C. S. Lewis: Christianity, Historicism and the Enlightenment Narrative

In an essay from October 1950 entitled Historicism, C. S. Lewis critiques the various schools of thought that would confidently proclaim a defined ‘inner meaning’ to history. In the essay, which first appeared in Volume IV of The Month, Lewis begins by distinguishing between actual historians, who may indeed infer a certain meaning related to a series of events based on known facts (and may even go on to infer the correct sense of future or past events in relation to the known data), from the historicist, who claims to be able to infer from the same historical premises conclusions that have a much wider import – conclusions that are metaphysical, existential, theological or (as Lewis makes sure to add) a-theological. The historian speaks in terms of cause and effect or grounds and consequences; the historicist talks in terms of ultimate necessity, based on a prior theory of the way history is going (according to his particular theory of history).

Examples of such would be Hegel, Marx or Novalis, and Lewis also cites Keat’s Hyperion, as an example of historicism (in this instance evolutionism – the idea that things inevitably march or lurch towards a more perfect future) embodied in verse. After noting some of these examples, Lewis also goes on to rescue Christianity from the range of historicist schools – he notes that even though the Old Testament contains some passages which suggest calamities have befallen Israel because of a divine judgement, we have in these cases a guarantee only that judgement was afforded because of sin in these cases; we do not have the authority to attribute the same meaning to all calamities we see in life. Lewis also notes that, although the Old Testament has this feature in common with the contemporary pagan cultures, it is also contains many correctives to it that the pagans do not – the Book of Job and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah for instance.

Furthermore, for the Christian, we have dominical authority that not every disaster is the result of divine judgement in Luke 13:4 and John 9:13, so surely this kind of historicism is not allowed us. It is also often said that Christianity is unique in having a sense of linear history, in contradistinction to the pagans, but whilst this may be true of the Greeks, Lewis points out that both the Norse culture and the Romans had a keen sense of history, expressed vividly in the story of Ragnarok and the Aeneid respectively. When Saint Augustine wrote his De Civitate Dei, he was indeed engaging in historicism, but he was doing it to refute a pagan historicism that attributed the fall of Rome to the anger of the rejected pagan gods. What then should the Christian view of history be; and how legitimate is it for us to indulge in historicism? Lewis answers thus:

What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God. If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. The question is not what could be done under conditions never vouchsafed us in via, nor even (as far as I can remember) promised us in patria, but what can be done now under the real conditions. I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?

taken from Christian Reflections (1981), p.136, Fount Paperbacks.

Thus we see the problem clearly – it is one thing to recognise the fact that all that has ever happened and ever will stems from God (from whom else could it come?) and that therefore the whole historical process must be revelatory; but for us to get the sense of what that whole process is revealing, we would have to not only know it all, but be advised by God Himself as to its proper interpretation. This is a situation that we will never be in – thus historicism, in its truest sense, is off limits for the Christian, precisely because of our prior recognition that God is God and we are not. Having established this, Lewis then goes on to examine how it is that various men of distinction have come to believe that they are able to divine an ‘inner meaning’ to history without having anywhere near the full realm of knowledge that would be required to do so.

He lists six ‘senses’ of history, before concluding that historicists speak of it in what he lists as number six of the senses – ‘that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man’ (ibid, p.137). To try and give their case as much room to prove itself as possible though, he credits that they may, in theory, and not knowing the future, be working with the second sense of history – the ‘total content of past time as it really was in all its richness’ but goes on to observe that this does not really help the historicist’s case much either:

It would surely be one of the luckiest things in the world if the content of time up to the moment at which the Historicist is writing happened to contain all that he required for reading the significance of total history. We ride with our backs to the engine. We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility? If, indeed, we knew that history was cyclic we might perhaps hazard a guess at its meaning from the fragment we have seen. But then we have been told that the Historicists are just the people who do not think that history is merely cyclic. For them it is a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it…

…But even if it were possible, which I deny, to see the significance of the whole from a truncated text, it remains to ask whether we have that truncated text. Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness? Clearly not. The past, by definition, is not present. The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission “Of course we don’t know everything” that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.

ibid, pp.138-139.

