Acton Institute Powerblog

Book Review: ‘Sex and the Unreal City’ by Anthony Esolen

Sex and the Unreal City. Anthony Esolen
Ignatius Press. 2020. 209 pages.

What is the primary problem in society? An embrace of unreality, answers Anthony Esolen in his latest book, Sex and the Unreal City. In Esolen’s view, our culture has moved beyond promoting immorality to fully adopting unrealities as foundational “truths.” Esolen uses cutting wit to highlight how society is built upon false premises and promotes departure from reality. He says that someone ignoring the nature of reality is like “saying they could alter the nature of melanoma by calling it a beauty mark.” This unreality is not just disturbing because it is incorrect, but because it is soul-sapping and physically destructive. Esolen’s work should be viewed not as a specific policy proposal, but as satire meant to sting us awake and point us to what is real. As a part of the long and storied gadfly tradition, Sex and the Unreal City lampoons society and its contradictions while offering a solution that affirms both our souls and bodies. Along the way, the reader is treated to key insights into the nature of evil and the nature of reality.

The book is a collection of five essays organized around what Esolen terms the Unreal City. He highlights the different parts of the city, which are fundamentally untenable. The essays explore unreality in the spheres of education, the body, materialism, and religion. The fifth essay presents a solution to the collective delusion of the Unreal City. Since the purpose of satire is to offend our sensibilities in order to wake us up from some lie which we accept unthinkingly, the book is a strange fit for our offense-sensitive times. Yet, if Esolen’s core argument is true, satire is precisely what society needs in order to wake up from a state of unreality.

In his discussion of the nature of evil, Esolen falls within the groups of theologians who have affirmed that evil exists only as a denial of the truth. The fourth-century theologian Athanasius described the nature of evil with an analogy of a charioteer racing towards the finish line. The horseman ought to go towards the finish line, but he instead mistakes speed for the goal and runs pell-mell off the course: “So the soul too, fueled by disordered appetites turning from the way towards God, and driving the members of the body beyond what is proper … has swerved from the goal of truth.” Evil is anything that is a negation of the truth, the horseman traveling in any direction except the finish line.

Esolen contextualizes this insight and clarifies how our social ethic rejects the truth and swerves into ruin just like the charioteer. When we disregard categories of good and evil, we are forced into a state of unreality:

When one believes that good and evil are not objective realities to be discovered by the practical reason and to be honored in custom and law, and when, moreover, one dispenses with God’s revelation, which does not override reason but clarifies matters for us, giving our reason a boost, then nothing remains but to believe that “good” and “evil” are subjective and relative to the evaluator and his society.

What is the panacea to the Unreal City? In his final essay, Esolen reflects on the incarnation, which is the final counterpoint to any denial of reality. Jesus entered the world, became human, lived a perfect life, and conquered death. In the resurrection of the flesh, Jesus affirmed and redeemed our physical reality. Furthermore, he offers spiritual promise that allows us to enter into what is true, good, and noble. The Unreal City is an institution attempting to escape the implications of the incarnation, but it will ultimately fail. Esolen affirms the Apostle’s Creed as an anchor to the truth. A tenet is “literally what you grab hold of as a rock climber.” These tenets act as a guide, fulfilling the allied spheres of faith and reason.

Because this book is a collection of essays, the arc of Esolen’s argument is sometimes lost. He easily yields to tangents of loosely related literary references and the various elements of society which he critiques. He cannot help lampooning things that he doesn’t like, and there are many things which he does not like. This is the most credulous age, he argues, an age where people unthinkingly accept all sorts of newfangled moral inventions. He attacks many of these inventions without necessarily having the space to complete his arguments. Yet, at the same time, one of the core strengths in the book is Esolen’s ability to connect and synthesize seemingly disparate topics.

Although he satirizes culture, Esolen doesn’t leave us with merely a critique. He advocates a return to the truth within a culture which is fundamentally alienated, soul and body, from the truths of human nature, the created order, and God. Although Esolen bitingly rejects our current culture, his analysis is ultimately hopeful. For, through the incarnation, the Unreal City has already been conquered once. The world “gleams with the possibility of glory,” and Jesus calls us to turn to him and “become real.”

Noah Gould

Noah is a Programs Associate at the Acton Institute where he regularly contributes to the blog and Religion and Liberty. He is a graduate of Grove City College, where he studied Economics.