The brilliant Anthony Esolen (how I envy his prose) makes a point – with napalm – at the increasingly useful Crisis today. The post confirmed me in my desire never to be on his bad side.
Don’t Let A Foolish Idea Go Unchallenged
Father, I must confess: I have made comments on social media.
There is at least one thing that social media illuminate, and that is the unwillingness or the incapacity of people to reason. I attribute it in part to “critical thinking,” which turns otherwise intelligent people into perpetual sophomores, ready to play what they think is the ace of trumps, but what is actually a dog-bitten Monopoly property card for Marvin Gardens when the game is bridge. It is a plexiglass Cone of Silence over the brain; nothing gets in and nothing gets out.
A case in point. The subject today was abortion. A woman burst out, “What century are you living in? Do you actually believe”—and let’s stop right there.
The person’s implicit premise is that people grow wiser, nobler, more righteous, and kinder to puppies with each passing generation. Otherwise why bring up the business about a century?
Let us ask this person, call her Missy, to tell us about other peoples and other centuries. “Missy, are you saying that Athenians of the fourth century B.C. were better than Athenians of the fifth century B.C.? Or, to bring things closer to us, are you saying that Italians in the 1400s were better people than were Italians in the 1300s?”
Missy can now make one of several moves. She can flounce out of the room. She can say, “I am not talking about Athenians or Italians.” She can say, “I guess that they were better.”
If she flounces out of the room, you return to reading The Brothers Karamazov while you take a sip of gin and tonic.
If she says she is not talking about Athenians or Italians, you may ask what she has against Athenians and Italians, seeing as she seems to have exempted them from her rule, which is that moral progress in human affairs is smooth and inevitable, like the flow of water down a hill, with fish bones and paper wrappers and other dead things floating along with it. Were the Italians during the age of the Medici crime family, the popes with bastard children, and warlords such as Gattamelata or mercenaries such as John Hawkwood, better than the Italians of a century before?
Of course she will not know about the Medici crime family.
There’s more, and it’s great.
Esolen’s post reminded me of a talk I once heard in Rome by the late, and deeply missed, Francis Card. George. He took to pieces the lib argument that the human race has evolved beyond certain moral claims. A similar notion is embraced by lib liturgists: We don’t have to kneel anymore, because we’ve evolved out of that as a Church. We don’t have to receive with humility on the tongue anymore, because we’re all grown up now.
If you have never read the Divine Comedy, you should. You could start with Esolen (Part 1, Inferno US HERE – UK HERE) or perhaps with Dorothy Sayer’s fine version (Part 1, Inferno, US HERE – UK HERE). There are many renderings to choose from. I would very much like to teach on Dante someday. Maybe it’ll happen.
When you make the excellent choice to read the Divine Comedy, here are a couple tips. First and foremost, make the decision that you will read the whole thing. Don’t read just the Inferno. The really great stuff comes in Purgatorio and Paradiso. Also, read through a canto to get the line of thought and story and then go back over it looking at the notes in your edition. Dante was, perhaps, the last guy who knew everything (with the possible exception of Erasmus). Each Canto is dense with references. You will need notes to help with the history, philosophy, cosmology, poetic theory, politics, theology, etc. Really. You will need help.