Lewis expands on this by remarking that in each individual life every second is filled to bursting with data (sensations, emotions, thoughts), and that we cannot possibly grasp all of it; that ‘a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that has ever lived’ (ibid). Not only is it nigh on impossible to access the preserved history of each and every peoples that have ever lived, but those recorded histories do not contain anything like the full range of experiences that have actually occurred to all human beings – thus only a tiny fraction of lived human experience (i.e.; of history) is available to us. Again, this is not to denigrate the role of the historian, as pattern and meaning can be perceived within that fraction of experience we have available to us; all Lewis is insisting on here is that we cannot possibly uncover some grand narrative or inner meaning to all history – we simply do not have the data.

Lewis then pre-empts a possible reply from the historicist, namely that they know enough – they may not have access to every single piece of lived experience that has ever occurred, but they know the important parts. This, for the historian, would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say – for example, the military historian, specialising in the Napoleonic Wars, could legitimately say that he has access to enough of the relevant facts pertaining to that period to form a consensus about the meaning of certain events within that period, or even the period over all; moreover, the undertaking of a study of that particular period presupposes that such relevant facts exist, otherwise it would never have been studied. The historicist however, is making the claim that he knows the ‘important facts’ which reveal the inner meaning of all history – aside from the issue of the heterogeneity of the data that actually does survive, how would the historicist be able to judge which are the significant facts and which are merely historical detritus?

Clearly, the facts selected as being of significance are chosen based on the prior conviction that they fit in with the historicist’s philosophy of history – it will always result in being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the historicist will always be making a somewhat prejudiced selection from amongst the data of recorded human experience in order to fit his prior theory. This can be simply an act of self-glorification, but as Lewis goes on to point out, it can also be used for more nefarious means:

On such a small and chance selection from the total past as we have, it seems to me a waste of time to play the Historicist. The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data. Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous. It encourages a Mussolini to say that “History too him by the throat” when what really took him by the throat was desire. Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed. And what quack or traitor will not now woo adherents or intimidate resistance with the assurance that his scheme is inevitable, “bound to come”, and in the direction which the world is taking?

ibid, p.143.

Herein lies the real danger of historicism – it is not only bad history (in truth, it has little to do with the real task of the historian at all), but it gives support to those who wish to subvert either small groups under their influence or culture as a whole to their own ends. In the former case, there have been a number of groups, spawned by the emergence of Protestant fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 19th Century, who have claimed to be able to apply passages from Scripture to history and predict the immanence of the end-times; in most cases this has only led to a narrow grasp of both Christianity and Western culture, but in some cases (those involving a personality cult of some kind) it has led to great psychological harm and sometimes tragedy. It is the latter case though – that of wedding a certain view of history to one’s own political ends, and of subverting the surrounding culture to those ends – that is most damaging.

Lewis cites the example of Mussolini (and alludes to Hitler); to this we could also add Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and many other statesmen beholden to the Marxist view of history. In their fervent belief that history was tending towards an earthly utopia, one free of both want and of risky liberty, rid of the interference of religious faith and objective morality, and of which they would be the primary agents in implementing, they committed acts of violence still unrivalled in both quantity and kind. Lenin’s famous saying that ‘if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs’, whilst doing a great disservice to the intense suffering caused by these regimes, pretty much sums up their ethos – history was on their side, so they were justified in doing whatever it took to bring its ends about.

Not unrelated to this view of history is the narrative which has its roots in the Reformation period (where solid groundwork was done to tar the name of both the Catholic Church and anything that the prior medieval period may have achieved) but is most commonly associated with what came afterwards – the Enlightenment. In the 17th and 18th centuries particularly, we read more and more of the idea that reason (unchained from faith of course) and science will set us free, that all we need to be happy is to cast off the religious and cultural shackles of old, embrace naked liberty and decontextualised empiricism and let ‘history’ take its course. Because of course history is on our side, and thus anything new, anything ‘progressive’ is a step in the right direction – be that in the realm of experimental science or in faith and morals.

Improvements in science and technology have of course been made, but the ideas that a.) we had to implement a divorce between faith and reason to achieve this, and b.) that we can see morals and philosophical categories in the same way have no foundation other than in the narrative forged during and after the Reformation and fully unleashed during the Enlightenment period – it is based not on history (which, as this thorough review outlines, actually undermines such a view; see also here) but on historicism. And, as we see more and more ethics being cast aside in the name of ‘progress’ (e.g.; easy-access abortion, legalisation of euthanasia, the eagerness that the UK government has to approve methods of genetic engineering that could have any number of disastrous short and long term consequences, and which raise significant ethical questions) as well as the speed with which Western culture seems to be gutting its own sense of identity from within, it is justifiable to wonder whether the Enlightenment narrative is not actually quite a damaging one as well.

