Europe as a cultural morgue:
An interview with Anthony Esolen
Gergely Szilvay 25 November 2018
What is your opinion about President Trump’s first year?
I don’t write much about politics, because ours is almost irredeemably vulgar and stupid. But, with that said, I believe that Donald Trump has been a fair success in his first year or so. He is not an ideologue. He is rather like the pragmatic New York liberals who dominated politics in the northeast in the 1980’s; the Republican he resembles most is Rudy Giuliani, whose common sense approach to policing transformed New York City from one of the filthiest and most violent cities in the nation, to a clean and relatively safe (and prosperous) place.
I wish that President Trump were more consistent; I do not like his appointment of John Bolton to do anything of importance in the State Department. Trump’s instincts are moderately isolationist, and we could have used more of that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Trump may best be described as temperamentally anti-progressive or anti-ideological. His achievement in Korea is quite impressive, but I wish he could be persuaded not to muddle around anymore in the Middle East, but to take a straightforwardly pro-Western approach: if a nation is reasonably just toward Christians and Jews, we will support it, and if not, not.
Do you think the last tax cut reform primarily serves the rich or is it good for the poor, too?
The rich have accountants, corporate devices, trust funds, and offshore vehicles for hiding or investing their money. Other people do not. The tax rate cuts have provided a nice boost for the economy, which redounds to the benefit of people with retirement funds, small businesses, and people for whom an extra thousand dollars a year is quite a nice raise. We are taxed far beyond anything that is fair: I figure I work from January 1 until about June 5 to support government at all levels. The serfs of the Middle Ages had only to tithe.
Do you follow the politics of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary? If so, what do you think of him?
From what little I know, which is little enough, Mr. Orban has determined to put the political welfare of Hungary above the welfare of the European Union, and the cultural health of Hungary above secular ideologies. That is altogether a good thing.
Central Europe has some disadvantages compared to the West — but from another point of view this lack of progress can be turned to advantage: the advantage of ‘backwardness’. What advice might you have for us?
Please, I beg you, do not emulate us. The nations of Western Europe are dead; the continent is a cultural morgue. The United States is not dead but is thrashing about in the throes of a dire illness. Do not rush to the brink of the cliff just because your ‘wiser’ predecessors have already pitched themselves headlong over it.
In particular: do not lose the family. Do not put in place the principle of the sexual revolution, which is that what two consenting adults do sexually is morally valid just by that fact alone. Do not dabble in the anti-scientific reality-denying madness that is gender ideology. Raise your boys to be men and your girls to be women, and raise them both with the healthy expectation that the sexes will be for one another. Emulate what used to be the bedrock strength of the United States — which was its sensible trust in ordinary people brought up within the character-forming disciplines of the churches. Do not emulate the secular withering of the churches and its consequent withering of the lower classes, the working classes, and now everyone else. Do not bind yourselves to a plague-ridden body.
You have written a book (Out of the Ashes) about the rebuilding of American culture. Why do you think that it is in ashes and has to be restored?
I believe it because it is true. A culture implies long memory, habits of love and veneration, and a common life, particularly common worship. We have no memory, we venerate nothing, and our common life is virtually dead. This may be hard for somebody from Eastern Europe to understand. The great majority of Americans, especially the young, have no knowledge at all about the great heritage of English literature; they do not know the history of England or of their own nation; they have no heroes besides the false ones provided by mass entertainment; they share no songs, no prayers, no dances, no holy days. We are the first people — we in the post-Christian West — in the history of the human race to exist without a culture.
When did things go wrong and why?
The forces of secular thinkers — the terrible educational leader John Dewey, for example — along with the leveling propensity of mass industry, mass entertainment, and now mass education have worn the American culture away. I see it in striking form when I compare, let us say, a literature textbook produced in 1916 with one produced a mere 30 or 40 years later. Whole realms of study have been abandoned: grammar, most obviously.
That process of oblivion has continued. It is now not sufficient for me to say that hardly any graduates of our high schools will be able to read a novel by Nathanael Hawthorne (19th century). Very few of our teachers will read one. Meanwhile, the consolidation of schools has continued apace, so that parents have less and less authority over what goes on in them; the State, like a cancer, grows by the diseases it spreads.
Isn’t it just another devolution story (like that of Oswald Spengler and others)?
