Providential Progress – Part 2 (Permanence and Progression)
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Human flourishing is dependent on balancing the tension between Permanence and Progression. Permanence draws strength from property owners, farmers, rural communities, and idyllic countrysides. It connects us with the past, imbues our lives with meaning, and offers us a sense of home in an otherwise foreign world. Progression is indicative of white-collar professions, commerce, industrialization, and burgeoning metropolises. It pushes us beyond our current station and towards the promise of a brighter future.
Yet these seemingly oxymoronic forces need one another. Permanence without progress is stagnation, decline, and entropy. Progression without permanence is aimless motion lacking a grounded sense of direction and far more likely to take humanity off a cliff than towards utopia. The survival of any civilization depends upon dwelling between them and being careful not to allow one to dominate at the expense of the other. Thus, we must understand where our civilization stands now, and whether a course correction is in order.
And where does our civilization stand now? “Among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress,” answers political science professor Patrick Deneen. “Our modern peril…is that of vertiginous speed,” echoes Russell Kirk, “The traditions of civility may be swallowed up by will and appetite; with us, the expectation of change is greater than the expectation of continuity, and generation scarcely links with generation.” Whether these claims seem prescient or alarmist will likely depend on your frame of reference.
For much of the Left, we aren’t progressing fast enough. To hear a radical feminist, LGBTQ activist, or socialist speak, the history of the West is one long narrative of white, hetero, male-dominated patriarchy that oppressed the weak. The sooner societal institutions of injustice are torn down the better. Far from changing too fast, the Left is often resolute that delay itself is an act of injustice.
Now, the society advocated by the Left is often at odds with the sort of society a conservative would desire. But even if we broaden our frame of reference to include the sort of ideal society envisioned by conservatives, there is still a marked difference between those whose worldview sees progression as a return to some prior state and those who hold that progression is only found by looking to the future.
Do We Look to the Past or Future to Progress?
“A belief in progress, in the sense in which modernity believes in progress,” writes Irving Kristol, “is incompatible with a belief in original sin.” Original sin is the Christian doctrine that human nature is prone to evil. It is the ultimate doctrine of equality as it teaches that men and women, old and young, rich and poor, those living today and those who lived long ago are all inherently subject to wrongdoing and hopelessly imperfectible. While certain ages and individuals may aspire to better themselves and strive for nobility, in the end we’re all part of the same lot who can never truly progress beyond our nature.
Kristol’s invoking of the word “sin” was intentionally religious. The Biblical view of humanity’s progression comes not from evolving into some higher being or societal advancement, but in returning to the created order established by God. In other words, progression means repentance. It does not mean we’re fighting on God’s side now, but that we’re laying down our arms and acknowledging our open rebellion against Him. This religious mindset is at odds with Kristol’s reference to modernity; what the political philosopher Leo Strauss describes as progressive man:
“Progressive man…looks back to a most imperfect beginning. The beginning is barbarism, stupidity, rudeness, extreme scarcity. Progressive man does not feel that he has lost something of great, not to say infinite, importance; he has lost only his chains. He does not suffer from the recollection of the past. Looking back to the past, he is proud of his achievements; he is certain of the superiority of the present to the past. He is not satisfied with the present; he looks to future progress. But he does not merely hope or pray for a better future; he thinks that he can bring it about by his own effort. Seeking perfection in a future which is in no sense the beginning or the restoration of the beginning, he lives unqualifiedly toward the future. The life which understands itself as a life of loyalty or faithfulness appears to him as backward, as being under the spell of old prejudices.”
And just what does the conservative have to say about these divergent views? Well, it’s complicated. There isn’t complete consensus within conservatism on how to respond. Many conservatives are religious and, generally speaking, religious in a very orthodox sense. The doctrine of original sin is indispensable to a religious conservatism. And the notion of humanity’s imperfection gives life to much of conservative teaching.
On the other hand, conservatives are quick to defend certain achievements brought about by modernity and classical liberalism and recognize them as advancements. They are concerned with guarding civilization precisely because they recognize it to represent a sort of progression beyond our tribalistic past. And achievements like the rule of law, private property, emancipation of slavery, and medical and technological advancements are clear positives worth conserving.
Yet conservatives do share some important critiques of Strauss’ description of progressive man. This idea of progressivism implies a sort of endless, linear advancement of the species such that who we are today is somehow inherently better than what we once were and who we will become will be inevitably better still. Conservatives hold the only real distinction between who we are now and our ancestors to be civilizing forces and not an actual upgrade in our nature. There is an outright rejection of how the past may instruct us, which is certainly contrary to conservative thinking. Finally, conservatives are far more skeptical about our ability to progress through sheer knowledge and willpower. We may find ways to increase the likelihood society will progress, but assurance can never be guaranteed as we are not entirely in control of our destinies.
