What They Will Never Know

In recent days, the Canadian Christian television show, 100 Huntley Street, has been uncharacteristically aggressive in its denunciation of the anticulture about us.  The topic is teenagers and smut—sometimes it is good to return to direct and morally charged words.

Their guest has been Josh McDowell, who has spent his whole adult life bringing Christ to young people.  About five years ago he began to notice a change in his audience.  One might say he began to sniff the sour tang of a cesspool; or he caught sight of a film over their minds, like scum floating atop stagnant water.  That was when he discovered how many of them had been wallowing in the smut, which they ushered into their lives with terrible ease.  If a young person has a hand-held internet device or a computer in his bedroom, only a fool would bet against it.

So one of the crew of 100 Huntley Street set out to interview young people about sex—meaning, these days, not the rich mystery of being male or female, but habits of copulation.  One comment struck me especially.  A young man said that a “couple” he knew would view pornographic videos as “education,” and would then try out for themselves what they had seen.

Education, “the great Mumbo-Jumbo and fraud of the age,” as Muggeridge so memorably called it, education justifies everything.  How can anyone oppose curiosity?  How can anyone wish to prevent people from learning things?  Well, even a contemporary moron might blanch at what one young girl has boasted about learning.  She strangled another girl and wrote about it on Facebook.  Oh, she was nervous at first, but when it was a-doing, there was nothing like it!  LOL.

Desperately do we need to recover the wisdom of both Scripture and the ancient pagan philosophers and poets.  Evil darkens the mind.  Evil causes ignorance.

Perhaps the nastiest of the villains in Plato’s dialogues is the young Euthyphro, who boasts he knows all about piety, and is busy prosecuting his own father on a trumped-up charge of murder.  Euripides’ Jason is smugly content to toss aside the sorceress Medea, who murdered her own brother to assist him; his utter selfishness blinds him to the approaching disaster, when Medea will murder their sons.  Paris took the bribe that Aphrodite offered him, and absconded from Mycenae with Helen, the wife of his host; and brought destruction upon himself and his city.

Jesus heals the blind man, then rebukes the stubborn Pharisees for their blindness.  If they knew they were blind, they could be healed, but because they say they see, their sin remains (Jn. 9:41).  Saint Paul says that men could have known God, but gave themselves up instead to their empty imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1:21).  Isaiah even uses as a symbol the central object of education, the book, and prophesies that they who have turned from God will become as a literate man before a book that is sealed, or as a man who cannot read at all (Is. 29:11-12).

Christian poets understood the principle too.  Virgil leads Dante into hell, where he will see those who have lost il ben dell’ intelletto, “the good of intellect.”  When Beatrice brings the poet to the Empyrean, the highest of the heavenly spheres, she says that it occupies no physical space, but exists wholly in the mind of God.  It is a realm of “intellectual light.”  Milton’s Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, and then, after giving us ironically ignorant displays of their ignorance, they make love, consummating their guilt.  Then they awake:

Up they rose
          As from unrest, and each the other viewing,
          Soon found their eyes how opened, and their minds
          How darkened; innocence, that as a veil
          Had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone,
          Just confidence, and native righteousness,
          And honor from about them, naked left
          To guilty shame; he covered, but his robe
          Uncovered more.

At least Adam and Eve were married, and were in love.  Their deed here was amorous, anyhow; not what Milton derides as the “casual fruition” of whores and whoremasters, whereby men and women view one another as rutting beasts, or as implements for self-gratification.  The cold and mechanical term “hookup” had not yet been invented.

So our teenagers are learning things.  We their parents learned a few of the same things too.  Now perhaps it is time to consider what they have not learned, and what they will never know.

Love, says Christopher Marlowe, is not gentle, but cruel when it means to prey.  Our young people are becoming experts in the cruelty of lust; no surprise that some of them cross over to the lust of cruelty.  But such “experts” forgo the knowledge born of meekness and delicacy.  A person of the other sex, the one I cannot easily fold into my own ego, is a world of mysterious possibilities.  What does it mean to be such a person?  What is it like, to beget a child one cannot bear?  What is it like to bear a child?  What does he long for, in his manhood?  What does she long for, in her womanhood?  What does he fear?  What does she fear?

