Providential Progress – Part 4 (Does History Take Sides?)
In Part 3 we examined the role of Providence in the conservative’s understanding of human progress. According to Russell Kirk, Providence—that is, God’s provision and ultimate purpose for humanity—is revealed to us through history. Therefore, to have a comprehensive view of what we mean by progress we must untangle how we understand history.
Does history have a “point” or a “direction”? What is the purpose of history? Can someone be on the “right” or “wrong” side of history? What can it tell us, and what are its limitations? These are not historical questions but philosophical questions. No accumulation of historical facts will answer these questions any more than knowledge about biology will reveal to us the purpose of life. As Thomas Sowell succinctly put it, “History cannot be a reality check for visions when history is itself shaped by visions.” Our vision—that is, our worldview—will take the facts history presents us to make sense of them and not the other way around.
Our worldview may be checked and challenged by the information and historical facts it encounters, but this can have, at best, a limited impact in shaping our worldview. As fallible human beings we rely on our worldview to make sense of things. Without a worldview we would not know what to do with facts.
This does not give us license to distort historical facts to fit our worldview. For while our worldview may be necessary to filter facts, it does not prevent us from recognizing our biases and fallibility, or in seeking to approach such facts with an open, curious mind. “There has been much hand-wringing about the difficulty or impossibility of achieving objectivity in writing history,” Sowell continues, “The unattainability of objectivity is too often a distraction from something more mundane that is quite attainable but is often absent—honesty.”
A firm understanding of our worldview allows us to approach history honestly. If we are deceived into believing we are incapable of bias or that we approach all historical facts with perfect objectivity, we are most assuredly guilty of distorting facts to meet our worldview. In his essay entitled Eric Voegelin’s Normative Labor, Russell Kirk identified four “schools” of historical thought in the West whereby most of us filter historical facts. Let’s examine each one.
The Nihilistic School of History
In Christopher Hitchens’ compilation of essays for nonbelievers The Portable Atheist we find a brief entry by the journalist and scholar of American English H. L. Mencken entitled Memorial Service. Mencken pens a satirical, irreverent obituary to the “dead gods”—those gods who are known to us only through history. He goes on to list the names of no less than one hundred and thirty-eight gods whose worshipers are long dead. He concludes:
“They were gods of the highest standing and dignity—gods of civilized peoples—worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.”
The implication seems clear enough: if we recognize the religious faithful of the past who worshiped these gods were mistaken, why should we believe the claims of the religious faithful today? Worshipers from both the ancients and moderns seem thoroughly convinced of their religious doctrines. Shouldn’t the preponderance of mistaken believers of the past call into question all religious dogma?
I don’t want us to get sidetracked from the rather interesting, yet unrelated, question of whether we have good reason to trust religious dogmas of today over those ancient, dead gods. What concerns us here is that Mencken doesn’t carry his argument to its logical conclusion. For the observation that some people once believed in dead gods with equal conviction as the religious faithful today is more than an argument against religious belief. It’s actually an argument against all belief.
All belief, whether religious, philosophical, scientific, or otherwise is suspect to this line of thought. Nothing is spared from Mencken’s observation that, at any given time and place, some people believed some things that just about everyone alive today agrees is entirely mistaken. And so too we have every reason to believe that, at some time and place in the future, just about everyone alive will agree that at least some of what most of us believe today to be true is entirely mistaken.
The nihilistic school of history takes its cues from this exact idea. The political philosopher Leo Strauss expanded upon the rational for this line of thought thusly:
“History as history seems to present to us the depressing spectacle of a disgraceful variety of thoughts and beliefs and, above all, of the passing-away of every thought and belief ever held by men. It seems to show that all human thought is dependent on unique historical contexts that are preceded by more or less different contexts and that emerge out of their antecedents in a fundamentally unpredictable way: the foundations of human thought are laid by unpredictable experiences or decisions. Since all human thought is bound to perish with the situation to which it belongs and to be superseded by new, unpredictable thoughts.”
Thus, history is nothing more than the sad tale of humanity’s futile attempts to find meaning in a meaningless universe. History shows that we are mere products of our times; that the complexities and varieties of our beliefs are nothing more than the inevitable outcomes of the complete accident of where and when we happened to exist. And there’s not a thing we can do about it.
Yet this historical nihilism suffers the same weakness as other relativistic arguments. As Strauss contends, the nihilistic school of history “thrives on the fact that it inconsistently exempts itself from its own verdict about all human thought.” In other words, why should we believe the nihilistic school of history to be true if what it asserts is that the act of believing and this thing we call truth are mere accidents of historical circumstance? If the nihilistic school of history is the correct view, it stands to reason that at some point in the future people will not believe it to be the correct view. At best, what this school teaches us is that we live in a weird blip in history where a small group of people know the truth, which is a truth destined to be in doubt at some point in the future.
