verdicts so final, that one feels some sympathy with his rebellious students. Had he shown himself more willing to hear their arguments, and to address the points they raised seriously and courteously, perhaps they would have been more open to his views.

What is now needed is not a proliferation of cultural jeremiads, but a conversation conducted in an eirenic spirit of open, rational inquiry. There must be an exchange of views between people of goodwill but different allegiances, who have joined together not in order to impose their views on those who think differently, but in order the better to understand each other. This will entail being honest about one’s fears and concerns as well as one’s hopes and desires. It will also entail mutual trust and assumptions of good faith, and respect for each other’s opinions and the right to hold them. In short, it will require a return to mildness and civility in public debate and discourse. Professor Esolen’s views deserve a respectful hearing. He would make it easier for his listeners to grant him one if he were less opinionated.

Notes

[1] Western humanistic education, insofar as it still exists, is, and has always been, exclusively concerned with the artifacts and mentifacts of Western culture. It has nothing to say about the cultures of the East except to those few who elect to study Eastern cultures and languages at university. It is not, therefore, only the loss of cultural memory that needs to be corrected: so do the myopia and parochialism that refuse to look beyond ‘the West’ for any worthwhile cultural achievements or contributions to the history of ideas.

[2] If silliness could justly be predicated of entire nations, then the USA, having elected Donald J. Trump as its president, would be at least as strong a candidate as the UK for that doubtful distinction.

[3] A minimum voting age of sixteen is recognized in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Malta, and Nicaragua, and in the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey, three self-governing British Crown Dependencies. Sixteen-year-olds were also allowed to vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.