You Can’t Have a Culture of Life if You Have No Culture at All

It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a moment that it is always far easier to destroy than to create.  One bomb or wrecking ball can shatter in an instant the cathedral that it took human hands and minds fifty years to build.

What is true of buildings is true of culture generally.

During the early and dark days of World War II, when the British army at Dunkirk had the sea behind them and the Germans before them, they sent a message back home consisting of three words: But if not. 

It was a brilliant message, because even if the Germans managed to intercept it and decode it, it wouldn’t have done them any good. “But if not” … what?

But the army knew that their countrymen would understand. It was more than a message regarding strategy.  It captured the heart of the war itself, a battle for the survival of European culture and civilization against the diseased fantasies of the Third Reich.

The reference comes from the story of the Hebrew youths Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, in captivity in ancient Babylon, who refused to bow down in worship before the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar.  The king summoned them before him in a fury and demanded their submission, lest he cast them into the fiery furnace.  Their reply was manly and direct:

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. BUT IF NOT be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.

The British people then roused themselves to action—ordinary men, anyone with a boat and a heart that beat warmly for God and country.  They crossed the channel in defiance of the enemy and rescued more than three hundred thousand men.

The incident reveals more than a common language.  It reveals a common way of life, and a common view of life.  The sterling words of the old King James Bible, a work of the highest culture, had long come to inform and vivify the ways of ordinary people.

That message could not now be sent, either to England or America. It would be incomprehensible.  That is not because the culture has changed.  It is because it has been destroyed, and the most energetic destroyers have been the very people whom we charge with its care: teachers, professors, statesmen, and artists.

Thomas Molnar had this to say about it:

Culture has come to mean … anything that happens to catch the fancy of a group: rock concerts, supposedly for the famished of the third world; the drug culture and other subcultures; sects and cults; sexual excess and aberration; blasphemy on stage and screen; frightening and obscene shapes; the plastic wrapping of Pont-Neuf or the California coast; to smashing of the family and other institutions; the display of the queer [that is, bizarre], abject, the sick.  These instant products, meant to provide instant gratification to a society itself unmoored from foundation and tradition, accordingly deny the work of mediation and maturation and favor the incoherent, the shapeless and the repulsive.

All in a day’s work at your local school, CBS, the BBC, the CBC, The New York Times, the Guggenheim, Broadway, Harvard, Hollywood, Cosmopolitan, the Playboy Channel, Princeton, your local school, Young Adult Fiction, the halls of Congress, Planned Parenthood, the “Adult” bookstore with no windows, your local school.

We want to raise up young people in a culture of life. Well and good. But that means that we require a culture, and that doesn’t happen by itself, especially not now, when all the forces of “education” and mass entertainment are ranged against the very possibility of a culture.

Imagine a scene of wholesale destruction. Every old and venerable structure has been reduced to rubble. People relieve themselves in the street. Sometimes they copulate there, too. Their “music” is little more than grunting and groaning. Their rulers are on the take. There are hundreds of thousands of old books in the mountain of stone and mortar that used to be the library. Most of those books are far beyond the capacity of the people to read. They sneer and snort at Shakespeare, because they can’t understand him. They’ve never even heard of Virgil. A lot of these people have taken to cannibalism.

Now then—you have retained some vague memory of a more noble way of life.  You have therefore arrived at a great truth. It’s perfectly obscure to most of your fellow rubble-pickers, who mock you and call you a prude, a Neanderthal, a medieval monk, a madman, a hater of the hungry, and so forth. Your precious truth is simply this: it is wrong to eat human flesh.

Well, that is no great burst of enlightenment, but it is a beginning. So what do you do?  Will you be content to say, “My children will do everything that everyone else is doing, but they will not eat human flesh?” They will be subhuman and subcultural, but their taste in dining will be restricted just a little?  Is that all?

Will you say, “Our family is not anthropophagous, but we will send our children to be taught by the same fellow that all the other parents use,” the one with the squalid leer, dabbling in excrement, contemptuous of any wisdom from the past?

That is where pro-life parents find themselves now.

Should we expect any help from places like Yale? Those places sponsor weeks for show-and-tell by whores and peddlers of sex toys. Any help from your local school? That would be like expecting Belial to lead you in prayer. There is no help from “the culture,” because there is no longer any culture; only the rubble of what used to be a culture.

