Interview With English Professor Anthony Esolen
PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, 23 APRIL 2007 (ZENIT)
Men must learn to seek
the company of other men for the sake of women, the Church and the
world, says a Catholic author and English professor.
In this interview with ZENIT, Anthony Esolen discusses the growing trend
in rediscovering masculinity, and what it takes to make men and boys
Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and senior editor
of Touchstone Magazine. He has recently translated and edited Dante's
"Divine Comedy," in three volumes, for Modern Library. His book,
Ironies of Faith, is forthcoming this summer from ISI Press.
Q: In your recent articles you have discussed masculinity and manhood.
How do you see your own understanding of these differ from the way
others use these terms?
Esolen: When a virtue falls by the wayside, when it is no longer a lived
reality recognized by a community in its manifold forms, we recall only
a scrap of it here or there, or we can only imagine a gaudy caricature
That, I think, is the case now for both manhood and womanhood.
Many millions of boys in America, for instance, are growing up in homes
without fathers, so they find "fathers" of their own on the streets or
in the diseased and silly fantasies of mass entertainment, musclemen who
can take down a city, or charismatic gang leaders who move caches of
drugs and make exciting things happen.
They miss the more subtle fortitude of moral vision and farsighted
self-sacrifice. Male heroes in popular literature for boys, 80 or 90
years ago, might be all right with a gun or a sword, but they might also
be bespectacled dons like Mr. Chips whose discipline was a form of love.
I see manhood as the drive to lead
to serve by leading, or to lead by following loyally the true leadership
of one's father or priest or captain.
The man exercises charity by training himself to be self-reliant in
ordinary things, not out of pride, but out of a sincere desire to free
others up for their own duties, and to free himself for things that are
The man also must refuse
this is a difficult form of self-sacrifice
to allow his feelings to turn him from duty, including his duty to learn
the truth and to follow it.
A man loves his own family, but he also loves his family by refusing to
subject the entire civil order to the welfare of his family; he
understands that if he performs his duty, other families besides his own
will profit by it.
A man must consider his life dispensable for the sake of those he leads;
he must obey his legitimate superior; if and only if he does so will he
become really necessary and really worthy of the obedience he claims,
with scriptural authority that need not embarrass anyone.
Q: Books on manhood, such as "Wild at Heart" by Christian author John
Eldredge, have been gaining popularity recently. What is it about our
society and Church that is making men look at new ways of understanding
Esolen: Men are lonely
and they are also not universally fooled by the androgyny that is
preached to them every day, in school, at church, in the workplace and
in the media.
Unfortunately, I don't think they are finding "new" ways of looking at
their manhood. They are finding very old ways of looking at it, or
rather, they are finding a strange and finally unsatisfying version of
those old ways.
Really, the human race has not changed since the days of Homer and
Moses; men and women have not changed. And the mysteries of manhood and
womanhood have been probed in literature for thousands of years. So we
need to step back a little, take a look at that literature, or take a
look at what men within our own lifetimes used to do.
For instance, though men are certainly wilder creatures than women
the source of both their dynamism and their destructiveness
it is men, not women, who create the civil order, as it is women, not
men, who create the domestic order.
Our inability to distinguish between these orders, and our neglect of
both of them in the pursuit of individual "dreams," has left us with a
poor and thin domestic life, while in most places in America and
probably Europe a vibrant civic life is hardly a memory.
Q: There has been a lot of discussion based upon Pope John Paul II's
discussion of "the feminine genius." What about the "the masculine
Esolen: Men have a passion for the truth, and they seek that truth not
generally by means of the affections, but by complex structures of
These may be structures of authority or intellect, so you have the great
university system invented by the friars and the student guilds in
Europe, whose curriculum was often a kind of Euclidean geometry or
Newtonian calculus of theological and philosophical propositions.
Men fashion "grammars"
means of organizing and understanding almost impossibly disparate
phenomena. Even the humble back of a baseball card, with its grid work
of subtle statistics, testifies to this fascination.
Without this literal "discernment," I mean the clear separation of what
may be predicated of a thing and what may not, with systematic means for
judging the matter, there can be nothing so intricate as law, the
government of a city, higher learning, a church
not to mention philosophy and theology.
