The Nation at Princeton’s Service

One of the many forms of self-promotion, at my old mater ferox, was a regular bulletin called “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” detailing the many ways in which Princetonians past and present were making the world a better, that is a more Princetonian, place to live.  I suspect that, after the ordinary fashion of human desires, some of it was noble, some of it merely the crafting of careers in politics, and some of it plain old selfishness.  Given that more than half of my fellow Princetonians came from families of some wealth and prestige, and therefore insulation from the lives of farmers, carpenters, janitors, and housewives, they probably did their share of harm, though more from ignorance than from outright malice.

They were smart, proud, ambitious, rich, narrowly educated, dissipated but in a suave and self-controlled way, and relatively unchurched—not an auspicious combination.  They are our Ruling Class, and even though most of them were liberals, I feel confident in saying that both political parties are stuffed full of them.  For their most salient feature is that they take for granted that they ought to rule.

One evening, a civic-minded Princetonian showed up at my room, asking me to sign a petition to establish at Princeton what was called a Public Interest Research Group.  From what I could gather, the PIRG was a vehicle for leftist political action; the cordial promoter of the PIRG admitted that they would probably not help to organize a home for unwed mothers, run by pro-life advocates.

Yet it was the advocate’s “best” argument for the PIRG that I found most persuasive against it.  He said I should support it, because it would give more opportunities for Princetonians to be active in the social and political order.  I replied that having Princetonians more active in the social and political order was the last thing I’d want.  He was astonished.  How could I not believe in the wisdom and moral superiority of Princetonians?

Oh, I don’t know; maybe four years of living among them and being one of them, maybe that’s what did it.  I could talk about the booze, the pot, the sex; the antiquated and sad-sack wistfulness of preppies when they learned that Deerfield was only a high school after all; but that would be to let the real trouble elude me. There’s a lot of that at Land Grant State, too.  Nor should I give the impression that most Princetonians were obnoxious. They weren’t. The campus was safe. Painfully shy though I was, I made friends there whose affection I still treasure, though some of us have grown apart over the years. I can never repay the debt I owe them for befriending me, nor have I done well at repaying it.

What’s the trouble, then?  One that I think they share with that never-doubtful president they jauntily call Woody Woo: our Ruling Class is filled with people who do not habitually examine their consciences. They do not enter the confessional.

The confessional is a brush with death, as well it should be.  In the confessional, we face our nothingness, and our worse than nothingness; our stubborn folly, our petty self-concern, our cowardice, our persistence in opinions because they happen to be ours; our hardness of heart towards what other people suffer, especially when we are the cause of it; our touchiness when we ourselves suffer, especially when we think we can point to the person who caused it; all that foul black dead lump of sin that lies upon the heart, subduing, stifling, smothering.

Nobody is really used to the confessional. How does one grow used to death and resurrection?  But it occurs to me that our Ruling Class seem quite unaware that such a thing exists, or that if in their private moments they remember it, they forget it as soon as they enter the halls of power.

I wonder what would happen if our President were to say, “My fellow Americans, I’ve made many mistakes in my political life, and I beg your forgiveness.  It was foolish for me to try to nationalize the medical profession, and it prolonged the recession just when we were about to climb out of it.  I thank you for your confidence in me, but it is misplaced.  This job is beyond me; it is probably beyond the capacity of any man, which is yet another argument against expanding the reach and the influence of the central government.  As for my natural gifts, I can speak to crowds and read a speech fairly well, but I am not Cicero, or our own Daniel Webster.  I hope, with the grace of God, to do some good in the three years remaining to me as your president, and to atone for some of the harm I have done.  You have supposed that I was a genius.  What can you have been thinking?  Now let us set aside our partisanship, admit our folly, and attempt to make some sense out of the morass into which I and my fellows—and I trust that my fellows in the opposition party will not demur—have led the nation.”

That would be remarkable.  It would be equally remarkable if the previous president were to say, “My fellow Americans, when I came to office I hoped that I could, from the sheer force of my convictions and my affability, craft something that seems now a contradiction in terms, a centralized conservatism to meet the needs of the poor, the illegal aliens, and children bound to bad schools.  I had no inclination to take the country into war.  We all know what happened then.  I took the country into war first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.  I believed that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.  I confess that I wanted to believe it.  As I look back upon it now, I see that I underestimated the confusions of war, and I never did understand the force of ideas, rather than of schemes, whether they are social or military.  I never spoke ill of my adversaries, but now I fear that that was not meekness, but a proud refusal to take them seriously.  In the long slide of our nation into moral decay and insolvency, my eight years played their sorry part.  I beg your forgiveness.”

