“I have seen too much loneliness and unhappiness,” writes Anthony Esolen in the Prologue to his book Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, “too much chaos without and deadness of heart within, to pretend that that moral law that all people accepted until a few years ago, even if they sometimes fell afoul of it, does not still hold true, and does not still offer men and women their best chance for happiness in this life. We may obey or not; but the penalty for disobedience isn’t ours to determine, no more than if we leapt from a cliff, intending to fly by flapping our arms. Nature is not obliged to confirm our self-deceit.”
Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College, uses his considerable wit and insight to break our self-deceit, the lies we tell ourselves about life, sex, meaning, and marriage.
And he pulls no punches: “Our children witness perversions of all kinds, and no one cares, because we have become a pornographic people, even if we do not all gaze at the pictures. This is because we accept the principle undergirding the pornography, which is that the pursuit of sexual gratification is a good thing, maybe the greatest good of all, and trumps all other considerations, such as the health of marriages generally, the welfare and innocence of children, the promotion of virtue, and the common good.”
We live in a culture, he argues, where we have been repeatedly told that men are not for women and that women are not for men, that men and women are interchangeable, that sexual differences are illusory, “that our sexual powers are for ourselves alone,” and that gender can be customized. Such an environment, he writes, “is an acid bath for love. It cannot kill all of the love between men and women, but it will kill much of that love, and it must inevitably corrode or curdle or cramp much of the rest.”
It also kills the love between men and the love between women. In the chapter, “We Should Not Foreclose the Opportunity for Members of the Same Sex to Forge Friendships with One Another That Are Chaste, Deep, and Physically Expressed,” Esolen begins with Sam Gamgee rescuing Frodo Baggins at the edge of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He describes how Sam cradles the wounded and exhausted Frodo’s head in his arms. “At this,” he writes, “a snigger rises from the audience in the theater. ‘What are they gay?’ It’s an ignorant, but inevitable response.”
It’s also a pitifully sad response. The sexual revolution has robbed men in particular of friendships by demanding that we see sexuality and homosexuality everywhere: in Frodo and Sam, in Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, in David and Jonathan, and in those two guys at church who spend a lot of time together. No one is innocent because, it seems, there is no innocence.
“More than ever,” Esolen laments, “do men need to come together to eat and drink and argue and think, because more than ever their work separates them from each other; but they are virtually forbidden to do so.” And no one suffers more, he adds, than boys living amid so much sexual ambiguity.
He addresses divorce and our willingness to subordinate the wellbeing of children to the sexual whims and desires of adults. “Children need parents who love them, not parents who are contented: they are too young to be asked to lay down their lives for someone else. It’s not the job of the child to suffer for the parent….” Yet we live in such a way that, “Children must grow up at age ten, so that their parents don’t have to.”
Esolen’s final chapter, “The Beauty of the Country of Marriage,” alone is worth more than the price of the book.
In the Land of Marriage, he writes, “there are many weddings, and the brides and grooms are young and full of life” (emphasis on young). It is a place where “men and women cherish one another, delight in one another’s strength, laugh at one another’s foibles, and bear with one another’s weaknesses.” It is a land where children are welcomed (“Why should they not be?”) and “you know your neighbor, because there are neighbors to know.”
Esolen paints a glorious picture of marriage as God designed it: men and women give themselves to each other exclusively for as long as they live and thus unite all that is past—parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond—to all that is future—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond. In doing so, he reminds us of how much we have lost while urging us on to the joy and fullness that are still possible.