Our teenagers who know so much about the mechanics of copulation miss the sweetness of simple humanity.  People used to sing merrily about holding a girl’s hand while walking home from the dance—holding a hand.  With that touch, they knew the thrill, perhaps for the first time, of being deemed worthy of love.  What is it like, to be a boy or a girl who could be made dizzyingly happy by so simple a touch?  We will never know.

No one opens an operator’s manual with reverence and trembling.  A vacuum cleaner is not an object of love.  But a human being is not a tool.  What is it like, to be growing into an adult body, with one’s innocence (so far as it is possible for a sinner) preserved?  What is it like for a girl to look upon a handsome young man and be fascinated by his face—the set of his eyes, his smile, the turn of his head, the person in body and soul shining through?  What is it like for a boy to look upon a beautiful young woman and be swept away by the grace and goodness of her actions, from the way she plays with a small child, to the way she sings to herself, as if summing up in one all the beauty of the world about her?  We will never know.

A boy used to have to pay court to a girl, to win her love.  They did so in view of parents and kin, and, if they were Catholic, in the haven of the Church and her sacraments.  That meant that they entered a vast field of meaning, both earthly and heavenly.  What might it be like, to be invited to attend Mass with the girl’s family for the first time?  To kneel beside her to receive Communion?  Then to return to her home, with brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins?  To enjoy a meal together, after the meal?  To be well-come, into a whole history?  To see one’s love in relation to all those other bonds of love?  To know, without having to express it in words, that the flutter in the pulse that you feel when she smiles upon you, is a part of the symphony of love that God has ordained?  To know that there is nothing you need to hide from all these others, that you are still as harmless as the playful little brothers and sisters with smudges of ice cream on their shirts?

What is it like, to grow in wisdom and understanding of love?  To do so in a long approach to the altar of God—an approach sometimes stately, sometimes merry, sometimes fraught with self-doubt, sometimes soaring with joy?  What is it like to make the solemn vow before God and man, without having implicitly and mendaciously made it in a cheap motel room or in a basement or on the back seat of a car?  What is that moment of everlasting promise like, when the body of the other is yet undiscovered?  How may we describe the decision to board that adventurous ship?

What is it like, to know one’s spouse for the first time?

We are a generation of the dull, blank, listless, hopeless; a generation of youth without mirth, age without wisdom.  Even our eros is pallid and nerveless.  The words of Isaiah again: “It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite” (Is. 29:8).  But what can an old prophet tell us?

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Paul

    Thanks Anthony. As a parent, this is a great reminder of the pivotal role I’ve been entrusted in protecting and preserving as much of my children’s innocence as they march toward adulthood. They deserve better than the empty self-centric alternative this current culture has to offer.

    • John200

      Parents have the obligation to teach their own children. The only question is, what are they going to teach?

      The correct answer is obvious. No matter the cost. The kids really are worth more than a boat, or a vacation, or a second (or third) car, …

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  • Christopher Check

    superb piece from the great Tony Esolen. And thank you for pointing out
    that the ancient pagans got it right. I am reminded of that passage in

    is a section of modern youth, which certainly strikes its elders as hard and
    skeptical and selfish. And of these it is
    customary to say that they are pagans. It
    suddenly flashed across me yesterday that of course what is the matter with
    them is that they have lost their Paganism…. There is no question at all of
    their losing their Christianity…but the reason why they all look as miserable
    as monkeys…is in this tragic and deplorable disaster: that they have all lost
    their paganism.”

    new single by the Killers, by the way, does have this charming line:

    was the night when she broke down and held my hand.”

    shouldn’t admit that I know that song, but I do have teenage boys in the house.)


    • Peter Freeman

      Brandon Flowers of The Killers is apparently a serious Mormon…so it wouldn’t come as a surprise to me that the band might be injecting some worthwhile social commentary in their songs.