What do you do, then?  Turn back, O man.  It’s time to recover and rebuild.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared August 4, 2014 on Lifesitenews and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Church of the Assumption, Philadelphia / Matthew Christopher / Caters News.)

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).

  • ForChristAlone


  • John O’Neill

    Very good description of the modern world. However, do we Catholics have the courage and fortitude to stand up to the American Babylon and say that we will not serve its gods nor worship its idols. I think that in America we are more likely to compromise with the worshippers of the false gods.

    • For Church, For God

      We need the family unit of a Catholic to be the strongest to be able to stand up against the tyranny of the age, followed by parish communities as strong as fortress. But in many towns & cities of our country, many can’t find a strong parish community. Just lukewarms/liberals who are absorbed by the age.

      • John O’Neill

        Right you are; too many Americanized priests and bishops are more interested in supporting the culture and its toxicity. How many priests are more likely on Sunday to talk about a local sports event than the need for spirituality? Their spiritual children ask them for bread but they give them a stone.

        • John200

          Don’t ask them for an egg….

  • You’ve hit the nail on the head once again Dr. Esolen. And you ask the question that I find myself asking every day, as I see the culture seeping like a toxin into my family, including my wife, “what do you do, then?” In our society, vice has become virtue and virtue, vice! When you try to speak to people about this crisis, they look at you as though you’re some sort of doomsday eccentric or something. I have started reading my children poetry (Robert Louis Stevenson) at night, before bed, and to my surprise they absolutely love it. I can keep them interested in it for at least 20-25 minutes. Instead of the expected “this is boring”, I get “read another poem Daddy!”. They are starving for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

    • Vinnie

      Take a look at The Book Of Virtues by William Bennett.

      • Vinnie…thank you. We do have both the Book of Virtues and the The Book of Virtues for Children. Also, until only a few months ago, our daughter’s favorite TV show was “Adventures in the Book of Virtues”. A wonderfully produced and well done attempt to make virtue education entertaining. It’s a shame the project couldn’t be extended…or remade.

    • Jude

      Get rid of cable, network, or satellite television. We keep one television (in our room, so we can monitor it) that can play good movies (The Quiet Man, Sound of Music, things the whole family can watch together. In addition to R.L. Stevenson, there is a great book called “Favorite Poems Old and New.” I really believe that if you expose them to the best, they will eventually see what cheap imitations pop culture is offering them.

      • Jude…thanks for the comment. I will check out book asap.

        • Tony

          Also check out a marvelous textbook by Louis Untermeyer, called Paths to Poetry. Simply wonderful.

    • MamaK

      I think we’ve been fairly successful in keeping toxic culture out of our family. One principle we went by was that it wasn’t enough to ban the bad; you have to actively fill it with good. No rock or modern music in our house. But more than just listen to good music (classical, opera, folk) we’ve enabled our kids to make their own good music through various instruments. We have kids who are excellent violinists, but we also have other kids who enjoy the simple mountain dulcimer or recorder. One of our kids wasn’t good at any instrument, but he enjoyed singing, so we found a group he could sing with (not a garage band) and found someone classically trained to give him lessons. He loves singing polyphony, chant and opera now because he feels like he is perfecting his instrument – his voice. Like your family, my husband has read aloud to the kids every night since they were toddlers. My older kids still enjoyed listening before they left for college. He’s read everything from Winnie-the-Pooh and Grimm’s to Wodehouse to War and Peace. No TV or VCR/DVD, so we really encourage a lot of crafts, outdoor and indoor games, gardening and independent reading to entertain themselves. And we try to model what we want to see in them. If you don’t want your kids to be passive receptacles of toxic culture, don’t zone out in front of the TV or computer yourself. Replace every evil with something good.

      • Tony

        Absolutely splendid. You know, television after what you describe is like Spam after filet mignon, or like a puddle instead of the ocean. God bless you and your family.

  • fredx2

    The culture is controlled by TV and movies. Those media spend hours and hours with every child, every day. Other influences are minimal. TV and movies quite consciously seek to mold your child, and they are doing quite well at it. They have far more influence than you do. They are more attractive than you are. They give the kid what it wants, when it wants it. At the same time, they teach him life lessons – that sex is like eating lunch, that parents are weird, that good is evil and evil is good. All nicely rationalized and quite persuasive in its own twisted way.