For the Christian though, what does Lewis’ negative assessment of historicism mean for how we view history – clearly we must believe that everything is in some sense providential, so how do we reconcile this with not being able to actually assess the ultimate significance of past events in our life? Well, it is important to remember that rejecting historicism does not mean rejecting history, let alone God’s revelation of Himself within it – we can still have great confidence, based on both faith and the careful work of real historians, that the great events embodied in the Creeds are sound, and that we can appeal to a correct interpretation of sacred history via the voice of the Church.

For other events though, we are in the same position as anyone else, and it is only really to the present moment that we can reliably look for signs of divine import. What task is put before us now, in this moment, is something to which we can always apply the call to love both God and neighbour, and thereby discern its significance. It is also the only place where, in this life, we can touch Eternity. Furthermore, knowing that we do not, indeed cannot, have access to the inner meaning or big picture of God’s intentions in history means that even the smallest acts of charity we perform may well have a significance far beyond anything we can imagine – in preventing us from the belief that the way of things is ‘on our side’, humility before history also ensures that we recognise the worth of every contribution to it, no matter how small.

G. K. Chesterton: Some Prophetic (and Comforting) Words on Modernity

Today I would like to share a couple of passages from G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill. The book contains many memorable soliloquies, but the following bear particularly acute witness to the puzzling condition of modernity, and this witness is coupled with a prophetic tone which mitigates the essentially dispiriting diagnosis of our current state. Chesterton manages to simultaneously uncover with great precision the distressing banality and cultural confusion of our age and bring his observations to their resolution with a sense that recovery is not only possible, but in some sense inevitable:

What a farce is this modern liberality. Freedom of speech means practically in our modern civilisation that we must only talk about unimportant things. We must not talk about religion, for that is illiberal; we must not talk about bread and cheese, for that is talking shop; we must not talk about death, for that is depressing; we must not talk about birth, for that is indelicate. It cannot last. Something must break this strange indifference, this strange dreamy egoism, this strange loneliness of millions in a crowd. Something must break it. Why should it not be you and I?

taken from The Napoleon of Notting Hill (2001), p.87, House of Stratus.

                The second passage, this time from the end of the book, counters more specifically the weaknesses of progressivism – the school that believes we must rip it up and start again, reject tradition to bring about renewal and sally forth intoning the creed ‘change for the sake of change’. There are many arguments that can be levelled against such a position, but here Chesterton specifically critiques its existential aspect – the enervating effect that the progressivist worldview has on the soul of both culture and individual – and does so by invoking his perennially present (and perennially uplifting) philosophy of thanks for the simple things in life; the things which are also most noble, most human:

It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who has been in love thinks that anyone has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.

ibid, pp.177-178.

                Prophetic words, as are many that fell from Chesterton’s pen. However, not only is his analysis of our cultural condition as relevant to our age as it was in his own, but, as is also often the case with Chesterton, the analysis is accompanied by a profound and very real sense of hope – he sees things according to the long view, and recognising that the woes of our age are rooted in inconsistency, that our supposed march forward is based on the presupposition that we pick apart the road we are walking on, he knows that it cannot last. ‘Something must break’ as he has Adam Wayne say in Napoleon – a culture that finds its only point of consensus in denying the heritage which alone provides it with all it finds to be agreeable, that is built on contradiction papered over by triviality and empty rhetoric, really cannot last.

Moreover, people will eventually begin to tire of such a world, given that its contradictions fail to bring forth anything that truly nourishes or sustains, and that it continually tries to deny those simple gifts of creation that provide us lasting joy, preferring instead various simulacra that tick boxes but subvert any real sense of what made the original so blissful and life-giving. Indeed, there are signs to suggest that people are already tired of the world we have made for ourselves, even if they sometimes do not know why they feel so, or what the roots of the banality and hollowness that they intuit really are. It is thus not so much a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and also ‘who’. As to the time when change occurs, God alone knows, but as to the identity of those who help to return us to sanity, why indeed should it not be you and I?

