Anthony Esolen is a prophet. But before you pick up Out of the Ashes looking for predictions concerning, say, whether Donald Trump will serve out his entire term as president, or what the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima presages for U.S.-Russia relations, be warned: Contrary to popular perception, a prophet is not a seer, like Nostradamus. Rather, the role of the prophet is to call all those who have ears to hear back to a way of life that they have abandoned.
Whether stranded in the bogs of a culture that mistakes tolerance for truth or ascending the rocky crags of abstract ideology, modern man needs someone to let him know not simply where he is, but where he should be. Tony Esolen knows the lay of the land, but he is not standing in place, beckoning his readers back to some golden era that never existed. Out of the Ashes is a clarion call, a gathering of a band of brothers to walk forward into a future that neither idolizes nor idealizes the past but is in continuity with it. What ties the past and the future together is not slavish adherence to the forms of the past, but truth and tradition—not traditionalism, too often an ossified ideology that mistakes the vessels of truth for truth itself, but tradition as an action, which recognizes (as Joseph Pieper reminds us) that sometimes the vessels need to change in order to protect the truth that they transmit.
When most people think of the prophets of the Old Testament (to the extent that anyone still thinks of the prophets of the Old Testament), the overwhelming impression they have is of sackcloth and ashes—with one notable exception. Out of the Ashes reminds me more of the Book of Isaiah: unflinching in its diagnosis of the present state of mankind, but looking forward to the day when “many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.”
Unlike the authors of some recent books with which Out of the Ashes has frequently been compared, Esolen never once says, “Unless we do this, Christian civilization is in danger of dying,” or “There will be nothing left for our children or grandchildren.” He is no Pollyannaish optimist, however; to those who would accuse him of exaggeration in his diagnosis of our present ills, Esolen replies, “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” (Cassandra was neither a madwoman nor a liar when she predicted the fall of Troy.) Yet his focus is always on rebuilding, on reminding us that what once was can one day be again. (The fall of Troy led to the founding of Rome by Cassandra’s kinsman Aeneas.) At the same time, Esolen never sets his sights too high. He is not concerned here with building the heavenly Jerusalem, much less with forcing it to descend from the heavens and to impose itself upon this earth. (“People who want to bring heaven upon earth have turned the earth into hell and made rivers run red with blood, because the first thing they must do is the one thing they cannot do, which is to cure themselves.”) He is, rather, calling us back to “ordinary human life, with its ordinary joys and sorrow.” Living life day to day as nature and nature’s God intended us to live keeps us clear from both the bogs of cultural rot and the crags of ideology. Grace can and will build on nature, so long as we first embrace the natural limits of human life.
Though Esolen never explicitly says so, Out of the Ashes is a book about those limits. If you’re looking for a political program, for broad, sweeping change that others can carry out in your stead to “Make America Great Again” by draining the swamp that is Washington, D.C., you won’t find it here. Esolen never once mentions by name Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama—either to praise or to blame any of them. Such considerations have no place in this book; Esolen is concerned with more important things. Out of the Ashes is about what you and I and Tony can do to rebuild our own lives and our own families and our own neighborhoods and our own parishes. The first step in rebuilding anything is realizing that we personally cannot rebuild everything. The second is realizing that no one else—and certainly not those who have no personal knowledge of our lives and families and neighborhoods and parishes—can rebuild them for us.
Accepting the limits of our nature and living up to the responsibilities implied by them is what makes us human; circumventing those limits in the name of “justice” (the rallying cry of so many on the left) or “efficiency” (the idol of the other part of the modern left that we refer to, oxymoronically, as the right) centralizes power, which makes those who have lost that power—or who, all too frequently, have given it up voluntarily—less human. “My point,” writes Esolen,
is not simply that the farther away you are from the school—or the bridge or the bakery or the bandstand or the chambers of the justice of the peace—the likelier it is that your work will be expensive or otiose or impractical. It is not simply … that a neighborhood is best organized by neighbors and not by emissaries from Washington, the Kremlin, Brussels, or the United Nations. It is that when you take from people their authority, you rob them, as the Greeks saw, of something essential to their full humanity.
But such political considerations—in the broadest and oldest sense of the word political—come late in the book, in Chapter Nine out of ten, because the rebuilding of the polis depends on more fundamental restorations, the restoration of truth-telling first of all. Out of the Ashes is refreshingly free of cant about justice, but it is everywhere concerned with truth, calling to mind John Lukacs’s recognition that “Truth responds to a deeper human need than does justice—especially near the end of this age, when we are threatened less by the absence of justice than by the nearly fantastic prevalence of untruth.” Beauty goes hand in hand with truth; education, properly conceived, lights the imagination on fire with a desire for both, and in doing so takes unformed boys and girls and molds them into virtuous young men and women. (Note well: There is no V in STEM.) Virtue places a proper value on work, the purpose of which is not to create pecuniary wealth but to serve (a politically incorrect word these days) one’s family.
[I]f you are not working in the first instance for your family, then something is severely out of order. We live in comforts that the richest of aristocrats not very long ago could never have dreamed of, and yet we claim that we are too poor to have more than a child or two. The truth is the reverse: we are too rich to have more than a child or two, too committed to work for work’s sake and to the purchase of prestige, mansions, the “best” schools, and toys for grown-ups.
When we know what work is for, we can understand why play is even more important: “The truly human and divine thing is to see the other days of the week in the light of the Sabbath, and not the Sabbath as a day for replenishing the human materiel so that it can work more efficiently on Monday.”
Get all of that right—and Tony Esolen is here to guide your feet and light your path as you work toward that end—and along the way politics will have been relegated to its proper, and limited, sphere. Along the way—because, as Esolen reminds us, we are just pilgrims in this world, and the only true progress is not technological or social but moral: the Way of the Cross is the Way of Life.
“He who would save a culture or a civilization,” writes Esolen, “must not seek first the culture or the civilization, but the Kingdom of God, and then all these other things, say Jesus, shall be given unto him as well.” No man can heal his own soul, but he can open himself to grace by conforming himself to nature, and once it has entered this world, that grace will transform not only his life, but the life of his family and his community. The irony is that living the life God intended for us is easier and more delightful than pursuing the life most of us are living today.
Let those who have eyes to see read Esolen, and those who have ears to hear rise up out of the ashes—and get to work.