    Parents meanwhile, are too busy working to notice that their children are controlled by media. Kids don’t read any more, and when they do read, they read stories of boy witches who use magic to control their surroundings.

    The culture has completely collapsed. We are in a free fall. We are culturally empty. Look at the top ten movies from the last few years.

    Avatar (2009) Fantasy
    The Dark Knight (2008) Fantasy
    Shrek 2 (2004) Fantasy
    Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) Fantasy
    Spider-Man (2002) Fantasy
    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Fantasy
    Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) Fantasy
    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Fantasy
    Spider-Man 2 (2004) Fantasy
    The Passion of the Christ (2004) Religious. (Was not released by Hollywood, presumably did so well because no movies of substance had been seen for so many years)

    Look at the top books from the last ten years:

    1 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneJ.K. Rowling Magic Fantasy
    2 Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution Robert C. Atkins Diet
    3 The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown Anti-Religious Fantasy
    4 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows J.K. Rowling Magic Fantasy
    5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling, Magic Fantasy
    6 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince J.K. Rowling Magic Fantasy
    7 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets J.K. Rowling Magic Fantasy
    8 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban J.K. Rowling Magic Fantasy
    9 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire J.K. Rowling, Magic Fantasy
    10 Who Moved My Cheese? Spencer Johnson Child-like Business lessons.

    And what was universally called the “Good Book” by people who actually read it, has now become “That book where the evil God kills people” by Child-adults who have not read it.

    • Watosh

      I am beginning to think that we are proving that a government that is founded on the principle that the people have the power to decide what is right and what is wrong, and that the teachings of Christ can be ignored by a secular government will inevitably lead to ruin.

  • Vinnie

    THAT’S IT!

  • Beth

    The first reading of today’s mass is about the ‘Thau’ being placed upon the heads of those who moan and groan against the abominations practiced in the city. (Ez 9:1-7, 10:18-22). Reading that brought some relief to my frustrations with living in this ignorant culture. Great timing of this article. Thanks, again, Dr. Esolen.

    • Maggie

      Being a Franciscan Tertiary I have a Tau! But seriously, I think for faithful Catholics we must do as much as we can to reclaim our heritage, the patrimony of our Holy Church. We must learn and live the perennial truths of our faith that have NOT changed since VII although one might have reason to think so. Our Church is infiltrated and high prelates say opposite and confusing things. Now more than ever we need to uphold the traditions of the Church just as St. Paul said in 2 Thes 2:15. And here is an excellent article from Rorate:

  • Fred

    Spot on Dr. Esolen. What a beautiful and powerful simple phrase “but if not”. I’ve never heard that before, but I too embrace as I try to figure out how to make a rudder input to this ship and turn it around.

  • Worshiping the culture, any culture, searching for ‘the answer’ in the world, in the culture, wishing what happens [God’s will?] be different or better from our point of view may be pointless. Since Job in the land of Uz there was a almost constant ebb and flow to humanity and all that has changed in the last 300 years is this culture broke the one billion human barrier and is currently somewhere around 7.5 billion and climbing. We are effectively blind to what is coming [God’ will] and view life as a train wreck in slow motion. We live on one car on the train arguing over which side of our car will make the difference in getting us to where we want to go. Each car has ‘leaders’ in front declaring his/her side is the side that will take us to the ‘promised land’ and the train wreck keeps on going.

    Language is the problem. Language is about facts, figures and identity. The school system homogenizes us with what and how to think. The child genius that entered school at five becomes a robot taught to compete at knowing the facts and unless a miracle occurs, they are stuck in a train wreck. The train wreck is our mind. The solution resides in our heart. We have not discovered how to meld the two without bloodshed, angst and despair. The few who do may only be examples of a future after the train ride.