G. K. Chesterton on Eugenics, Wages and Abortion

In Eugenics and Other Evils, a book written before the outbreak of the First World War as eugenics had started to gain in popularity, but only published in 1922 after the ‘ideals’ of that movement, shattered by the reality of war, began to resurface again, G. K. Chesterton makes the suggestion that the desire to prevent certain parts of the population from breeding, whilst in some cases seized upon in a spirit of genuine concern for the improvement of social conditions, is rooted more fundamentally in a desire to control the poor. That it is an approach to solving society’s problems even more fundamentally rooted in the half-truths and lies cloaked in silver which are the speciality of the devil is also duly noted, but it is the practical and mundane expressions of those satanic fallacies that Chesterton is more concerned with. What is striking though, is how often his observations can be applied to today’s debate about the propriety and morality of abortion.

In a chapter titled The Meanness of the Motive, Chesterton reflects upon a letter written to a national newspaper by a supporter of eugenics which had argued that the increase of poverty will never be stopped until the poor have been ‘educated’ in the ways that other more ‘enlightened’ parts of society have started to prevent the act of procreation. The writer of the letter had signed himself ‘Hopeful’ and Chesterton uses this invocatory autograph as a platform from which to attack some of the central assumptions of the eugenics movement:

The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.” You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.

Doubtless, if you said to him directly, “Are you in favour of low wages?” he would say, “No.” But I am not, in this chapter, talking about the effect on such modern minds of a cross-examination to which they do not subject themselves. I am talking about the way their minds work, the instinctive trick and turn of their thoughts, the things they assume before argument, and the way they faintly feel that the world is going. And, frankly, the turn of their mind is to tell the child he is not wanted, as the turn of my mind is to tell the profiteer that he is not wanted. Motherhood, they feel, and a full childhood, and the beauty of brothers and sisters, are good things in their way, but not so good as a bad wage. About the mutilation of womanhood, and the massacre of men unborn, he signs himself “Hopeful.” He is hopeful of female indignity, hopeful of human annihilation. But about improving the small bad wage he signs himself “Hopeless.”

Eugenics and Other Evils (2009), pp.138-139, Bibliolife.

                There is a great deal of argument about employer and employee, about the structure of society and the distribution of ownership of property that precedes this passage, and which it is not possible to go into here without becoming a dissertation on Catholic social teacing in general (a topic on which Chesterton has written much here and elsewhere). The main point that is made in this passage though, is that those who wished to exercise a policy of selection in marriages and births did so particularly among the poor, and they did so not (though same may have felt this to be their motivation) primarily to alleviate poverty, but to reduce the number of ‘useless’ citizens. Eugenics was and is a deeply anti-human philosophy, which applies the incomplete ethic of utilitarianism to an area where it is also completely improper – the human person.

Another key point that Chesterton makes here is that those who argued for eugenics as public policy had a strong sense of ‘the way they faintly feel that the world is going’ – i.e.; it is born of a progressivist outlook that the world will keep rolling onwards and upwards to our general benefit, increase in scientific and technological knowledge will solve all our problems, the past can offer us no answers, and any eggs broken along the way are justified in order to reach the more perfect society of the future. This way that the world is going, as Chesterton comments, because it is in principle against the idea of looking to the past for advice, cannot fathom the suggestion that we might change the conditions of the poor by changing the way we produce, the way we do business, and the way we live in general. It does not even enter the head of the progressivist that mistakes may have been made, or that they can be altered by going back to square one.

Because of this it was possible for the eugenicists of Chesterton’s time to see it as preferable to kill a child in the womb (nay, to kill several children in the womb, just as long as they were the ‘wrong’ kind of child – on who actually has the authority to decide who lives and dies, and on what basis, previous chapters give a thorough examination, but the summary answer is nobody) than to do something about the structures that enabled poor people to be exploited and to be trapped in their poverty in the first place. It is incredible to think though, reading Chesterton’s words today, how similar the arguments of the eugenicists are to the arguments of abortionists today, and how entrenched that sense of inevitable progress is in the latter as in the former; how little the outlook of our culture has changed since then, and how little we have learned.

Clearly today the actual reasons for aborting innocent children are in some ways even more reprehensible – the desire to go on holiday, the problems having a child would create for career prospects, the not feeling quite ready for that sort of thing are vastly more common reasons for having an abortion than the emotive and difficult cases invoked by abortion advocates (rape or incest for example). But another common justification for easy access to abortion is that people on low incomes cannot support x number of children, and so they should be helped out of this dilemma by not only making it easy to obtain an abortion, but by nigh on convincing them that it is incumbent upon them to do so. Again, as in Chesterton’s day, it is rarely suggested that instead of killing the children of the poor, we do something to change things long-term that might make having a family viable again, or decreasing the reliance of workers on exploitative companies, giving them the chance to be in control of their own destinies.