      • Christopher Check

        It’s not exactly clear the extent to which he still practices the Mormon religion, but insofar as there is anything redeeming in pop music today, some of the themes in Killers’ songs do have a moral sense. The same is said of Bruce Springsteen, who is a mixed bag morally, but is an influence on Flowers. Flowers and his wife have three kids and they are still married so in that alone they have bucked the social trend, especially in that industry. If he has left the Mormon cult, I hope there is a RC standing by to welcome him to the fullness of the Truth.

  • msmischief

    Trumped-up charges of murder? There’s one thing never questioned in a dialog: that the man had died as a direct and foreseeable consequence of his father’s actions.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. Beautifully written. But what breaks my heart is how _little_ of this essay today’s young adults could even comprehend, due to the inadequacies in their education and formation. Pure tragedy. God give me the grace to hope (and keep homeschooling my own.)

    • John200

      Yes, homeschooling for sure. Young people in 2012 are teachable and most, in my experience, love to learn. The only question is, what will they learn?

      They can end up with full knowledge of their faith (you can help) and they can grow into a habitual love of learning. There is no reason to lose them, unless you just don’t care.

  • Tim

    “To know that there is nothing you need to hide from all these others, that you are still as harmless as the playful little brothers and sisters with smudges of ice cream on their shirts?”

    I have a nine year old daughter, and that line terrifies me.

  • Doug

    Milton’s version of paradise is out of kilter with the Genesis account; not a good example to use in a Christian discussion. Not for Catholics, either. Milton was ”
    an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell”, per Wikipedia. IOW a Puritan, and no friend of the RCC. In any case, Burns had it right: “Malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man.”

    Josh McDowell, per the same source, is “a Christian apologist, evangelist, and writer. He is within the Evangelical tradition of Protestant Christianity.” So, no friend of RCC either.

    You have a better authority than all these close to hand [I hope]. The times wouldn’t surprise this man; he prophesied them: “Know also this, that in the last days shall come dangerous times. Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked, without affection, without peace, slanderers, incontinent, unmerciful, without kindness, traitors, stubborn, puffed up, and lovers of pleasure more than of God: Having an appearance indeed of godliness but denying the power thereof.” 2 Tim 3:1-5, Douay. And the rest of v.5 gives one solution: “Now these avoid.”

    Our children, of course, are lacking in judgment, but education can make up for that: “And these words which I command you this day, shall be in your heart: And you shall tell them to your children, and you shall meditate upon them sitting in your house, and walking on your journey, sleeping and rising.” Deut 6

    Among “these words”, added to by inspired writers over the centuries, are: “My son, forget not my law, and let your heart keep my commandments …” and the rest of Proverbs 3.

    Of course, this doesn’t work unless our actions match our words, which takes more humility than many of us adults have. But we will “inherit the earth” by our meekness and teachability, and can bring our children with us. “But the meek shall inherit the land, and shall delight in abundance of peace … But the just shall inherit the land, and shall dwell therein for evermore.” Ps 37:11,29

    Isn’t that a nice prospect to focus on?

    • Peter Freeman

      I wouldn’t be so hard on Milton. If he could see the state of things 350 years later, he might be singing a different tune about Catholicism. And I’m not even sure most puritan sects would have recognized Milton’s brand of Christianity. He was a denomination of one.
      While he might be writing the 17th Century equivalent of Biblical “fanfic,” he still knew how to articulate more about the human experience in ten lines of blank verse than most of us will even understand in a lifetime. I, for one, have a far better appreciation for providence through Milton than malt.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Aristotle, as usual, has it right, when he says, “‘All wicked men are ignorant of what they ought to do, and what they ought to avoid; and it is this very ignorance which makes them wicked and vicious. Accordingly, a man cannot be said to act involuntarily merely because he is ignorant of what it is proper for him to do in order to fulfil his duty. This ignorance in the choice of good and evil does not make the action involuntary; it only makes it vicious. The same thing may be affirmed of the man who is ignorant generally of the rules of his duty; such ignorance is worthy of blame, not of excuse” (Nicomachean Ethics 3 1-2)

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  • Well done.