Strauss’ antidote to this mental malady is to apply a philosophical critique of the nihilistic school of history. It is a mistake, in Strauss’ view, to abandon all beliefs simply because belief systems have fallen in and out of favor at various times and in various ways. That is lazy thinking, and rigorous thinking is what’s needed. As Strauss explains:
“History teaches us that a given view has been abandoned in favor of another view by all men, or by all competent men, or perhaps only by the most vocal men; it does not teach us whether the change was sound or whether the rejected view deserved to be rejected. Only an impartial analysis of the view in question—an analysis that is not dazzled by the victory or stunned by the defeat of the adherents of the view concerned—could teach us anything regarding the worth of the view and hence regarding the meaning of the historical change. If the historicist contention is to have any solidity, it must be based not on history but on philosophy.”
As such, history has much more to teach us than a despondent acceptance of crushing doubt and utter meaninglessness. It is the record of the shared experience of humanity and the answers applied to our deepest and most important questions. It is true many of those answers have fallen out of favor and that many of the answers we hold to today may fall out of favor sometime down the road. But that does not make the historical record worthless.
Take, for example, your experience as an individual. Doubtless you have experienced sufferings, joys, hard-fought achievements, and crushing defeats in your lifetime that have shaped you into the person you are today and molded the things you believe to be true. And, if you reflected on the matter for a bit, I’m confident you’d recognized certain beliefs you once held that, upon further examination or perhaps because of those lived experiences, you now reject. This does not mean you doubt all your beliefs because you’ve changed your mind here and there. But it does mean you’ve worked to refine those beliefs even as you recognize that further refinement is likely needed.
So too history provides to us a historical record such that we can consistently and persistently refine our beliefs based not solely on our individual experiences or even on the shared experiences of those who happen to be alive today, but on the vast reservoir of human experience provided to us through a study of history.
The Cyclical School of History
In recent years, an ancient, Eastern school of historical thought has been gaining traction in the West. The cyclical school of history holds that the historical record reveals cycles, primarily of a civilization’s growth, maturity, decadence, and downfall. This takes the adage that history repeats itself quite literally.
The adherents of this historical school believe, to varying degrees, that these cycles are both predictable and inevitable.A (woefully) oversimplified version of this view is captured in the popular meme hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times:
I suspect part of the popularity of this view in recent years comes from the belief our civilization is in the good times create weak men or “decadent” phase of historical cycles. This would seem to give justification for the widely held feelings that things are not as good as they appear and address the nagging question of why do we feel so bad when we have it so good? It would also alleviate us of the crushing responsibility of addressing our problems head on if decline and eventual ruin is inevitable.
I’m not going to dwell on this school much longer as it has not (yet) had the same impact as the others in the West. But I would like to point out that some of the same criticisms of the nihilistic school of history apply to the cyclical school as well. The observation that civilizations tend to follow a similar path of growth and eventual ruin does not prove the inevitability or futility of the matter. Historical cycles don’t always follow predictable paths. At times a civilization may appear in decline when a Great Awakening or patriotic spirit renews and revitalizes the people. Or a civilization may be flourishing when an outside force—an invading army, natural disasters, unforeseen technological changes—brings it to an end. Regardless, the conservative is suspect of any view of history that takes the onus off of individual responsibilities.
The Progressive School of History
According to the progressive school of history, history is not a meaningless, static condition as viewed by the nihilistic school or a series of events forever destined to loop back together again as the cyclical school holds but is instead moving in a particular direction. Just as importantly, this movement is both progressive and terrestrial in nature. That is, history is moving humanity towards a brighter tomorrow on this earth. Thus, history is not just a record of human experiences or answers to questions, but also a force for good.
Put another way, the progressive school holds that history advances from point A to point B where point A is where we are now and point B is not only where we will inevitably end up, but where we ought to be. Those who are content to remain at point A are on the wrong side of history whereas those who are actively working to advance us to point B are on the right side of history. While historical progress is inevitable, it is also morally imperative, such that those who stand on the right side of history are righteous and those who stand athwart history yelling “stop!” are mistaken, if not altogether evil. As such, the progressive school of history is highly compatible with a multitude of political ideologies which provide a blueprint for some ultimate idea of societal justice.
It’s worth parsing through this idea of standing on the right or wrong side of history as this can have two very different meanings. On the one hand, we may simply mean that certain attitudes, beliefs, or actions that were once common, acceptable, or even celebrated are currently taboo, prohibited, or considered evil. Take, for example, the institution of slavery. It is quite true that most civilizations of the past practiced various forms of slavery. Today we (rightly) recognize this as barbaric and decry the actions of even otherwise exemplary historical figures who owned slaves such as many of the Founding Fathers. History has not looked kindly on those who once participated in a practice that was widespread and socially acceptable.
