Lyndon Johnson closed his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention in 1964 with a rousing call to “let us be on our way!” The plea became a rallying cry for the fall campaign, which issued in a landslide. If pressed to provide a road map for exactly where he wished the country to go, Johnson would have released a fusillade of high-flown, bourbon-spattered rhetoric spiked with a list of social legislation and policy directives sure, he believed, to usher in the new millennium called the “Great Society.” Pass a law, change the world. This is the way those addicted to political solutions have come to think.
Anthony Esolen does not present us with anything so ephemeral. He too calls for all of us to be up, packed, and on our way, though his road map is not a political but a spiritual one, and therefore far more palpable and urgent. Nostalgia is a winsome meditation on what deeply educated, mature people ought to know already but, rabid political and cultural hubris notwithstanding, don’t. His directions are certainly reliable, replete with many cautious pointers from travelers who have trod the long roads before us but following their lead in insisting on the long way round to the good and wise life, which is the only way we can achieve wisdom without direct divine aid: by arduous, unrelenting effort.
We’re told that “nostalgia” emerged into English from an ancient Greek word for “homesickness,” which is telling, and this is where Esolen fires his opening shots. We are not comfortable in our own skin. Nostalgia may be the stuff of harmless rumination for some people, but, depending on the state of the soul in which it lingers, it should also be taken as a fixed reminder that none of us, no matter our station in life, are really home. We are all wanderers looking for a cheering hearth, sailors searching for a last port. Yet there’s a decisive difference between those who know they’re wanderers and those who don’t, between those who frankly accept and then embrace life as a pilgrimage, as a purposeful journey marked by prudence, luck, and grace, and those who feverishly adopt any New Thing to bestow meaning on thin, rudderless lives. Esolen hopes to awaken us to the work of espying our true home, and he gives us a few GPS coordinates to punch in. But we also learn that finding a true home, an ultima Thule, is no easy matter, nor is it for the faint of heart. It’s a task that begins in this life but is consummated in the next.
This book is, in other words, for adults, not children, however many decades old. It’s for those willing to ask ultimate questions and armed with the courage to listen to a few answers and follow up.
Chesterton once wrote that there are two ways to get home, and one way is never to have left. Perhaps this is for a few saints. But most of us opt for the other path and must travel a circuitous trail of error and false turnings, after which we still might not arrive, fated to be wanderers forever. Yet it’s a home we seek, hoping to fill a void in the center of our otherwise sated lives. How do we habitually fill that void? With the usual pastimes. Politics, sports, drugs, entertainment, sex, and a thousand other diversions and amusements: pretty much anything to avoid taking a long and honest look in the mirror.
Our homeless state, whether arising from a home we’ve lost or a home we long to find, offers a sign of hope that we will rouse ourselves and claim enough spiritual strength to hit the road in glad earnest. The future-addicted tend to lack the grounding to move securely into it — not knowing where they’ve been, they’ve little sense of where to go — and are fueled more by hatred of the present than by a steady dedication to a Better Day. Nostalgia, on the other hand, may render us discontented, but it calls us, albeit quietly. It offers a better launch and promises a truer trajectory.
Esolen zestfully exposes the din drowning out that quiet call. We meet a bogeyman named the “progressive,” repeated shots at which would be cheap if that bogeyman didn’t actually exist. But he does. For it is the progressive who has sought over the last couple of centuries especially to disconnect the world from the past’s patrimony of wisdom and experience that can leaven the soul and make more intelligent, wiser living possible. And it is this “progressivism” — recklessly good intentions, foolishly and destructively exercised by the ideologically driven — that threatens to make nostalgia, a proper yearning for an indefinable something we left behind, into simply another pathology to solve instead of a heartsickness to cure.
Few words are minced. “The progressive,” Esolen tells us, “has turned original sin, which afflicts all mankind, into political error, which conveniently afflicts his opponents and not himself.” And why not? The progressive blithely and often brutally dismisses what the past has to teach and “looks with delight upon nothing that has been.” The progressive sows confusion where his ancestors have painstakingly created order, and it is largely because of him that we live in an age “infantile in wisdom.” For the “paradox of modernity is just this: it refuses to define progress in any way accordant with the nature of fallen man and therefore rejects the hard-won wisdom of our forebears, thereby rejecting the foundations upon which alone we can build.” This is a frontal attack, and only Esolen’s eloquence and native piety prevent his broadsides from lapsing into joyous vulgarity.
Many are his targets. This is an agreeably populated book. Esolen, a professor of literature, scholar, and translator (most notably of Dante), walks us through a set of cameos, brief slivers of insight from the brighter spirits ranging from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Hawthorne, Dickens, and John Henry Newman to more modern and contemporary voices, from Belloc to Péguy, Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy — and of course the Bible. He expounds on them all, mining nuggets of sagacity and imparting them to those of us who didn’t get what we ought to have got in school and college. Together they raise a chorus of cues to man’s anxious relation to time — one that, were it reflected upon aright, would tell us something about our relation to eternity — and place, the sense of which has been steadily obliterated: by mass movement and creeping sameness as landscapes have gotten flattened for purposes of the passing moment; by easy virtue and the virulent self-righteousness arising from it in a time uncommonly ignorant of history and philosophy; by monotonously degraded schemes of formal education, ubiquitous electronic gadgets that blot out the faces sitting next to us, debased entertainment, secularly induced religious collapse, innocence drowned in the blatant co-opting of children to serve political ends, the deliberate muddle of the sexes, and the deliquescence of the family as the fundamental unit not only of society but of sanity as well. (“Toxic masculinity” may or may not be a threat to the world, but “toxic humanity” certainly is, and here’s the category that ought to concern all decent people honestly wishing to identify our real predicament.)
So how are we to assuage our nostalgic affliction of homelessness? Esolen’s answer is unapologetically clear: Return to the fullness of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Only in this way will we find the road that leads where all roads terminate.
But those unable to make that leap can still take a step toward Gratitude, for without thankfulness for all the things we’ve been given that we haven’t deserved — things such as our country, our family, our raising, our health, our sustenance, our friends — happiness isn’t possible and a spiritual homelessness is guaranteed, even and perhaps especially in prosperity. And not for the individual alone. “Without the acknowledgment of a gift,” we’re reminded, “there is no culture.” Or none worth preserving. Esolen calls for nothing less than the massive labor to recivilize ourselves, one person at a time, before it’s too late.