How Deafness to Wise Old Voices Distorts the Past, Present & Future
In 1931, English historian Herbert Butterfield wrote the influential Whig Interpretation of History. In this landmark work, he critiqued modern historians' tendency to see the past as one long run-up to the present. Whiggism—the name given to blind faith in progress before "Progressivism" was in vogue—had so distorted historical thinking by Butterfield's time as to produce a new eschatology: history, according to these historians, had finally culminated in their own generation, so that they could look out from their position at the pinnacle of history and see all of the human past as a dust-heap, a shabby, pathetic rehearsal of the glory that only they, in their day, were able to achieve.
Ironically, Butterfield's critique of this Whiggish conceit gets truer by the moment, for his book came out before the real nightmares of the twentieth century occurred. The Shoah, Stalin, and Mao should have been three stakes in the heart of the dream of human perfectibility, but intellectuals have only become more perfervid in their schemes of utopian truimphalism. Today they are still saying that before the arrival of their generation, all was night and the world was dipped in darkness. All we need now, though, is just a little more tweaking, and we will finally have calibrated the machine.
In other words, Butterfield was right—but in more ways than he knew. It is not only history, but, indeed, nearly every discipline that now suffers from the pathology of pride. Most of today's intellectuals are still lost in this present progressive tense, deaf to the subtle tones that ought to modulate their voices from behind. They dismiss all who came before them, rejecting whatever wisdom our ancestors might have won through hard trial and costly error. They want the future now, and will not let any notes of caution dissuade them from their project. They have become, in short, very busy little Whigs.
And they have been busy making Whigs of the rest of us, too. Our age's epistemology is now overwhelmingly Whiggish, thanks to an educational system that teaches people to see themselves as Prometheuses wresting enlightenment from the murky backwardness of the past and carrying it forward into the future. But the paradox of this self-styled heroism is that, the more people set their faces against the past, the more they fail to understand the present. They thus feel alienated from time and struggle blindly for increasingly abstract ideals that have neither antecedent nor context.
Can anything be done about this ascendancy of all things Whiggish? Many people are dizzied by the pace of unexamined change in the world. Can those with temporal vertigo stop Whigging out and restore sanity to society?
Sex, we are told by the media and the universities—and, increasingly, from the pulpit—is not what it used to be. There has been a Sexual Revolution, and because of it, women are no longer forced to live in the harems of club-wielding cavemen. The Pill, the condom, and access to abortion have wiped out the last vestiges of male domination, freeing women to enjoy sex without having to worry about the consequences. Thus liberated, women are able to shape their own destinies; they can throw off the shackles of wifely drudgery and incommodious motherhood and stride forth into careers as architects and investment bankers and generally have a grand time that was beyond the wildest dreams of their poor, benighted sisters in the past.
That is what we've been told. But what we have found is that liberation from sexual tradition does not free women to become more fully womanly. Quite the opposite: it requires them to become more like men, hard-chargers at work and carrying the weight of the world on their backs. And it leads men to become perpetual boys. In a world full of Gloria Steinems and Germaine Greers, who declare unneeded their roles as husbands and fathers, many men slip into lives of sexual confusion and video games, while women raise their fatherless children alone in a capsized society.
What the Sexual Revolution has given us, in other words, is the Androgynous Quagmire. Gender Studies departments assure us that there are no differences in sex, only in gender indoctrination. Our bodies seem to indicate otherwise, but dual sexuality is so last century. In the final irony of this sad theater of the absurd, hermaphroditism turns out to be the last stage of sexual license.
From the beginning of human existence until about, oh, five years ago, sexual differences were obvious, fundamental components of the ways in which human beings lived in the world. Societies nearly everywhere were built on the understanding that men and women would set up house in order to raise children. The patterns of this housekeeping varied widely—and in many societies included concubinage and polygamy—but the flaunting of family norms was almost always seen as a direct threat to social stability. And the notion that two (or more) men, or two (or more) women, could start a little mÃ©nage for bringing up a brood was patently laughable. Not out of prejudice—this was a deeply practical matter. Men and women clearly needed each other, if only to keep the sands of social relations from constantly shifting under everyone's feet. There were, clearly, two sexes, and these two sexes came together to make families, thus carrying on lineages and forming basic units of government.
