While recuperating from a knee and shoulder injury, I used my forced idleness to read two very different English writers: the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon and the twentieth-century mystery novelist John Buchan. Despite the gravity of his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mr. Gibbon, it turns out, shared at least one assumption characteristic of the Enlightenment. He displayed an almost boundless confidence in the inevitability of progress:
The experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehensions; we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism. . . . We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.1
For Mr. Gibbon, as for so many other eighteenth-century thinkers, the human condition was subject to, and defined by, continuous improvement.
If his novels offer any indication, John Buchan also had faith in the abilities of the rational mind to unravel the dark mysteries of which human beings were capable. Discerning irrationality, corruption, and evil wherever they looked, some men could, and in Mr. Buchan’s novels did, use their reason to uncover the truth and to ensure that justice would be done in the end. Evil would not prevail. But what of it? No sooner had one problem been solved then another emerged, and tasks once completed had to be undertaken anew. It seems that in the moral universe of John Buchan’s imagination it was not human progress but human misery and struggle that were relentless.
Yet, Mr. Buchan was no pessimist, always expecting the worst from life, forever thinking ill of the world and the people in it. “I admit to an undercurrent of optimism,” he confessed, “which,…is in good times a luxury but in bad times a necessity. With me such cheerfulness, as I prefer to call it, is not a creed to adopt or reject, but a habit of mind, a temperamental bias, a pre-condition of perception and thought.”2 Perhaps the opposite of pessimism is not optimism, but rather a sense of reality, a clarity of mind and purpose, and a generous measure of compassion for other human beings. Judged by his books, Mr. Buchan possessed those qualities in abundance. He was a lucid, witty, charming, perceptive, and elegant writer. As George-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, observed, “le style c’est l’homme même.”* In his memoir, Pilgrim’s Way, published in 1940, Buchan nonetheless anticipates the coming of what he calls his “nightmare world” in the very accomplishments of technology and the embrace of progress that Enlightenment thinkers trusted would release human beings from toil, poverty, and suffering, and thus enable them to advance civilization in untold ways. Mr. Buchan offered a chastening alternate vision.
The future that Mr. Buchan divined in Pilgrim’s Way was not tormented by war, civil unrest, revolution, or political conflict of any sort. Rather, human beings enjoyed a comfortable and abundant material life, all of their needs and wants amply satisfied as if they were the inmates of a benevolent and well-managed asylum. Mr. Buchan did not dread the return of the Dark Ages. “My nightmare,” he explained, “when I was afflicted by nightmares, was of something very different. My fear was not barbarism, which is civilization submerged or not yet born, but de-civilizƒation, which is civilization gone rotten.”3 Living in this artificial paradise, men and women would be impatient and constantly on the move. Broad highways crowded with automobiles would thread through the most remote territories. Overhead, airliners would carry weekend tourists to the farthest reaches of the earth. At every locale, Mr. Buchan noted, there would be “luxury hotels and wayside camps and filling stations” to accommodate the endless stream of wayfarers. Finally, the world would be filled with what Mr. Buchan referred to as “pleasure-cities” (we call them resorts), where people could escape “the rigour of their own climate and enjoy a perpetual holiday.”4 Everyone, at least everyone who could afford it, would have leisure aplenty. But lacking intellectual discipline and spiritual purpose, everyone would also be restless, unable to find repose or solace in the frenetic tumult of lives “lived in the glare of neon lamps.”5
Carefree and secure, but with no requirement for intellectual activity or exertion, everyone would also be “slightly idiotic.” Minds would become shallow and, Mr. Buchan feared, unstable. Lives would degenerate into a quest for leisure and amusement. “The raffish existence led today by certain groups,” Mr. Buchan declared, “would have become the normal existence of large sections of society.”6 Religion would also come to be practiced in comfortable, sleek, upholstered churches. Grandiloquent preachers would deliver emotional sermons in ornate surroundings accompanied by elaborate music and perhaps special effects. They would mention sin as little as possible, and would spare no effort in raising the self-esteem of their congregations. Withal, in Mr. Buchan’s estimation, the future he envisioned would create a bustling yet malcontented world. Beneath the riotous life on the surface, there would be death at the heart.
