The lecture - which was too long by half - in a nutshell argues that a distinctive feature of Modernity is that it split apart our sense and experience of temporal continuity, fracturing the human experience of time into distinct and separate dimensions. I argued that there are three distinct contemporary political (and economic) positions that each reflects one of these dimensions of time. Liberalism (and the market economy it advances) emphasizes the present tense; Progressivism (and its belief in the future transformation of humanity) emphasizes the future tense; and Nostalgism overstates the perfection of the past tense. I argue instead on behalf of the need to repair the historical sense to include the past and future more fully into the present.
Interestingly, while one might have thought that a group of conservative students would be most exercised about my indictment of "nostalgism" - which might implicate conservatism's tendency to look to the past for wisdom and correctives - it was my indictmnent of liberalism - and especially the "free market" - that seemed most to bother a number of the students who posed questions and approached me afterwards. La plus ça change...
Anyway, here's the text of my speech - it's long, (about 20 pgs.), so buckle up.
Progress and Memory:
Making Whole Our Historical Sense
Patrick J. Deneen
I.S.I. Honors Program – July, 2009
I. Introduction: Temporal Unity and Disunity: The Problem of Modernity
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past…
--T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets
I want to speak tonight about the human experience of time, and in particular what I will refer to as the full horizon of temporality. This phenomenon – time experienced simultaneously and continuously in its full dimension - is perhaps the decisively unique feature about human beings, the thing that makes us a distinctive creature among the creatures. More than our opposable thumb, our corresponding ability to use tools, or our capacity for language, our upright posture or our intellectual formidableness, it is our distinct capacity to experience and act consciously within the whole of the temporal spectrum – past, present, and future – that makes us a distinct creature among creatures. It is our capacity consciously and freely to carry with us the past and to anticipate and even to an extent shape different possible futures that in some sense “activates” all of our other capacities – speech, tool-making, and so on.
While I do not know what goes on in the consciousness of other creatures, based upon their external behavior it seems evident that most creatures function primarily in the present tense. Yes, it’s true that creatures seem to remember certain things – my dog knows by smell when we’re close to the house of a Dalmatian he finds particularly loathsome – and that they anticipate, as seems to be the case each Spring when birds work assiduously to build their nests. Yet, these behaviors would seem to be functions of instinct rather than reflection –automatic responses that are not the function of reflection about a knowledge of the past and reasonably formed expectations about the future that allow certain plans and anticipations that are likely to result in certain future arrangements or many possible futures depending upon our free choices in the present. Even as my dog “remembers” the scent of the dalamation’s yard or the bird “anticipates” the future by building a nest, what’s noteworthy about these seeming expressions of memory and anticipation is that the actions taken by these creatures could not be different. They act automatically, without reflection or choice – they are most fundamentally creatures of the present moment.
What is singularly unique about human beings is our capacity for free choice informed by our knowledge of the past and in anticipation of the likely impact of our choices upon the future. If other creatures live predominantly in the present, humans are unique in their capacity to bring both the past and the future into the present. Humans live in the present – as creatures we live always in a fleeting moment of time between past and future – but through faculties of memory and the ability to plan for the future, we accumulate the past within the present and draw the future into our own moment, stepping purposefully and consciously into future time with a large inheritance from the past.
Our experience of the presence of the past and the future is expressed and felt most fully in our knowledge of continuity of generations – the memory of those who have preceded us, and our anticipation of those who will follow us. Recalling those who have preceded and awaiting those who will follow, we forge civilization itself, the accumulation of memory and the intention of continuity into the future. Unique human capacities orient us to the past and future within our present, including especially gratitude to what we have inherited and a corresponding sense of obligation for the safe passage of our inheritance into the future. Unlike the beasts – as civilized creatures – we bring the past and the future into our present when we memorialize and call to mind those who are no longer with us – especially in song, story and prayer – and when we preserve a good dwelling place for those who follow – from the painting of the nursery walls to the conveyance of stories, song and prayer to our children and to theirs. If conservatism is anything, it is the effort to maintain the close linking and continuity of time, of the past and the future always embedded in the present.