That would be astonishing.  So too if the president before him were to admit, “My fellow Americans, we both know that I was probably the worst rogue and cad ever to sit in the Oval Office.  I am a liar, and I always have been.  I lied to you about my disgraceful affairs with women, a few of which, if anybody but a governor had engaged in them, would have landed me behind bars.  I lied to you about how I raised money for my campaigns.  I lied to you about my personal finances in Arkansas.  What pains me the most is that my vile and pathetic sexual escapades did signal work in coarsening the culture.  America would have been a far better place if, when I lay weeping on the floor of the car after I’d lost my first re-election campaign as governor, I had turned to the church and not to my political advisors.  I have hurt my wife unspeakably all these years, and ask you to attribute to me much of her sadness and bitterness.  I beg you to forgive me; and you would do well to forget me, too.”

The world of the Ruling Class is not real.  The graduate from the Poison Ivy League will always have that pedigree, will always command attention, will fall from politician to lobbyist, or from lobbyist to politician, from partner in a law firm to well-remunerated head of a foundation, or from foundation to law firm.  They are too “big” to fail.  John Dewey could destroy the public schools of a nation, and not lose a dime over it or a minute of sleep.

Were the old rural aristocrats all so bad, by comparison?  If they failed, the evidence was there to see and to condemn, in poor harvests and indebted lands.  Every day of their lives they depended upon ordinary men and women who could do things they could not, and who might well ride a horse or shoot a rifle better than they.  That gave them a decent chance to acquire real humility.  Would I pay to help ensconce Princetonians or Yalies in political life?  I’d rather pay to send them to confession.  I’d go, too.

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).

  • Steven Jonathan

    I read the first lady’s dissertation she wrote at Princeton- a very bad omen. Your sane imaginings of presidents confessing truth, especially Obama, are devoutly to be wished, but chaff so dramatically against reality as to possess a drug induced hallucinogenic quality. The presidential family doesn’t even have the decency to be “crypto-racists.” No code coming from them, they were “born to rule.” They have made a wasteland of our moral landscape (all of them) and don’t bother to look back at the scorched earth.
    As usual Dr. Esolen, thank you for a thought provoking and sane article!

    • tom

      Michelle writes like a high school sophomore. Keep it sealed, Princeton, to protect your rotting reputation. None of you can be trusted, anymore.

      • ponerology

        Could they ever be trusted? Really?
        George Carlin: It’s a club, and you ain’t in it.
        Since before the “founding fathers” if that is what we are forced to call them this has been a nation of protestants (the useful tools or willing minions of something else) who were never Christian and cannot be called that since they rejected God’s one true Church. Did you expect something different from their blood line?

    • Deacon Ed Peitler

      I’d encourage you to write a summary of her dissertation for an article here at Crisis. Sort of an expose of the Obama philosophy, as well as decline of Princeton.

      • Adam__Baum

        “..I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded (sic) some of my White professors and classmates try to be to me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus..”

        The rest of it is noblesse oblige fueled by narcissism and seething racist Afrocentricity.

  • museumjim

    Our democratic republic may never recover from the disaster of POTUS W.W.

    • Adam__Baum

      Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience express contempt in the way I might be inclined at his grave.

  • Uuncle Max

    Let’s keep in mind the rather fragrant fact that a goodly portion of the portfolio of this august institution is entrusted to Bain Capital.

    Just a reminder

    • Art Deco

      What’s the significance of that?

      (While we are at it, since when do private equity firms undertake treasury services and asset management for clients?)

      • Uuncle Max

        Given the “Mitt Romney killed my wife” hysteria generated by the democrats in last year’s campaign – it’s called irony.

        • Art Deco

          What, did that fellow Soptic have some connection to Princeton? I am still not understanding you.

          • Uuncle Max

            Go to Deroy Murdock of September 2 2012 in which he was listing the numbers of institutions (including Oprah Winfrey) who were entrusting large sums of money to Bain Capital. This was to counter the “Mitt Romney killed my wife” mantra popular in democratic camoaign circles at the time.

