The theme of C.R. Wiley’s “Man of the House” is that the Great Progressive Fallacy—the individual is the moral center of the culture, and that the state is the individual’s protector—serves only the forces of destruction…
Man of the House: A Handbook for Building a Shelter that will Last in a World that is Falling Apart by C.R. Wiley (Resource Publications, 2017)
In his magnificent novel The Eighth Day, Thornton Wilder has his character Dr. Gillies (physician and philosopher) talk to the young people of a small midwestern town about the significance of their place in the new century (in this case, the twentieth): “The creation has not come to an end…. We are at the beginning of the second week…. In this new century, we shall be able to see that mankind is entering a new stage of development—the Man of the Eighth Day.” Wilder slips us the fact that Dr. Gillies was “lying for all he was worth.” He knew the new century would be dreadful, like all centuries, but he felt it was “the duty of old men to lie to the young.”
Christopher Wiley, like Dr. Gillies, has “no faith in Progress,” but he is rather cheerful anyhow. He is quite convinced that by talking sense to youngsters about to be sentenced to adulthood, by getting them to look around, mostly backwards, he can show them what it is to build a household. “If there is one thing I would really like you to take from this book,” he says, “it is this: people build institutions for shelter.” But the big institutions are not the best—if they are too big to fail they no doubt will; just as the lonely individuals who make up our “falling apart” world almost always fail to provide shelter even for themselves, and thus turn to the State like lemmings rushing to the sea. Do you hear the echoes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, and the “little platoons?”—you should.
That said, C.R. Wiley (spoken with only the initials, his name advances in gravitas, which is also important to the story) is unlike Dr. Gillies in that he will not lie to the young. On the contrary, he is willing to take them to the woodshed and illustrate manhood with a pat on the back—provided, said Bishop Sheen more than once, “it is hard enough, and low enough.” Households are places of caritas, but also of high and serious purpose, places from which we can save the world (or our little piece of it). So the truth must be told.
To tell the truth about the family, about real marriage and the children that result from it, and about the shelter that protects and nurtures and transmits the created order, is to enter a war zone. The Progressive Coalition for a Sexless Society, Metrosexuals Against Manhood (PCSS and MAM—I made them up, but they do exist) and a hundred other Resistance Against God Everyday (RAGE) groups, loosely coordinated by Screwtape & Associates, Inc. spring into action every time a Mr. Wiley settles down in front of a keyboard. (It is awesome to see how quickly the weapons come out, and how thoroughly they cover the field of fire. The author published a snippet from the book in National Review online, titled “The Revival of American Masculinity Starts at Home,” a cute little piece that mostly talks about a young man from the U.K. who is reviving the art of blacksmithing. Immediately, PCSS and MAM responded with “cultural determination! cultural determination!” emanating from those “fatuous fatheads at NR!”—and this from readers of a magazine that at least once upon a time believed in things like men, and women.) The wondrous thing about this book is that Mr. Wiley doesn’t care. It is not about PCSS and MAM, but about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—Household Division.
Every house has a frame, a price, an order, and an effect. He takes us through his metaphorical household systematically, with little-boxed commentaries by four alter-egos with whom he is quite friendly: Curmudgeon, Philosopher, Paterfamilias, and Craftsman. Mr. Wiley is by inclination the first two, by painfully learned experience the third (he had a lousy childhood and an essentially absent father), and by skill and persistence the fourth. Responding to an early draft (full disclosure: the author is a valued friend and I was privileged to discuss with him the building of the book), and knowing of his love of the crafts and experience as a builder, I asked him to include more of the Craftsman, to explain in a kind of Norm Abram way how to measure twice and cut once. He decided, rightly, I think now, that it would add too much technical detail and distract the reader from the main message, which is moral.
The Framework of a Household is covenant and love; the price is to understand real economics—that is, the household economy based on property and work; the order is created by justice (I wanted him to say more about mercy, along the lines of Robert Frost’s definition of family as that place, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in”) and gravitas and piety. A proper understanding of these two pillars of Roman republicanism shows that the Household Polity is the foundation of all polity, from polis to Church to state, which is the subject of the fourth part, Outside the House.
An unnamed guide—I’ll call him the Pastor—takes us poet/apprentices (Dantes? Pilgrims?) through the house, hoping that the World that is Falling Apart will be shored up by each solid rock and beam, and given meaning by art and virtue. This requires meeting up with many craftsmen who by lives lived or deeds done or words written have showed us the right tools. We meet Abraham and Aristotle, Mother Goose and John Stuart Mill, Jefferson and Jesus, the Bible and the Common Law, Paul and Tevye. Aesop and the Wizard of Oz. It is an Athens and Jerusalem book, but one that wears its learning lightly, as a young person should not necessarily master Kant before he struggles with welders but breathe their air as he builds his house. You will delight in his retelling of the Jack and the Beanstalk story, “Jack, the Giant, and the Indigestible Bean.” It connects past and present in metaphor, in this case, an extended parable (he calls it a fable) that should be the starting point for all serious seminars on The Lessons of Mr. Wiley.
The theme of Man of the House, not the only one but the one that makes it timely, is that the Great Progressive Fallacy—the individual is the moral center of the culture, and that the state is the individual’s protector—serves only the forces of destruction. The Pastor would not argue, I think, with the notion that the immortal soul is the unit of salvation. But the individual personality is not, therefore, the end of life as we live it this world that is falling apart. Things that are important start, rather, in the household—things like liberty and happiness and virtue—and it is, therefore, critical that we are taught and later teach what constitutes the kind of household most likely to achieve important results. The book is practical, in other words, and gives a new kind of life to the old Christian understanding that “the family is the first and best teacher of the faith.”
Mr. Wiley writes this for the man of the house for a good reason. He wants to restore order. He wants boys to become men, and to understand what that means in a disordered world where misconceived equality and individualism have resulted in poor and shabby shelters. While the tone is upbeat and hope springs eternal, his necessary conviction that men must be men, women must be women, and children must be children will cause progressives to cry misogynist!, probably without reading the book. That will be unfortunate. It is a clarion call and good-natured guide both to parents and to young men and women who are literally crying out for the created order once again to be respected. And on a happy note, the great Elton Trueblood used to say that an author can write a book of any length he chooses, but if he wants people actually to read it, give or take a hundred pages is about right. At 140 pages or so Mr. Wiley makes his point and leaves the reader with plenty of energy to talk about it.
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