If humanity is most fully human when fully experiencing all three temporal dimensions, then I would like to suggest tonight that the distinctive feature of modernity has been the fracturing of the temporal horizon. While modernity can be defined and understood in many ways – as a scientific revolution, a theological transformation, an economic watershed, an epistemological sea-change – I’d like to argue that what underlies many of these various features of modernity (in its various iterations) is a fracturing and segregation of the human experience of time. In particular, I would like to argue that modernity is tripartite – a contestation of three worldviews – each of which stakes its claim to human allegiance based upon an emphasis on one temporal dimension, whether the present, the future, or the past. Three competing worldviews have coalesced around one of these temporal moments: liberalism tends toward experiencing life and the world in the present; progressivism (of various sorts, including Communism) sees the culmination of humanity’s and the world’s possibilities in the future; and nostalgism dons rose-tinted glasses in its high regard for a perfected past. These three iterations of modernity – tending toward one temporal dimension – are, admittedly, ideal types, but reveal not only the defining aspect of the several faces of modernity, but the deepest pathology of modernity in its radical obscuring of the fullness of time. – and, may help us see not only what conservatism is NOT, but what it IS.
II. Liberalism: Living in the Present
Modernity was inaugurated by the recommendation that we shatter the human possibility of living within the full spectrum of time. It begins with a radical rejection of the past as a source of wisdom and counsel, of caution and limits, and also a corresponding neglect of the future as a time unknowable if little can be carried from the past. It is inaugurated by the commendation to live in the present tense, with particular force by the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, in the philosophy we know to be called liberalism.
Liberalism begins with a radical critique of the ancestral. The philosophy of Hobbes and Locke – along with others such as Descartes and Kant – begins by indicting the legitimacy of the inherited, which is to say, the unchosen. That which is bequeathed us from the past is understood to be a form of generational oppression, arbitrary rule of those who happened to be born before we were. Liberalism inaugurates a project in legitimacy can only be conferred upon a human institution when that institution has been chosen. It rejects the ruling claims of tradition as arbitrary impositions, instead holding that every generation should in some sense understand itself to create the world anew through its own choices – indeed, displacing the ancestral for the governance of the current and up-to-date. It was the French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel who, assessing the basic psychology of liberal philosophy, argued that liberal theory derived from “childless men who must have forgotten their childhood.”
The anthropology of early liberal theory conceives of the human creature as a creature of appetite and fear, of will and cowardice, of desire and avoidance. The human creature is above all driven by pleasure and pain, seeking out opportunities for corporeal enjoyment and avoiding confrontations that may result in bodily suffering. We are creatures whose existence is largely defined in material terms, whose aim of life is the achievement of bodily comfort and the minimization of corporeal unpleasantness. Thus, Hobbes would argue that the aim of human society – once it comes into existence – is the achievement of “commodious living,” while Locke argued that a main aim of human life is “indolency of the body.” The main wellspring of human activity is self-interest, and self-interest above all is connected to accumulating pleasures and avoiding pains of the body.
Of course, liberalism would not be as powerfully influential a philosophy if it were not at least half-true, and the truth of liberalism’s half-truth that most fundamentally persuades is the fact that we are indeed bodies – separate and isolated from one another, feeling only our own pains and pleasures, ultimately entering and leaving the world alone and experiencing the world solely through our own consciousness. Liberalism reduces the human experience to the experience of bodies – our own bodies – and thus disconnects us not only psychically from other bodies in motion, but from a lineage of other creatures that preceded and follow us. The scientific theory in the backdrop is Galiean and eventually Newtonian physics, the interpretation of the universe as one of bodies in motion, moved by utterly predictable and irresistible forces – gravity for planets, self-interest for humans. Human society is to be shaped and formed in the wake of an understanding of our own individuated experience as desiring and fearful bodies. We are reduced increasingly to a single point – not only corporeal dots on a map, but temporally as monadic moments of the present, sensitive to pleasure and pain, attracted to comfort in the now-time.