But to say that someone is on the right or wrong side of history may also imply that history is moving in some particular, linear direction. Where once humans thought it was morally acceptable to own other humans, we have since advanced as a species to reject this view. Where once prejudices against different ethnic groups was considered proper, we now know them to be bigoted, ignorant, and hateful. And someday we’ll view all prejudices, inequalities, and non-value-neutral judgments against all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and non-conformist lifestyles as equally wrongheaded. Those who disagree are on the wrong side of history just as their ancestors who owned slaves were on the wrong side of history.
Former president Barack Obama often employed this “right side of history” argument. Obama’s self-professed evolution on the issue of homosexual marriage may offer the clearest example. Where once he opposed homosexual marriage, his views evolved—over a twenty-year period—to include multiple executive orders increasingly aligned with LGBT rights advocates. “We’re on the right side of history,” Obama argued after signing an executive order banning workplace discrimination against LGBT employees of federal contractors and the federal government. In evoking history, Obama was channeling the progressive school of history’s understanding of how humanity “evolves”.
But what do issues such as LGBT rights have to do with history? It doesn’t follow that history is the force that’s made LGBT rights more palatable to us any more than history was responsible for eradicating slavery. If history behaves as some kind of unstoppable, cosmic enforcer of justice, does that imply history is updating morality or simply our attitudes? Is it true, for example, that slavery was somehow less immoral in the past than it is today (even if we allow that those who lived in societies that practiced slavery were less likely to recognize it as barbaric and evil)?
The question of whether slavery is right or wrong, in other words, doesn’t rest on what the century happens to be. Neither do other questions of equality, prejudices, or justice. Nor was it a historical certainty that slavery would eventually be eradicated, just as we can’t be certain slavery won’t reemerge in the future. Finally, it’s possible the very acts the progressive school celebrates as being on the right side of history might, someday, be called the wrong side of history by others.
While the development of the progressive school of history could not be attributed to one individual, it was the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel who really gave this idea its philosophical roots. “Hegel had taught that every philosophy is the conceptual expression of the spirit of its time,” contends Strauss, “and yet he maintained the absolute truth of his own system of philosophy by ascribing absolute character to his own time; he assumed that his own time was the end of history and hence the absolute moment.” Unlike those in the nihilistic school of history, Hegel was not dissuaded by the various schools of thought that had come and gone in the past but was instead confident that his own ideas had at last landed upon the final chapter in our understanding of history.
It was the Communist innovator Karl Marx who would take Hegel’s teachings and mold them into a tool for the political Left. “Marx’s ‘materialist’ theory of history was a response to Hegel,” explains the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. Hegel saw “the evolution of human societies as driven by the consciousness of their members, as this is expressed in religion, morality, law, and culture.” Yet Marx inverted Hegel’s formula: “It is ‘not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness’…Life is not a conscious process occurring in the realm of ideas, but a ‘material’ reality, rooted in the needs of the organism. And the basis of social life is likewise material, involving the production, distribution, and exchange of goods.”
The progressive view of history is irrevocably rooted in a materialist understanding of the world. Even where those who ascribe to the view are themselves religious, the progressive school of history will invariably drive them in a politically leftward direction. And the further one “progresses” in the progressive school of history, the more reality becomes compressed into a purely materialistic lens until our very humanity is squeezed from us. As Scruton writes:
“Human beings appear in the Marxist history only as ‘forces’, ‘classes’, and ‘isms’. Legal, moral, and spiritual institutions have only a marginal place or are brought into the discussion only when they can be easily seen in terms of the abstractions that speak through them. The dead categories, imposed on the living matter of history, reduce everything to formulae and stereotypes…All that wealth of social being, which is celebrated still in much of the art and music of the early twentieth century…is summarized…in a single, annihilating abstraction: ‘bourgeois’. And if you wish to identify the reality of which bourgeois life is the appearance, then you are given only another abstraction: ‘capitalism’. That’s it. Nothing of real human life remains.”
Now, just as not everyone on the political Left is a Marxist, not everyone who ascribes to the progressive school of history takes things quite this far. The philosophical roots planted by Hegel have bloomed into a thousand different branches today. Obama’s understanding of the progressive nature of history may not include the idea we’ll all eventually get to a global, communist society. But his historical branch is part of the same tree planted by Hegel and watered by Marx. They all see history, in some fashion or another, as an inevitable force taking us to a better world.
This view fits squarely with leftist policy prescriptions. “Once it is assumed that history itself works toward progressive improvement, and that we have the understanding and the power to guide this historical dynamic toward its fruition,” explains Irving Kristol, “it is only a matter of time before the state is held responsible for everything that is unsatisfactory in our condition.” Is it any wonder why those on the left—from moderate Democrats to hard-core Marxists—consistently advocate an ever-expanding state? To deny material, political, state-oriented solutions would be to stand with those on the wrong side of history.
Clearly, the historical schools outlined above are not compatible with conservatism. How then does a conservative view history? That is where we’ll pick things up in Part 5.