Yes and no. Spengler was right about a lot of things. When I visit Europe, I have always the strange sense of visiting a museum as large as a continent and almost as dead. Civilizations do sag and sicken and die, and there is no reason to believe that ours will not also, or has not also. But I return to facts. I collect literary magazines that had an enormous rate of subscription in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and I know, first, that the majority of college professors would find it difficult to read those magazines, because they do not possess the general knowledge to make sense of what the authors are saying, and that nothing like those magazines, nothing close, exists now. English poetry — to take an example of the art that every human culture has possessed, until our own — was clearly an important part of the life of reasonably intelligent speakers of English in 1900. The arts also; ordinary people bought sheet music, played instruments, knew the difference between Bach and Handel, and so forth. Nothing has replaced this lack.
My young students at Providence College, where I taught for 27 years, would not be able to sing a single song known to their grandparents. They have been starved of culture, from the popular to the high; mass entertainment, ephemeral and shallow and usually ugly, has taken its place.
You have said that you would start by giving back the “proper names” of things. What do you mean?
Almost everything that every politician utters, and every journalist, and every teacher or professor who is mainly concerned with contemporary politics, is what we in English call “cant”. It is empty talk, not a deliberate lie, but a pretense so complete that the pretender comes to believe it himself. We cannot make any reforms unless we are willing resolutely to see things as they are and to name them accordingly.
The embryo in the womb is not a “clump of cells”, because “clump” has no scientific significance; it is an integral self-organizing life, human in origin and aim. A boy is not a girl, and a girl is not a boy. A man cannot have sexual intercourse with another man but can only mimic it, just as someone might mimic eating by consuming what is not really food (such as dust) or by inserting food into what is not meant for nourishing the body (such as the ear). A state that possesses the mechanical apparatus of elections is not, by that alone, a democracy or a republic. An institution that houses children for twelve years and does not manage even to impart to them the grammar of their own language (again, this is going to be hard for people from Hungary to imagine but it is quite true) is not a good school or a bad school but no school at all.
School and education, and the loss of the traditional curriculum, are important concerns for you. In Hungary, we have gone in another direction and try to teach as many facts as possible to pupils (the so-called ‘Prussian style’). How can we improve our approach to education?
Say: “To hell with both Prussia and America!” Teach as they teach in Italy. Do not be afraid of imparting factual knowledge, but by all means teach your heritage of literature, art, music, and religion. Do not be afraid to teach Homer, Virgil, the Scriptures, Augustine, Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Dostoyevsky, and so forth.
Many ‘education experts’ claim that Hungarian schools do not provide enough ‘equality of opportunity’. Can a school really eliminate social inequalities?
We must recover the truth: that parents are the real employers in education, and that they delegate a portion of their legitimate authority to teachers, to do some humble but necessary things. Those include teaching children how to read and write; the constitution of the physical world, especially in geography; the history of their nation, their civilization, and mankind generally; the habit of reading and enjoying good books; the mastery of arithmetic and algebra at least; an appreciation of the arts, and so forth. They do not include any specifically political aims. Teachers are no more to be trusted with partisan or contemporary politics than are plumbers or carpenters. Let them do their jobs.
Why do you prefer the 'Great Book Tradition'? Why it is good?
It has endured the test of time — the test of thousands of years. When we are long gone, people will be reading Homer, after they have forgotten the flies of the day. Homer has endured because he has seen deeply into the nature of man, and has expressed what he has seen with astonishing beauty and precision.
When I am in conversation, so to speak, with Homer, or Milton, or Balzac, or Goethe, I have the great benefit of their minds; and why should we toss that aside? That is like refusing to drink at the oasis after you have been wandering in the desert, just because the oasis has been there for thousands of years, and other people have come and drunk of its springs before you. Madness.
You say that Americans have lost the sense of beauty. What do you mean and what can be done?
Our cities are singularly ugly. It is not the ugliness of the Soviet system, gray and stark and modernist, but it has some of that, and some of the ugliness of consumption for the sake of consumption.
What is to be done? I tell people that they have before them a world of stunning beauty, available for their wonder if they would but go outside and walk and notice things. My students — where I taught until this last year — knew nothing about their heritage in the arts, and knew almost nothing about the natural world: nothing about the sea, or birds, or the skies, or rivers and mountains, or woods. I am guessing that the two forms of ignorance are related.
How did such an absurd idea as gender ideology become so influential?
By the madness of egalitarianism.
How should we respond?
Among other things, a love of the natural world. But we very much need to pay attention to boys, who have borne the brunt of the feminist hatred of the natural.
You openly prefer architectural styles such as neo-Gothic revival, among others. In Hungary, post-modern rock-star architects dismiss such styles as not “contemporary” and insist that since every age had its own style, we too should have our own. So traditional architectural styles — Roman, gothic, classical, etc. — are ridiculed by professionals. What is your response to them?
