Esolen on inevitable cultural decline, and why we resist that judgment

Our “jittery defense of the contemporary”

On the CWR homepage this morning, you’ll find an essay from our October issue by Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College. In it, Esolen identifies numerous markers of the cultural decline in which we find ourselves today, but argues that the decline itself is not our principal problem:

Say in public that Chartres Cathedral is a greater work of art than a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, or that the polyphony that resounded in churches across Renaissance Europe is a more powerful and beautiful expression of worship than are the louche verses of Marty Haugen and David Haas, and you will inevitably be charged with elitism; nor will it help you to point out that Chartres was perhaps the greatest piece of folk art the world has known, or that polyphony would be sung and heard in towns everywhere. And this jittery defense of the contemporary deserves a closer look. …

The one thing that modern man must believe in, lest he see the poverty he suffers in the midst of wealth and technological sophistication, is progress. It is touchingly naïve, this belief. For it corresponds to nothing in modern man’s personal experience. … Modern man “knows” certain scientific truths, such as that the earth revolves around the sun, but he knows them principally because he has been told them by experts; if you ask him to look up at the night sky, it is highly unlikely that he will find a planet there, as any shepherd boy of old could have done. Modern man can go to a museum, or buy a ticket to Rome to look at the churches, or play a recording of Bach; but he remains for the most part an outsider in a world that is all outside and no inside, a consumer in a world that is all consumption. …  Modern man can click a button and see the whole of the Patrologia Latina show up on his screen; but the few personal letters he writes are childish, his newspapers demand sentences such as would not stump a fifth grader, his magazines are slick and sleazy, and his oratory aspires to the condition of a jingle for selling new and improved soap.

Click here to read the whole article.

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.