            The point is the liberal hypocrisy in accusing Bain Capital of killing people and destroying their lives and connecting it to Romney who was years past any association with Bain, while at the same time profiting mightily from Bain’s expertise.

    • slainte

      The Mormons are minding the Presbyterian’s assets…now that’s Pluralism at work!

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Mgr Ronald Knox sarcastically described the Oxford manner (his old university) as “an infinite superiority that one is far too well-bred to show, but which is, nevertheless, apparent.”

  • S

    All I ever get from Esolen is anger. There are many writers who can show anger. He is not original. Everyone already knows what to be angry about, at least among Catholics. What he fails to convince me of is that he really knows hope — not in the sense of optimism, but in the sense of Spe Salvi.

    • Art Deco

      He is not particularly angry. Critical and wistful, perhaps.

      Go hide.

    • Q

      He connects the dots. He puts things in perspective. Is more knowledge a bad thing for you?

    • Adam__Baum

      “All I ever get from Esolen is anger.”

      There is a word for happiness without cause-lunacy. A lack of anger at that which is wrong is indifference, the opposite of love.

      Everyone already knows what to be angry about, at least among Catholics.

      No they don’t. Catechesis has been for decades been inadequate and insufficient.
      in every age and every time, there will always be those sentinals blowing the trumpets of alarm.

      • Art Deco

        Oh, but Dr. Esolen is negative. Can’t have that.

        Need more greeting cards and Haugen ditties.

        • R. K. Ich


    • R. K. Ich

      What’s your beef with anger? If there were weeping prophets (like Jeremiah), why not angry ones? Does not our age warrant a few insightful men of faith to have a critical edge? I await with baited breath for the day when bishops and priests and the laymen of the church own the gift of their masculinity, and gladly possess a fighting spirit worthy of the name Christian.

      Esolen is a Catholic man who has, over the course of just a few decades, watched his civilization, his people, turn their backs on God — not just turn their backs, but give the God the Father, and our Lord, and His Church the middle finger upon their about face. Like Esolen, most Christians with a modicum of awareness have reason to weep for their nation and their culture, because of the bloodiest and vilest holocaust in history allowed under the misnomer of “Freedom of Choice,” because of the perverse sexualization of our children, because of the killing off of the weak and worship of libido, convenience, fame, and mammon.

      Can hope exist amid a real hatred for that which devours the mind, soul, and body of mankind? I know of no other proper Christian response except “Yes!” We do not mourn as the world does; neither do we despair. But while we beg God to delay His vengeance til the day of Judgment for the sake of the elect, we cannot speak “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. I say let holy anger live on. It might rouse a few men to pray as Christians ought to.

      In closing, Esolen’s teaching ministry and his fidelity to the Church, to the best of Christendom, and to the Great Tradition, has done more to draw me closer to the Roman Catholic faith than the multitude of hours I’ve wasted listening to impotent cadre of clergy trying to win converts through the religion of nice.

      • Deacon Ed Peitler

        Nailed it. Write more, please.

    • J

      The problem here is not just anger but offense against the truth. It is rash judgment to assume as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor. Calumny, by making remarks contrary to the truth and thereby harming the reputations of others and giving occasion for false judgments, is worse still. Good Christians should avoid detraction, rash judgment and calumny. The accusations, some vague and some unproven, against former presidents that are made in this article are unworthy of a Catholic publication.

      • Adam__Baum

        “The accusations, some vague and some unproven”
        What accusations?

        • Q

          Apparently the truth is now termed accusation. Who knew?

      • ponerology

        I fear you have little idea what it means to be a Catholic.

      • Q

        Are you joking?

      • Dan

        Esolen is a sad, bitter, and mean-spirited little man. He would do well to stop judging others and turn his eyes toward the log in his own eye.

        • Art Deco

          Irony is dead.

        • Tony

          That’s funny. I’m not sad, I’m irrepressibly cheerful in class, and I’m not little. I do notice that our politicians never admit moral faults, or grave sins, or even stupid blunders. But in the real world we all have faults, we have all sinned badly, and we all do stupid things. Which accusation did you have in mind? That President Clinton was a liar? Is that really not generally known? Wouldn’t it be far better for his soul if he were to admit it? Wouldn’t it have been far better for us if President Bush had been a little less sure of himself in prosecuting the war in Iraq? Wouldn’t we have a better nation right now if President Obama were to fold up the health care tent and start over, admitting the colossal error? You are judging me — even pretending to know my psyche — and are posting the judgment in public, at the same time that you decry the sin of detraction. Very strange.

