Last Friday night, Dr. Anthony Esolen delivered a stirring lecture as part of our Imagination Symposium on Dante’s enduring value as a text that not only gives sensibilities for beauty, but demands a full reckoning with the choices that each of us make in this life. But his admiration—even emulation—of the tenacity of Dante comes with a realization: we’ve been betrayed in the arts. Listing movies, novels, and artists of various stripes, Esolen recounted the loss of our collective sense of beauty and how to create it, much less appreciate it.
While certainly not the first to observe this loss, he was the first to jog my memory of a passage in Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Eager to establish a city which bore his name and claiming Divine inspiration to do so, Gibbon recounts the Emporer Constantine’s construction of the walls, porticos, and aqueducts of the great Constantinople:
A multitude of laborers and artificers urged the conclusion of the work with incessant toil: but the impatience of Constantine soon discovered that, in the decline of the arts, the skill as well as numbers of his architects bore a very unequal proportion to the greatness of his designs.
What to do in times of decline? Gibbon continues:
The magistrates of the most distant provinces were therefore directed to institute schools, to appoint professors, and, by the hopes of rewards and privileges, to engage in study and practice of architecture a sufficient number of ingenious youths were had received a liberal education.
Constantine’s only hope for a restoration of a beauty that would last the next 2,000 years was in the establishment of schools of liberal (arts) education—classical schools restored in a newly-Christianized empire.
Esolen’s hope for a restoration of artistic and godly refinement—and he was optimistic—is the same: classical, Christian education.