Much of the progressivist contempt for the past is not merely arrogance or ignorance but is a response to a perceived threat, a reaction caused by a fear of the other. The past is a different country, they do things differently there. The past is strange. It is populated by strangers; by foreigners. For those with a spirit of communitas and a sense of adventure it is exhilarating to travel to such a country; it is a pleasure to experience the different culture and to be open to its charms and to the lessons it might teach us. For progressivists, however, the past and its people are aliens who have nothing to teach them and who are not to be trusted; they are auslanders not to be admitted to the present-imprisoned ghetto in which progressivism thrives. This xenophobic dimension to progressivism was accentuated by Chesterton in the chapter of his book What’s Wrong with the World entitled “The Fear of the Past”.
After highlighting the oddity, not to say absurdity, that “modern man no longer preserves the memoirs of his great-grandfather but is engaged in writing a detailed and authoritative biography of his great-grandson”, Chesterton insisted that “this cult of the future is not only a weakness but a cowardice of the age”:
The modern mind is forced towards the future by a certain sense of fatigue, not unmixed with terror, with which it regards the past…The future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers…The future is a blank wall on which every man can write his own name as large as he likes; the past I find already covered with illegible scribbles, such as Plato, Isaiah, Shakespeare, Michael Angelo, Napoleon. I can make the future as narrow as myself; the past is obliged to be as broad and turbulent as humanity. And the upshot of this modern attitude is really this: that men…look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.
With his customary eye for paradox, Chesterton proceeds to show how all revolutions in thought have always been restorations of thought, “that all the men in history who have really done anything with the future had their eyes fixed upon the past”. To illustrate Chesterton’s point, a cursory perusal of some of the major figures and movements in history should suffice: Saint Augustine synthesized those two great pillars of the past, scripture and Plato; Saint Thomas Aquinas combined the fides of the Fathers with the ratio of the Philosophers; the late Renaissance reacted against the scholasticism of the recent past by advocating a return to the classicism of the ancient past; the pioneers of English Romanticism reacted against the neo-classicism of the late Renaissance and the Enlightenment by rediscovering the beauties of the mediaeval. And so forth. “For some strange reason,” Chesterton continued, “man must always thus plant his fruit trees in a graveyard”:
Man can only find life among the dead. Man is a misshapen monster, with his feet set forward and his face turned back. He can make the future luxurious and gigantic, so long as he is thinking about the past. When he tries to think about the future itself, his mind diminishes to a pin point with imbecility, which some call Nirvana. Tomorrow is the Gorgon; a man must only see it mirrored in the shining shield of yesterday. If he sees it directly he is turned to stone. This has been the fate of all those who have really seen fate and futurity as clear and inevitable.
If, therefore, “progressives” have fled from the past in pursuit of an elusive and illusory future, blinded by “progress”, it might be helpful if we offered them a short definition of the true meaning of progress.
In the final analysis, human progress, whether it be the progression of an individual or the progression of human society, cannot be disengaged from that which is authentically human. In other words, we have to ask who Man is before we can ascertain whether he is progressing. Man is either homo viator, whose essential purpose is to love and serve God in this world so that he might be with Him eternally in the next, or else he is homo superbus, whose essential purpose is to love and serve himself. Homo viator is man as pilgrim; man as a wayfarer who journeys through life with his final destiny and purpose always in mind. Homo superbus, by contrast, is motivated by the sin of superbia, the pride that animated Satan’s rebellion, and Adam and Eve’s. There is no better presentation of homo superbus than the character of Polonius in Hamlet, who concludes his disastrous advice to his son with the words, “This above all: To thine own self be true.”
If man is homo superbus, whose only purpose is to be true to himself (whatever that means) as opposed to being true to the truth beyond himself, we have nothing to expect in the future but a libertine free-for-all that leads to the freefall of society into the abyss it has prepared for itself. If, on the other hand, man is homo viator we can measure true progress in terms of growth in virtue. All growth in virtue in individuals or in cultures is true progress. All absence of such growth is the absence of progress. It’s as simple as that, even though, as with all simple things, it is much easier said than done! Yet, however difficult the simple path may be, we can at least embark upon our true progress on this path of virtue with courageous enthusiasm. As Chesterton remarked, “being ‘progressive’ simply means you are prepared to go with great energy and excitement in the direction you want to go”. Surely the definition of a saint is one who courageously takes the path of virtue “with great energy and excitement”. Isn’t it comforting to know that, when all is said and done, only saints are truly progressive!
1. G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Vol. 1V, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987, p. 52ff.
2. G.K. Chesterton, Manchester Guardian, October 3, 1904