The anthropology of liberalism divorces us from time past and time future. Humans are de-cultured and a-historical creatures: in the State of Nature there is only Now-time, absent culture or memory, history or planning. We are by nature non-cultural creatures. Even as we enter society – giving some thought to the future by means of a social contract – we maintain the kernel of our individual and separate corporeality. If we owe obligations to our fellow man (and, truth be told, we’re so prone to break the contract given our preferences for the pleasures of NOW, we agree to set up a powerful overseer who will assure swift punishment to those who transgress the terms of the contract), it is by dint of the contract we explicitly or implicitly signed in the interests of increasing our pleasure and decreasing our pain. Our lives are complicated by interactions with other humans, but all relations and institutions are subject to the logic of voluntarism – the free choice of individuals. We can make and re-make society and all human relations on the basis of human choice. The claims of the ancestral – of the past – are to exert no preferential claim upon us. John Locke even tells us that the logic of choice must inform the relations of families: children reaching the age of maturity owe no particular obligation or gratitude to their parents, and husband and wife who have raised their children are free to dissolve their marital contract and move on (h/e, divorce and health). We are to live in the now-time, unburdened by the weight of generations past and future, free to be you and me, a choice-machine whose primary objective is maximization of pleasure and elimination of pain.
Its economics is market capitalism, an economic system designed to undergird our pursuit of corporeal pleasure and reduction bodily pain. It is an economics populated by human choosers – utility maximizers – who exist in a world governed by the Present Tense. Having no past and knowing that in the long run we are all dead, it is an economics that regards the world as available for current use – and, indeed, understands that anything unused and unenjoyed today will be used for the personal enjoyment of someone else tomorrow. Better to use it today for the pleasure of my own body than to leave it to the pleasure of some body that is not mine. Because past and future do not exist, forms of gratitude and obligation are irrelevant to my calculation. The older obligation of stewardship – which is to say, thoughtfulness about the impact of my actions upon the future based upon my knowledge of the past – is replaced by the faith in the Market, and in particular, faith in the inventive ability of the future to deal with the costs and consequences of my self-interest today. A mechanism justifying thoughtless consumption replaces the obligation and duty of thoughtfulness.
Its politics is liberal democracy – a politics designed to promote maximum individual freedom, protection of rights, minimal public or private obligation, ever-increasing mobility and opportunity. Among its great innovations is the invention of modern representation, a vehicle that relieves citizens of the obligation of having to think about much beyond themselves and their interests. The intention of the designers of liberal democracy was that representatives – reflecting an older ethic of obligation to past and future – would be safeguards and stewards of the common good. However, absent the fostering of any such attention among those who would be electing those representatives, the unsurprising reality has been that the overwhelming demand for satiation of pleasures and avoidance of pain in the present tense advantage representatives who promise to act on behalf of satiation NOW. The language of sacrifice in the name of gratitude to the past or obligation to the future disappears from our public vocabulary, and the language of the present comes to dominate – particularly the invocation of Rights and Entitlements, invoked by electorates who threaten punishment to those who would deny our enjoyment of the Now.
Liberalism is evidently humane because it provides exceedingly well to people who are now alive. But it caused a violent reaction by those who think it too ignoble, too materialistic, too self-interested and too exploitative. The triumph of Liberalism – and its impetus to live in the Present Tense – gave rise to Progressivism, and its aspiration for a better future.
III. Progressivism: Living in the Future
Progressivism regarded in dim light the achievements of liberalism. Discontent with its emphasis on animal satisfaction, it sought to place the human condition on a higher plane – in contrast to that of self-interest, instead one of disinterest or even universal love; instead of material satiation, the transcendence of the merely corporeal; instead of the stress upon individual rights, the achievement of universal Right. Yet, progressivism acknowledged that it sought a condition yet-unseen in the history and existence of humankind. It sought, then, a realization and culmination of some future condition, a fundamental change and transformation of the human creature at least in part accurately understood by liberalism into something wholly new and yet unknown.
Progressivism’s anthropology is premised upon change. If liberalism regards human nature as unchanging – always and everywhere predictably motivated by self-interest, as much a feature of the natural law of humans as the natural laws of gravity move the heavenly spheres – then progressivism by contrast regards the only permanent feature of the human creature to be change, and that the direction of change is necessarily toward improvement and progress. If liberalism is informed by the science of Newtonian physics, then progressivism takes its cue from the science of Darwinian biology.
According to progressivism, the human creature is constantly evolving, transforming, progressing, coming ever closer to perfection. The path of humanity is that of an upward trajectory, ever-better, ever-improved. Progressivism arose as a response to a discontent with liberalism and its unchanging view of human nature. Thinkers like Condorcet and Comte, and later John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and in America John Dewey argued that humanity was demonstrably better now than in the past, and based upon a trajectory that could be projected forward indefinitely, would be better still in the future, and perhaps – not unrealistically – potentially perfect at a point in a foreseeable future time.