  • Theorist

    Perhaps as a young person I’m incredulous that things were so different in “olden” times (e.g. courting, pulses as symphonies of love, being able to sense another’s soul). If I read the article right, it seems impossible that such a state of affairs could be easily lost in 50 years. The only way that could’ve happened was through weak will or ignorance neither of which seems to be a trait of the “older generation”. Were things really “that great”?

  • old school

    anyone can see the problems. bemoaning the past long gone doesn’t help the people you purport to be so worried about. Perhaps you’d care to offer some solutions?

  • Tony

    Thanks for the kind words, people.
    To the Theorist below:
    It is perfectly possible to have a society that honors a virtue like purity, AND to know full well that many people in that society sin against the virtue, or pay a certain half-hearted service to it, without embracing it in the depths of their being. If you are requiring me to show that everybody in my parents’ generation went to the altar as virgins, of course I cannot do that, because it wasn’t so. And yet many did go to the altar as virgins — mine did; and many others may have fallen into the sin a few times, repented, and then gotten on as best they could. There’s a simple way to prove it. Just consider that the Pill had not been invented, and then check the out-of-wedlock birth rates (which were very low). Abortion rates were also minuscule by comparison with what they are now.
    A telling scene from the 1950’s movie The Member of the Wedding, based on Carson McCullers’ novel by that name: the twelve year old girl, Frankie, wanting to get out of her country town, thinks she can go along with her brother and his newlywed wife. She doesn’t know why not. The tension in the movie is owing to that, precisely …
    There were signs as early as the 1920’s that things were going to come apart for the family in the USA. The Depression delayed the breakdown (!), and so did the war (!). I can point you to movies in the 1950’s that presciently alert the viewer to what’s a-brewing: Marty; or that show the disintegration in full swing, in certain areas of society: Indiscretion, or Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (which I think is post-1960). There were termites in the beams.
    But those termites could have been destroyed — there was still time. Consider: Lawrence Welk was voted as the eighth-most-popular band leader of his time among teenagers (!), in the 1950’s.
    We are the first generation of Americans who take solace in seeing their forebears in the worst possible light, just so that we won’t look so horrible by comparison. An interesting sidelight: look at the men who served as President, and those whom they defeated, from the time of Cleveland through Eisenhower. There’s one known adulterer and nice guy buffoon in that lot (Harding), one man who late in life seems to have carried on an affair (FDR), but in general we are talking about men of great honor and decency, even when their political decisions might leave something to be desired. Some of them were genuinely humble men (Cleveland, Taft, Coolidge). Hoover, if he hadn’t become president, would have gone down in history as an American hero, for his handling of the food crisis in Europe after the first world war. Bryan was a well-meaning demagogue, a brilliant speaker, and a devout Christian (tainted with racism, as Wilson was also). Heck, I’d take the losers in the elections from Cleveland’s bout with Harrison on — Cleveland, Harrison, Bryan twice, Parker, Bryan again, Taft, Hughes, Al Smith, Landon, Willkie, Adlai Stevenson, etc. — over the dreck we’ve had since 1960. Have we degenerated, socially? Let’s run them down. Kennedy was a moral monster, as we now know. Nixon was a paranoid crook. LBJ, an able politician, stole his first election shamelessly. Humphrey was a good guy who swerved hard to the left, late in life. Wallace was an embittered racist. McGovern was a tool for the reds. Ford was a nice fellow, Carter is a decent man, but also cold and vindictive. Reagan, Mondale, Dukakis, and the elder Bush all seem to be generous and honorable human beings, but all of them flawed. Then we get the vile and shameless Clinton, the weird liar Gore, the fortune-hunting Kerry, the borderline insane McCain, and the Obamarama …
    It’s also a disappointing fact that men like Cleveland, McKinley, and Taft could never be elected now. Cleveland and Taft were very fat, and McKinley was as ugly as boiled sin. Not one of the three of them would want to occupy the same room with a clod and a liar like Clinton.