I read this book on my way to a speaking engagement on TNRNL at East Texas Baptist University. My host happened to be listening to a podcast from Esolen on this topic, just as I was finishing the book. Small world!
I've enjoyed Esolen for a long time– through essays in First Things and Touchstone– but this is the first book of his that I've read. (In this, he's similar to Peter Leithart for me.) Esolen is a smooth writer who is really “good with a phrase” and can pack a punch. So, it was a good, pleasant read. And his insights into Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and public policy were illuminating and helpful. (Click here for a not-yet-on-line review of this book in Touchstone.)
My own interactions with CST are worth a brief mention. (CST is the body of work where authorities in the Catholic Church [most notably, popes] have spoken to issues of social relevance– from economic, moral, and cultural angles. This includes but is not restricted to public policy matters.) For years, I had heard/read people– from *very* different perspectives (including Catholics– e.g, the American bishops vs. the Acton Institute)– who referred to CST to help them make their own case for X, Y, or Z. It was frustrating to me that folks were able to use the popes' writing for their own side– and I couldn't tell what the popes really meant.
Eventually, I decided to read them, rather than to read what others were writing about them. (And I needed to do so– for chapter 16 of Poor Policy!) With that, I was able to figure out the mystery in two components. First, the approach is “negative”– in that it is more often critical than laudatory. Broadly, it's easier to critique than to praise, to find fault than to suggest (effective) remedies. And that's fine– as far as it goes. So, for example, when the popes repeatedly denounce aspects of capitalism and socialism, selective readers can find support for their own (negative) views.
Second, the writing is often vague, moderate, and non-committal– at least with respect to specific policies. I'm not sure about the motivation for this– whether a reluctance to pin things down, a humility in drawing specific applications out-of-school, etc. For example, the popes often call for a “just wage”, without either defining it or committing to legislation as a means to the desired/godly ends. And so, people can find what they want– reading legislation or particulars into statements that are neither legislative nor specific. Or people are also freer to ignore the broad recommendations. Again, each side can find what they want.
Esolen opens the book by noting that “smart” and well-intentioned folks can get everything wrong if their worldview, principles, theories, filters, etc.– are wildly imperfect. Like Dickens' character Gradgrind and his insistence on “facts” (22)– or Chesterton's “Madman” who “has lost everything but his reason” (5)– the ironic thing is that less reason and fewer facts would actually help: “If he were less logical, or more easily distracted from his ideas by the stubborn realities around him, he might blunder back into the truth once in a while.” In such cases, reason and false principles become “a ruling deity” (5). Esolen compares this to “a carpenter whose tools are out of kilter...he will not have built a bad house; he will not have built a house at all. He will have built a wreck, a monstrosity.” (5)
And not only building principles must be observed, but the nature of the building materials must be respected. “We must begin from correct principles and we must be steeped in humanity” (6) as it (really) is.
This includes theology– or its purported lack thereof: “The most fundamental truth about man is that he has been made by God, who is Himself Love…any society built upon other premises will be radically deficient.” (15) This extends to individuals as well: “he longs for joy that can never be taken away, but sinks instead into the tedium and disappointment of pleasures, or the hectic excitement of wickedness.” (16)
Esolen also points to views on “authority”– and what should be our passion for true authority vs. false authority or the fiction of no authority. In contrast to “question authority”, he offers “Distinguish the true authority from the false. For authorities there much be.” (123) Moreover, we must make “a just claim against tyranny, whether the tyrant is one or 300 million.” (124)
With all of this in mind, Esolen draws out a number of counter-analogies: appealing to the Boy Scouts to justify gangs; to Michelangelo for pornography; Florence Nightingale for doctor-assisted suicide; and so on. “Imagine anything most absurd, and you have not yet approached the absurdity of those who claim that CST implies the existence of a vast welfare state…” (6-8)
Esolen is especially (and deservedly) harsh toward the “welfare state”– and in particular, the appropriation of CST to pursue those ends. He describes the Welfare State as “utterly secular, materialist in all its assumptions about a good life, bureaucratically organized, unanswerable to the people, undermining families, rewarding lust and sloth and envy, acknowledging no virtue, providing no personal care, punishing women who take care of their children at home, whisking the same children into vice-ridden schools designed to separate them from their parents' views of the world, and, for all that, keeping whole segments of the population mired in generations of dysfunction, moral squalor, and poverty, while purchasing their votes with money extorted from their neighbors.” (8-9) Wow; ouch! Other than that, the Welfare State is great and otherwise consistent with CST.