The soil of civilization, which in the Dark Ages had lain fallow, was now exhausted. “Bemused by an opulent materialism,” men and women would travel everywhere but live nowhere, know everything but understand nothing.7 Amid this perpetual welter and anarchy, Mr. Buchan imagined, there was no opportunity to find solitude for the mind or quiet for the soul. “A world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality,” he concluded, “would in truth have killed that personality. In such a bagman’s paradise, where life would be rationalised and added with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction of the immortal part of man…. The essence of civilization lies in man’s defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanized universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him. Not for the first time in history had the idols that humanity has shaped for its own ends become its master.”8
Our lives and our world have made a prophet of Mr. Buchan, though I suspect he would just as well have preferred to be wrong. The sense of disorientation that he foretold has become our reality, and we do not quite understand what is happening to us. We are bewildered and perplexed, sensations that have always beset men and women in times of crisis. Our bewilderment leads, first, to exasperation and a world overflowing with extreme yet transitory phenomena with which we inebriate and stupefy ourselves. Desperation follows in the acknowledgment that there is no hope of respite or escape. Although we continue to live, we find no idea or action satisfactory. We move like automatons, conducting the necessary business of life, but finding in it little of joy and nothing of value. How else to explain why so many put forth a dishonest effort and do their work so badly? We have come at last to feel an unconquerable loathing for the world.
In the distant past, those who were lost, bitter, and estranged retired to the desert, or found some other secluded place in which to secrete themselves. They tried to simplify and solve the problems of life by reducing contact with the world to a minimum. This retreat came amid, and, indeed, because of, the expansion of knowledge and yet none of it enough, the splendor of riches, appetites, and pleasures and yet none of them fulfilling or complete, the persistent stir of activity and yet none of it endowed with meaning or purpose. Under those circumstances, life became empty, incompetent, and unpredictable, dominated by fictions and falsehoods.
We have lived not only through the end of the twentieth century, but also, as the historian John Lukacs has argued, the end of the Modern Age. Ours is an interregnum in which much of the old world and way of life have died but in which most of the new world and way of life have yet to ripen into what they will become, if, that is, they have not already “gone rotten,” as Mr. Buchan dreaded. Doubt and insecurity abound. Writing in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, lived in a world where tragedy—at least the tragedy of thought and belief—did not readily intrude. Aquinas knew on what he could depend, and had a repertoire of clear and uncomplicated ideas that enabled him to remedy the major problems of his age. From his integration and synthesis of competing and often incompatible ideas and beliefs, his Summa Theologica, emerged the culture of the High Middle Ages, which explained life as it was lived and gave it significance.
Three characteristics mark periods of cultural disintegration. First, culture becomes too intricate and abstruse, overwhelming human intellectual and moral capacities. Second, ideas lose their vigor and standards of conduct their force. Third, culture ceases to be genuine, organic, and spontaneous, and becomes instead disconnected from, and irrelevant to, the flow of life. Under such conditions, there is no way for anyone to be who they really are except by withdrawing into the self and remaining alone. Before expressing a thought, opinion, idea, or belief, before taking any action, persons must pause and enter into the self to determine what thought, opinion, idea, belief, or action is their own. To remain centered in the self is the only alternative to a hectic, unruly, deranged, and falsified life. Hypocrisy is preferable. Although the hypocrite pretends to think or believe something that he does not, he at least understands what his real ideas and beliefs are, even as he conceals them in an attempt to deceive. If men and women continue to live on borrowed ideas, embracing and repeating them only because they have heard someone else do so, then, unlike the hypocrite, they will not be deceiving others. They will deceive only themselves. Farewell then to repose. Farewell to serenity. Farewell to truth. Farewell to all that is real.
