February 24th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Weatherill demand places Murray-Darling in jeopardy

EDITORIAL China completes island building in South China Sea

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens: wouldn't know a cowardly act if they did one

REDEFINITION OF MARRIAGE Government forms say it is fluid gender marriage

FREEDOM AND LAW Gender and anti-discrimination: wedges between you and freedom

HISTORY A look back at B.A. Santamaria gives us a forward impulse

GENDER POLITICS Transgenderism: A state-sponsored religion

LAW AND SOCIETY Protecting freedom of religion in Australia

HISTORY Hungary, 62 years on from the anti-Soviet uprising

MUSIC Reel to real: Johann Johannsson, RIP

CINEMA Sweet Country: Sour taste of bush justice


BOOK REVIEW Lessons from the UK front of the GFC

BOOK REVIEW The dragon has woken and rumbled

BOOK REVIEW Recovery manual for morals and culture


Books promotion page

Recovery manual for morals and culture

News Weekly, February 24, 2018

OUT OF THE ASHES: Rebuilding American Culture

by Anthony Esolen

Regnery Publishers, Washington DC

Hardcover: 256 pages
Price: AUD$47.99

Reviewed by Brian Coman

Among classicists, Professor Anthony Esolen is well known for his acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. However, Esolen has also written many books dealing with the general Christian heritage of the West and of its demise in our own times. This new book, Out of the Ashes, deals with the social, cultural and religious decline in America (but is relevant throughout the Western world) and the ways in which it might be regenerated.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” said George Santayana, and Esolen takes up this theme in exploring the current situation in America. Of course, he is well aware of the general tendency that all of us have, as we grow older, to suppose that civilisation is going to the dogs. Just before the time of Christ, Roman poet Horace (in the Ars Poetica) proposed that, when a man becomes old, he likewise becomes “testy and querulous, given to praising the way things were when he was a boy, to play the critic and censor of the new generation”.

But Esolen has two answers to this general dismissal. Even if it were not true that our civilisation is in decline, then surely pointing out some of its current failures is a good thing. But Esolen believes it is in real decline and his second point is simply this: we know from the past that many great civilisations have died, so why should we think ourselves as being somehow immune from decay?

Furthermore, we know from history exactly what sorts of things lead to the decline of civilisations and those sorts of things, Esolen maintains, are very much in evidence today.

The last decade or so has seen the publication of many books dealing with the deterioration of our shared culture. What sets Esolen’s book apart is its lively style, its author’s prodigious knowledge of history, and, most of all, the way in which the subject matter is reported. For instance, Esolen actually takes you back to the classroom of a small public school on Prince Edward Island (Canada) in the year 1895 to see what the young children were learning at that time. He then contrasts that with what is being taught today and asks the reader to decide, on the evidence provided, which system of instruction better prepares young children for a happy and fulfilling life.

Using examples of this sort throughout, Esolen examines the decline in the status of human work, the decline of the family home as the primary nurturer of human life, the loss of the sense of beauty in the world, and many other aspects of what we might term a fully realised human life.

Some of his topics are surprising. For instance, he places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of physical games and “play” for children. His reflections here, immediately recalled to my mind – as it will to many older News Weekly readers – schoolyard games like “tag”, “release”, “cops and robbers”, and many others. These games, we ought to remember, were handed down from one generation of children to the next and adults had little or no part in their transmission. They are now gone, replaced almost entirely by computer games.

Esolen writes from a Christian viewpoint and, in the main, for a Christian readership. All of his arguments are underpinned by a Christian theology. This raises an important question not directly considered by Esolen in his book, although it is implicit in his arguments. That question is simply whether any civilisation can persist over the long term without reference to a religious tradition, which, of its very nature, provides an absolute reference point for a set of moral standards. It is sobering to remind ourselves that the secular state – to which we are now so accustomed – is only a few hundred years old. There are no guarantees that it can deliver on its promises in the longer term. A fully secular morality is a very dubious enterprise and no one has better exposed its weaknesses than philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (in After Virtue and subsequent books).

There is, I think, one shortcoming in Esolen’s account. While he is able to depict our problems in a very engaging and forthright manner, his call for a return to an earlier moral and social order presupposes that we can turn back the clock. This is a doubtful proposition. In the first place, the percentage of practising Christians in the West has declined enormously in the last 50 years. If, indeed, we are to rise again “out of the ashes”, in the manner he proposes, then a massive resurgence of believers will be required.

That, of course, may well happen, but the record of history suggests that, if it does happen, it will do so in some entirely unexpected manner. It will not be a simple “return” to some earlier state of affairs. And, this very uncertainty has given rise to another suggested stratagem for rescuing the West – the “Benedict Option”.

This is the title of a recent and highly publicised book by another American Christian writer, Rod Dreher. In fact, the title of Dreher’s book was suggested by the very last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Having demonstrated the inability of modern secular moral philosophies to replace what came before them, MacIntyre reminds us of those early Christian eremites who, sensing some turning point, left the decaying Roman Empire and went into the wilderness to set up their own communities.

He then ends his book with these words: If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St Benedict.”

Perhaps in the event both approaches will be necessary – an attempt to arrest the decline and turn it around and, at the same time, a strategy to survive the new Dark Age.

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