From the May/June, 2015 issue of Touchstone


No Country for Young Children by Anthony Esolen


No Country for Young Children

What Kind of Society Can Countenance Such Evil?

Let us begin with a question that seems never to occur to the proponents of abortion. What must a country become, or already have become, if abortion is permitted? Here I don't mean simply that there is evil in the world, and that when you perform an evil deed you yourself are your first and most injured victim. That principle would apply in a healthy society as well as in a sick one. If the Amish farm boy assaults his neighbor's daughter, he throws the doors wide open for Satan to enter his heart; or, if you prefer to speak only psychologically, he begins to bind himself to an evil that will render him less and less able to love a woman for herself, her simple being. Yet we would not say that the Amish community itself is sick. In fact, they probably understand far better than the pro-abortion feminist professor of sociology does, just why what the youth has done is to be condemned.

Nor do I mean simply to say that a country that permits abortion is sick. The question is, what exactly is the sickness? Here, too, we must be careful. We are talking about human beings, not machines. If I see a pinkish fluid dripping from the bottom of my car, I surmise that I have a leak in my automatic transmission. But the transmission is only a part of the car, and its relationship to the rest of the car is strictly a matter of position, of one thing being next to another thing and acting upon it mechanically. A machine is thus only a distant imitation of a body. The sick man lying upon his bed of death is something utterly different from a broken-down car. The whole of the man is involved in each part; the pain he feels invades his mind; but his mind can embrace the pain or attempt to rise above it; he is other than his sickness, although there is not one member of his body that does not share in the suffering.

What I am trying to do is to avoid the mistake of our materialist opponents, who do not really know what a human being is, and therefore can never know what a human society is. They are spellbound by modern science's facility with machines. They therefore think mechanically. If a tank springs a leak, you plug it up. That is their approach to all political and social problems—call it plugging or soldering. John is poor; give him money. Jane is pregnant and doesn't want her child; clean out her womb.

So our sickness is not just that we allow abortion, nor is abortion merely a predictable but contingent consequence of an underlying sickness, in the way that coughing up blood is a predictable consequence of tuberculosis. If abortion were made illegal tomorrow, as in justice it ought to be, we would still be a terribly sick people, because we are still a people for whom abortion is conceivable and even desirable. What kind of people are we?

Mystery, Invulnerability & Holiness

Here I turn to the Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel, in his book Reflection and Mystery. Marcel asks us to consider someone who is entirely vulnerable, "a sleeping person, especially a sleeping child." If we think only of physical action, "the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child."

To do what we like with the child—a terrifying phrase. Recall the end of the film To Kill a Mockingbird. A boy has been brutally attacked by an evil and vindictive man. The boy is lying unconscious in his bed, his broken arm in a sling. The doctor says he will live. Standing at the bed is his little sister and the man-child who saved their lives, and who killed the attacker. That man-child does not speak a single word in the film. We never learn whether he can. The children have been afraid of him and his "haunted" house, ruled by his heartless and wicked father. But now he stands there, clear and innocent.

The sister is small enough to take his hand and not feel embarrassed. "You can pet him, Boo," she says, reading his mind. "He's asleep, but he'd never let you do it if he was awake." And the man gently brushes the boy's hair on his forehead.

The director does not have to tell us that we are in the presence of the holy. That is not a machine in the bed. It is a being, irreducible to a list of facts or measurements. It is not a machine that strokes his head. It is a being, one who responds to the holy. Says Marcel: "From the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred."

There are three elements in Marcel's insight: mystery, invulnerability, and holiness. Let's take them one by one.

The Mystery of Mockingbirds & Horses

First, mystery. In that same film, the good lawyer Atticus Finch is giving a lesson to his children on right and wrong, which he received from their grandfather. When the old man gave him his first rifle, he said that though he wanted him to shoot mostly at tin cups in the backyard, he knew that all boys would eventually aim at birds. You could kill the blue jays if you could hit them, he said, because they rob other birds' nests and make nuisances of themselves, but it was a sin "to kill a mockingbird," because all that the mockingbird does is to sing his heart out and give people pleasure. And if we listen closely to some of the outdoor scenes, we'll hear a mockingbird singing out, cheerfully and mysteriously being itself, unaware that there is any such thing in the world as a movie, or evil.