The denial of these sexual differences is a development of extraordinarily recent vintage. To argue that men and women are as interchangeable as socket wrenches is to fly in the face of all of world history. There are half-truths that seem to permit this, of course. Sodomy was not unknown to the ancient world, for example. But sodomy as the basis of family was unthinkable even to the Greeks, who had a disturbing predilection for pre-pubescent catamites. Sappho did not suggest that she and her lovers on Lesbos be allowed to "marry." The idea was risible on its face. The body was one thing, and friendship another, but family was of an entirely different order of magnitude. Were even the most incorrigible Athenian pederast among us today, he would find the United States Supreme Court to be out of its black-robed mind.
Religious debate used to center on the teachings of Scripture and Tradition. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics turned Europe into an inter-creedal abattoir, with some six million people dying in the final throes of that conflict, the Thirty Years' War. Perhaps arch-Whig Bill Maher was right: religion really could be the root of all evil.
It turns out, though, that those bloody wars of religion were the good old days. The atheism of the Enlightenment, which mocked the violence of the religious zealots, started the Whig ball rolling by denying both Scripture and Tradition, and positioning Reason as the god of the future. Once freed from craven superstitions, men would be able to use Reason to sort out their differences. There would be no need for violence. Peace would reign where once religious violence had blighted the land. Voltaire would be free to write bad books, and all would be right with the world.
What we were given, though, was a Reign of Terror. And the spasmodic violence of the Jacobins was just the beginning of the "enlightened" horror. There is a direct line, for example, from the apotheosis of Reason during the French Revolution to the entirely "reasonable" plan to destroy European Jewry during the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, Communism, which promised the ultimate in a rationally based society, found, much to its embarrassment, that in order to liberate humanity it was necessary to put tens of millions of its members into an early grave. A clearer view of history might have reminded man of his record of depravity and of the inadvisability of relying on his fallen nature to achieve perfection. But the Enlightenment philosophes were having none of it. Prometheus is not afraid of a few pesky crows!
We now stand at the far side of this river of blood. Is all of this to be understood as "progress"? The more Whiggish among us taunt the religious for their adherence to outmoded beliefs. Yet the further we place ourselves from our Christian past, the more we find that we have nothing to turn to for comfort but more and more death.
For example, some estimates put the number of abortions worldwide over the past fifty years at more than one billion. Surely, no religion in the world, even that of the human-sacrificing Aztecs, could boast such a sustained spree of infant hecatombs. Abortions are intentional, deliberate acts—a nearly perfect exercise in a certain kind of reason. Reason without God was supposed to be a liberator. Freed from the ancient tutelage of religion, though, the West descended into orgies of incarnadine slaughter before which even the wickedest conquerors of old would have quailed. The Mongols killed men, women, and children, but they didn't intentionally seek out babies in the womb. Even Herod waited to kill the innocents until after they had been born.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob said, "Thou shalt not kill." That men still killed—and plenty—was in direct defiance of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. But now we have put those old books away. When we kill, we expect to be congratulated for it. Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes have replaced Isaiah and Jesus as moral arbiters. Scalpels and suction machines do the work of the swords and catapults of yore. And the verdict of the modern prophets is somewhat different from that of the old-time preachers, which the Whigs have tossed onto the flames of progress: "If you're going to kill, at least kill rationally!"
Scientism crows triumphant in 2015. The immediacy of empirical knowledge, and not the sprawling vista of accumulated wisdom, is deemed the best way to interpret our world. And as for how we humans got here in the first place? Those who question whether there can be a design without a designer are met with little but scorn. Like the old statue in the Parthenon of Pallas Athena holding the miniature figure of Nike, the Goddess of Reason is outfitted with a little bust of Darwin nestling in her bosom.