    But if not…

  • russell snow

    There is no doubt that our Catholic faith is being tested in many respects, in ways that are quite horrible for many and other ways which are insidious and undermining, especially here in the US. We often ask, especially now, why is there so much evil in the world, we ought also to ask, why is there so much good? Western civilization, with is embrace of godlessness by the cultural elites is dead; Christian culture is not. Some of the ways needed to create a Christian cutlure may seem somewhat unorthodox, but so were the ways of many of the great saints. St.Alphonsus Ligouri, when be became a bishop of a diocese, found a serious problem of prostitution. He reasoned that most of the girls who became prostitutes were forced into it by poverty, and therefore, he offered a pension to any girl who would give it up. Many did and many went back to the Church. I think this is what the Holy Father is about.

    • Tamsin

      I would like to be a part of a Catholic Church that did not look to governments to provide pensions for the poor, but to its own people. I would like to chip into that effort.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    “By “historylessness,” Spengler means that condition in which a people loses all touch with its own tradition, becomes narrowly focused on short-term propositions in the day-to-day, and generally shrinks down its mental and cultural horizons so that one day is much like another in endless succession. Richard Weaver’s coinage in Visions of Order (1957) of “presentism” is similar in meaning, indicating an abdication of all trans-personal memory, of all genealogical orientation, of all concern for the future, and of all large ideas.”
    – Ortega Y Gassett

    This quote is what I experience and see around me put with terrifying
    clarity. The implications for a church made up of and catering to such
    people is that words will lose their meanings and meanings their words.
    Words themselves are history.

  • Vincent

    A very good article! But in all seriousness the destruction of Roman Catholic Culture has come from within, not without. Nothing happens in this country without the approval of the Catholics. One might say that they are not ‘good’ Catholics, but whose fault is that? Who takes responsibility?

    • Tamsin

      As GM is said to be a pension plan that builds cars as a sideline, the Catholic church in America distributes sacraments as a sideline to its core business. Which seems to be: working hand in hand with the Democrat party to build the social welfare state. That is the culture they are building, like it or not.

      • ErikandKathy Muller

        Wow…I’ll pray for you!

      • Michael Wallis

        The hierarchy has succumbed to the spirit of the age. It’s happened
        before, one example being the Arian heresy. Unfortunately, so many
        non-cathecized Catholics are foot soldiers following the hierarchy with
        them in their conformity to the world.

  • I came into the Church as a young adult only a decade and a half after WWII. None of the upheavals of the Sixties had happened yet; seminaries were full, as were churches every Sunday. Yet I had the distinct feeling — having been very responsibly catechized — that what I was really entering was not so much a culture as a COUNTERCULTURE. It was that orientation that sustained me wonderfully throughout the many cultural shocks which all of us had in store during the decades to follow. So I can agree, almost out of pure habit, that yes, we must be about doing what Christ has always and unceasingly been calling us to be doing: recovering and rebuilding.

    • ForChristAlone

      right on, James

      • I had this afterthought which may add perspective to my above comment. Place yourself at some perfect high point in the Middle Ages, with the Church ostensibly at the peak of her cultural sway over the Western mind. In the midst of all this supposed success Christ, as we well know, was urgently calling on every single Christian to recover and rebuild his Church. For there never was yet any perfect cultural era of time by which to measure the present one. The Perfect only comes at the very end of time. Meanwhile we’re all about seeing the imperfect torn down, and about then REbuilding on a past that has been, yes, in part glorious.

    • ErikandKathy Muller

      Beautiful sentiment James!

  • JTLiuzza

    How exactly is the King James version of the actual bible, a butchery of the true bible by heretics, a “work of the highest culture?”

    • John Albertson

      By that logic, we should also destroy the Parthenon, the Pyramids, and all classical literature from the pagan Homer to the heretic Milton. We should also tear down St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York hecause its architect was a heretic, and never sing Bach or Handel in church. The King James Bible is perhaps the greatest achievement of English letters. Butchery ? If you want real butcher, we have the grossly infelicitous and de-sexed New American Bible –

      • Rhoda Penmark

        Thank you for stating it so well.

    • Tony

      JT — Did you know that for 200 years, the KJV Bibles were printed with the so-called apocryphal books also, such as Judith and Tobit and Wisdom? It’s hard then to describe it as a “butchery,” unless you can point to specific places where the translators went out of their way to distort the meaning. The thing is, I don’t actually find that to be the case. When I look at what they did with the Hebrew and the Greek, I see that their principal aim was to be as literally accurate as possible. I’m speaking here as a translator, and I think I know something of the trade.

