Our Dark Age

On Friday, as I wrote these words, the Supreme Court set aside its egregious and constitutionally unfounded decision in Roe v. Wade, which elevated abortion almost to a sacred right. I note that the term “abortion” is itself a euphemism, as it glances demurely aside from what is going on: the ripping to pieces of an unborn child, or burning him in a bath of salt, while, by a clinical and mechanical abstraction, it allows us to pretend that it is like some project or other that we decide to scrap, or a flight that is turned back, safe and sound, to the original runway.

Satan, it is said, cannot bear to be mocked, and we may extend the point to cover human beings, too, when they are committed to something they cannot help but know is evil. They lose all sense of proportion, all sense of irony. So, predictably but sadly enough, we have seen women protesting the decision by getting themselves up in ghoulish red costumes and splashing the walls of churches with red paint, like blood. Might I suggest that proving your opponent’s point in such a graphic way, and making yourselves out to be ghastly and impossible to reason with, is perhaps not the best argument you might use to support what you want—the license to kill?

I rejoice for the hundreds of thousands of children who will not be slain upon the altars of our hedonism, and, yes, for their mothers and fathers, who will not be led deep into wickedness, and who may, sometimes against their own initial desires, be led instead into the sanity of the moral law, and into the health-giving sacrifices that abiding by that law will require. And I urge all people of good will to give as much as they can toward helping these mostly unwed mothers—and the fathers, too, since they must be held accountable—to bring these children into the world, and to care for them afterward.

That, of course, is only the beginning. The Supreme Court, in retreating from its long-standing usurpation of legislative power in cultural matters—wherein lawyers have no more to say, and perhaps less, than do farmers, businessmen, carpenters, housewives, clergymen, soldiers, and so on—has cleared a way toward the recovery of a high and humane moral vision. 

It is the moral vision that animated Dr. Mildred Jefferson (1927-2010), the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, to found Massachusetts Citizens for Life, and then the National Right to Life Committee. She was responsible for nudging Ronald Reagan away from his libertarian instincts, persuading him that in fact the child in the womb was an independent and human life, never to be disposed of as if it were dead or inert or a parasite or something less than human. This moral vision embraces not only the unborn child, but the whole of our understanding of sex, of the nature of men and women, of their union in marriage, and of the begetting and raising of children, as Jefferson—whom I had the honor of meeting a couple of times—well knew and acknowledged.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan suggests that we are returning to “the dark ages,” a period of time which evidently extended as far as 1973, when Roe was decided. Again, the ironies abound. For hedonism inevitably leads us to a dark place, where people sell each other out to gain pleasure or avoid pain. It is not a high moral vision. It is no moral vision at all. It does not urge us to do the right thing even when it costs us what seems to be our best chance of happiness in this world. It does not inspire us with exemplars of courage, purity, loyalty, and generosity. It does not lead men and women to look upon the other sex generally with delight and gratitude, and trust in their worthiness and responsibility. It is nothing to strive for; it brings us no nearer to the divine; its art and literature and music, from the symphony orchestra to the boy playing a mandolin to delight the girl he loves, grow at first decadent and then collapse in apathy and lassitude.

I was a classmate of Kagan’s (Princeton, 1981), and I can say with certainty that the very large majority of students in our class would never take any course in those “dark ages” that she seems to deride. My roommates didn’t. Princeton had already abandoned its role as the guardian and transferrer of hard-won wisdom from the ages. It was, in that way, a culturally dark place, but it was dark in another way too. That is because the abandonment of the moral vision that was to govern the relations of the sexes was quite complete. 

It resulted in a lot of confusion, disaffection, and loneliness

Your age is a dark one, I take it, if the foundations of your society have crumbled, and you can no longer accomplish the ordinary work of a human culture.It is characterized by loss, a collapse in quality in the arts, the vanishing of institutions that bring people together and that transcend the generations, a forgetting of past wisdom, and a loss of self-government. Justice Kagan has been living in such an age for a long time, but she has not noticed it. 

When people accuse me of a prejudice against the quality of our current institutions, our political life, our productions in arts and letters, and our way of worship, I turn their attention to the breathtaking loss of entire fields of activity, entire genres of art, entire arenas of local government and social life. It isn’t that our dances aren’t as good as they used to be. We hardly have any at all. 

It isn’t that our poets write poorer dramatic monologues, or they tell poorer stories, or their songs are awkward, or their forays into discussions of literature or science or the moral law are less learned and less cogent. They don’t do these things in poetry at all. We build mostly ugly buildings; we tear down more churches than we build; but we also tear down bowling alleys and old bandstands and all other mainstays of what used to be a common American life.

It’s not that our marriage customs are less noble or merry or wholesome than they used to be. We have hardly any to talk about, because marriages have grown rather rare. Our most signal failure in education—that we do not do the sacred work of tradition—is made manifest in our most signal and deadly social failure: We simply do not have enough children to replace ourselves. We are, quite literally, dying of selfishness, dying of disillusionment, dying of hedonism, dying in impiety and ingratitude toward our forebears, and dying of pretending that we can play God, deciding what child is worthy to survive to breathe the air and what child is not.

But according to those who have cast their lot with the disease, we are only now—only now, that we at least have acknowledged that the humanity of the unborn child might after all be something with a claim on us—falling into darkness. 

As if the reflected fluorescent light on the forceps and the scalpel, extracting our brother in pieces from his haven, shall save us!

Where have they been?

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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