Thursday, September 05, 2013

`We Will Not See His Like Again'

Usually I don’t read books with titles like The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (2008), but it was written by Anthony Esolen, whose translation of Lucretius’ Epicurean epic, On the Nature of Things: De rerum natura (1995), I enjoyed some years ago. Who is the ideal reader for such a book? I’ve skimmed it, enjoyed it in the same flitting way I enjoy the internet, relishing some and ignoring much, feeling like the converted in the act of being preached to. Esolen’s tone is too strident for my taste, though his judgments are sound. Perhaps the ideal reader is a young person, at once open-minded and skeptical, eager to learn what he might otherwise never be taught. I’ll send a copy to my middle son in his Canadian boarding school. His adolescent stridency is usually tempered by a well-exercised sense of humor. 

For a sample of Esolen’s approach, consider the two pages he devotes to Samuel Johnson, which immediately follow the one given over to Rousseau. Of the French sage he writes: “Rousseau may be too easy to caricature. He did attempt to place virtue at the heart of his theories regarding education and politics. Nor is it quite just to point out that he himself was a pretty vicious fellow, siring illegitimate children whom he neglected.” Esolen suggests we cross the English Channel, instead, and devote our attention to “a man of so powerful an intellect, and so great a heart” that he might be called “the English Pascal” – not a connection I had ever considered. Earlier, Esolen says Pascal was “a great corrective to our vanity,” an echo of Johnson’s greatest poem. He writes: 

“The secret to Johnson’s wisdom was not that he kept his feelings in check. Far from it. It was that his feelings were nurtured by a classical education, a deep love of England, a devotion to the Church, a personal piety that abashed his worldly friends, a calm scrutiny of mankind in all walks of life (for Johnson had spent many a night in his youth without a roof over his head), and an habitual and humble introspection. Before he saw men’s hearts, he had looked into his own.” 

Esolen prizes Johnson’s bluffness, his vast learning and freedom from pretension, the simplicity of his material needs, his recognition of evil as central to human existence, his generosity (Frank Barber, Mrs. Williams), compassion and courage. He concludes the section on Johnson with this: 

“He was the most enlightened man of the Enlightenment, and nobody but some Englishmen knew it. We will not see his like again. Our schools, our legislatures, and our entertainment will see to that.”

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