Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.
Anthony Esolen. No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2022.
As a university student, I remember stumbling upon an article in The Atlantic, “The End of Men.” Women now surpassed men in the workforce — to the betterment of society? Were women better adapted to a post-industrial workplace than men? Had we finally arrived at the end of men — ruling, leading, providing? That was over a decade ago.
Into a world further adrift in confusion, Anthony Esolen has written a book he himself wished need not be written. But write it, he did. And read it, we should. The title contains the tone — No Apologies — the subtitle, a thesis — Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men. Esolen attempts to convince us of what was once obvious: that this world does not run by magic but is built and sustained by the might of men living happily as men.
What if we have come to the end of men? “It would mean our end, our death; imagine a great city, rotting at the core, with no one strong enough to shore up the ruins” (2). Six chapters chisel and sculpt man as civilization has needed him — then and now. And this against that ideology whose desire is contrary to the man: Feminism and all her sickly offspring.
Man as He Was Fashioned
What kind of man does Esolen place before us?
First, Esolen chisels the muscles of this gritty warrior. He displays the forte, the force, the brawn of the taller, faster, thicker, action-craving man. God created the world, man builds it, which we can easily forget in a post-industrial, technically-advanced world. “Every road you see was laid by men. Every house, church, every school, every factory, every public building was raised by the hands of men. You eat with a stainless-steel fork; the iron was mined and the carbon was quarried by men. . . . The whole of your civilization rests upon the shoulders of men who have done work that most people will not do — and that the physically weaker sex could not have done” (x).
Feminism then, to Esolen, is an ungrateful fantasy, attempting to expel man from the city he built. She scribes her scathing treaties within a well-heated, warmly-lit world built (and sustained) by men. The oil in her pen, the paper upon her desk, the plastic in her Starbucks cup, the electricity in her computer all join voice together to refute her — but she cannot hear them. And neither, often, can we. So with his engineer’s mind, Esolen examines the civilization we take for granted and points repeatedly to the small font scribbled on the infrastructure: “Made by Men.” Not by angels or elves, not by women or children, but by men — forgettable, forgotten, and too often flattened. No apologies, then, for men holding the plough to war with the earth — no one else can.
But the strength of men is not the only trait vital to our civilization. Esolen highlights man’s undaunted agency — a spirit that seeks difficult action — an agency that acts to serve others at cost to self: “what a man wants and what a man must do are seldom the same” (16). Heavy is the crown for which feminism gropes. Much of man’s thankless labor “demands a constant self-denial, a self-effacement. It says to the men what the battle says to a soldier: ‘You are not the central thing. This work is. Do it’” (38). A man must not just be physically strong but strong of spirit to rise to the challenge and needs of family and society. “I mean here to reject every philosophy that would cut the sinews of man” (49). Wryly, Esolen observes, “The world cannot run on courses in sociology or on politically enlightened novels. They do not think, Who’s going to dig that well?” (41, emphasis original). Good men gladly grab the shovel.
This means men must not be stifled by apathy, laziness, or low standards. He must harden the antlers, and must do so within a team. Men need unsafe spaces with other men; “safety can smother” (23). From a football huddle to an army regiment to a group of senators, Esolen argues for all-male, beneficial hierarchies that turn away the man from self to mission: “The team is more than a group. It is a hierarchically organized social engine, embodying both the equality that is the foundation of brotherhood and the frank recognition of inequality that enables men to multiply their strength most efficiently and with greatest satisfaction” (71). And this, to the benefit of all (despite the protests). Esolen writes, “What if the sign on the treehouse, No Girls Allowed, is not meant so much to keep girls away but to protect the male friendships from having to compete with eros — to attract the boys to male teams and to keep them in, ultimately for the good of the women that those same girls will become?” (87).
So our civilization needs strong men, men with agency, men able to function as tiered units for the greater good of those under their leadership. Esolen believes in patriarchy — the good kind — that lays its life down for those in its protection: “The women and the children are primary in the order of ends, and he is secondary and ancillary. They are indispensable, and he is indispensably dispensable: it is his great virtue and honor to pour out his sweat and his blood for their sake” (82).
Against ideologies that attack father-headed families, Esolen strikes the note that resonates in all good men’s souls: “The father throws himself away in hope, looking forward to the time when he will be no more on earth than a name or a rumor of a name but his children will be alive, and people will say of him — if they remember him at all — that he was a good man but his children are better” (106).
Civilization still needs men: strong, with agency, forming teams, expending themselves for the good of communities and families. Esolen goes on to argue the necessity for male vision and the need for masculine religion that guards the holy.
Esolen’s project deals with reality, stubborn and inconvenient. He is after male-esteem, not machismo; virility, not vice; “quit you like men” (1 Cor. 16:13, KJV) rather than quit being men. As we cross to the other side of the Reformation (he is a conservative Roman Catholic) and flip through the pages of No Apologies, we find exegesis of the world as God made it, but not much of Scripture. He cites ancient Greek poets at least as much, if not more, than God. Divine revelation makes cameos throughout, but common sense and natural law lay the foundations. What he observes in the world and says about it is helpful in our day, and what he leaves unsaid is not insignificant. Readers seeking a biblical groundwork for a robust vision of manhood need to look elsewhere.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” Jesus once asked the crowds who flocked to John the Baptist. “A reed shaken by the wind?” When one reads Esolen, what does one see? Refreshingly, we find many things — a skilled storyteller, a lover of classical poetry and lore, a polymath with a writer’s pen ready to illustrate the necessity of men in a world increasingly suspicious of them. We find arguments drawn from boys playing baseball to men building Roman aqueducts to tours through the galleries of linguistics, mathematics, art, neurology, history, sabermetrics, and more — but no shaking reed, and no mumbled apologies.
Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul with their son and two daughters.
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