The Contemporary Denial of Reality
by Anthony Esolen (1)
Prudence, writes Josef Pieper is the root of all the natural virtues, and there is an obvious reason why. It is the virtue of seeing reality as it is.
There can be no true virtue without it, because the virtues are to be exercised among imperfect human beings, not among angels or demons or brutes, and in the world before us, not in a never-land of the fantasies or nightmares of ideology.
It may be that all of the mad errors of the last hundred years have risen from one first and terrible error: that of refusing to honor reality, including human reality, as it is. In generations past, if you did not honor reality, you paid for it swiftly and severely. Try to plant strawberries in a desert, or fig trees in a swamp, and your belly will tell you that you have been a fool, even if your mind is stubborn and slow to admit it. Send your women out with the oxen and the plow, the cross-cut saw and the mattock, while your boys do the laundry and the mending, and the very stones will testify to your stupidity. But our wealth and sophisticated technology are a great buffer between us and those stones. We can seem to ourselves, for a while, to get away with ignoring the real.
Not that we actually do get away with it. Ideologies treat man as if he could be pressed into any shape, like molten plastic poured into a form. Stalin tried his hand at the human extruding machine, ignoring the ordinary farmer's love for the land to which he and his forebears had given their sweat and their souls. The result was to turn one of the great breadbaskets of the world, the Ukraine, into barrens, while six million people died — not before some of them had sunk below the beast and eaten their own dead. Mao tried his hand at the human extruding machine, ignoring the ordinary man's piety towards his ancestors and their ways, and the result was a mass destruction of culture, and sixty million people dead.
These are flagrant sinners against God and the reality he made. But the murderer of only one man is a murderer all the same, and more pleasant or vacuous sinners against reality are still sinners and still work harm. In the aggregate they can destroy every bit as much as Stalin and Mao did. Abortion of course is one obvious example of a refusal to look at reality. The child-making act has as its natural and foreseeable end the making of a child. We do know this, just as we know that men should revere their parents and grandparents, and that people who have lived on a tract of land for a hundred years love it and will tend it more carefully than a cadre of bureaucrats could ever imagine. We simply pretend that we do not know it. We pretend that when a man and a woman do the child-making thing, and they make a child, it can strike them as an utter surprise, a bolt from the blue. If you are walking beside a row of high-rise row houses, and you are struck by a piano falling from a great height, that is a surprise, that is an unnerving accident. Not the other.
Ideologies treat man as if he could be pressed into any shape, like molten plastic poured into a form.
But, having stiffed the real and embraced a fantasy, here the ideology of sexual liberation, having played at being husband and wife without being husband and wife, we claim all at once to be Surprised by Baby, Dismayed by Baby, Utterly Undone by Baby, and, hence, we want Baby out of the way. To have it out of the way, we have to plunge ourselves even deeper into the unreal. We have to pretend that the baby is not human, when we know, of course, that it is, and that it is not alive, when we know that if it were dead, it would be called a miscarriage, and no moral problem would arise. We have to cleave our minds in half to have our lives of license whole.
So it is that Planned Parenthood, which has never helped any woman to become a parent, sells as human body parts the members of the human beings they have killed under the fiction that they were not human at all, calling it "medical care" when nothing is remediated. So also the Pill, destructive of the common good and (like all synthetic growth hormones) deleterious to the health of the women who use it, is called "medical care," when no disease is cured, and no limb or organ is restored to its normal and natural function; rather, its purpose is to thwart the natural function of the reproductive system, even at the cost of the woman's health. It is thus not like an inoculation to protect you against a communicable disease. It is like deliberately putting a joint out of socket.
Lest that comparison seem outrageous, we now witness people who cannot live with the reality of their own bodies, but must have a limb amputated; they cannot be happy with two arms or two legs, but will only feel really fulfilled when they must stump around on a prosthesis, or have people wheel them about on a chair. Others, unhappy with the face God made them — an ordinary human face — must make of themselves another, not with cosmetics, but with what might be called chaotics, boring large holes into the cheek, implanting fiberglass cat whiskers under the nose, studding their jaws with rows of metal teeth, and so forth. Leo really is a lion, you see.
