Progressivism: The Snobbery of Chronology

The opposite of Progressivism is conservatism or traditionalism. A conservative, by definition, is a happy person, one who is happy with what is. It is only for that reason that he wants to conserve it. A progressivist, on the other hand, is by definition an unhappy person, one who is unhappy with what is. It is only for that reason that he wants to change it. A conservative is someone who thinks happiness consists first of all in enjoying the good things we already have. A progressive is one who sees happiness first of all in hoping to enjoy the things we do not yet have. Adam and Eve were conservatives until the Devil made them into progressives. For the Devil himself was the first progressivist. The other angels were happy with God and His will, but the Devil wanted to progress to something better.

In other words, progressivists try to tell truth with a clock instead of an argument. It is as silly as trying to tell time with a syllogism instead of a clock. Or a calendar, which is only a larger, longer clock. For to say that an idea is no longer believable simply because this is the 21st century, not the 13th, is no different from saying that an idea is no longer believable because it is now 11:00 p.m, not 10:00 a.m.

But even silly superstitions have reasons behind them, and these must be discovered, exposed, defined, stated fairly, and then refuted. And there are at least some seemingly cogent reasons that people adopt Progressivism. False conclusions usually are deduced from at least partially true premises; otherwise they would not have the power to deceive us.

How Did We Learn to Think This Way?
One of the causes of chronological snobbery is a reaction to the opposite superstition, which often clouded the judgment of our ancestors: that “new” equals “false” and “true” equals “old.” “New” used to be a word of suspicion and “old” a word of affection. Now, it is exactly the opposite. Modern children use the word “old” as an insult (“You old . . . !”). But the ancients used it as a compliment. Things used to be sold by pretending they were older than they are. (And this market for fake antiques still has some cachet for a small minority.) Now, things are sold by pretending they are newer than they are. “New” sells. This is especially true of ideas.

Both of these attitudes are prejudices, but the exposure of neither one is a justification of its opposite. Intellectual errors, like moral vices, usually come in pairs.

A second justification for Progressivism is the fact of evolution, which seems to apply to both the growth of the individual and the growth of the human race. As we grow, it seems we get smarter, bigger, stronger, and (in those senses) better, both individually and collectively.

Yes, but we don’t get happier, or holier, or wiser. There are more, not fewer suicides (especially among young people) today than in recorded history; and nothing is a more telling index of unhappiness than that. We are not more saintly than our ancestors but more decadent. And we speak of “modern knowledge” but not “modern wisdom.” In fact, we still speak of “ancient wisdom.” There has been not a single Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas for the last 750 years. Which is more important, wisdom or cleverness? Sanctity or power? Happiness or efficiency?

A third argument for Progressivism is the fact that there has indeed been progress, in fact obvious, automatic, and spectacular progress, in one field: technology. And since this has both causes and effects in every other field, it seems reasonable to believe in progress there as well.

But it isn’t. Cleverness in inventing machinery has no tendency to cause wisdom or virtue in the inventor. If anything, it causes pride, hubris, and addiction to the power the new machines give us. And that is regress rather than progress in wisdom and virtue and happiness. If “all power tends to corrupt,” the same must be true of intellectual, scientific, and technological power. Why don’t we make that inference? Might it be because the addict always lives in denial?

But (so goes a fourth argument) there seems to have been progress not just in the sciences but also in the humanities. War and Peace is better than Beowulf, and Picasso is better than the Lascaux cave paintings, and Stravinsky is better than Gregorian chant.

The answer to that is very simple: No, they’re not. Name one 20th-century Homer, or Dante, or Shakespeare, or Rembrandt, or Beethoven. The humanities are an unmitigated disaster area today. Nine-tenths of our English departments are infected with Deconstructionists and other radicals, who either reduce great works of art to “power relations” among “race, class, and gender,” or else deny that art works have any independent meaning at all. That sort of infection does not respond to arguments, only to exorcists.

9/10/2010 4:00:00 AM
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