The myth of progress, to which modern liberals glibly subscribe, imagines that the present is ineluctably better—more enlightened, more compassionate, more egalitarian, more just–than the past; and that the future will be ineluctably better than the present. Progressives are always intoning the mantras of “change”, “hope”, and the “future”. While they deride any such superstitious fantasies as Paul’s “faith in things unseen”, that is precisely what their faith in the future amounts to. And though they are reflexively skeptical about the past, only the past, ontologically speaking, possesses substantial reality. The future has none. (Even the present, which they also extol–as in the injunction to “live in the moment”–has no empirical status. The present is an infinitesimally narrow line of division between past and future: a mere mathematical concept.)
It’s easy to demand change when the collateral offered is the gauzy promise of a “better future”. (Try that with your bank manager.) But progressives never tell us precisely what that future will look like. The question they must be made to answer, as Joseph Sobran has insisted, is in what kind of society they would be conservatives.
Liberals assume that traditional social arrangements, religious institutions, and moral and philosophical ideas are atavisms preserved only by a cravenly uncritical acceptance of authority, or a blind intellectual conformity. Their antinomianism is worn as the badge of a fearless and heroic independence of mind. Yet practically every major progressive initiative has been the product of mass sentiment, and thereafter celebrated as the triumph of the collective “will of the people”. Once victorious, the progressive herd of independent minds has betrayed a depressingly ruthless habit of eliminating dissent: from the Gulag, to the speech codes of the modern Academy, to the heresy trials of global warming “deniers” or the defendants arraigned before our human rights tribunals. Today, major sectors of society—the educational establishment; journalism; the television, film, and music industries; the arts and literary community; the public unions and functionaries of the Welfare State—are hothouses of progressive ideological purity, hermetically sealed against contamination by even a spore of non-conforming opinion.
If traditions survive, on the contrary, it’s usually because, as the end-product of centuries of social and moral experimentation and amelioration, they have been proven to work. In this regard, conservatives are the real skeptics; they demand empirical evidence of the efficacy of “alternative lifestyles” before they are prepared to make the leap into the beyond.
In their attitude toward the past, conservatives thus also show a far deeper respect for the mores and opinions of “ordinary people” than those who are constantly lecturing them on their supposed “elitism”. It was Chesterton who famously defined tradition as “the democracy of the dead”. He might have taken the next step and defined modern liberalism as the tyranny of those who happen at this moment to be alive.
It is a natural human tendency, of course, to perceive one’s own historical period in exquisite focus and detail, and esteem it accordingly, while The Rest of History recedes like the background of an Early Netherlandish painting into the mists of obscurity. Every generation tends to regard its advent as the long-awaited fruition of the world-process. But the perspective of the current generation has become so foreshortened that its members seem to think and live as though the world were created the day they were born. That perspective is the temporal equivalent of the geographical self-centricity of Manhattanites, as it was famously satirized on the cover of an old New Yorker magazine, whose cartoon mappa mundi showed Manhattan, in exquisite focus and detail, occupying most of the frame, the Hudson River on its edge, and beyond that, in a narrow band, New Jersey and The Rest of the World.
The historical Narcissism of those who happen at this moment to be alive has become so overwhelming that our contemporaries can hardly imagine that things could ever have been different, or that humans once believed or behaved other than they do now. After listening to a lecture on the House of Pride in Book I (canto iv) of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, a perplexed young undergraduate approached my desk to inquire, “Do you mean that pride isn’t a good thing?” No, pride is a capital sin, and has been counted as such for at least the previous three millennia of Western Civilization–with the exception, that is, of the past fifty years. But then, having been taught that everyone is “special” (but never having been taught to reason that, ergo, no one is special); having received prizes for losing; having watched videos of the Pride Parade, year after year, in her Sexual Diversity Class; and having graduated magna cum sua laude from Self-Esteem High, one can hardly blame my student for thinking of pride as an immemorial virtue.
Readers of these pages will be familiar with the traditional Western credendum that wisdom, happiness, and self-realization depend upon a man’s living a life of reason in control of his passions, rejecting the spurious goods and pleasures of the senses and the world, while contemplating the higher intelligible realities sometimes designated by the felicitous Pauline phrase invisibilia Dei. These moral presuppositions remained unchanged from the birth of Greek philosophy in the sixth-century B.C. down, at least, to the beginning of the Romantic Period. In the relatively brief time since then, their opposites have become settled norms, accepted without question in spite of their callow novelty. Today, we are all disciples of the Playboy School of Philosophy, in spite of the social and psychological carnage it has wrought. And with what seems to me a breathless lack of intellectual humility, the moral attitudes that prevailed universally in the West for centuries are dismissed as unnatural, morbid, or impossible. No one (as I am assured repeatedly by my students and acquaintances) could have actually lived in indifference to, or denial of, the flesh and the world.
I am consoled to have come across a passage from the great early twentieth century classicist, Gilbert Murray, which muscularly refutes such modernist prejudices. About Platonism and Stoicism (the two principal schools of thought from Hellenistic times right down to the dawn of modernity), Murray asserts that
…amid their differences there is one faith which was held by both in common. It is the great characteristic faith of the ancient world, revealing itself in many divergent guises and seldom fully intelligible to modern men; faith in the absolute supremacy of the inward life over things external. These men really believed that wisdom is more precious than jewels, that poverty and ill health are things of no import, that the good man is happy whatever befall him, and all the rest. And in generation after generation many of the ablest men, and women also, acted upon the belief. They lived by free choice lives whose simplicity and privation would horrify a modern labourer, and the world about hem seems to have respected rather than despised their poverty. To the Middle Age, with its monks and mendicants expectant of reward in heaven, such an attitude, except for its disinterestedness, would be easily understood. To some eastern nations, with their cults of asceticism and contemplation, the same doctrines have appealed almost like a physical passion or a dangerous drug running riot in their veins. But modern western man cannot believe them, nor believe seriously that others believe them. On us the power of the material world has, through our very mastery of it and the dependence which results from that mastery, both inwardly and outwardly increased its hold. Capta ferum victorem cepit. We have taken possession of it, and now we cannot move without it.
In our pyrrhic victory over the material world, as Murray observes, we have been taken captive by it. The image of our captivity to and in the corporeal order, so edifyingly expressive of our modern predicament, is itself, one should note, a venerable Platonist topos.