Book Review: Esolen’s “Out of the Ashes”

AshesI finished listening to Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture this week. I discovered Esolen reading Touchstone magazine, and I found his lecture at their Fight or Flight conference to be particularly compelling. When I heard he had a book out on a similar topic, I used an Audible credit to download it.

The opening chapter is titled, “Giving Things Their Proper Names: The Restoration of Truth-Telling.” Indeed, the entire book seems to be an exercise in truth-telling, as Esolen explores various cultural spheres — including beauty, education, gender, and the common life — decrying the height from which we have fallen.

Esolen is an English professor, and it shows in his witty handling of a weighty topic. He pulls heavily from literary heroes, referencing Dante and Shakespeare freely, all the while staying accessible to the average reader. If you haven’t read Dante or Shakespeare, you will have no trouble following Esolen’s meaning — though you may be inspired to give the classics a closer look. One of Esolen’s themes throughout the book is how much of our Western cultural heritage we are losing and have already lost.

In Chapter 9, Esolen makes one of the most memorable arguments of his book. Citing Homer, he draws a potent parallel:

Everyone remembers that a Cyclops is a hideous giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead, and that he is glad to devour human flesh. But the Cyclops is also one of the many examples, in the Odyssey, of people who are sub-political, and that is the first thing we are meant to notice about the [Cyclopes’] island. For Odysseus reckons up the place with the eye of a landsman and a leader. The Cyclopes have excellent bottom land for growing grain; the fields lie overrun with weeds. The Cyclopes have wild grapes growing everywhere; they do nothing with them. They have a harbor for ships; they do no sailing. They herd sheep, and that is all. They have no marketplace. They have no assemblies. Each Cyclops is the despot over his wife and offspring, and every family ignores its neighbors.

The Greeks had a name for someone who refused the opportunity to live a truly political life, that is, a life involved in local affairs that bear upon the common good. Such a person was all bound up in himself, his goods, his pleasures, his work. He was an idiotes, an idiot, and not because he was slow in the brain. He might be a quick-witted fellow and still be an idiot: still entirely focused upon himself. (168-169)

It’s unsettling to take a hard look at the modern life, to see how much more like the Cyclopes we have become than the ancient Greeks. Individualism has all but destroyed truly political life in the U.S. Our common culture has been replaced by the entertainment industry and our communities by social networking websites.

Still, there is hope. We have not totally forgotten our history. We can live again the way we remember, if we are willing to, as Esolen said, “clear out the rubble and rebuild.”

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