Even men who do not possess powerful intellects naturally fall in with
such structures of order, and here the affections do play a vital role;
men will fall in admiration of a leader, with a powerful combination of
loyalty and friendship, as naturally as they will fall in love with a
woman they may wish to marry.
If a society does not train boys to become such men, or if it does not
allow mature men to form such natural alliances with other men for the
benefit of civic life, it will degenerate.
I won't claim that this is a theory. It's a fact borne out by American
and European cities right now.
Q: What could men learn from Christ, the ultimate man, in terms of
Esolen: The first thing they could learn is not to be embarrassed by
their manhood. It is holy! It has been created by God, and for a reason.
Then they might notice that Jesus is not the cute boyfriend that many of
our churches make him out to be, the one who never goes too far
forgive me if that is a little coarse.
Jesus loves women, as all good men must; Jesus obeys his mother at Cana;
but Jesus does not hang around the skirts of women; he speaks gently,
but as a man speaks gently, and when he rebukes, he rebukes forthrightly
and clearly, as a man.
His closest comrades are men, though they are not necessarily the people
he loves best in the world. He organizes them into a battalion of
He is remarkably sparing in his praise of them; certainly, as is the
case with many good and wise men, he is much more desirous that they
should come to know him than that they should feel comfortable about
From his apostles he seems to prefer the love that accompanies
apprehension of the truth, rather than love born of his own affectionate
actions toward them.
In fact, they respond to him as men often respond: They admire and
follow with all the greater loyalty the man who rebukes them for, of all
things, being frightened when it appears their ship will capsize in the
stormy Sea of Galilee!
Men can learn from Jesus to seek the company of other men, at least in
part for the sake of women, and certainly for the sake of the village,
the nation, the Church and the world.
They can learn that there are two ways at least in which man is not
meant to be alone: He needs the complementary virtues of woman, and he
needs other men.
A soldier alone is no soldier.
Q: From your study of ancient and medieval works, such as Dante, what
remedies could be applied to the many relational ills that plague
society, such as high divorce rates, low birthrates and high numbers of
children born out of wedlock?
Esolen: A good question. People can learn from both the Catholic and the
Protestant literature of the past an appreciation for the wonder of the
body, and of the virtue of chaste love.
They can learn from Dante that the love of man and woman is a glorious
motif in the symphony of love fashioned by him who moves the sun and the
From Torquato Tasso and Edmund Spenser they can learn that the typical
sin against love, occasioned by unchastity, does not so much stoke the
flame of desire as it dampens it, making both the heart and the mind
From Spenser they can learn that marriage is not a private matter
one of our greatest and silliest errors
but a deeply social bond that unites those two fascinatingly different
sorts of creatures, man and woman, in such a way as to link them to the
families who have gone before them and to the families that will be born
from their love.
If you have a view of marriage that does not include all mankind, all
the natural world, the physical cosmos, heaven and earth, the dawn of
time and its consummation in eternity, then your view of marriage is a
cramped and hole-and-corner affair. So at least the old poets teach.
Maybe the most important thing they teach, though, is the delightfulness
of the good: the lovely and modest woman
Miranda in Shakespeare's "Tempest"
and the brave and gentle young man
Florizel in Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale."
Our children's imaginations now are a war zone, or what is left of
fields and hills after the bombs have blasted them and the poison gas
has infested them for 15 years.
Even fairy tales, those deeply Christian and incarnational folk parables
of the West have been poisoned by feminist revisers.
So I guess I am saying that we will cure none of those ills, not one,
unless we rediscover the virtue of purity, and we will not rediscover
that virtue unless our imaginations are engaged by its beauty, and that
from our childhoods.
Q: Are there things you are doing to raise your own son that is
different from the way men of your own generation were raised?
Esolen: My son, my greatest blessing from God, is autistic. He can talk
to you all day about computer systems and then take your computer apart
with screwdrivers to fix it.
Most of these troubles of our time cannot touch him, especially since we
teach him at home.
I'll say that the public schools in America are so poor, and are so
universally slanted against both how boys learn and what they enjoy
learning, that I would move heaven and earth rather than place a son of
mine in any of them.
We desperately need single-sex schools for boys, and we need not
apologize for them, either. Boys thrive in them, and unless the boys
thrive, our society is finished.