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Now there is a mystery in that songbird, in the mere fact that it is, and that it is what it is. The mystery is irreducible to materialist analysis. Charles Dickens struck to the heart of this mystery in his satire against materialist education, Hard Times. A girl named Cissy, brought up among performers and their animals in a circus, is sent to a school run by Thomas Gradgrind, a type of the modern man who admits only facts, and who therefore knows practically nothing. Call it Common Core for the nineteenth century. When Gradgrind asks Cissy for her definition of a horse, she is struck dumb. The model student Bitzer gives the reply, to the effect that a horse is a graminivorous quadruped,
and so forth.

The irony is that Cissy has spent her entire young life among horses. She knows horses, meaning that she has entered into a genuine relation with the creatures. I don't simply mean that she knows more than Bitzer does. Her knowledge is of an entirely different order. We might venture to say that she is content with not knowing; that is, with admitting that you can never come to an end of beholding and admiring the beauty and nobility of that gentle animal with the warm breath and the massive chest.

To the extent that we are materialists—that we assume that only what the natural scientist does qualifies as knowledge—we cannot enter into a fully human relation with anything. Marcel considers the Dutch master Jan Vermeer, painting his View of Delft. Why should he paint that landscape? "Nothing," says Marcel,

at our present level of discourse can allow itself to be reduced to a mere relationship of cause and effect. If for Vermeer the view of Delft had been a mere spectacle, if he himself could have been reduced to the condition of a mere spectator, he would never have been able to paint his picture; let us even assert that he would not have been an artist at all.

To wonder, to admire is already "to be receptive in an active, alert manner." But "beings incapable of admiration are always at bottom sterile beings, perhaps sterile because exhausted, because the springs of life are dried or choked in them."

Spiritual Robots

That insight may explain to us why the actual science of human embryology does not matter to the politicians, judges, doctors, patients, and scientists who want to do away with the unwanted child. Their sickness is not ignorance of fact, but numbness to mystery. Marcel compares the attitude of the artist, which is contemplative and receptive, with the attitude of the technician. An artist painting a flower must participate in the flower's mysterious being. But the ambition of a genetic manipulator is quite different. "In some sense," says Marcel, it "implies a refusal to participate, a blank negation." It "consummates a purpose which, from the religious point of view, or, more precisely, from the point of view of any vision at all of the world as holy, must be considered sacrilegious."

It will not do to prove to our opponents that the baby is human. Biologically speaking, they know that it is. They simply have lost the capacity to wonder at that truth. We are, so to speak, arguing with spiritual robots. When we use their idiom, we employ a scientific language that they who fancy themselves scientists receive only as a kind of robotics.

I don't think I'm exaggerating here. David Hart has quipped that it is the dream of every young materialist to grow up to be a robot. Chalk it up to the machines we have grown up among: machines of government, machines of economy, machines of entertainment, and machines of education. Machines for the machines. "Technical processes," says Marcel, "have emancipated themselves today from the ends to which they ought normally to remain subordinate." We have become the tools of our tools.

Mysterious Invulnerability

Romano Guardini means much the same thing when he says that man in our age has relinquished his responsibility over power. He has no power over the machines he has made, so the demonic rushes in to take over the responsibility—and by demonic, Guardini does mean Satan. In what Marcel calls "the Moloch State," there can be no place for the weak, the "unproductive," the houseless children whom Dickens's most famous social machinist, Ebenezer Scrooge, wishes would die so as to "decrease the surplus population."

Hence we move to the second point. The sleeping child should be invulnerable, just because he is weak and is entirely at our mercy. But we perceive him as disposable, because we have made proletarians of our souls, and we accept the judgment of our demon taskmasters. They tell us that we are worth only what we can do, and we agree. We are serfs in white collars.

Think again of Jem Finch asleep in his bed. Think of the small naked baby utterly helpless in the womb. Marcel did not have the stainless steel ugliness of abortion in mind, but he might as well have, when he condemned us for our numbness to the child: "There can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability."

Barbarians were a good deal better than that, but we can forgive Marcel the use of the word in this case. He is writing in 1949, shortly after the systematic, technical, "scientific" horror of Nazism, and in the midst of the comparable horrors of Communism, but what he says applies also to us: "The more, it might be said, the ideas of efficiency and output assert their supreme authority, the more this attitude of reverence towards the guest, towards the wounded, towards the sick, will appear at first incomprehensible, and later absurd." And there is no more vulnerable and therefore invulnerable guest than the child in the womb.