      I am very fond of the Douay Bible, which preceded the KJ, and which the KJ translators had at their elbows, along with other English translations, as they did their work. But you know that the Douay was an English version of Jerome’s Latin version of the Hebrew and Greek, so you are getting the translation at a second remove. Sometimes the Douay is superior, and sometimes it isn’t. “The Lord ruleth me” doesn’t stand up to “The Lord is my shepherd.”

      Anyway, I teach Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Jonson … Were they heretics? Some of them were. Were they Christians? Yes, they were. Are they my allies? You bet.

    • John200

      Very high literary quality is enough to make it a “work of the highest culture.” I know it ain’t perfect, but it certainly qualifies as high culture.

  • AugustineThomas

    Tell this to the pope, who cuddles up with baby murderers and diverse heretics and apostates and persecutes the only people trying to bring a real culture back to the Church.

    • Bluesman1950

      They really should make you pope, you are obviously much better qualified!

    • Michael Wallis

      He’s very busy networking with Pentecostals. He’ll get around to finishing off the “rosary counters” and various “pelagians” as soon as he can…

  • Bill Matthews

    One word: Yes.

    • Jude

      Two words: Yes. Yes!

  • massmd

    A penetratingly beautiful analyses. Yet even this “wholesale destruction” occurs by God’s permissive will and thus cannot be but for our good if we confidently practice piety with holy resignation to this unprecedented demolition of culture (what precedent can there be for the decapitating loss of purity before God that artificial contraception afflicts on clueless folks?).
    With childlike faith one can readily see that there are only two things left that give true hope- Our Lady and The Blessed Sacrament. The vision of St John Bosco welcomes all repentant sinners who come to fear God and do as He commands. It’s always been a fallen world, right now just more than average. In short, Our blessed Mother’s simple words at Fatima encapsulate this destruction we see on all sides: “Russia will spread her errors”.
    In your child-like secret heart, hide yourself under Her powerful Mantle, there you will find the way to Heaven with the child Jesus as your steady companion.

    • John200

      That’s the recipe. We have to rebuild a culture one person at a time, painstakingly and energetically. All the virtues are needed in this kind of work.

      I would like to live to be 125 years old, so I can see some results (other than that, I don’t care how long Iive).

      Noticed this is your first comment. Nice to meet you at CrisisMag.

  • John Grondelski

    The accompanying picture — is that a parish church in a Northeast or Midwest diocese after the bishop and his “pastoral planning department” have “renewed” the local church by consolidation or closing?

    • John O’Neill

      This former Church is located in Philadelphia and the photo comes from a British publication where the photographer showed the numerous old beautiful churches in Philadelphia which were now in decay and collapse. These photos of the old destroyed churches or “bare ruined choirs” as the Bard put it, are striking as they show the near collapse of the Catholic Church in the old cities of the Northeast where Catholicism was once vibrant and triumphant. These are the same areas where liberalism and the democratic party are also vibrant and triumphant; must be a lesson here.

  • publiusnj

    Mr. Esolen is correct in saying that there is no culture in the US. Rather, there
    is a formal governmentally imposed absence of culture (at least any culture that
    is not state-sponsored and controlled). That is due to the unique history of
    the Reformation in the English speaking countries that led to a multiplicity of
    different Protestantisms in England, Scotland, Ireland and the separate colonies
    that became the US. One of the first orders of business for those united
    colonies (after organizing the institutions of government) wsa to organize the
    culture of the US. Because of the multiplicity of denominations, though, the
    “Founders” had very quickly to come up with the First Amendment as a compromise
    among the various factions that controlled separate states.

    In Continental Europe, there has never been the multiplicity of Christian
    denominations that the US and–to a lesser degree–the British kingdoms have
    spawned. That multiplicity is not the result of “tolerance” so much as of
    historical accident, and its exaggerated development in the multi-denominational
    world of the 13 English Colonies is the reason the US is so exacting in its
    refusal to accept any policy based on morality. In Europe, the State just sought to take over the Catholic Church and make it a wholly owned subsidiary of the State. So, throughout Northern Europe, a single Protestant sect succeeded the Catholic Church and was generally “established” as the state religion (Scandinavia + the N. German States + the lands of the Teutonic Knights + the Netherlands).