  • hombre111

    I think somebody said all of this a long time ago in a book called “The Best and the Brightest,” which talked about all the smart people who got us into the Vietnam War. If I remember correctly, he said nobody ever asked one certain question about their policies and their decisions: “Is it a sin?”

  • Don Campbell

    I am for a constitutional amendment: anyone who attends an Ivy League university is permanently DQd from public office of any kind. We need to break the strangle-hold these pompous elites have on the nation.

    • david

      “DQd”? I see you are a member of the culture haters who re out to destroy the ability of the common people to understand just what it is you are trying not to say! To be much more efficient at this I suggest you abbreviate your entire post. HAND

  • Tony

    Anger, in here? It’s the reverse. Nobody can really continue to be angry with a penitent. The trouble is, our Rulers do a lot of harm, but all of their training, not to mention our insane electoral system, fairly forbids them ever from acknowledging ignorance or ineptitude or compromised motives. I’d love to see Republicans admit the harm that their party has done (maybe we can start with Big Agriculture, Mr. Butz?), and Democrats admit the harm that their party has done (maybe we can start with Big Welfare, Mr. Johnson?) — there certainly is a lot of confessin’ to go around.

    We are 17 million million dollars in debt, which by my calculation is about 56,000 dollars for every man, woman, and child; and this is pure debt, unbalanced by any equity in any real property. It’s as if each one of us had 56,000 dollars of gambling losses — dead debt. Our culture is coarse; we are the kinds of people that our great-grandparents would not have allowed their children to associate with. I think we’re done for, and I say that because I don’t see a way to avert the colossal crash that is coming. Everyone bears some responsibility for it. Let the mirrors go round.

  • JERD

    There is something to be said for monarchy, isn’t there? At least the masses know who to blame.

    In our system of checked, balanced and diffused powers, in order for a pol to escape responsibility he need only point at the other elected official, or appointed bureaucrat, or judge for life and say, “It is not I who have sinned, it is he!”

    Our shameful government lacks contrition because it is much too easy for those in power to blame someone else, rather than seek absolution from those over whom they rule.

  • slainte

    Professor Esolen, if you could roll back time, would you choose to go Princeton again, or perhaps a Catholic university?
    Will you send your children to an Ivy League college?

    • Q

      We need more solid Catholics at those schools to convert people. Not just while in attendance but after graduation in the arena of ideas.

      • givelifeachance2

        Prof. Esolen has been unusually gentle on Princeton, which has had its hand on many unspeakably evil projects, many of them related to population manipulation and other issues inimical to the Catholic Church.

        • Adam__Baum

          Did you read the opening paragraph?

        • Q

          Not much different than any other college. Just more money and influence.

      • slainte

        Princeton is of the Presbyterian Calvinist tradition which nixed confession in its purification of all things Catholic. It’s not clear whether public confessions are viewed any more favorably by those whose tradition identify them as among the elect.
        Now that Presbyterianism has evolved in favor of a very liberal religious ethos which still remains antagonistic to Catholicism, it would seem a monumental challenge for an un-catechized Catholic student to merely hold onto his faith in such a setting.

        • Q

          Within the past 5 years at Harvard one of their most accomplished graduates became a nun. It is very possible.

          • Slainte

            Excellent news. Thanks for the update.

  • Robbie J

    There is anger and then there is anger. As St. Thomas Aquinas argues, the more excellent a person is, the more he is prone to anger (S.T. I-II, 47, 3). Anger at what? Corrupt systems, a society (families) that are falling apart and mostly the now disgusting practice of calling evil good, and good, evil; using (abusing) language, for instance, to give an air of seeming righteousness to the most despicable of actions. At least in the past we acknowledged we were sinning while stubbornly continuing to do so. How much lower can we go? Thank you so much, Mr. Esolen for putting it so plainly. God bless you.

  • MJ

    I do not see or hear anger from Dr. E….but simply a view of what God sees…

    Romans 1:18-23

    Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE)
    The Guilt of Mankind

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

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  • CHCGrad

    Excellent. Grazie mille!

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