Progressivism thus not only – like Liberalism – discounted the past, it also discounted the Present. Progressivism understood that the present was always in the process of becoming the Past, and thus, inherently inferior to the future. It lived philosophically, politically and economically in a future time, although even in its present it projected what that future would look like and sought – even in the present – to accelerate the process of progressive improvement. Progressivism’s self-awareness of the future as a better time justified its manipulation of the Present in order to accelerate the arrival of the Future. Whether the call for Revolution by the Proletariat by Marx, the justification of imperialism of backward races or rule by intellectual elites by Mill, or Dewey’s argument that nature should be subject to human interrogation and torture in an effort to “extract” its secrets for human employment and use, Progressivism was more Machiavellian than Machiavelli, arguing that any means justified a discernibly perfected end.
If human self-interest was an obstacle to the apotheosis of a better future, then self-interest must be overcome. For Marx, self-interest was the obstacle to the attainment of our truer perception of our “species-being”, as for Mill and Dewey the assumptions of self-interest that underpinned liberal democracy were an obstacle to the culmination of a “religion of humanity.” If liberalism put all human institutions on the footing of choice – even the family – progressivism regarded all such institutions as fundamentally illegitimate, partial expressions of our true social and even “cosmic” consciousness. Thus progressivism set in its sights all partial and intermediary institutions, whether marriage, family, church, fraternal association, neighborhood, partial political units such as the States, even and ultimately the Nation itself. In the end all such partial allegiances were to be dissolved in favor of the universal embrace of humanity itself, and thus – in the name of the Future – efforts to accelerate the dissolution of those partial associations were justified in the Present. The Present was to make itself obsolete in the name of bringing more about more quickly the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Progressivism almost universally holds a set of economic commitments that reflect confidence in a future condition in which human self-interest has been overcome, and thereby justifies elimination of any remnants of such economic self-interest in the Present. Private property is the most visible and evident sign of partiality and self-interest, and ultimately must be eliminated in the name of common ownership and the overcoming of the self and its partial commitments. However, because of strong residual expressions of antiquarian self-interest, there is the acknowledgment among Progressives that an intermediary period of severe and even despotic government is needed that will precede a future apotheosis when all government will cease to exist. Because human self-interest itself will be eliminated, there will be no more need for government because politics itself will cease to exist. Evidence for that future condition of self-overcoming exists sufficiently among the more Progressed classes to justify rule by the Vanguard of the society. Thus, a thinker like John Stuart Mill wrote,
“that whenever it ceases to be true that mankind, as a rule, prefer themselves to others, and those nearest to them to those more remote, from that moment Communism is not only practicable, but the only defensible form of society; and will, when that time arrives, be assuredly carried into effect. For my own part, not believing in universal selfishness, I have no difficulty in admitting that Communism would even now be practicable among the elite of mankind, and may become so among the rest.”
Progressives know enough of the trajectory of history– are already at least theoretically or prospectively already living in the future – that they can differentiate between the more and the less progressed. Progressivism – while officially committed to a thoroughly egalitarian future – justifies illiberal and inegalitarian political arrangements in the present in the name of a better future. Egalitarianism is posited as a desirable future condition, an aspiration that justifies the beneficent and paternalistic rule of sufficiently progressed elites in the Present. Thus, in a somewhat progressed and civilized nation like England, J.S. Mill argues that the educated elite should receive more votes than the unwashed masses, and especially that the mark of sufficient progress will be those persons who bear advanced degrees and signs of higher education. However, for those more backward nations that still exist in a state of “barbarism,” more severe forms of elite rule are justified.
As Mill wrote in his work Representative Government,
a people in a state of savage independence … is practically incapable of making any progress in civilisation until it has learnt to obey. The indispensable virtue, therefore, in a government which establishes itself over a people of this sort is, that it make itself obeyed. To enable it to do this, the constitution of the government must be nearly, or quite, despotic. A constitution in any degree popular, dependent on the voluntary surrender by the different members of the community of their individual freedom of action, would fail to enforce the first lesson which the pupils, in this stage of their progress, require. Accordingly, the civilisation of such tribes, when not the result of juxtaposition with others already civilised, is almost always the work of an absolute ruler, deriving his power either from religion or military prowess; very often from foreign arms.