Later, Esolen revisits similar themes: even granted that capitalism sometimes uses unethical means and yields unethical outcomes, “one cannot cure sin by sin…one does not hire Belial to fight Beelzebub.” (139) Beyond that, “Socialism is not evil because it fails; it fails because it is evil…an evil system that tricks some well-intended people, seducing them with promises and causing them to overlook false principles…” (139) Again, there are easy and common mistakes on both sides: “It's a symptom of our secular disease that we idolize the untrammeled individual, motivated by one hedonism or another…and the State established to adjudicate among the hedonists.” (141)
Esolen notes that Christian witness is powerful with respect to ministry to the needy. “Outside of the ambit of the Christian faith and those nations nourished by it, where are the hospitals for the poor?” (32) Beyond that is the question of unity by race and class– and although there is still much work to be done, “Outside of that chapel, where do rich and poor meet as brothers.” (33)
Esolen notes the seemingly strange opposition to “organizations of Christians united to teach children, assist the poor, give homes to orphans, heal the sick, and comfort the dying” (105). He points to the irony of a feminist– that she would be crushed to “hear that men of old may have loved their wives and been not nearly so domineering as she…” (106)
Going to the extreme of this spectrum, the atheist claims an objective morality, but where is the fruit? “I know there are atheists who believe we can build a morality up from odds and ends of old sentiments, political expedience, self-interest, and more or less popularly-acknowledged 'goods'. In vain. Those things alone are no stronger than straw. What obliges me to accept another man's calculation of utility?” (19) Generally, atheists have neither a coherent philosophy nor a positive approach to X, Y or Z; only/mostly an opposition. (Here's my blog post on an earnest effort to be a counter-example.)
Esolen defines the modern view of freedom as “the extent that the State cannot tell me that I cannot do as I please.” (39). In this Esolen's definition only rings half-true. While people may want such freedom in the abstract, they routinely vote for politicians and prefer policies that are adamantly opposed to such freedom. True, they often want government to restrict others, rather than themselves. But even these pursuits tell us that freedom (of any coherent sort) is not highly valued in modern society.
Similarly, Esolen gets off a good line about our self-delusions in the political realm: “the charade of self-government that Americans enjoy every four years, with its heaves of moronic marketing, evasion, and dishonesty.” (62)
In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo “has in mind a society wherein the rich man and the poor man are friends…they are for one another…[This] cannot be produced by the mechanics of legislation..it is not enough that one pay high taxes, some smallish portion of which will filter to some unknown “poor” far away…” (153) Instead, government causes trouble with laws that “discourage the formation and preservation of families, and facilitate their dissolution, and rule out the Church, the only institution on earth that can assist the poor against those long odds.” (154)
Esolen is a big proponent of the view that tradition does (and should) get a vote in democracy– what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”. This is “not traditionalism but a humble willingness to continue to hear what our forebears have to say to us.” (121) This holds for our forebears, both living and dead. (If not, when would we quit listening to those who come before us?) Why so? “there must always be a strong presumption in favor of what our forefathers have handed down to us…We do not live only in the times when we are breathing. The past is present to us still, and we will be present to our descendants yet to come.” (45)
Practically, this must be so; else, “If yesterday's law is tomorrow's jest, what must that imply for today's law.” (46) Again, post-modernism's penchant for relativity and an over-arching emphasis on progress can easily devolve into silliness and incoherence. Or from another angle: “A dog may have a pedigree, but it means nothing to the dog. The child without relations…feels deprived of something central to his humanity.” (89)
