Anthony Esolen on the New Barbarians

This entry at Mere Comments deserves to be quoted in full:

“I hesitate to use the word ‘barbarian’ to describe our current state of amnesia — or, worse, our current pleasure in deriding our civic, intellectual, and spiritual forefathers. That’s because barbarians did not do that. The change from nomadic tribesman to citizen does not mark the beginning of chronicles and memorials and feasts to honor the legendary heroes of one’s people. What changes is the form of the memorial — in stone, perhaps, rather than merely in orally bequeathed poetry — and the reasons for celebrating the virtue; no longer mere courage in the battlefield, but courage shown for the sake of one’s country. In other words, there is a fine continuity between celebrating the strength of Achilles and celebrating the bravery of Horatius at the bridge.

So how should we describe this new thing in the world, a people without roots, tumbleweeds that flit and float from fad to fad, attracted by bright toys and flashy sleaze? Postcultural, certainly, but also postbarbarian. The barbarian has not been civilized yet; but what we have now are people who used to be civilized, and that seems to me to be a different thing entirely. Right now I’m poking around in old schoolbooks, readers from the 1800’s, for instance. The literary quality of the pieces included in Holmes’ Fifth Reader is impressive (selections by Shakespeare, Dickens, Macaulay, Browning, Henry Clay, John Marshall, for example). Even the dated pieces by writers we no longer recognize are not all that bad. What strikes me most powerfully, though, is the assumption by the anthologist that the young reader will be edified, literally ‘built up,’ by his encounter with the great writers of England and America. The reader is expected to know, or to want to know, who General Anthony Wayne was, or what John Marshall was like in his personal habits, or how Henry Clay rose from penury and ignorance to his long career of service in the Senate. More than one kind of memory is exercised by these pieces; and it is not true that the students were encouraged never to question the complete wisdom of all those who came before them. That surely was not possible, two decades after the Civil War. Honor is not the same thing as supine submission.

In any case, by any standard I can think of — erudition, taste, depth of thought, sheer humanity — there is no way I can consider that reader as the same sort of thing as the typical textbook or movie or television show aimed at adolescents now. It would be like comparing the Aphrodite of Melos to an old stone age steatopygic (there’s the word of the day) fertility doll, except that that’s not fair to the men and women of Bedrock.

The barbarian’s roots were few but deep. We have pulled our roots up. I don’t know what that makes us. I don’t know, either, what others will say, but I had rather sit by the fire with a gang of hunters or marauders and sing about the courage of Sigemund or the skill of Weland, than slouch on a sofa to sautee my mind and soul with Sex and the City. Which is as much as to say, I kind of like a fully human life, with memories and traditions extending far into the venerable past, and connecting me with the future. I’d rather be a barbarian with thirty years of that kind of long life, than whatever in the name of the regions below we are now, skittering for ninety years from pointless moment to moment.”

2 thoughts on “Anthony Esolen on the New Barbarians

  1. Perhaps “de-civilizing” approximates what he’s getting at. I’m not sure this is something new under the sun…


    Strange times, indeed, and there’s something looming just over the horizon, just beyond the range of sight.


  2. “…and there’s something looming just over the horizon, just beyond the range of sight.”

    Yes there is, Dale. I’m convinced of it. And it’s a paralyzing kind of knowledge to have. We are on the edge of a precipice. Backsliding pew-warmer that I am, raising my children to be martyrs has not been high on my agenda. May God give us the grace …


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