Such uncivilised races, and the bravest and most energetic still more than the rest, are averse to continuous labour of an unexciting kind. Yet all real civilisation is at this price; without such labour, neither can the mind be disciplined into the habits required by civilised society, nor the material world prepared to receive it. There needs a rare concurrence of circumstances, and for that reason often a vast length of time, to reconcile such a people to industry, unless they are for a while compelled to it. Hence even personal slavery, by giving a commencement to industrial life, and enforcing it as the exclusive occupation of the most numerous portion of the community, may accelerate the transition to a better freedom than that of fighting and rapine.
Of course, Progressives encounter claims among those who must be forced to be progressed that they are relatively content in their way of life – for example, enjoy the condition in which marriage, family, church and community are centers of human existence - but such contentment – to those who have knowledge of the future condition of mankind – is known to the Progressive to be a form of false consciousness, a form of self-deception that is the result of insufficient knowledge of the future. The claim that there are those who know better than some what is good for them is the result of the knowledge of an anticipated life in the Future and efforts on the part of those in the Present for its acceleration. Among the solutions offered out of paternalistic care by Progressives during the hey-day of Progressivism were eugenic policies that sought to improve and and accelerate the process of species advancement, including forced sterilization of the mentally feeble and inferior and barbaric races, as well as manipulation of reproduction to produce ever more perfected children.
This certainty about the contours of the future, and the accompanying certainty that its culmination will necessarily result from and justify certain drastic efforts in the present, is best characterized as the disposition of optimism. Optimism in this more modern sense is a disposition not only of certainty about the shape of the future, but bold confidence that one’s actions in the Present will bring about the culmination of history’s trajectory. It is a confident and assertive view toward the future that tends to dismiss the reality of “unintended consequences” as irrelevant or fundamentally unreal. It overlooks present suffering in the name of future, and is supremely self-assured that a stance of superior progressivity justifies the rule and even despotism by elites in achieving the universal condition of a perfected Future. Optimism is a near-impervious disposition that dismisses not only the reality of contingency and uncertainty, but most fundamentally the imperfection and imperfectability of humankind. Thus, all apparent setbacks are actually advances and evidence to the contrary justify redoubling efforts by the more Progressed classes to seek advancement. Thus, a philosophy that is severely critical of the past age of religious faith is subject to a faith in the future so unshakeable that it denies the relevance of any evidence that would contradict that faith, much less recommend circumspection, caution and even humility.
IV. Nostalgism: Living in the Past
There is a third form of temporal fragmentation that constitutes one of the features of the landscape of modernity, and is not only a reaction against progressivism, but is in nearly all respects the flip-side or the photo-negative of progressivism. Often confused as conservatism, it is in fact something quite distinct – a radicalization of the conservative impulse, one that evinces not the modest and cautious disposition of conservatism, but the radicalism of the reverse revolutionist. It is a belief that the human creature ought to live in the past tense, and is best captured by the label “nostalgism.” Nostalgia is a word of relatively recent coinage, dating back to the 19th-century and combining two Greek words, “nostos,” which means “homecoming,” and algos, which means roughly “a longing for that which is absent.” These words are ancient, but nostalgia itself is a modern phenomenon, a response to the modern shattering of our full temporal horizon.
Progressivism holds that humankind is an ever-improving creature and optimistically posits that the future is the temporal dimension in which the fullness and excellence of human life will be achieved. By contrast, nostalgism holds that humankind is in a continual process of decline and regress, that various corruptions have caused a falling away from a previously better condition, and that the fullness and excellence of human life existed at some definite point in the Past. Nostalgists are prone to the opposite disposition of the optimism of Progressives, namely pessimism, the view that things are getting worse and it’s unlikely that the downward spiral of disimprovement or decline cannot be reversed (at best it might be slowed). However, positing the existence of a time when the human creature lived in near-perfect happiness and contentment – like that future time that is imagined by Progressives – nostalgists at their most radical assume a hostile and even revolutionary stance toward the Present and the Future in which extreme actions are justified in getting us back. And, that point in the past – the very mirror image of that point in the future for the Progressive – is a moment of lost perfection, of complete un-alienation and pre-political (as opposed to post-political) equality and liberty.