    Things got more complicated in Britain because Mary Stuart was off in France when her
    “lairds” decided to take over the Scottish Church in their own name in 1560 and
    because Elizabeth I of England, who had also taken over the English Church,
    decided not to marry (or was prevented by her handlers from marrying), and named
    Mary Stuart’s son her successor after killing Mary off. As a result of those two
    events, Britain had two established churches–one Anglican and the other
    Calvinist–as well as a Puritan fifth column in England as of the date of
    James’s succession and that in turn led to a unique fissiparousness of English
    speaking Protestantism that only got more complicated in the 13 separate
    colonies. Things got more confused over the next century particularly
    after the English Civil War (in which many factions wrapped themselves in
    denominational colors), even more so after the Glorious Revolution of 1688
    essentially allowed dissenters throughout England, Scotland and the Colonies and
    yet more so after Methodism and the Eighteenth Century “Awakening” undercut the
    strength of Anglicanism in the colonies in which it was established.

    As a result when the Bill of Rights was being considered, the New England
    Congregationalists, the Anglicans throughout the colonies, dissenters like the
    Pennsylvanis Quakers and Virginians like Jefferson and Madison who had just
    disestablished Anglicanism in Virginia were all in favor of an amendment which
    would keep Congress out of the issue of establishment of a church. That is what
    the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was actually all about:
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” All of
    them wanted that issue left to the individual states. And there things are
    likely to have stood but for the 19th Century arrival of those pesky Catholics.
    All the American Protestants could (and did) unite around the most visceral
    anti-Catholicism. They were even willing to give up on their own denominational
    schools (which had been getting state aid) in favor of “public schools,” just to
    deny the Catholics any aid for their schools.

    The next 175 years of “First Amendment Jurisprudence” and Blaine Amendments has
    primarily been about denying Catholic schools any aid and the militant
    secularism devised to uphold that anti-Catholicism has in turn perverted the
    whole concept of public regulation of morals. Now, only amorality is considered
    acceptable. That is truly the “dictatorship of relativism” that Pope Benedict

  • Rhoda Penmark

    “Imagine a scene of wholesale destruction. Every old and venerable structure has been reduced to rubble. People relieve themselves in the street. Sometimes they copulate there, too. Their ‘music’ is little more than grunting and groaning. Their rulers are on the take. There are hundreds of thousands of old books in the mountain of stone and mortar that used to be the library. Most of those books are far beyond the capacity of the people to read. They sneer and snort at Shakespeare, because they can’t understand him. They’ve never even heard of Virgil. A lot of these people have taken to cannibalism.”

    Imagine this scene . . . why?

    Articles like this are why conservatives have the reputation of being sourpusses. Negative, nasty, sanctimonious, anti-pleasure, anti-joy.

    Appreciation of Shakespeare and Virgil will persist long after you are gone.

    • Tony

      What can you possibly mean, “anti-pleasure” and “anti-joy”? What wonderful pleasure is out there now? Try to be a young person following the moral law and looking for somebody to marry. Porn brings joy? Not loneliness?

      The analogy is between cannibalism and snuffing out the lives of your children. Is that a thing to celebrate, that we snuff out the lives of our children? We earn a gold star, if we say, “No, I shall not snuff out the life of my child”?

      I have just been sent a publication of 154 items, most of them poems, some of them drawings or photographs, purporting to be reworkings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, by 154 various poets and visual artists. It’s published by a well known academic journal. It is clear that the writers sometimes do not understand the grammar of Shakespeare’s sentences. Shakespeare has survived the cultural wreckage, sort of. But I am now regularly meeting college freshmen, from so-called “good” schools, who have never even heard the NAMES of Milton, Chaucer, Pope, Tennyson, and so on. Poetry has almost vanished from many schools. Most students will never have heard of Virgil. Heck, most college professors have never read Virgil, and never will. Taylor Caldwell, sixty years ago, could write a novel, Pillar of Iron, on the life of Cicero, expecting that her hundreds of thousands of ordinary readers would know not only who Cicero was, but who all the other players were, and why Cicero was important, and what world-changing event was about to happen, which Cicero was not to see — the birth of Christ. She could never write that now.