A man who is weary of the reality of being a man and a father can become a woman and a small child merely by pretending to be so, and dressing accordingly, perhaps taking advantage of the nipping and tucking of plastic surgery. A woman who is weary with the reality of being a woman can become a man by having a doctor pin the tail on the donkey. A lonely boy can become a girl — presto! — by mere insistence, and everyone has to play along. People who live atop the citadel of reality can shake their heads and smile at their opponents. They have reality under their feet and round about them and over their heads. Reality is fresh air, bracing and healthy. People who live in the dream world of ideology can never smile at their opponents. One ironical jest is a dire threat. That is because they have built their house on something slighter than sand — airy nothing.
Stalin could not bear reality, and so when Russian soldiers returned home, after seeing too much of the West with their own eyes, they had to be sent to the gulags. When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, one of my classmates delivered flyers to the doors of the dormitories, featuring too much reality — the reality of torn-apart or salt-burned babies. Had it been possible, the undergraduates would have sent him to the gulags too. If you are a professor at most of our Institutions of Higher Dreaming, and you say, "Not all the pretending in the world can actually make a man into a woman," you are exposing yourself to gunshot.
Even our nation's judges, who ought to know something about prudence, have entered the dance, and now insist that justice itself requires us to repudiate what is real, and ratify the fantastical notion that a man can mate with another man, despite the obvious facts of physiology, and despite the manifest harm that the Sexual Nutcracker Suite has already done to marriage and the common good. Woe to the nation governed by a lie.
Jesus, says Saint John, did not put too much trust in men, because he knew what was in their hearts. Jesus is the ultimate realist. He knows all of our evasions.
Jesus, says Saint John, did not put too much trust in men, because he knew what was in their hearts. Jesus is the ultimate realist. He knows all of our evasions. You say, "We must divorce, because," and you give a reason that will pass muster for Rabbi Hillel or Rabbi Shammai. Jesus is not buying. You say, "I am self-sufficient, because my granaries are full, and my annuities are making me fifteen percent a year," but Jesus says that you are a fool, and that your life will be required of you tonight. You say, "I am right with God, because I give so much of my living to the poor," but Jesus says that your right hand and your left hand are gabbling proudly to one another all the time.
You say that the people must be protected, but Jesus knows that you want the truth-teller out of the way. You say that you are looking for signs, but signs are all around you and you refuse to see them. You say that you love the poor, but you sure do manage to keep them out of your sight and smell.
You say that you are following the specter of Vatican II, which you cannot possibly identify, but you ignore the documents of the council fathers, which are right in front of your eyes. You say that you love the Church, but it is a Church of your dreams, and not the one here and now, the one you despise and want cleared out, to prepare the way for the Dictatorship of the Laity — a dictatorship inevitably managed by people like yourselves.
You say that you are all for love, and you turn a cold shoulder to young people who want to do what is right, to marry and to have children after the ordinary way of nature. You even say that you love Jesus, but you have riddled the gospels with escape-holes, so that Jesus himself is not the man who said what he said and did what he did, but a Dream-Jesus, a specter, a Jesus of the subjunctive mood, who would say and do this or that, contradicting what he actually did say and do when he walked the earth, if he were alive now. Thus is Jesus demoted from Master to a protagonist in a fiction; and you are his author.
In some ways, it is easier to swing your sword at a monster of flesh and blood than at a monster of the imagination. The monster of flesh and blood provides real resistance to nerve your arms. The monster of the imagination doesn't. It is now here, now there, now this, now that, flickering in and out of existence, like the incoherent course of a dream. But we must do what we must do.
And maybe the best way to fight the unreal is also the sweetest and most restorative way — to take joy in the real. Real men, real women, real children; real intercourse of the sexes; real worship, real penitence, real gratitude; real care for the poor; real acknowledgment of the teachings of Jesus, real embrace of the Holy Scriptures; real cherishing of the permanent things; real song, real poetry, real beauty; real honor of the Mother of God; real falling down in adoration of the Son of God, who was really born as an infant boy, in the real village of Bethlehem, two thousand years ago.
(1) Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius'On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.