July 11, 2012
Against progress
The future cannot be predicted. It will be much different than any of us expect. The pessimists will be mistaken because things will go wrong they were not anticipating. The optimists will be mistaken because optimists always are. Quite apart from surprising events, the flavour of the future cannot be known. It will not be "futuristic."

Predictions invariably fail, not only because there are too many variables in play. We don't know what most of those variables are, and cannot discern them even in the present. History - or rather, the humble reading of history, in which we try to reconstruct and understand past ages as they were, as "presents" not as pasts - can teach us plenty. And one of the chief things it teaches is that nobody ever knew what came next.

Surely all the above is obvious. But it is not generally understood, especially by "intellectuals." For more than a century now, we have been reading that the "idea of progress" is dead. But it's like God in this one respect: It is alive and well. And what Herbert Butterfield called The Whig Interpretation of History still dominates all fashion-able thinking.

This is the view that the past offers only dead ends, except where we may descry something that seems to lead to our present, that therefore "looks forward."

Whig history is, therefore, progressive. It tells the story of progress from darkness to enlightenment. It is closely allied with Whig politics, under what-ever current party name. The men and women of the past were either "ahead of their time" or behind it.

By extension so are the men and women of today: working toward, or working to impede, some dazzling, secular, utopian future in which the problems of this world have all been solved, and the forces of superstition and reaction have been permanently defeated.

This is implicit in the writing of more than nine in 10 of my journalistic contemporaries, including the ones who label themselves "conservative." Along with the most advanced Trotskyites "on the side of history," they basically agree that "we cannot move backwards." They are cautious revolutionists, warning the incautious not to move too quickly or recklessly. And they are pliable ("reasonable") by nature, ever willing to defend today what they opposed yesterday.

So great has been the success of the Whig interpretation, in imposing itself on the modern mind, that it does not require arguments. It is taken as self-evident. Oppose the progressives and, apart from personal smears, all you will hear is that your position is "out of date."

End of argument.

In Butterfield's time (the book to which I alluded was published in 1931), progress was taken to be in the direction of liberal democracy, personal emancipation, egalitarianism, and empirical science. It still is, and the only thing that changes is the meaning of the words.

"Liberal democracy" now means the Nanny State; "personal emancipation" means freedom from moral responsibility; "egalitarianism" means individuals don't count; and "empirical science" means settled scientism. But the code words are still invoked in the same way.

Look this all up in Wikipedia, and you will be confronted immediately with insinuations that Butterfield was himself standing in the way of history. He was a "devout Christian," a "Tory" of some kind. "Tory-ism" is defined (by A.J.P. Taylor) as a matter of sentiment, as opposed to principle. Butterfield is pinned up as an exhibit of superstition and re-action against what are implied to be the "principled" forces of reason and progress. A footnote; a man to be ignored.

To my mind, Butterfield was very Protestant, and his own view of history was filtered through Protestant assumptions and doctrinal twists. He has his own subtle, but constant commitments to "Renaissance" and "Reformation." Verily, I find Butter-field himself a bit too "Whiggish."

But I'll defend him to the death against most adversaries. For here was one of very few modern historians willing, in principle, to take history seriously; to be instructed by the past, rather than trying to instruct it.

We cannot begin to prepare for the unpredictable future, with-out having acquainted ourselves with historical lost causes and dead ends.

For everything that goes around, comes around again. Human capacities have not changed over the short period of historical time, and human sinfulness cannot be expunged by historical processes. Nor can Grace. The worst things that have ever happened can hap-pen again, and the best things, ditto. The fact that they have happened is the proof that they can happen.

This is actually a principled, not a sentimental view, though the principle is beyond the grasp of the Whig mentality. To the Tory mind, a cause should be advanced because it is good, true, and beautiful, in itself, not because it leads "forward." To the Tory mind, everyone has rights: not just the living, but also the dead and the unborn.

David Warren