Another way in which the legacy of eugenics hangs over the abortion industry is that there are a disproportionate number of people from ethnic minorities that are encouraged to, and that do, have abortions. That this is by no means an accidental point of contact between eugenics and the abortion industry (and yes, chilling as it is to think, and despite what its supporters may say, it is an industry) can be seen by perusal of the intentions of Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of the birth control movement and a very keen eugenicist (see here and here). But also it is an unfortunate and uncomfortable fact of modern life that in our multicultural societies a high proportion of ethnic minorities in the West do come from poorer backgrounds, and it is the poor that abortionists really want to ‘manage’ the numbers of, in lieu of actually doing something about their situation.

Chesterton saw all this early on, before the eugenics movement itself had even had a chance to show its colours, and at a time when such thinking was becoming popular. However, he also lived in a time when it was still new and could be seen and contrasted against older ways of thinking that still carried some force in the public sphere. Nowadays the progressivist school of thought is so deeply entrenched in our culture that its assumptions are examined even less, and there are fewer corners of society that remember any alternative. Thus the greatest horror of the abortion advocacy movement is perhaps that so few even see it as horrible – it is considered a sensible solution to the problems of modern life. Determined not to look back, convinced that we are getting it right and will get it righter still if we keep doing what we are doing, we march onwards uncritically, our moral compasses becoming more marred as we go. The poor remain poor, whilst our leaders continue to offer the wrong answers to problems they have misunderstood, and children die in their mothers’ womb – it is by this last point that our age will be judged.

Roger Scruton on The Disadvantages of Conservatism

I have read, enjoyed and been edified by many of Roger Scruton’s articles and essays, and have found his A Dictionary of Political Thought a continually useful resource, but until now I have never gotten around to reading one of his books. Now though, I have finally obtained a copy of his celebrated and seminal treatise The Meaning of Conservatism, and am so far thoroughly enjoying it. In its opening pages, I came across a passage that seemed to me sum up a great deal of the frustration that one experiences being a conservative in modern Western society:

In considering the relation between power and authority, it has to be conceded that the conservative suffers from a singular disadvantage, and this disadvantage makes it necessary for him to be stronger, more cunning, even more Machiavellian, than his usual opponents. For, lacking any obvious aim in politics, he lacks any offering with which to stir up the enthusiasm of the crowd. He is concerned solely with the task of government, and his attitude defies translation into a shopping list of social goals. He looks with scepticism upon the myths of equality and social justice; he regards universal political agitation with distaste, and the clamour for “progress” seems to him no more than a passing fad, serious only in so far as it constitutes a threat to the political order. What then can persuade the people to acquiesce in his ascent to power? It is well to say, with Burke, that the promises of revolution must be empty (since they can be understood only be presupposing precisely the social arrangement that it is intended to destroy). But what other promises can the conservative provide?

The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), p.26, Penguin.

            The principle task of Scruton’s book was and is to describe the essence of conservatism – not to make a philosophical case for it, nor for any particular policy or set of policies, but to create a work of dogmatics, setting out plainly what the conservative outlook is. Contrary to what we see in modern party politics, where conservative parties are often only identifiable as such by their commitment to one particular view of free-market economics, and are in many ways just as wedded to the progressivism that was introduced into Western political life by the rapid growth in popularity of socialism in intellectual circles, conservatism is essentially about conserving things.

To stand for the conservation of certain things in a culture which can be said to lie at the heart of that culture and give shape to its identity – its institutions, laws, customs, traditions, moral values, etc – is to place oneself at a disadvantage because, as Scruton writes, this will mean ‘lacking any obvious aim in politics’. To be a conservative is to wish to see preserved what is good about life in a given culture, and this ordinarily does not require having any ideological goals – it is an act of maintenance. When the ideals of others seeking to uproot or destroy the permanent things in a culture are brought to the fore however, what was an act of maintenance becomes an act of defence, and the person doing the defending is at a disadvantage – novelty is exciting, and it is not attractive to be the one saying we should keep things as they are.

