I suppose it was close to a year ago when I began reading Crisis Magazine, the exceptional online journal of Catholic cultural and spiritual thought. And it was close to a year ago, it stands to reason, that I was first exposed to the mind of Professor Anthony Esolen as he frequently contributes to Crisis. I remember being taken in by his apparent concern for cultural matters, and by his readably disarming style. His name became one that I would regularly read without giving the particular topic much consideration; it was almost certainly guaranteed to well worth the time.
On September 26th, 2016 I happened to read an article just as many thousands of others surely did that day, wherein Professor Esolen wrote what could best be described as a eulogy for the school at which he had professed for decades, the ironically named Providence College – ironic for reasons we shall momentarily discuss. The good professor pointed out the myriad ways in which this traditionally Catholic university, run by the Franciscan Order, had succumbed to the ways of moral relativism.
Unsurprisingly, the student body discovered Professor Esolen’s act of social heresy – how dare a devout Catholic scholar point out ways in which his Catholic university, co-workers, and student body were all behaving in most un-Catholic ways. As it always seems to do these days, this became a scandal. One in which, again unsurprisingly, the student body organized and began advocating for Professor Esolen’s removal. He resisted – admirably, faithfully, and respectfully – and settled into his new role as public enemy number one.
Nearly a month later, Professor Esolen published another essay, again at Crisis Magazine, wherein he asks, what will you do when the persecution comes? At this point the writing was clearly on the wall.
Finally, on May 4th of 2017, Professor Esolen officially announced that he would be leaving the staff of Providence College in order to join the staff of Thomas More College that he may help to launch their new Center for Cultural Renewal. Providence College’s great loss is Thomas More’s much greater gain. In the words of Christ, “Let the dead bury their dead.”
Much has been made of this extended episode involving our good professor, and rightly so. To those of a relative persuasion his offenses were great and he was clearly a man undeserving of his station. However, to those of us who are so woefully misguided as to share his unenlightened worldview, our Professor Esolen is both a hero and an inspiration. Why? Certainly it must be clear, but to be all the clearer, Professor Esolen has performed the two acts that are required for a hero to be heroic.
First, Professor Esolen spoke the truth. This is a rare enough quality in our dark days as to make him a hero. However, for anyone who has read his recently released Out of the Ashes, one will recall that the first chapter of this work is titled, Giving Things Their Proper Names: The Restoration of Truth-Telling. It was Solzhenitsyn who, when addressing the 1978 graduating class at Harvard University, famously said, “The truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in today’s speech too, but I want to stress that is comes not from an adversary, but a friend.” Professor Esolen followed the path that all who insist on honesty have followed – telling to those for whom they care the sort of difficult, bitter truth that in a perfect world would lead to repentance. Yet, Professor Esolen’s espousal of the truth was met in the way the truth is traditionally met – with scorn and upheaval.
There have been many who have insisted on truth-telling in the past, yet many have recanted when the stakes were raised. Tolkien, by way of Samwise Gamgee, tells us that what makes a hero is not that they were put on dark and danger filled paths, but that they continued on to uncertain ends trusting that good might be obtained personal outcome be damned.
This, then, is the second heroic feat of Professor Esolen, that when the protests began and the meetings with administrators were called, our good professor held his ground, never recanting his principles but rather reaffirming them. What he said was and remains true, and to submit to the tyranny of relativism would be to provide yet one more trophy in the unholy hunting lodge.
Not every hero is given a dragon to face, a damsel to rescue, or a dark lord to destroy. Such fantastical stories are intended to teach us the values of choosing to do what is right and good for no other reason than because such actions are right and good. Such stories of heroes and heroines are meant to inspire us to aspire towards ever higher goals. As wiser men have for so long said, Homo non proprie humanus sed superhumanus est – to be properly human, man must go beyond the merely human. To be human, we must aspire to the feats and the accomplishments that may seem impossibly high. We are given the saints as verifiable historical accounts of truth and faith in action, and we are given the Fellowship and the Ents, and the Pevensie children to inspire us all the same.
Yet, we are also given men like Professor Esolen. His actions were not heroic in the traditional sense. It is unlikely that any songs or poems will be written about him – unlikely and unfortunate, as he would love that a poem was written and hate that it was about him – because his actions, however heroic, were decidedly small and, in the view of the modern world so disdainful toward traditional virtues and ethics, inconsequential. Had he just given in he could have saved himself more than a few headaches and perhaps kept his job.
Yes, professor Esolen is no longer at Providence College. He has, in a twist of beautiful irony, taken up post at Thomas More College’s Center for Cultural Renewal. The irony here is that he should come through a period of unrelenting persecution for his beliefs, and his refusal to relinquish his principles, and end up at a college whose namesake was martyred for so very similar a series of events.
It is unfortunate that Providence College bears the name, as it would seem that the school persists in spite of providence, properly understood. A Catholic college has chased a renowned Catholic scholar for holding his Catholic beliefs firmly rather than succumbing to the mindless rabble of a totalitarian student body.
The greatest good and mercy often sneaks into our world through the most seemingly small acts of goodness and faith. It is a difficult thing to be honest – all virtue is difficult. Were it not, it would not be in such high demand – and it is all the more difficult to maintain honesty when from all directions one is being told to relent. Like William Wallace who as he was being torn and ripped apart on the rack was told that a quick death would come if he would renounce his cause, so too do we today experience the temptation to submit once we have begun the indescribably difficult work of virtue. The pain can end, but at what cost?
Professor Esolen demonstrated faith and virtue in a time when the value of both are laughed at and mocked. He has provided us the rare positive example of faith in action in the cultural context, and with his example the encouragement as well to stand up for the good, to stand up for what is right, even when we stand to lose something dear. For what good is it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?
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