Anthony Esolen makes a point – with napalm

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.

He begins…

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.

Just as a reminder…. Esolen translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English and did a great job of it.

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. billy15 says:

    Thanks for calling attention to this Fr. Z., it’s a great article!

    Cardinal George was my archbishop up until his death, and I truly miss him as well. I am not currently residing in the Archdiocese of Chicago any longer. But I was curious about the talk you mentioned. Would you happen to have a link to the talk he gave in either text form, or perhaps a recording of it? I’d search for it but I don’t know where the talk was given.

    I encounter this “argument” often on Facebook and other social media sites, and I’d love to hear the late Cardinal’s take on this. Thanks.

  2. Sonshine135 says:

    Social media is a vast wasteland of so called “experts”, but when the Internet has any reference in the world with so these experts who claim any number of illogical and unreasonable things, one can simply exist in their own little fantasy world, never to walk out of their cave. For all the pleas of the leftists for opened-mindedness, they are the most self-important, deluded, and closed-minded of them all. No room for any thinking outside of their tiny little box of deluded experts.

  3. Veritatis Splendor says:

    I was lucky enough to be part of Dr. Esolen’s last class at Providence College, (fortuitously studying the Mutability Cantos of Spenser’s Faerie Queen) and I can hear him reading this. Probably in at least five different accents if he was in the mood. He is truly a great man, and I am sorry to see him go to Thomas More. As you mentioned Father, don’t get on his bad side, yet if you do, he, like Cardinal Burke, is extremely gentle in person, even as he deplores the idiocy and barbarism (in their original definitions) of our modern world.

  4. Skeinster says:

    Thank you for the heads up on Esolen’s translation of the Divine Comedy. I just finished the Mark Musa version, which I thought was very good. (It has excellent footnotes.)
    Will add this to the queue.
    Am in the process of reading/re-reading some of the Great Books.

    On social media: due to circunstances, I had to vet my daughter’s FB for her during and after the election, and was struck by the effect strong emotion had on even their reading comprehension.
    It was very disturbing- and these are adults, not youths.

  5. Skeinster says:

    thanks to Veritatis Splendor, adds The Faerie Queene to list…

  6. Unwilling says:

    Anthony Esolen might be compared to Fr Z in orthodoxy – I usually pause at least to skim when I run across a piece by him. But Esolen is too self-conscious about his prose as prose. In pursuit of clever turns (e.g. Monopoly Marvin), he is often led into superficial analyses (e.g. appearing to believe he has discovered a new Informal Fallacy). It could be argued that Esolen has the excuse of great volume. Whereas Fr Z selects carefully what to write on. But then Fr Z brings a scholar’s concentrated focus onto whatever matter he chooses. His insights may be incandescent but rarely fireworks that burst and die quickly. I am never afraid of wasting time when I return the compliment of a close reading for whatever he posts. [It is hard to resist purple, isn’t it?]

  7. iamlucky13 says:

    It is indeed great, but by the 4th or 5th…or 50th…or 200th time one goes through the process of breaking down in this way an underlying assumption behind an argument like the “chronological snobbery” referred to here, it gets really, really tedious.

    Especially for those cases where you’ve already been through the process with the exact same person before.

    Having this sort of discussion on the internet in particular usually feels like beating your head against a wall, and the other person very often do a much better job of derailing the progression of the argument than the way Dr. Esolen’s example proceeds.

    “Do not answer fools according to their folly, lest you too become like them.” ~Proverbs 26.

    Mark Twain supposedly (the internet frequently incorrectly ascribes good quips to either Twain or Churchill) rephrased it a little more plainly:
    “Never argue with an idiot. They will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

    @ Skeinster:
    “I had to vet my daughter’s FB for her during and after the election, and was struck by the effect strong emotion had on even their reading comprehension.”

    Perfect example. The post-election reaction was shocking. I spent an hour or so on election night just copying down comments of various people on my friends list into a saved document, because I was so surprised at the part of people I thought I knew that I was seeing I thought perhaps it was worthwhile to have the reference to help me better understand them in the future.

  8. DeGaulle says:

    I would counter anyone who claims that we are evolving to a progressively superior and more intelligent race to consider the evasion of natural selection that is incurred by our greatly reduced child mortality, particularly given that it is the most complex physical traits, predominantly the neurological ones, that are most susceptible to degradative (there is virtually no other kind) mutation.

  9. sibnao says:

    Esolen is one of the best Catholic writers working today. Pace Unwilling, I do think his articles bear more than a skim. But it is possible (think of Chesterton!) to have a differing taste in prose styles and still be glad the guy made the point.

    May I recommend a book for you all? Peter Kreeft wrote a stunning book-length dialogue, “A Refutation of Moral Relativism,” which deals with much the same issue. How would two people of good will but diametrically opposed views discuss truth? (Confession: I didn’t realize it was fictional until about halfway through! I kept thinking, “Wow. These people are so courteous!”)

  10. Dr Austin says:

    In suburban Kansas City a group of 10-15 Catholic laymen meet on Thursday mornings after early Mass. As the “Raisonneurs” they have been discussing encyclicals, hagiography, and literature going on ten years now. They recently chose this translation of the Divine Comedy as the next project, and are up to Canto Six of the Inferno. Your plug is a big encouragement. Thank you, Father. Avanti insieme!

  11. Kathleen10 says:

    I am sorry to hear the great Anthony Esolen is leaving Rhode Island. The state now has even less to recommend it. I so hope he is happy at Thomas More, but what a sad statement about Providence College, to let him go. Friars. Feh!

  12. Veritatis Splendor says:

    Do note: Dr. Esolen wants to make very clear that there is still a lot of good at Providence College. The professors who will take up his call might not be as vocal to the outside world, but Providence is by no means lost, and faithful students such as myself will be joining them. So many students there are lost. Please never stop praying for the school, nor abandon it, for in time this empire will be overthrown and the Catholic light will shine forth once more.

  13. Semper Gumby says:

    This article brings to mind something Anthony Esolen wrote in his latest book:

    “You have to be educated into cant; it is a kind of stupidity that surpasses the capacity of unaided Nature to confer. Mass phenomena do the job, so that when you see someone whose brains have been addled by cant for a long time, say a politician, it is as if you were watching a puppet flapping its mouth while a ventriloquist made it say: democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity…”

    Great article, thanks Fr. Z. Best to Mr. Esolen at his new post, and to those that remain in Providence.

  14. Imrahil says:

    On a side-point, I don’t know a Medici crime family either.

    I know a family of successful florentine merchants called Medici who became the bosses of their city and made it into Grand-Dukes, the one or the other Pope, and two Queens-consort of France.

    I have also heard that they played in power, is it is called, sometimes, as is the wont of such people (and indeed almost all other people) with means they now regret.

    But I do not know about a Medici crime family.

  15. samwise says:

    @Skeinster: I agree the Mark Musa version of Dante is excellent and easy to understand. I would also recommend the Universities of Texas and Wyoming Catholic’s distance program on Dante by Glen Arbery.

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