But does Whiggism really mean to imply that there can be progress without applied Reason? Is this not a contradictory statement? Does blind chance lead nowhere in particular, or does natural selection decrease entropy with, magically, no increase in entropy anywhere else? In other words, is Darwin Prometheus or Sisyphus?
Darwinism threads Progress right through and beyond us, rendering us expendable at the very moment it crowns us kings of the universe. Darwin is the patron saint of the Whigs, but his writings contravene all that the Whigs preach as gospel truth. The contradiction was encapsulated by Friedrich Engels at Karl Marx's funeral, when he called his departed friend the "Darwin of history." The price of progress is thus eternal conflict, and evolution, in its inexorable drive forward, takes as little pity on man as it did on the stegosaurus or the saber-toothed tiger. We thought we stood on the mountaintop, announcing the arrival of progress, but progress ran right over us like a tank, with Darwin's head sticking up through the turret, smirking.
Evolutionary biology isn't the only place where Whiggishness has led to whigged-out ideas. People, no longer the pinnacle of creation, are increasingly seen as dangerous interlopers in an otherwise pristine Gaia. The Transhumanists say that, if we are to "save" humanity, we will have to have much less of it. Population control—a la Dan Savage and Peter Singer—will be the elixir of our ecological renaissance. Here again, progress passes right through us like a ghost through a wall. All of the past may end at our doorstep, but we can do nothing better with this distinction than commit species-cide and progress ourselves right off the face of the earth.
Climate change debates also reveal this brand of Whiggishness run amok. Neurotically impatient for everything to culminate in us, we have no context for those fluctuations in the climate that people used to call "weather." The seasickness born of our loss of temporal proportion churns our innards over the seasonal changes in the skies and tides. But we have eliminated the very thing that might have provided some relief. Having collapsed the past into a punch line, we have no way to make sense of even previously unremarkable events like hot summers and snowy winters.
Comets used to inspire fear of God's impending wrath. Today, six weeks of drought are enough to send people spinning into Chicken Little panic. Once the heavens were emptied of God and the past of meaning, the present had to be inflated in direct and inverse proportion. This, in turn, amplified the anxiety people naturally feel as finite creatures in an indifferent universe, and left them incapable of finding succor in anything but wild, millenarian prophecies about the end of the world.
One word: Galileo. Okay, maybe six words: Galileo; Spanish Inquisition; Crusades; Jim Crow. This is how historians view history from the Whiggish pedestal of 2015. We are just now climbing out of the stinking bog of the past, they say, and freeing ourselves of the millennia of racist, misogynistic tradition that went before us. History writing today is Whiggism on steroids.
This triumphalism distorts other fields of scholarship, too. English departments, which used to curate a canon of literary excellence, have gleefully abdicated this burdensome chore. A bored jester now sits where the Oxford dons once did, and he—or, just as likely, she—prefers pornography, comic books, Tibetan mandalas—anything but those awful old tomes written by dead white men. Even Freudian literary analysis now appears sane compared with the truly disturbing work coming out of the groves of academe.
The problem, beyond bad scholarship, is that young people flock to these madhouses every year, told by cynical university bureaucrats that they need to learn contempt for their own tradition if they want to get a well-paying job. Professors are being paid to take battle-axes to the roots of Western civilization.
Rebuilding & Relearning
What is to be done? Old Believers rush around putting out brush fires—an abortion flare-up here, a same-sex "marriage" blaze there, an eruption of berserk Darwinism in yet another spot. But the world is Whigged out, and though it is our duty to keep fighting, ad hoc bucket brigades will not extinguish all the fires. So when the West is cooled cinders, we will have to rebuild, first by ditching Whiggism and relearning tradition, that "democracy of the dead" that has instructed eons of fallible human beings in the ways of living a good life in a passing world. •Jason Morgan
is a Ph.D. student currently on a Fulbright grant researching Japanese legal history at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has published articles in journals as varied as Modern Age, Japan Review, Human Life Review, and The College Fix.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #33, Summer 2015 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo33/no-progress-report