Acclaimed author and professor Dr. Anthony Esolen delivered a talk entitled The Gift of Self: Modern Culture’s Impact on Love to the students and faculty at Christendom College on October 24. Part of the college’s Major Speakers Program, the talk examined how modern society’s understanding of human love has destroyed all sense of mystery and imagination.
A professor at Providence College, Esolen explained that society has reduced love to sex, and sex to hygiene—a reduction that has occurred due to a skewed view of what it is to know something.
He described modern society’s idea of knowledge as having “analyzed a thing’s measurable features so as to make use of it for profit or pleasure.” This misunderstanding of knowledge is why physical functions are described with clinical detachment in contemporary sex education courses.
“All the sense of mystery is destroyed,” he said.
Esolen suggested that in order to gain true knowledge, one must be open to the mystery of a thing’s being.
“We surrender ourselves to it in humility,” he said. Quoting the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Esolen said, “There is no true knowledge without humility.”
This humility, coupled with a “gift of self,” results in a true knowledge and love.
“We know ourselves truly through loving another,” he said. “’What we are is revealed back to us by those who receive our love. The lover may even come to know us better than we know ourselves.”
Esolen cited the account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis to illustrate the mystery of a humble knowing and loving of another, which then brings about a knowledge of oneself.
“God has given men to women and women to men not only to prolong the species, but to open our minds, keeping in mind the mystery that each sex presents to the other,” he said.
A professor of Renaissance English Literature, Esolen further illustrated the “delight in the mystery of the other sex” through two romantic scenes from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “A Winter’s Tale.” The stories of the young lovers—Orlando and Rosalind, and Florizel and Perdita—highlighted the wonder that should accompany love and therefore knowledge of the other. In these plays, love is based on the respect for the mystery and beauty of the other.
Where there is a sense of mystery and a proper understanding of what it means to know something, you find a healthy imagination and the readiness to delight in the goodness of each sex, rather than a readiness “to scorn it, ignore it, or pervert it,” he explained.
Esolen proposed the virtue of purity as the answer to society’s current misunderstanding of love and sex. He observed that while abstinence is defined by absence and refraining, purity is “an essential light radiating from the core of the holy.”
Purity does not deny the power of sex, but rejoices in that power. It is impurity that degrades, denies, and despises the power of sex, he said.
“We do not practice the virtue of purity for what it will help us obtain, we practice it because it is right and just,” he said. “The reward comes from the virtue itself. We will not only see the sexes in their beauty, we’ll become the sorts of people who delight in that vision. We’ll become the sorts of people who maybe behold the lowliest thing—the chicken on the fence, the orange blossom—and enter into the mystery and the truth.”
This insightful talk can be downloaded at Christendom on iTunes U.
Esolen delivered a series of lectures at Christendom in 2002, and was happy to be back at the college.
“I saw for the first time in my life what a college should look like,” he said in reminiscing about his first visit to Christendom. “A group of people who are pursuing the same sorts of ends together, who know one another… It was wonderful and my wife and I talked about it for days afterward.”
Christendom College’s Major Speakers Program is an important aspect of the academic life at the College, offering the students and community an opportunity for cultural, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment beyond the classroom. The program offers students the opportunity to gain greater insights and depth of understanding of important issues, and to interact personally with a wide range of men and women who are shapers and critics of our society.