For these reasons, conservatives are far more likely to caution restraint and careful contemplation rather than vigorous progression. Societal change is difficult; not only can it be challenging to discern what direction we should be heading, the very nature and pace of change may also be cause for concern.
Change vs. Reform
The patron saint of conservative reformation—Edmund Burke—had a great deal to say about the nature and speed of political and societal change. He too was concerned with changes taking place too quickly in his day, in revolutionary France. Burke’s primary concern with such rapid change was that it risked breaking one of humanity’s chief instruments of real progress: the link between generations. Generational continuity is imbedded in our norms, customs, institutions, laws, and traditions. Gradual change preserves generational continuity, whereas rapid change makes us “little better than the flies of a summer”.
Burke further drew a sharp distinction between mere change and reform. Change “alters the substance of the objects themselves; and gets rid of all their essential good, as well as of all the accidental evil annexed to them.” As such, change may overshoot the mark. We may succeed in eliminating the problems inherent in the object, only later to discover that prior generations had good reasons for constructing the object the way they had. These reasons may not be immediately evident. Indeed, it may be many years before defects appear. Only then it may be too late to reconstruct the object as it was before. We may smash the supposed white, hetero, male-dominated patriarchy only to learn that what replaces it is not justice but chaos.
Reform, on the other hand, “is, not a change in the substance, or in the primary modification of the object, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of. So far as that is removed, all is sure. It stops there; and if it fails, the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was.” It is true this gradual approach may take repeated attempts over a long period of time to bring about the good we might otherwise accomplish with one foul swoop. And certainly, there are times and situations where radical change is better than gradual reform. But we are in a better position to discern whether change or reform is warranted when we take into account generational continuity. Thus, Burke describes his ideal statesman as one who recognizes the limitations of reform:
“A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than how he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Everything else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.”
Defects in the Body Politic
If we think of politics as a machine, reform fine tunes the engine whereas change tears out the engine and replaces it with a propeller. But, as we noted in Part 1, the better analogy is not a machine, but an organism; what we might call the body politic. Reform might nourish the body politic or exercise it to increase its strength and endurance. But we would only hack off a leg in the most extreme circumstances where it was endangering the whole body politic. Even if the joints were damaged to the point the legs were not functioning, we would still leave the limbs attached and make do.
We would be wise to maintain the body politic through proper diet and exercise, but untried dietary pills or reckless physical activity may be just as likely to invite injury as improvement. It would be better to endure the imperfections in the body politic than to treat the body politic as if it were capable of endless progress. And if we treat the body politic as if it were capable of perfection rather than something finite and susceptible to defect, we only hasten its death. In other words, we recognize that reform will never change the nature of the body politic—which is impossible—but will, at best, allow the body politic to perform optimally.
When contemplating progression, the conservative considers trade-offs more than solutions. If perfect progress is unattainable, we would do well to consider the likely outcomes—both good and bad—of proposed changes and reforms to the body politic. As economist Thomas Sowell notes, the conservative “treats defects as inevitable, and therefore not in themselves reason for change, unless their magnitudes merit the inevitable costs entailed by change.” Journalist Jonah Goldberg adds that “nothing is ever good enough when measured solely against an ideal. Only when measured against the experience of the past can we truly understand what counts as progress.” In other words, our good intentions and strong desire to rid the world of injustices through radical change is not enough. We must also be willing to carefully consider the likely outcomes of radical change and whether our aims are realistic and reasonable.
Perhaps this all sounds quite defeatist and underwhelming—the ideal can never be achieved, a gain in one area is likely to be offset by a loss in another, we are forever trapped by our imperfectible natures, all that we have achieved could be easily undone, there is no assurance of a brighter tomorrow—no wonder conservatives have a reputation for pessimism! Much of this runs contrary to the pervasive contemporary attitude of our society. Irving Kristol provides an excellent summation of how our ancestors thought versus how we think today:
“In all premodern societies, a mood of stoicism permeated the public and private spheres. Life is hard, fortune is fickle, bad luck is more likely than good luck and a better life is more probable after death than before. Such stoicism does not easily cohabit with the progressive spirit, which anticipates that things naturally will and ought to get better. When they don’t—when you are defeated in a war, or when you experience a major malfunctioning of your economic system—then you are completely disoriented. Bourgeois society is morally and intellectually unprepared for calamity.”
The stakes are quite high. If Bourgeois society, or modernity, or progressive man, or whatever we may call this pervasive contemporary attitude so unprepared for calamity is wrong—that is, if life truly is as capricious as Kristol describes—then it would seem we have grounded our expectations on an active volcano. If our expectations of progress are out of alignment with reality, carefree optimism may soon give way to calamity. What’s needed is a better understanding of progress. What assurance—if any—do we have that some sense of progress is in our future? What is reasonable to hope for? And what should we expect in our lifetimes versus over the whole of the human experience? That is where we’ll pick things up next week in Part 3.