I wish that they had a style. They do not. We must distinguish between an ideological fad pursued by a narrow coterie of the well-connected, and a style that springs from the history, the beliefs, the passions, and the aspirations of a people; also from their natural surroundings, the materials nearby, the contours of the land. The post-modern “style” is no style but a hatred of style. It has no “place” and boasts that it has none. Such a building in Brasilia might as well be in Budapest or Kaliningrad or New York City; it is a defiance of place and tradition and a people's history wherever it is. The neo-Gothic had the advantage of at least being handsome, if perhaps not springing from the genius of the American people.
You would like to restore local communities that have been partly destroyed by technical progress. But this technical progress, which harms both communities and morals, cannot be undone. At the same time, you insist that we should bring ‘play’ back into our lives. What is the purpose of that?
We have tools for the sake of a human life; human life must never be made to subserve our tools. We have tools for our natural communities, especially the family, and those must not be made the tools of our tools, either. Now then, it is impossible to have anything like a community unless there are children and unless those children are a visible and vibrant part of everyday life in public.
We do not ask, “Why should there be play?” for the same reason we do not ask, “Why should there be happiness and love?” Work for work's sake is one of the sins of our time, what the medievals called "acedia," a spiritual sluggishness. We have come round to turning the play of children also into work, and with what result in our children's states of mind, our addiction to opiate drugs well shows.
Localism and the devolution of power are very important to you. In Hungary, the otherwise conservative government of Hungary has just centralized education among other things. Why is localism so important to you?
Localism is just a recognition that human beings are social. They should, to remain fully human, direct the public affairs that most concern them in their ordinary and daily lives. If we do not grant them this, we have robbed them of a crucial part of their humanity. It would be like compelling them to dress as we say and eat as we say.
You say that work should not be pursued for its own sake because we need a culture of leisure. Secular conservatives and religious conservatives are at odds here. So what are they serving?
I do not think that there can be a “secular conservative” because ultimately the secular man will revert to liberalism and the individualism of Locke, or the statism of Hobbes, or both, because they are what we in English call “kissing cousins”. Culture without worship is a contradiction in terms. The author to read here is Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.
As I can understand, you prefer a kind of “pre-modern option” to a modern/post-modern one: returning to physical work, the Great Books, classic art, localism, etc. Am I right?
Not exactly. The modern world has granted us many good things. I do not believe that we need to renounce all of those things; we need instead to use them wisely, rejecting those that do us harm, and subjecting the others to strictly human ends. We need also to recover the good and human things that pre-modern peoples enjoyed to a greater degree than we do now. I do not believe that the task is impossible. I do believe that it is impossible if we accept anything of the ideology of modern-ism.
How can the ethos of the university be restored in an age of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘snowflakes’?
It cannot. You must choose. The pursuit of truth is never safe. If need be — and this would be like radical surgery — we will have to reinstitute all-male colleges, where everyone will take for granted that you are not entitled to an opinion, and that your feelings are of no consequence. You are entitled to an argument.
The conservative Hungarian writer, Thomas Molnar, who lived for a time in the US, said in his book, The Counter-Revolution (1970) that conservatives have never truly believed that they can undo things — so they have never believed in themselves. Do you agree? If yes, how can we change this?
Molnar was a prescient genius. He understood that conservatives, just because they were anti-ideological, lacked the fire and fury of their opponents. But by now we have seen not just the bloodshed that the secular ideologies have wrought; bloodshed can be impressive in a wicked way. We have seen the sheer stupidity; and stupidity is never impressive.
Because I am a Christian, steeped in the learning of the last 4,000 years, I can see through the shallow pretensions of the revolutionaries, and because I actually read and remember what the same revolutionaries used to say, I know that they have contradicted themselves, and that they have nowhere to go, no end in sight, nothing but confusion for the sake of confusion.
What advice to you have for the rest of the world?
Do not emulate our mistakes!
Dr. Anthony M. Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer-in-residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire (USA). He is the author of numerous books including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013); Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017). His most recent book is Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018).
Gergely Szilvay is the senior journalist at Mandiner, a Hungarian news portal. He earned MA degrees in history and communications at Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in political theory. His first book, published in Hungary in 2016, critically explored the arguments surrounding same sex marriage and gender theory. His areas of interest include the history and politics of the US, Catholicism, conservative political theory, and the ethnography and folklore of the Carpathian Basin.
Mandiner is a new conservative, centre-right, patriotic news portal launched in 2009. Its predecessors were the magazines UFI and Reakció (inspired by John Lukacs’ self-description). In addition to providing everyday news, Mandiner defends conservative ideas and seeks the preservation of custom, tradition, and national sovereignty. The interview above originally appeared in Hungarian in the 13 May 2018 edition of Mandiner. It appears here by kind permission.
Published with the support of the Sarah Scaife Foundation.