by Anthony Esolen | We are too used to the habits of everyone around us. We conform ourselves to the time, and save no one, because we can hardly tell in what regard we have anything to give them.
At the school where I used to teach, diversity has become the word of faith, an intellectual idol to conjure by. It does not mean that you study a variety of cultures. It couldn’t mean that. Otherwise we would have been in very Diversity Heaven, as we introduced our students to ancient Babylon, Homeric Greece, the Greece of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, ancient Israel, republican and imperial Rome, the early Christians spread from Asia Minor across North Africa all the way to Spain and Britain, the Germanic tribes—and that was just in one semester. No, it couldn’t mean that. By the testimony of the haters of the program I have described, that was the great offender against diversity. But now you can fulfill your “diversity proficiency” by taking one of any number of courses in modern feminism, a western phenomenon so familiar to graduates of American schools, they might well repeat the catechism in their sleep:
“Why did God make you?”
“She made me to battle against the patriarchy now and forevermore.”
“What caused humanity’s fall from grace?”
“Humanity fell when society adopted hierarchical structures that oppressed women and minorities.”
“What does the body mean?”
“The body means what I want it to mean. I own my body. My body is mine to do with as I please.”
“What is the first commandment of sexual liberation?”
“The first commandment is that I own my body, and no one shall have any say over what I choose to do with it, not parent, not spouse, not priest.”
We came to a parting of the ways, that school and I. And it occurs to me that that must happen in all Christian churches, schools, and homes, if we really wish to show man a way of life that diverges from the world’s gloomy stumbling on to unhappiness in this life and Lord only knows what futility and loss in the next. We must not be like our neighbors anymore.
I’m reading, for one of my classes at Thomas More College, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel set in the last days of Saints Peter and Paul, Quo Vadis? The Rome of that imperial matricide, mass murderer, poetaster, and buffoon, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero, was “a nest of evil,” “a seat of power, madness but also order, the capital of the world and also mankind’s most terrible oppressor, bringer of laws and peace, all-powerful, invulnerable, eternal,” so wicked, that Peter cannot fathom why God should lead him to build the Church upon such a foundation. Even the libertine Petronius understands that such a Rome cannot endure. “A society based on brute force and violence,” thinks that arbiter of taste, “on cruelty beyond anything possible among the barbarians, and on such universal viciousness and debauchery, could not survive forever. Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer. It reeked of death and corpses. Death’s shadow lay over its decomposing life.”
Rome, pagan Rome, was exhausted. She would, in the next few centuries, produce a few fine public buildings, some aqueducts and roads, one near-great poet (Juvenal), a sad philosopher king (Marcus Aurelius), and a brief efflorescence of Platonic mysticism not uninfluenced by Christianity. That was it.
The west, the post-Christian west, is exhausted. She exceeds ancient Rome in population by twenty to one, she enjoys plentiful food and drink, and labor-saving (and labor-eliminating) machines, and the moral heritage of its Christian past, mainly spent down and in many places mortgaged. But she is exhausted.
I call to witness our opponents. I do not say that there is a “rape culture” on our college campuses. They do. I do not say that men and women share no fundamental interests. They do. I do not say that it is impossible for people to remain innocent and sexually pure before marriage. They do. I do not say that the murder of a child in the womb is a fair price to pay for—a fair price, a job, economic autonomy. They do. I do not say that sex is meaningless. They do. I do not say that historical developments are inevitable and must carry us along with them willy-nilly, as dead things on a swollen river. They do. I do not say that freedom of speech is an outmoded notion. They do. I do not say that the pursuit of truth, outside of the quantifiable sciences, is a chimera. They do. I do not say that human existence itself must be transcended, or rather cast away. They do. I do not say that a man who is suffering from a terminal illness, or who knows that he is going to suffer it, has no more to live for, and nothing to give to God or his fellow man. They do. I do not say that churches ought to be turned into antique stores. They do.
They are exhausted. What wisdom does Hollywood have to impart? Or our rulers by the million in Washington and its fungal environs? Or professors, who write so poorly and read so little? Or artists, who strain their nerves and drain our wallets to produce what is ugly, garish, and stupid? Exhausted.
Quo Vadis? is a story of the irruption of the Christian faith into that exhausted world. Its protagonist, a young patrician named Marcus Vinicius, learns of a God who makes the Roman pantheon look ridiculous and shabby, and a force, a new thing in the world, Christian love, that the world dreads and yet desperately needs. Greece brought the world beauty, and Rome brought the world power, says his uncle Petronius, but what do these Christians bring? From what Petronius can see, all they bring is gloom; they spoil what few and fleeting pleasures are available to man in this life. But by the end of the novel Petronius admits that it is not so, though he cannot share in this new thing, this adoration of the God of love.
Vinicius will become a baptized follower of Christ. His passionate and violent desire for a young Christian woman—whom he would kidnap and rape rather than not enjoy—will be transformed, through his own defeat and humiliation, and a veritable miracle of Christ that saves her from the bloodthirsty Nero, into a love that he had never known, and that requires him to change his life forever. So he writes to Petronius, pleading with him to become Christian also. “Compare your fear-lined delights,” he says, “your concern for material objects when none of you is sure of tomorrow, your orgies that seem like funeral suppers, and you’ll find the answer. Come to our thyme-smelling mountains, to the shade of our olive groves, and to our ivy-covered coast. Peace waits for you here, the kind of peace you haven’t known in years. And love waits for you here, in hearts that truly love you. You have a good and noble soul, Petronius. You deserve to be happy. Your brilliant mind can recognize the truth, and when you’ve seen it, you will come to love it.”
What Vinicius holds forth to his uncle is to all appearances an ordinary human life, but it is not ordinary at all, because it is permeated with the only really new thing in this old dead world, the love of Christ. The Christians do not divorce their spouses. They do not expose unwanted children. They do not go on sprees of sad debauchery. They are grateful when God blesses them with peace, and grateful when he blesses them with the suffering that unites them with the Son. They possess all things as if they possessed none. They think first of the kingdom of God.
If we are not then conspicuous by our divergence from the world, we have not been faithful enough. I am as much to blame as anybody. We are too used to the habits of everyone around us. We conform ourselves to the time, and save no one, because we can hardly tell in what regard we have anything to give them.
Here I can say at last that I have found a place of true diversity. Yet I note that this divergence of Thomas More College, a place of cheerfulness and youth and wisdom and health, from the way of the world depends upon our being at one. We come to a fork in the road. It will not be possible to be half for Christ and half for the world. The choice must be made. Nor can it be made as individuals here and there. If the world is ever to see a truly divergent way of life, the people who take that way must take it in earnest and not pretend.
The very existence of Thomas More College depends upon unity in that regard. We are all aiming for the same good things. You could not have, among the Christians of old, some people who still sacrificed to Bacchus and men who still went after boys and women who still procured abortions; that would have been the same old world, with a little perfume. So now we cannot have a diversity that means no more than conformity to the world. Things are clearer than ever. Unity in Christ alone can give the world the diversity it needs.
Professor Anthony Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).