By Jim Fraiser
Special to the Daily Journal
Although our region’s book reviews usually treat novels and coffeetable books, I cannot resist the occasional resort to the philosophical tome.
And that is precisely how to describe “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization” by Providence College history professor and Touchstone magazine senior editor Anthony Esolen – an odd book with a very clear philosophical premise.
Esolen’s conclusion, that by abandoning tradition, religious hierarchy and classical thought, our society has suffered a dumbing down by politically correct legislation, entertainment and public education, serves as a salve for all the conservative liberals and liberal conservatives who loved the Christian humanism of Thomas Moore, the enlightened religious piety of Blaise Pascal, and the wisdom of Edmund Burke, and wanted to tell their politically correct college professors to take their materialism and moral relativism born of Karl Marx, Thomas Hobbs and David Hume and stick them in someone else’s ears.
Esolen resorts to unvarnished (i.e., non-politically correct) history and philosophy to support his premise, busting numerous PC myths along the way. He begins citing classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius, using their words to explain how Athens’ glory, her love of wisdom and beauty, was destroyed by the moral relativism (that there are no moral absolutes) of cynics and demagogues, just as Rome’s magnificent blend of republic and oligarchy, which endured a thousand years thanks to reliance upon law, tradition and patriarchy (feminists beware), was brought low by tax hikes, slavery and urban moral depravity.
He then shatters recently concocted myths that cast doubt upon the Judeo-Christian tradition, noting that the Jews, with their reliance upon love of God and the promotion of justice, played a central role in the formation of Western Civilization (or at least the worthwhile aspects thereof). His debunking of Christianity-hating myths is easily one of the book’s highlights, as he demonstrates (through exhaustive research and very readable prose) that Christianity brought tolerance and equality into our world, raised the status of women, palliated pagan cruelty, ennobled manual labor and “thrust a dagger into the heart of the state-god.”
Esolen argues along with Saint Paul that Jesus stood for universal brotherhood; “there is neither Jew nor Greek … bond nor free … male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28-29). He further complains that the almighty “state-god”, which arose during the Renaissance (an inferior age, he asserts, to the high middle ages), seeks to enervate and replace religion and the accumulated wisdom of the ages (tradition) by becoming the new hierarchy which approves only the will of the majority, ignoring individual needs of the human heart.
But the author is quick to distinguish between the civilization-preserving brotherhood of Thomas Aquinas’s monastery or the nation-launching, family-favoring brotherhood of the early American Puritans, and so the alleged “brotherhoods” of Karl Marx’s vigor-sapping communism or Humes’ spirit-quashing capitalism-at-all-costs.
He also draws contrasts between his good guys and bad guys of history in order to distinguish between good ideas such as brotherhood and tradition and bad ones such as o materialism (the belief that matter alone exists) and moral relativism. He quotes Pascal – “If we do not know ourselves to be full of pride, ambition, lust and injustice, we are indeed blind; and if knowing this we do not desire [Divine] deliverance, what can we say of man?” (from Pensees), versus Hobbs – “the desires … and passions of man, are in themselves no sin; no more are the actions that proceed from those passions,” (from Leviathan.)
Esolen deftly shifts from philosophy to entertainment, distinguishing between worthwhile modern works from the likes of C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Green and even Rod Serling (with his Greek tragedies and Biblical morality tales redone for modern audiences on “Twilight Zone”), as opposed to politically correct screed posing as ‘art,’ such as the novel/film “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which has us “saved” by aliens rather than by God, and the novel/movie “Inherit the Wind,” which Esolen characterizes as an Ode to Science, the “fight song of political correctness.” He’s making Mathew Arnold’s point that, in art, we should “try to know the best that is known and thought in the world irrespective of practice and politics,” (from “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”).
While this book does offer a few passages in explanation of various philosophies and art forms that may be difficult for the average reader to comprehend, this is more than compensated for by the author’s wry observations, as where he assails modern-day education by observing that we might conclude a professor insane who opines that a human child has no more rights than a chimpanzee, but “Princeton has … awarded him an endowed chair of bioethics.” Or where he declares that we will never again see the likes of author Samuel Johnson; “our schools, legislatures and entertainment will see to that.” Or best of all, his mock ad on the book’s cover – “Warning: Contains Moses, Plato, Jesus, and Shakespeare. Contents May Be Offensive.”
Ultimately, though, Esolen utilizes the great works of philosophy, art, religion and politics to show that polar opposites such as Pascal and Voltaire, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Thomas Jefferson and Pope Pius II agree on something that Marx, Hobbs, Hume and the other favorites of the present-day PC establishment did not – that “the measure of a nation is not its gross national product, nor the equitable distribution of goods; the measure of a nation is the men it produces, and the goodness and beauty of the lives they lead.”
Jim Fraiser lives in Tupelo and is the author of 13 books and a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines. He has always attempted to follow William Faulkner’s advice to the writer to make mistakes of style, diction and taste, go out on a limb, and use words the meaning of which cannot be checked in the dictionary.