Doctor Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, presented “Fatherhood and Freedom” as 2013 Frederick Philip Kenkel Memorial Lecture for the Feast of St. Joseph, co-sponsored by Credo of the Catholic Laity and the Catholic Union of Missouri. With over 130 in attendance, Professor Esolen explained the necessity of fathers and fatherhood, not only in the family, but also in society.
Touching on works by Milton and even ancient classics such as by Dante, the members of Credo were given illustrations of the largely unchanging role of fathers from times long past up to the present, in societies stretching from east to west. Far from being only a western, or Christian, or relatively recent institution in the history of man, the role and identity of fatherhood is universal and has always been an important, even necessary component for the preservation of freedom and law.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Dr. Esolen described the sad and frustrated boy Telemachus, the anxiety of his virtuous mother, Penelope, and her tenuous hold to order, and the outrageous breakdown of manners, morals and rule of law in Ithaca all due to King Odysseus’s long absence. With no husband for Penelope, no father for her son, and no father-figure for the island country, not only was law made weak and dismissed, the role model for both home and country was vacant. Laxity and license became open practice and it took an act of the gods to send Telemachus on his journey to find his father and ultimately restore order.
In contrast, the Cyclops Polyphemus had a wife and and sons but didn’t sufficiently fulfill the role of father. His land and resources were rich and abundant but he neither cultivated it nor took any advantage of it, preferring his home to be a cave and living a brute life, aloof from his neighbors. Polyphemus exemplified the idiot, not in the modern sense of reduced mental capabilities, but in the ancient sense of one who is disinterested in others and contributes little or nothing to his neighbors or society. The root is idio- meaning “self”. One who is disinterested in others is self-centered, and in ancient Greek, an idiot.
While fatherless homes certainly do still have the capability of producing upright and moral children, the disadvantages and challenges to fatherless families are clear. Fathers provide not just material or equal help to the mother in a household but fatherhood itself, which is complimentary to motherhood and communicates its own masculine character. Beyond the household, a true father is nothing like the idiot Polyphemus but is also a father to those in his neighborhood and community. His presence, good character and active interest hinders the advance of license and vice (such as in fatherless Ithaca) and supports rule and true freedom.
The talk sounds heavy and dull, but Esolen is bright, engaging and very funny. You may think it odd that a talk on such a serious subject would be funny, but Chesterton defended himself against the charge of similar frivolity saying “The opposite of funny is not serious — the opposite of funny is not funny“. And here we have an example we’re sure GKC himself would have appreciated.
If you missed the talk, all is not lost. An audio recording of Dr. Esloen’s lecture may be had by calling St. Joseph Radio at (636)447-6000. $10, tax & postage included. If you can send a little extra, it will help pay the rent and carry on with an important (if grossly underutilized) service. We recommend buying several copies and giving one to every young man or young father you know. Maybe he’ll even read Homer.
Credo of the Catholic Laity was delighted in hosting Dr. Esolen at last Sunday’s quarterly forum. To receive news of our future forums, retreats, days of recollection and newsletters (not to mention getting a discount on forum tickets), become a member!