Like Progressives, Nostalgists despise the imperfection of the Present and posit instead a perfect moment in another time – this time, the Past, not the Future. However, Progressives have the advantage of imagining a perfect future that cannot be disproven in advance, while nostalgists seek to draw from a past that is in many respects known to us, and thus subject to disillusion. Nostalgism thus is as much a condition in which we seek to forget or obscure, ignore or minimize whatever parts of the past may contradict an idealized version of the past. The nostalgist is, curiously, as likely to be as hostile to the lessons of history as the Progressive, given that history is at least always as much the recollection of human failure and misery and tragedy as it is of human happiness and satisfaction. Nostalgism involves a kind of willful forgetting, as Progressivism involves a kind of willful imagining.
The first great nostalgist was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially Rousseau of the First and Second Discourses. In the First Discourse Rousseau developed his critique of Progressivism, in which he resisted the spirit of the age by answering in the negative the following question in an essay contest: “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?” Rousseau argued that nearly every “advance” of the age of Enlightenment in the sciences and the arts had led to a decline of morals, and posited that this decline could be attributed not merely to his contemporaries in the Enlightenment movement, but dates as far back as rise of the arts, sciences, philosophy and other achievements of the Athenians. Unfashionably, Rousseau defended the superiority of the Spartans, those people who were otherwise uninfected by the corruption of hyper-self-reflection, the preciousness of the arts, the purported superiority of the educated elite, the condescension of the proto-Progressive mindset. Exhibiting the more solid virtues of commonweal and military solidarity, the Spartans were largely undifferentiated, identifying exclusively with the clan and city, and denying any reality to human individuality or uniqueness. Rousseau – as is wont with nostalgists – in the Second Discourse revised his estimate of when the ideal moment of human existence had occurred in the past, placing it in a literally pre-historical time when humans were really no different than animals (thus, living entirely in the PRESENT, a condition that had occurred in the PAST), before civilization, society, culture, even language and differentiation of selfhood. Being unbothered by the ravages of self-consciousness, anxiety, envy, and fear of death, it was a time in which humans were satisfied with mere instinct fulfillment and thus content and in a sense happy. While Rousseau denied that there was any going back to this original condition of basic satisfaction, his life-long project was the effort to “re-create” basic features of this condition, to bring us back (now by means of elaborate design, whether politically through the Social Contract or individually through an education like that of Emile) to a condition of contentment through the overcoming of human alienation and the attendant miseries of civilization.
If the scientific theory undergirding Liberalism was Newtonian physics, and that underpinning Progressivism is Darwinism, then the scientific theory that underpins Nostalgism is that theory developed by Lord Kelvin, namely the Entropic inevitability of the universe’s dissipation that is destined according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Every seeming advance of progress, by this understanding, is in fact a kind of “regress,” or an acceleration of dissipation, decay and corruption. A thinker such as Henry Adams – whose late writings were almost exclusively devoted to applying the insight of Kelvin’s Second Law to history – saw in the “progress” of America following the Civil War – and the attendant embrace of Darwinism in celebration of humankind’s inevitable march of progress – as signs of decline and reason for pessimism about the future. Turning first to a better past represented by better ancestors, and then turning to the Medieval cathedrals of France and the primitivist worship of Mary as the last best moment of wholeness and genuine human feeling, he idealized the past over Present and Future, turning his back on each as irredeemably degraded.
Like Rousseau and Adams, Martin Heidegger also exhibited the nostalgist impulse in his late writings devoted to the critique of technology as a curse that undermined true human experience of the world, and in other writing that saw the poetic peasant life of Southern Germany as the authentic alternative to modern alienation. “The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” Heidegger wrote in his famous essay “The Question of Technology.” Rather, “the actual threat has already threatened man in his essence, … [threatening him] with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth” (309). Technology is not most fundamentally to be judged based upon its constructive or destructive potential to cause harm to the Present or to the Future, but in obscuring from us an original “revealing” and “more primal truth” that existed in the PAST.