      “Culture” can be loosely defined by the things we cherish so much, we make sure that we pass them along from one generation to the next. What qualifies for contemporary Americans? Not much. And this is true of “low” or popular culture as much as of “high” culture. Ask somebody under 30 who Cole Porter was. Ask him who John Wayne was. Ask him to name a hymn written before 1950. Everything is ephemeral.

      These observations were already made by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. If Bradbury visited your typical local library, he would say that everything he saw then is true in spades now.

  • Sue A.

    Every person reading this needs to think of a way to act on it. Homeschool, take your kids camping. Read to them. Don’t give them a kindle when they are 10. Take them for walks. Listen to good music. Avoid pop stars even if their message is innocuous. Cancel the Disney channel, Cancel your cable. Take your grandchildren fishing. Go to band concerts. Pray the liturgy of the hours. I agree with professor Esolen, there is no culture. But we can’t give up. We need to fight. And ask God for mercy. And pray.

    • Tony

      That’s it. Do the human things once more. I was told recently by one of my students that 1961 — as late as that! — was the first year in which record sales were greater than the sales of sheet music. Think of it. Learn to make music. Play cards — cribbage, pinochle, gin rummy, hearts. Play chess and backgammon. Play baseball, touch football. Build a catapult. Hunt for edible berries. Swim in the lake. Do the human things — and clear your mind of the toxic waste.

  • montanajack1948

    Wow: cannibalism, public copulation (“Why don’t we do it in the road?”), disrespect toward Shakespeare, and total ignorance of Virgil–can we sink much lower? Has Dr. Esolen been reading Cormac McCarthy and/or Walter M. Miller? “Show-and-tell by whores” and expecting “Belial to lead you in prayer…”: Dr. Esolen really needs to stop pulling his punches. I mean, what does he really think of modernity? In any case, “What do you do, then? Turn back, O man. It’s time to recover and rebuild”–rebuild with what, exactly? I’d say we’ve got enough to do just dodging the cannibals. Sad to say, I have to admit that, though I haven’t sunk quite so far as the bestial sub-humans Dr. Esolen describes, I would never have recognized “But if not”; on the other hand, in today’s wasteland and cultural rubble, I could at least google it.

  • montanajack1948

    “But if not”: and google it I have, and I can’t find anything beyond the fact that George Will related the same Dunkirk anecdote years ago in one of his columns. I find nothing about “But if not” anywhere else (Brittanica, Wikipedia, Dunkirk websites, etc.). I assume Dr. Esolen got it from Mr. Will; does anyone know where Mr. Will found it?

  • clintoncps

    My only comment on this brilliantly-written article is that human self-awareness cannot be sustained by intellectual heritage, or cultural heritage, or even sacramental or religious heritage. Rather, human self-awareness can only be sustained through a living relationship with the personal Creator God — the God who is the Person of persons, the Being of being, the “I Am Who Am”. Everything else, however beautiful and noble, is contingent upon and flows from that primordial Good — to live with God, who is eternally revealed in the one and only Son and Saviour, Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.

  • jamie

    Do you want to see culture take an exit bow? Come here, to the south side of Chicago. No, not the murder capital area–this area, where I live. Where I’ve just walked in the door from sitting on my front porch with a glass of wine and about 6 neighbors, also toting coffee or wine or beer or whatever. Kids running and screaming, no bug spray in sight. The kids won’t dare come near us, because they’re afraid that we’ll notice them, and the time. So they’re playing street games–there are about 12 of them out there. The guys are talking about home projects. The ladies are talking about the upcoming school year–homeschoolers and school schoolers getting along–and talking about the men and their darned home projects. Here we do a lot of things such that, if were you to ask “Why do you do that?” we’d have no idea what you’re asking. The south side that I live in is a “front porch” culture. And the people here are–as my Cleveland husband would say–south side nice. The men call me “honey” and “dear” without fear. The ladies shake out their table clothes onto the lawn. Everyone went to mass today. Sure, it’s infected from without. That’s why I say it’s taking an exit bow. Divorce is the big illness. I suppose my kids can live here until they’re adults. Then it will be time to find another little ice floe to live on.

  • Guillermo Gini

    When I read the article Bradbury’s “Farenheit” came to my mind. What a great book to read as a highschool boy and read it again many times later in life. Profetic.