Are We a Population or a People?

I am trying to imagine what it would be like if I should take up residence in India, and, because I am not a Hindu believer, demand that the public schools not teach the Rig-Veda. I would come in for the roundest abuse. It would be tantamount to demanding that the Indian people sever their children from a rich fount of legend and history, and, though inevitably encrusted with human folly and sin, from a noble way of understanding what it means to be human; from wellsprings of culture more than two thousand years old; from their temples, their songs, and their traditions; even from the subtlest beauties of their very language, insofar as it has been watered and nurtured by these sources. It would be as if I should bang my fist on the table and cry, red in the face, “There must no longer be an India or an Indian people!” 

For people are not united by geopolitical boundaries, political machinery, or constitutional by-laws. They can be united only by what transcends their time, their place, and their economic or political interests. 

Political action teaches people to shout at one another. It has always been so, even from the hurly-burly of the Athenian assembly and the fiery hatreds that banished Themistocles and sentenced Socrates to death. That is the common thing for man. It requires no explanation. I am not blaming it on politics. It was the same in the halls of the pagan Germanic kings, and in the often treacherous power-brokering at the Icelandic All-Thing. 

It is culture that gives people a chance to learn to speak to one another about the most important things in life, and they do so speak, not only across the backyard fence but across hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

When American jurists ruled that the sacred texts of the Christian and Jewish faiths must be treated as anathema in our schools, it was as if they had said that there must not be an American people, and that the American population—for a population is a collective, a penfold for sheep or for some other culture-less creatures, and not a unity—must be severed from conversation with the cultures that have informed them and their very language, from ancient Israel to the Greek and Roman world of Saint Paul and the early Church, from the ages of the great cathedrals and the first universities, from Giotto and Raphael and Caravaggio painting in Italy, from Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton writing in England, from Pascal and Dr. Johnson, from Cervantes and Manzoni, from Thomas More and John Henry Newman; why, even from full understanding of their own Hawthorne and Melville. It was to say that it was unconstitutional to be a people at all.

Of course, only the most malevolent on the one side, and the most perspicacious on the other, might have seen it that way. I suppose that most people supposed, for good and for bad, that the schools would go on doing almost everything they had been doing, and that the churches, which were still full and looking to expand, would continue to exert their immense influence on the way people looked at the world. But it was not so. It was a violent and artificial excision of the dimension of worship from the common language: of wonder before the divine, of guilt and its expiation, of joy that shines through the darkest grief, even of love that bows the head in forgiveness of the enemy. In spiritual and cultural matters, it was as if America had dumbed down her language just as schoolbook publishers had done with the “Dick and Jane” series, resulting, in very short order, in a nation of illiterates and semi-literates, smothered by the schools. 

It was as if someone had taken a knife to the nation’s soul and performed a spiritual lobotomy, so that people would no longer have the words to talk to each other about glory; so that Americans, when they did happen to encounter Ahab in his fury, raising his fist against the God who spoke to Job from the whirlwind, would be, at best, like cheerfully dopey tourists gaping up at the windows in Notre-Dame de Paris, and saying, “Gosh, they’re big. I wonder what they’re about?”—and then looking back toward the door, because they sense that they should feel something or know something, but they don’t, and they don’t.

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that the harm was limited to our being unconversant with the items on a tourist brochure. I mean that we have ceased to be a people: we have no cultural language. It is not just that we cannot enter the lists with Melville. We no longer conceive of what it would take to do so. We no longer conceive of why anyone would want to do so. The pagan Germanic tribes had no writing, but they had stories, some of them stories that preserved, in poetic form, memories of events that had occurred hundreds of years before. The Romans treasured legends of their founders long before any historian ever wrote them down in Latin; and in fact many of their religious formulas contain words that had long passed out of common use before they were recorded. Imagine saying to a Roman, “You must not teach these young people the religious stories of their ancestors.” The reply would be direct: “Who are you to command Romans not to be Roman?”

I have still not touched upon the worst of the harm done. That has come home to me recently, as I have been annotating my new translation of Augustine’s Confessions (forthcoming from TAN Books). Augustine was a teacher of rhetoric, a man of letters, but when he became a Christian, he became what the world had never seen before, not by his power but by the formative influence, the rich and all-encompassing language, of Scripture. There had been nothing like the Confessions, and I sense that that uniqueness is owing to the power and all-encompassing reach of the texts in which he had steeped his mind and soul. 

Scripture is woven inextricably into his thought, so that, whenever he is meditating upon his life or the life of man, or wondering what it is to think, to act, to will, even to exist, let alone wondering before the wisdom and goodness of God, he speaks with the words of Genesis, Exodus, the psalms, the gospels, and the letters of Paul, seamlessly, unobtrusively. They grant him the truths he had long sought. They grant also his language for seeking more truth, always more, or for deeper vision into the truths he has been granted to see.

Imagine a cripple who finds it irksome to watch healthy people race about. He would be content if everyone should be hamstrung, to stump about as he must do. That, I suspect, is what lies at the bottom of most of the secularist demands that people keep “religion” out of this place and that place; no more than old-fashioned, resentful, petty envy. 

Meanwhile, some few among us may see that a population is easy to control so long as they are fed, since the individuals that make up a population can unite about nothing. Keep the living puppets fed, say the puppeteers. It is better for their shrewd purposes that there should be three hundred million puppets, and not one people anymore.


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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). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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