The nostalgist’s ideal past moment tends to recede ever further into the past, ultimately (like Rousseau) finding a resting place in a pre-history that precedes the emergence of human consciousness. Politically, nostalgism is pre-political and economically it tends to be pre-economic, or at least portrays a past before the conventions of money and superfluous professions. It is seen at times today in the anti-human stance of radicals in the Environmental movement, those who would wish away the existence of humanity (reflected in the popularity of books like Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, and shows like National Geographics When Humans Disappear. One sees it in the Prius car commercial in which the car – built out of sticks, twine and grass – is shown in time-acceleration to decompose and leave no mark upon the pristine ground on which it was constructed. Politically and economically, today a certain kind of nostalgism is seen in a powerful combination of anti-humanism and environmentalism that accepts as fully the modern and liberal notion that human society is antithetical to – opposite of – nature, but instead of siding with the human undertaking to conquer nature, envisions the elimination of humankind in favor of a humanless nature.
V. Restoring Temporal Continuity
What is needed in our time, of course, is a restoration of the lived human reality of temporal fullness – the felt-presence of past and future in the present. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,
Here between the hither and farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
The conditions of modernity have made our relationship with the past and future deeply troubled, made us apt to live either principally in the present, or to view the future with optimism or the past with nostalgia. These temporal dispositions – optimism and nostalgia – are features of a modern inheritance that feed off each other while obscuring a better relationship of the full temporal horizon.
There are, however, more conservative dispositions toward the past and the future that, rather than seeking to effect a temporal disruption – by privileging either the past or the future, or insisting upon the fierce urgency of NOW – rather draw closely together the past, present and future in a concurrent continuum. Those dispositions – in contrast to nostalgia and optimism – are instead MEMORY and HOPE.
It was the intellectual historian Christopher Lasch who clarified better than anyone these respective dispositions toward the past and future, memory and hope. In his magisterial book entitled The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, which is a study of the anti-progressive tradition in American political thought (and includes a more admiring chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, among many others) – Lasch began by showing that optimism and nostalgia were flip-sides of the same coin – “Just as the idea of progress has the curious effect of weakening the inclination to make intelligent provision for the future, nostalgia – its ideological twin – undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past.” More importantly still, Lasch showed how their better alternatives – memory and hope – forged a continuity between past, present and future, rather than their rupture.
In contrast to nostalgia – which involves a willful form of forgetting – memory is an honest recollection of the past, a full reckoning of that great resource of accumulated time that constitutes the great storehouse of human history. Yet, unlike so much of contemporary history-study – which consists in a debunking – memory recalls good and bad alike, recognizing that the one cannot be dissociated from the other and therefore always recalling to mind that the human condition in this saeculum is always imperfectible. Here is Lasch:
Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irretrievably lost and for that reason timeless and unchanging. Strictly speaking, nostalgia does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside of time, frozen in unchanging perfection. Memory too may idealize the past, but not in order to condemn the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present and future as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us (82-83).
Noteworthy in this passage about memory is the invocation of hope: that a properly oriented memory supplies us, in addition to a proper attitude of indebtedness and gratitude, the resources to appropriately face the future. And, that appropriate disposition to the future – hope, in contrast to optimism – in turn supplies us with a confidence that the past can serve as a proper and meet guide. Again, Lasch:
Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. It rests on confidence not so much in the future as in the past. It derives from the earliest memories … in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it. Such experience leaves as its residue the unshakeable conviction, not that the past was better than the present, but that trust is never completely misplaced, even though it is never completely justified either and therefore destined inevitably to disappointments. (80-81)
Such continuity of past, present and future is not the result of individual concentration or sheer will-power, but the lived reality of a properly constituted culture. Indeed, it could legitimately be argued that this is the paramount task of culture and reason for its existence – to draw close together the disparate temporal dimensions that may otherwise be prone to become separated, unrelated and strangers to one another. The inauguration of political modernity through liberalism begins with an assault on culture – an aggressive critique of the legitimacy of “the ancestral” and a conception of human beings not constituted in and through culture, but as creatures that are naturally understood to be a-cultural and for whom culture is always foremost a choice and as subject to abandonment as initiation. The subsequent “waves” of modernity’s temporal disruption I’ve described here – progressivism and nostalgism – are as equally hostile toward culture, with progressivism arrayed against the institutions of memory and tradition as obstacles of progress and the most radical nostalgism wedded to an idea of a pre-conscious (and hence pre-cultural) human creature or at the very least committed to an illusory culture as imagined as the whole of the past that is a creation not of memory, but of misplaced reimaginings.
