Our only hope to counter our freefall into nihilism and relativism is a return to reality—not the false reality of the materialists, but the true reality of those who worship the Word. The only way to become real, as Anthony Esolen says in “Sex and the Unreal City,” is to join ourselves “to Christ, who gives us our being by his love.”
Sex and the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind, by Anthony Esolen (209 pages, Ignatius Press, 2020)
The first non-Narnian C. S. Lewis book that I read was The Screwtape Letters. In that wonderfully original, deeply convicting book, a senior devil named Screwtape writes a series of letters to his nephew Wormwood in order to teach him how to tempt humans. I still remember vividly how my reading of the very first letter instantaneously liberated me from one of the devil’s chief weapons.
Without my realizing it, the modern world in which I had been raised had instilled in me the false notion that reason and faith were enemies. To be a Christian meant to put logic to one side and focus on feeling and emotion. The secular scientists and universities were the guardians and purveyors of reason; meanwhile, we in the Church were free to carve out a clean, safe space where we could share our love of God and do our charitable work.
And then, in the first paragraph of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis blew the whole phony structure to bits. Screwtape, to my great surprise, began by vetoing Wormwood’s plan of using reasoned argument to pull his man away from God and the Church. That plan, Screwtape explains, might have worked if your man
had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
Lewis was right! Of course he was right! The arguments I had heard from Darwinian evolutionists, literary deconstructionists, Marxist historians, secular social scientists, political statists, sexual revolution advocates, and liberal theologians were not grounded in reason and logic. They did not speak in terms of true and false, right and wrong, good and evil, but in terms of what was enlightened, progressive, and cutting edge.
That same sense of liberation I had felt reading The Screwtape Letters I felt again and again as I worked my way through Anthony Esolen’s Sex and the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind. With equal doses of logic and wit, Dr. Esolen, a literature professor, translator, and poet who holds the position of writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, skewers modern and postmodern pretensions, showing them to be based, not on reason or logic or even common sense, but on lies, delusions, and an embrace of unreality.
Secular liberal political and educational leaders do not acquire their power by proving their points logically. Rather, like advertisers, they gain and hold power “by keeping people in a continual state of fear, hatred, resentment, or vindictiveness” (19). They invite us to join them in their delusions and to live in the Unreal City that they have built. And they do this, in great part, by forcing reality to bend to their manipulation of language.
How are they able to accomplish this? Because they know that we “want to believe that our words can alter reality: we want to believe that we can, by linguistic magic, negate the Word through whom all things were made, and the things themselves” (40). By alluding to the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18), Dr. Esolen makes clear that their attack on the real meaning of words is also, and ultimately, an attack on that God who is the Logos: a Greek word that not only means “word,” but “logic” and “reason” as well.
“Adam names the beasts and in naming them seeks to dis-cover, to un-veil, some real feature of their being” (53). Not so the radical architects and even more radical heirs of the sexual revolution. The transgender movement, Dr. Esolen explains, “depends for its existence upon the supposition that realities depend upon words, so that whoever controls the language controls the universe. It is as if we could say ‘same-sex marriage’, and hey presto, there would be such a thing, or as if a man could declare himself to be a woman, and so it is” (54). This is not the true magic of the Incarnation (the Word made flesh), but the deceptive voodoo of secular shamans who would vivisect rationality itself.
Although I am an evangelical, most of my favorite conservative cultural critics (Joseph Pearce, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, Holly Ordway, Dwight Longenecker, and the late Richard John Neuhaus, not to mention Chesterton and Cardinal Newman), are Catholic converts. As a cradle Catholic, Dr. Esolen brings with him a deep sense of the rootedness of the Catholic tradition and how vital communities are to the proper formation and expression of our humanity. The importance of that rootedness reverberates through every page of Sex and the Unreal City.
Only someone with Dr. Esolen’s firm faith in and experience of our essentially communal humanity—which he positions between the radical individualism of the extreme right and the anti-humanistic collectivism of the left—could offer the following much needed critique and deflation of the fashionable political philosopher John Rawls.
He asks us—nay, he demands it of us, under pain of banishment from civic discourse—that we pretend that we are not sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, neighbors and members of a community, in this place and not another, worshiping God in this church and in these ways, and devoted to a certain vision of the good, a vision that we do not deduce from abstract principles but either see intuitively or experience in the blood. He requires us, in short, not to be human at all, and only then, or only insofar as we can adopt the pose of the bloodless and desiccated, may we come together to form a contract, a profoundly antisocial contract, dictating civil rights, punishments, rewards, and so forth. (118)
The insights in this paragraph alone make Dr. Esolen’s book worth reading, but he carries his dismantling of the Unreal City even further, to offer both a spiritual analysis and a spiritual solution. Materialism, he argues, is a bankrupt worldview that kills wonder, gratitude, and friendship, reducing man to a handful of mud that can be shaped and reshaped at will by the autonomous individual or the amorphous state. The materialist may claim to be guided by goodness or justice or duty, but his system cannot provide a foundation for any of those things.
The final and logical upshot of the materialist worldview is either an amoral nihilism that seeks only personal pleasure or a sentimental relativism that says “that everybody has his or her own view of what is good, and that everybody just ought to be nice to everyone else” (170). Dr. Esolen identifies the former ism with the male of the species and the second with the female, concluding, in one of his wittiest and most memorable lines, that “[r]elativism is nihilism for girls” (171).
Our only hope to counter this freefall into nihilism and relativism is a return to reality—not the false reality of the materialists, but the true reality of those who worship the Word. The only way to become real is to join ourselves “to Christ, who gives us our being by his love” (184). Channeling Dante’s Inferno and Lewis’s The Great Divorce, Dr. Esolen explains the nature of the choice and the consequences of the choice—consequences that are finally eternal but that manifest themselves now in our earthly lives. “God,” he argues, “has not made us for untruth, and if we embrace untruth, we hug nothingness, and we begin to evacuate our souls, till in the end all that remains is a wraith where a fully realized soul should have been, a shell of humanity” (174).
The materialist may not believe in hell, but he does not have to—he has already built it on earth. Dr. Esolen would free us from that man-made hell and return us to that Word-created world where Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are real and can be known.
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