Furthermore, socialism (in its various forms) has been able, because people are drawn to the surface ideals it proposes of increasing equality and lifting people out of poverty, to emerge relatively unscathed from the manifold disasters that have resulted following its full implementation. Despite millions of deaths and profound degradation of culture when and where socialism has been put into practice, it has managed to be absolved of these sins, largely on the basis that progressivism and equality are buzzwords that people routinely find appealing. Yet in any cases where conservative governments have had deleterious effects, it has had the result of confirming people in the belief that all authority and any commitment to tradition are therefore always bad:

The great intellectual advantage of socialism is obvious. Through its ability to align itself with ideals that every man can recognise, socialism has been able to perpetuate the belief in its moral purity, despite crime upon crime committed in its name. That a socialist revolution may cost millions of lives, that it may involve the wilful murder of an entire class, the destruction of a culture, the elimination of learning and the desecration of art, will leave not the slightest stigma on the doctrines with which it glorifies its action. And yet those lonely restorationists who have committed crimes in the cause of continuity, have – because they fought not for an ideal but for what they took to be a reality – often simply blemished the idea of authority which they hoped to serve.


            The conservative is essentially for something – a way of life, a culture, a set of principles – and wishes to conserve it or them, whereas the progressive is always against things, particularly the established order. There is often talk from progressives of creating a bold new utopian future, but there is very little agreement as to what this utopia will look like, and it often seems to be characterised only by the elements of the status quo which will be rejected or removed from the common life. This fundamentally negative attitude – to protest against rather than to affirm – is also highly attractive to the modern mind, which sees rebellion and upheaval as intrinsically good things, simply because they are involved in progressing, and progress is itself taken as a good. Thus the conservative is again at a disadvantage in terms of his ability to garner popular support.

Ironically though, it is often only in circumstances when the existing order is being threatened that the conservative outlook is thereby able to be clarified and given more concrete expression. As conservatism is about maintaining what is good in a culture, it is therefore also in great part about being in favour of things which we simply assume as good; it is an affirmation of the complex mixture of things that human beings have always taken for granted as constituting the background to a well-ordered and happy life, and never taken the time to ask why. As noted before, conservatism is not really an ideology at all, but more accurately a cast of mind, which recognises the things that make for stable communal life, and the necessity of certain values and institutions in making that stability possible.

When presented with a threat to that way of life though, the principles held to be of value by conservatives have to be brought into focus, refined, and articulated with clarity, much as heresy causes the Church to refine and clarify her doctrine. Perhaps then it is the particular task given to conservatives to be at the disadvantage they always are in situations of revolt or upheaval because, as the ones zealous for the guarding of what is good, true and beautiful in life, they must also be the ones who have to bear the brunt of the attack against those very same things. To be a conservative is a disadvantage at times, but that very predicament, when it occurs, also reminds us of what an honour it is to be the ones standing firm for what has enriched our culture, and in defence of what seeks to destroy it.

Also, as Scruton noted in an interview with Orthodoxy Today, many of the things that conservatives are in favour of are of a non-negotiable character, and support of them will involve taking the criticism that we are simply stating obligation as opposed to arguing for our position (with the implication that what is absolute and has enjoyed long-standing acceptance is unreasonable, whereas what is novel is the result of unfettered reason beholden to nothing but the ideal):

…the most important obligations governing our lives as social and political beings — including those to family, country and state — are non-contractual and precede the capacity for rational choice. By referring to them as “transcendent” I meant to emphasize that they transcend any capacity to rationalise them in contractual or negotiable terms. They have an absolute and immovable character that we must acknowledge if we are to understand our social and political condition. The refusal of people on the left to make this acknowledgement stems from their inability to accept external authority in any form, and from their deep down belief that all power is usurpation, unless wielded by themselves.

When standing up for things that, by their very nature, are of a non-negotiable character and often rest on acceptance rather than protest or argument then, we will often be accused of being ‘backward’. Similarly, when defending positions long held by a culture, but which do not fit the new and exciting moral innovations proposed, we will be called ‘bigoted’. Both these tactics, particularly the use of the term ‘bigot’, are designed to silence the conservative opponent by labelling them as someone whose opinion does not even need to be listened to – by describing someone as a bigot, the progressive makes it plain that they need not engage with their opponent’s opinions, as they are morally reprehensible. Thus the conservative is also up against an extreme self-righteousness which cannot countenance any opinion at variance with its own, and will use smear tactics to avoid actual engagement with the other.