The conservative disposition conserves time in its full dimension – past, present, and future – and above all defends those forms of culture that provide safe transmission of the past through the present and into the indefinite future. Conservatism mis-takes itself when it considers itself as solely or exclusively about the past – though, of course, it gives a special pride of place, centrality and importance to inheritance, memory and tradition. It was was none other than Burke who articulated the essential wholeness of time, positing – against the likes of Hobbes and Locke – that the social contract was not merely “a partnership between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (85).
It is not only the knowledge of, and limits and caution suggested by the past that ought to exert powerful limits upon our inclination toward reckless innovation, but also our knowledge of and obligation toward the future. This point was made powerfully recently by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton who made a case for why a deep concern for, and protection of, the environment ought rightly to be the provenance of conservatism, not liberalism. Above all, he argued, contemporary economic arrangements informed deeply by liberalism (namely, market capitalism) is very good at providing prosperity for living beings – those people we regard as current signatories of the Social Contract – but is exceedingly poor at considering the claims and needs of the unborn. Contemporary economic arrangements provide a powerful incentive toward the “externalization of costs,” the reduction of effort and attendant costs through such measures as massive consumption, planned obsolescence, mountains of waste and scandalous levels of indebtedness that will require future generations to pay down. Such externalization is less successful when pushed off on living humans (Erin Brocovich), but a near-universal practice as a burden placed upon future generations. According to Scruton, it is conservatism’s capacity to think not merely about the past, but to draw the future equally into the present, especially through a strong sense of the interconnection of gratitude and obligation among generations. Here is Scruton, from a lecture he delivered at Georgetown University in 2007 entitled “Conservatism as Conservation”:
So what is to stop us from externalizing our costs onto future generations? Within our own families, we recoil from doing such a thing. I don’t want to dump the costs of my life on my son, even though I shall be dead when he feels them. Nor would I wish my grandchildren to pay the price of my selfishness.
[Instead, Scruton recommends the tradition and practice of TRUSTEESHIP]
Through the device of the trust, English and American law has been able to protect the interests of absent generations by compelling the current owners of property to set their own interests aside. The trustees of a bequest must respect the wishes of the testator and in so doing—by holding their own desires and present emergencies in abeyance— will serve the interests of future generations. This form of ownership, and the moral idea contained in it, ought to be regarded as defining the conservative approach. We don’t solve environmental problems by abandoning our attachment to private property or free enterprise, but we can make sure that these notions are shaped by the spirit of trusteeship.
(Published as: “A Righter Shade of Green,” The American Conservative, June 16, 2007).
Along with the notion of trusteeship there is in addition the Christian ideal of “stewardship” that draws not only future generations into our temporal orbit, but all of God’s creation. The repairing of the fullness of our temporal horizon introduces a beneficial form of care and responsibility into our interactions with the world and all of its creatures – including the millions yet unborn. It demands of us a high degree of thoughtfulness about what we are doing, a form of thoughtfulness that the modern disruption of temporal continuity has relieved us, but which we can at this point in our history ill-afford. As Pope Benedict XVI has recently argued, there is an intimate connection between how we treat the world and how we treat each other: “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.” A society that treats the natural world as a disposable resource for current pleasure is just as likely to treat its unborn children the same way. Conservatives who are justifiably dedicated to an ethic of life need to move away from a visceral hatred of “environmentalism” and understand the profound continuity of our treatment of nature and humanity and their relationship to our current forms of temporal disruption and discontinuity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay entitled “The Conservative” that mankind is divided between two fundamental parties, those oriented toward the past and those toward the future – which he termed “the Party of Memory and the Party of Hope.” Americans of various parties have for too long operated under a false notion that this statement was in some way true, and have falsely construed these two terms to mean more closely the parties of optimism and nostalgia. If conservatism is to have a future – in my view – it needs to be the Party of Memory and Hope, properly understood. By reconnecting past, present and future, we can begin to restore history to its proper place, between past and future in a present that experiences the whole of our temporal horizon in every moment – a present that is constantly turning the future into the past, and yet in which the past freely roams into our future. Time present and time past /Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past…