by Anthony Esolen
From Crisis Magazine
I have long thought that the term “progressive” was a dodge, because no one could tell me exactly where we were supposed to be headed and why. It seemed to me that the term was teleological but without a telos, as if someone were to practice archery without a target, or shoot a basketball without a hoop. I expected the self-styled progressive to come forward and identify the goal, so that we might then have an honest and clear-headed discussion. What makes that worthy goal? What in human nature does it fulfill? Is your policy a feasible or morally justifiable way of attaining the goal?
It had not occurred to me that progressivism had long abandoned the notion of a goal altogether, except in a nearly insubstantial sense. We are, it seems, to aim for increased individual autonomy in the satisfaction of certain appetites: for sexual satisfaction, for self-esteem attached to careers in the world, and for creature comforts. That is all there is to it. There is no human nature to fulfill, and certainly no vision of a redeemed body of believers bound to one another in duty and love. To call it a “society” is to submerge the word far below its essential denotation of friendship, so that it will merely refer to a large grouping of people pursuing private ends without any real relationship to one another. To call it a “culture” is to submerge that word in turn far below its denotation of cultivation, especially in worship, so that it will merely refer to a large grouping of habits engaged in on private whims, though typically encouraged by mass entertainment, mass education, and the mass media.
It had not occurred to me, in other words, that for the progressive, “change” has been elevated to the status of a deity. If we ask, “Change, for what?” we make the mistake of believing that our opponents retain a strong notion of human nature and of the moral laws that work towards its fulfillment. They do not. They therefore advocate change for its own sake; change, with perhaps an implicit trust that the change will eventually work towards some greater good, as if directed by social evolution, without their being able to specify exactly what that good would be. Such change is not that of homo viator, man the wayfarer, on pilgrimage towards his heavenly dwelling place. The pilgrim does not so much abandon his home as seek it, and therefore he does not really abandon it at all, not even the beloved home he has left behind. “He goes before you to Galilee,” said the angel on that first Easter, as if Jesus wished to return with His disciples to their home on earth before He should leave them forever to be with them forever, as they went forth to baptize all nations.
To greet change for change’s sake is, then, less to unite one’s heart to the homeland ahead (since there is no homeland ahead), but to divorce one’s heart from the homeland behind. It is to uproot man from that soil wherein he grows in time but towards eternity.
Let me take for an illustration a family homestead in a small village, with a church and a churchyard. Why do we recognize this as a deeply human place? It is because the human being is oriented towards what transcends him; towards God, and therefore also towards communion with his fellows, those who walk the earth with him, but also those who came before him and those who will come after. The homestead and the church are places of remembering. We acknowledge in piety how deeply we are indebted to our Father, and to our ancestors, especially the father and mother who brought us into the world. We trust, too, that our children will remember us also, and not just as facts registered and dispensed with, but as still living presences among them. The truly human life in this sense, even apart from its exaltation in eternity, is a life that breaks the barriers of time. A man who in life walks with his fathers and who in death will sleep with his fathers, and walk with his children and his children’s children, lives more deeply in fifty years than the impious and forgetful man will live in ninety. Indeed, he does not simply survive from year to year. He dwells in time, and bears fruit beyond his time. His very experience of time as he plows his fields or rests on an evening on his porch is utterly unlike that of the man who has nothing beyond himself to live for.
Am I being unfair to the progressive? The essential attitude of the progressive towards the past is that of contempt and hostility. What do we see in the past? A crime list of vices and stupidities. It isn’t just that we dwell upon the failings of our forebears and neglect to see their virtues. Very often we place upon our forebears the worst imaginable construction, or ascribe to them vices they did not possess and crimes they did not commit. It is not true, for example, that the Puritans of Massachusetts were prigs who hated the body. It is not true that women of the Middle Ages could not own property (they did, plenty of it) and could not exercise political authority (Eleanor of Aquitaine, Bridget of Sweden, Margaret of Hungary, Matilda of Tuscany, Margaret of Scotland, and so forth). It is not true that Catholic missionaries hated the Indians and their customs. It is not true that people at the time of the American Revolution were largely illiterate (the exact reverse was true; Protestants read their Bibles, and The Federalist Papers were pamphlets intended for a broad readership, not to struggling political science students in graduate school). It is not true that the restriction of voting to males was attributable to misogyny. It is not true that the framers of the Constitution agreed to count a black slave as three-fifths of a person because they believed that that was what he was.
It is not true that people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat (they all knew it was round). It is not true that fornication was just as common in 1900 as it is now, but that people back then were just hypocritical about it. It is not true that “millions” of witches were burnt at the stake before the Enlightenment.
We could go on with this. The hostility is applied also to stupendous human works. The Constitution is old and musty; we’d be better off with one of those spanking new ones such as Canada has. Who can learn anything from that woman-hater Milton? Shakespeare was clever, but he really wasn’t any cleverer than a decent writer for a crime show on television is now. Dante should be banned from the schools because he believed that sodomy was sinful. We have progressed beyond tonality in music – in fact, in “rap,” we’ve progressed beyond melody itself, and grammatical sentences. We have progressed beyond meter and rhyme in poetry. We have progressed beyond harmonious and beautiful structures in architecture. We freely “revise” the texts of hymns, translating them from powerful to drab. Everything that happened before one o’clock yesterday afternoon belonged to the Dark Ages, including an appreciation for such hoary old virtues as steadfastness, modesty, chastity, loyalty, and simplicity.
But what is left of a truly human life? The commitment to change is like a ride on a roller-coaster, with one important reservation. We can enjoy a roller-coaster ride because we know that it will soon end, and we can put our feet back on the trusty solid ground. Imagine, though, a roller-coaster ride that does not end. Imagine a ride that has all the inconveniences of a bad journey – frenetic pace, confusion, dislocation, loss – and none of the consolations: no end of the journey, nothing but death, which is not now like arriving at a destination, but is instead like being at last tossed out of the car.
It is a horrible life, an inhuman race from nowhere to nowhere. It should not surprise us, then, that people of our time should cease to take any of the old human consolations from dying and death – and I am not even speaking here of eternal life with Christ. For there is no meaning whatsoever in being dumped out with the day’s trash.
And yet there are people who profit materially from the dehumanization. They are ones who stand most to gain from a compliant and rootless populace, and most to lose from people stubbornly loyal to their homes, their traditions, and their kin. Most of those people are in big businesses (including big entertainment), in what now passes for politics, and in my own corner of organized crime, the racket known as education. Inhuman educators – more on those next time.