Conservatives then are at a number of disadvantages, but the one thing we have on our side is what I have alluded to a number of times already – we stand for something, and the things we stand for are precisely what many people instinctively know, even if they cannot articulate them, make for the health and happiness of their culture. The ideas of the Left may well have a perennial ability to excite and instil a spirit of rebellion, and an amazing knack for avoiding any long-standing bad press despite countless failed and bloody campaigns waged in their favour. However, that progressive ideology is always essentially something negative, that at its core it is about tearing things down, is its biggest weakness, and the reason why its implementation has always involved a top-down imposition of its doctrines onto the populace.

Contrariwise, people know deep down what has made their culture what it is and thus what is worth conserving, and so whilst the spirit of rebellion will always re-emerge, gaining supporters because of the inherent appeal of novelty, the conservative outlook will, despite its disadvantages, always win the hearts and minds of the people. We were made to create, not to destroy, and we know what is good when we see it – what has worked to enrich and assist a culture is worth holding on to, and this is not only the essence of the conservative spirit, but the heart of humanity. It is a great honour to suffer calumny or to be ostracised when it is for the things that make us what we are, the things that make for fulfilment at work and happiness at home.

C. S. Lewis: On the Reading of Old Books, and Tradition

C. S. Lewis, who often mentioned in his correspondences the immense gratitude that he owed to Saint Athanasius’ treatise De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, wrote an introduction to an English translation of that same work by his friend Sister Penelope, which has been re-circulated as an essay in its own right, entitled On the Reading of Old Books. In this introduction, Lewis advocates the great benefits that can be had in reading literary works from ages other than our own.

One benefit is that we are thereby cured of  any ‘chronological snobbery’ – the presupposition that  previous ages cannot teach us anything, and so any ideas that are not contemporary or ‘progressive’ are therefore instantly to be discounted. The reading of old books provides a corrective against the assumptions of our own age, by showing us that what was once seen as progressive has now fallen by the wayside:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it…

…None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (1982), pp.4-5, Mowbray.

            The second benefit to be gained from reading old books is to cure us of, what Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, called ‘The Doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart’. This is the idea that:

…the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate…

…Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lance; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt like if he had never entertained them.

Preface to Paradise Lost (1971), pp.62-64, Oxford University Press.

            I.e.; to project one’s own beliefs, affections and presumptions onto the characters of the literature of old is either to prevent yourself from learning something about why they believed and felt what they did, or to reduce the character you are reading about to a ‘miserable abstraction’, or possibly both. Conversely, entering into their experiences can help us to see our own beliefs and ideologies in a new light, allowing them to be critiqued and readdressed – in this light, we are then in a better position to see both the faults and strengths of our own positions.

Neither of these effects is immediate – we must cultivate an openness to older literature that allows us to be educated by it, and some of us are so committed to certain modern ways of thinking that we will be bound to read our own presuppositions into the  texts we are reading. However, Lewis’ point seems to be that, if exposed regularly to literature from earlier periods, these presuppositions will gradually be worn down, and eventually be undermined. One can only keep reading one’s own views into archaic situations before this practice becomes untenable and slightly absurd.

I think the same can be said for the Christian life. Nowadays it is common to disregard or at least tactically select from Tradition, and when it comes to Scripture, reading what we want the text to say is a frequent practice. In doing so, we are also tying ourselves to the spirit of our age. The progressivist voices of today would claim that this frees us from the shackles of the past, but Lewis’ insight here is that quite the opposite is the case – a refusal to listen to any voice other than what is current commits one to simply going with the flow, wherever it may lead. True freedom of thought comes from the perspective gained by listening to the voices of all ages and all persuasions, in which we are able to see the errors of contemporary assumptions.

Similarly, by actually listening to the voices that speak to us through Scripture and Tradition, and allowing ourselves to be challenged by them, we can be freed from the assumptions that plague our religious thinking and bind us to contemporary ideologies, many of which are often temporary and without substance. By rooting ourselves in the wisdom of the past we can thus give ourselves a more objective perspective – one  that can separate truth from error and recognise what is truly ‘progressive’ as opposed to what is merely modern. As to what it is that we are progressing to – well, for Christians that is God, in all His fullness. For the multiplicity of voices in the modern, secular Western world, well, I have to admit that I don’t really know, and I don’t think many of them do either. Maybe reading some old books could help them to find out.