Patriotism, piety, and Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes

Simply put, when it comes to the nature of patriotism, Professor Esolen and George W. Bush cannot both be right.

In the ninth circle of his Inferno Dante envisioned sinners guilty of treachery against those to whom they were bound by special ties. One round of the circle is named Caina, after Cain, and is reserved for those who have betrayed their blood kin; another is named Antenora, after the Trojan Antenor, who is supposed to have betrayed his homeland to the Greeks. “Whereat I turned and saw beneath my feet / and stretching out ahead, a lake so frozen / it seemed to be made of glass,” Dante tells the reader. Frozen up to their necks are the traitors, heads “bowed toward the ice,” as “each of them testifies / to the cold with his chattering mouth, to his heart’s grief / with tears that flood forever from his eyes.”

What can be drawn from this? For one thing, it is plain that Dante took kin and country very seriously. For another, we recall that Dante hardly pulled this vision out of a hat. To the contrary, his cosmography is inspired in part by the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church, who identified man’s obligations to kin and country as second only to those obligations directly pertaining to God Himself (see Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 101, Art. 1). It is striking indeed to contrast the Dantean belief that disloyalty is a grave evil with the sensibilities of moderns, including even many modern Catholics. Today’s college-educated man will more likely as not see it as a mark of highest virtue to stand at an aloof, critical distance from his own people, culture and country.

Such an attitude is firmly corrected by Dante scholar Anthony Esolen, who insists in Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture that patriotism is an important aspect of piety. Students learning history, says Esolen,

are citizens of a country and the first order of the history-teaching business is to introduce them to their country’s noble past […] I am not talking about sprinkling sugar upon that history – or slathering it with acid. All nations bear the mark of mankind. We are fools and sinners, and there will be plenty of time for children to learn that hard lesson, just as they will learn that there are times when mother is difficult and father inattentive, and that parents too can get things wrong. But it is the essence of piety to honor your father and mother because they are yours and because they have given you a gift you can never recompense. This piety extends to the land of your birth, the “rocks and rills,” the “templed hills,” as the old patriotic anthem has it. The character of a nation is not to be found primarily in great political movements, and certainly not in an obsession with ‘progress.’ It is found in its land and weather, the kind of people who work there, the music they sing, the places where they worship, the games they play, the food they raise; what they honor and love, and what they will shed their blood to save.

I am not sure that all of those now celebrating Esolen’s book appreciate just how radical the preceding passage truly is. For Esolen’s remarks about patriotism are quite incompatible with the ideology of the American conservative establishment, a.k.a. neoconservatism, which has for the past couple of decades conflated patriotism—traditionally understood as honor and gratitude offered to one’s homeland, forebears, and heritage—with an ideological devotion to “America” as the ne plus ultra defender of democracy and human rights.

No, says Esolen, patriotism is about loyalty to a distinctive place and community, and it is not at all desirable, much less necessary, “that children should be taught that their nation is the greatest that the world has ever seen. By what measure could we even make that claim?” The healthy child “will naturally love his country, just as he naturally loves his mother and father, not because they are perfect, but because they are his.”

In other words, when it comes to the nature of patriotism, Professor Esolen and George W. Bush cannot both be right.

Why dwell upon the issue of patriotism, which is only one of many issues treated in Esolen’s sweeping study of American culture? Because far too many of those well-meaning Christians fighting against the desacralization of marriage, liturgy, and unborn life simultaneously embrace more subtle yet ultimately just as insidious types of desacralization—particularly the desacralization of home, land, and community. A brief exchange that occurred during the open house of a nondenominational Christian school here in the Bluegrass State might be apropos: When asked about the possibility of including Kentucky history in the school’s curriculum, a school representative explained that changes of employment caused families with children enrolled in the school to move out-of-state frequently so having students learn about a state in which they would only live temporarily makes no sense.

To put it another way, a nomadic way of life has been accepted by a great many otherwise sound-minded people, who do not recognize that the hyper-mobility of the global-minded careerist is no more conducive to the establishment of lasting, meaningful relationships than is the promiscuity of the fornicator. Sociopathic has become the new normal because the ancient meaning has been gradually bled out from the word home.

Another unwholesome norm is the aimless, medicated and neutered “slacker,” and on this subject too Esolen speaks loud and clear. Drawing in part upon the work of politically-incorrect, iconoclastic scientists such as Lionel Tiger, Esolen argues that boys have been demoralized by a feminist-driven purge of masculine ideals from society. “If you do not raise men to be fathers—not just progenitors of children, but fathers in the full sense implied by a phrase like ‘city fathers’—they will not therefore become compliant and gentle mothers. They will either drag out their days in ennui and desperation or go very bad, very fast.” Fraternal associations and patriarchy are foundational to Western civilization, Esolen explains, and the loss of these foundations has been nothing short of catastrophic. Needless to say, a strident objection would face anyone attempting to provide boys with environments and activities better suited for their development into men: “But we have to think of equality!”

To which I respond, “Equality in what regard, and why?” If it means that we deny boys what they need and what would cause them to thrive and, sometimes, to become a Phidias or a Caravaggio or an Aristotle, just because we do not want the resulting inequality, I say that that would itself be a gross inequity, the deliberate denial to someone of what he is due. It would be as if we were to feed our children not equally according to what their bodies require, but equally according to a calorie count, which would either starve the boys or fatten the girls.

To sum up his position Esolen invokes classical Christian anthropology: “I believe in the equal dignity of every human being in the sight of God. I believe also in justice. An enforced and unnatural equalizing of people is deeply unjust. Give me Michaelangelo instead.” These last comments are especially profound insofar as they illustrate the divide between the traditional mind and the liberal mind: The former sees justice and equality as two distinct and sometimes conflicting ideals, while the latter mistakes the terms for synonyms.

The kernel of truth in egalitarianism lies in the fact that we do owe something to all people, including strangers and even our enemies; its error lies in the notion that we owe the same thing to everyone. In the long run no one is served by a culture wherein everybody is treated exactly the same, from children and elders to next-door neighbors and foreigners to ladies and gentlemen.

This book is the first one of Professor Esolen’s I have read, and having done so it is obvious to me why he has recently been on the pointy end of so much hostility. At the risk of sounding flippant, however, I must say I am less inclined to commiserate with Esolen because of the widely-publicized harassment he has experienced at Providence College than I am to congratulate him. After all, he has earned enduring distinction as one of the few Catholic academics daring and honest enough to draw down upon himself the wrath of the liberal order’s vigilantes. And the author of Out of the Ashes is in excellent company, for nowadays Dante isn’t welcome on the typical Catholic campus, either.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture 
by Anthony Esolen
Regnery Publishing, 2017
Hardcover, 256 pages

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About Jerry Salyer 53 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.

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