On MarriageEsolen also has good stuff on marriage. Biblically, the creation of man and woman as separate from the animals and the command to “increase and multiply” indicate that “the society of man and woman together is different from the casual mating of the beasts.” (53) Moreover, “the family and the household come first. The State comes later both in time and in order of being. And just as the family is for its members, but individually and together, so the State is for families, individually and together.: (54) What about the contemporary debates about civil marriage? “Are Christians free to give their tacit blessing” to same-sex marriage? “Not unless they wish to cast their lot with idolaters…To believe that marriage can be subject to the definition of the State is to elevate the State to the throne of an idol.” (54-55)
Later, Esolen notes that “Marriage is of divine origins. Its fruition is not in the satisfaction of individual desires…Because it is divine, marriage is by necessity oriented toward the being of God Himself. Its fruitfulness participates in His creative bounty. Its unity reflects the inner life of love that is the Trinity. Its exclusivity and perpetuity reflect His faithfulness and His eternity. A State that pretends it can alter not the conditions of marriage but its very nature presumes upon the prerogatives of God.” (64)
Without this respect for the institution of marrage, “what might we expect from an anti-society of self-will and divorce?…Are we to believe that men who are shameless and shiftless in the most intimate and most socially productive of human relations will be animated by civic responsibility and love of neighbor in their other public actions, where their duties are less clear and the opportunities for self-serving almost limitless? Every sin against marriage is a sin against the very possibility of any kind of society at all.” (66-67)
Esolen also notes the limits of “contract” language– particularly within marriage– as opposed to the term “covenant” and our bonding to each other in covenant: “No one loves a contract…A contract is a binding guarantee that we enter into because we cannot trust our fellow man to do the right thing. It is based upon suspicion…I enter a contract…but I forge a bond.” (102, 117)
On Economics: “Just Wages” and Guilds vs. Unions
Clarifying CST, Esolen is careful to distinguish between guilds and unions. Such associations– as companies– are a “natural right” (168). But often, unions (and other producers) go (much) further than this right, exercising unjust political might. Unions are best seen as a labor market cartel– and often a crony-capitalistic special interest group, looking to enrich itself at the expense of others through product and labor market restrictions. In contrast, guilds are focused on training, apprenticeships– as well as social, economic and religious relationships. (99-100, 137). Esolen asks: “How far is such a guild from the” NEA or government unions? “As far as the heavens are above the earth, or the mountains above the sea.” (169)
Esolen extends this point by describing professors as a guild– at least back in the day. They pursued “a holy aim– truth…regalia…a kind of priesthood” (115). In fact, the word used by Pope Leo to describe guilds is “collegus” or colleges– “bands of men in league together; not simply a union, but a genuinely human society of men with a common interest, living and working with one another.” (138)
Esolen is equally careful and helpful on another popular CST term, the “just wage”. It “implies an intricate set of human interchanges. The worker and the employer must treat one another fairly; if the employer does not bow in homage to the labor market, the employee does not do as little as he can to preserve his job. The employer must find worthwhile and feasible work for the workman to do– for he too must stay in business. The employee must use those wages wisely.” (163-164) While the contemporary debate centers (exclusively?) on an employer's responsibility to employees– and not any other relationship (e.g., customers looking for low prices), reciprocity (e.g., workers must work hard), or related expectations (how one spends income)– Esolen is careful to note all of the relevant angles.
a few other nuggets:
-add to Eph 5 / Gen 2 notes
-see: I Tim 6 on welfare as “the strange harmony between one form of worldly covetousness and another…amassing of private fortune…[and] a mechanical and mathematical redistribution without regard to the human person. CST sees both forms of materialism as evil from the root.” (105)
-see: work a la Gen 2 and 9th C: work precedes Fall; reward of his work is his own, as God's steward; “The right of private property is grounded, not in practical economics, but in the theomorphic nature of man. Neither a brute nor a robot can properly be said to own anything. Only persons can own.” (140)