Guardini extends the insight to any world in which people choose to put themselves at the mercy of technical and autonomous power: "The defenselessness of childhood, the special nature of woman, the simultaneous physical weakness and rich experience of the aged—all lose their metaphysical worth." The urge to rid ourselves of supposedly unproductive citizens is but another expression of "the whole fabric of our present-day life, with its rationalization and mechanization, its techniques of forming public opinion, and its control of education."

Blind to Holiness

There is thus a spiritual connection to draw between a people who slay the child in the womb, and a people who corrupt or pervert the child's innocence. I used to believe that there must be something diseased about a teacher who could look upon a defenseless child, and say, "I shall now introduce this boy to the peculiarities of sexual behavior and desire," and think well of himself for it—to be a pedagogical pedophile. I now suspect that such a person is not so bad as that, and yet worse. He—or more likely these days, she—may not be leering at the innocent child. If you have taught yourself to behave as a reliable cog in a pedagogical and social machine, you will not see the innocence of the child, because you will not really see the child at all. The boy or girl is just an immature unit of social production. The categories of "boy" and "girl" have lost their meaning, too.

And that brings us to holiness. We beg our fellow men to recognize the holiness of the child in the womb. In doing so, we seem to beg them to extend to that unborn child a quality whereof every human being has some intuition. But they do not recognize any holiness, and we who do recognize it can hardly make ourselves understood. It is not so much that we speak a different language as that we dwell in a world of spiritual depth, whereas theirs is flat; we may as well be trying to praise the green grass to the colorblind. We can make ourselves understand color blindness in a way, because we lose almost all sense of color in the moonlight. Can we engage in a similar act of imagination, or dis-imagination, to bring to our minds what this spiritual blindness is like?

The Fact & the Horror

So I turn to another scene involving the murder of children. It is in Shakespeare's Richard III. The ambitious Richard has deposed his nephew, the boy king Edward V, and mewed him and his younger brother in the Tower of London. He has seized the crown for himself. But he knows that his claim is shaky. So he wants the boys murdered, and suborns for the task a frustrated but ambitious man named Tyrrel. Tyrrel accepts the task, but he does not perform the deed himself. He hires it out to another couple of "fleshed villains, bloody dogs."

We do not actually see the murder on stage. But we learn about it more profoundly than any sight of it could teach us. Tyrrel tells us of both the fact and the horror. He is alone on stage and miserable because he has not been able to eradicate from his soul all sense of the holy. He reports what his "villains" told him, repeating their very words. The boys were sound asleep in a single bed. A prayer book lay at their pillow. Their arms were thrown about one another, and their lips were like four red roses on a stalk. "We smothered," says one of the killers, "the most replenished sweet work of Nature / That from the prime creation e'er she framed." When they left Tyrrel, they were so struck with conscience that they could not speak.

The killers are not spiritually blind, so we have hope for them. Tyrrel is not spiritually blind. But now Richard enters the stage, quick and active as a lizard. "Kind Tyrrel, am I happy in thy news?" he asks. Tyrrel's reply is most ambiguous:

If to have done the thing you gave in charge
Beget your happiness, be happy then,
For it is done.

Notice that the murder has become "the thing." Richard has placed walls between himself and "the thing." He hires a killer, who hires killers in his turn. They tell him what they did, Tyrrel tells us, and now he informs Richard only of the bare fact—he does not tell Richard of its meaning. "But didst thou see them dead?" asks Richard, with a petty eagerness. "I did, my Lord"—that is all Tyrrel says. "And buried, gentle Tyrrel?" The chaplain buried them, he says, but he does not know exactly where.

The Madness of Reduction & the Secret of the Holy God

And that is that. Richard goes on to bustle about the stage and the realm of England, until his ambitions are put to a sorry end at Bosworth Field. But notice the difference between Tyrrel and Richard. They are both murderers, but the hired man does more than tower above the master in moral possibility. It is as if Tyrrel and we inhabit a real world, one in which the sleeping children are holy even for the men who violate their consciences to destroy them, while Richard inhabits an unreal world, a smothered world. His is the utter madness of reduction. He exalts himself at the cost not only of his soul but of the whole creation. At this point nothing is impermissible, because things are as the dead-souled Macbeth declares them to be: a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

There I think is the terrible task before us. We have to deal with intelligent idiots. To do so, we must be equipped with the full armor of God, and that includes most especially the virtue of holiness. We must pray that God will wash away with caustic hyssop all the sludge in us of a merely secular world, so that whatever we do, whatever we say, we will seem to others to be in possession of a secret, the secret of the holy God, hidden from the foundations of the world, but revealed to fools and babes. •

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“No Country for Young Children” first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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