Beneath what we presume to be the revolutionary character of our time lurks an extraordinary intellectual stagnation. Ideas move with a deadening sluggishness and lassitude. Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated this devolution, urging his contemporaries not to mistake appearances for reality. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote:
We live in a period that has seen the most rapid changes take place in the mind of men. It could happen, however, that soon the principal human opinions will be more stable than they have been in the preceding centuries of our history; this time has not come, but perhaps it is approaching….. You believe that the new societies are going to change face every day, and as for me, I fear that they will end by being too invariably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same mores; so that humanity comes to a stop and becomes limited; that the mind eternally turns back on itself without producing new ideas; that man becomes exhausted in small solitary and sterile movements, and that, even while constantly moving, humanity no longer advances.9
Even the finest minds cannot stand up against, or at least cannot stand aside from, such inertia. Ironically, Tocqueville’s apprehensions have been nowhere more trenchant and prophetic than in Americans’ enduring faith in progress. Despite recent economic setbacks that have compromised prosperity, despite mounting confusion, anxiety, and fear about the future, many Americans refuse to abandon their faith in progress and continue to believe that it is assured to them. In time, it will return and all will again be well and all manner of things will be well. (It is too early to ascertain whether the increasingly popular quest to unearth or to recreate the past, represented, for example, in genealogical research, is merely the wistful yearning for the simplicity of a bygone era or the beginning of a more searching critique of progress.) The unremarked contradiction of progress is that, although it promises to liberate, to make life better by making it easier, progress so-called has always and everywhere diminished the need for human effort and creativity. It finds ever new ways to eliminate the necessity of using the muscles and the brain. Progress thus makes us weaker, stupider, and more dependent. For that reason alone, George Orwell contended, “nowadays…every intelligent person is a reactionary,” or ought to be.10
Civilization, of course, offers the amenities that make life more secure, comfortable, and pleasant, that make leisure, and thus thought, literature, art, and myriad other benefits, possible. If life were suddenly again reduced to its primitive essentials, if humanity were thrust backward to a brutish level of existence and the monotonous struggle for survival renewed, none of these activities would be possible. All of the gracious enhancements of life, which we now take as much for granted as the air that we breathe, would be lost. The great triumphs of science, the celebrated wonders of technology, and the remarkable accomplishments of engineering have done so much to enhance life. By persuading men of their sole and absolute dominion over creation, they have, at the same time, helped to obscure the spiritual aspects of civilization, which are even more important to its survival than the material achievements.
According to the longstanding American creed, history must always have a happy ending. For Americans, there can be no calamities or tragedies, to answer the question that Orestes Brownson famously posed in 1843. But the American commitment to progress and happiness has by now come to rest on little more than wishful thinking. American optimism denies the limits of power, and will not long survive in a world where the recognition of those limits has become manifest. A more prudent response might be to trust the goodness of life without either ignoring the restrictions it imposes on all human pursuits or denying its ultimately tragic character. The idea of progress, on the contrary, threatens to seduce us with promises of inexhaustible desire and ambition, neither of which, by their very nature, can ever be satisfied.
In their persistent unwillingness to accept, or even to acknowledge, human limitations, Americans have become, or are in the process of making themselves, more the victims than the beneficiaries of progress. Perhaps Americans’ embrace of progress in the face of the economic and spiritual crisis has been the antidote to despair, a mistakenly optimistic fatalism to counter an equally mistaken pessimistic fatalism. Be that as it may, the dogma of progress has exhausted its usefulness. It no longer has the capacity either to explain or to inspire. The stubborn progressive orthodoxy, now so firmly embedded in both popular culture and political life, has thus rendered impossible an imaginative reinterpretation of the past, a sober assessment of the present, and a realistic vision of future prospects. Worst of all, perhaps, the expectation of progress without end obscures the many blessings that Americans have long enjoyed, and distorts the venerable truth that life is a gift and not an affront to the power of the human will. Such ingratitude and arrogance are at once the renunciation of virtue and the essence of sin.
*The style is the man himself
1 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed. Edited by J. B. Bury (London: Methuen & Company, Ltd., 1925), Vol. IV, 180-81.
2 John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, Pilgrim’s Way: An Essay in Recollection (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside Press, 1940), 292.
3 Ibid., 288.
4 Ibid., 289.
5 Ibid., 291.
6 Ibid., 290.
7 Ibid., 291.
8 Ibid., 290.
9 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition. Edited by Eduardo Nolla. Translated by James T. Schleifer. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010), Vol. IV, 1149-50, 1151.
10 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 202.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.