21 May

Going Forward or Going Down?

“Going forward” – it’s not just another tedious socio-linguistic tic like “like” and starting every utterance with “so.” “Going forward” has replaced “in future” and it carries profound philosophical weight, conveying the idea of unstoppable Progress and improvement. Belief in Progress is the new religion which began at the Renaissance when the wholesome medieval dogma of Original Sin was replaced by the sense that, as T.E. Hulme puts it, “Humankind is, after all, very satisfactory.” It is there in Renaissance painting, its delight in the human form and its equal delight in the world of nature. Next came the 18th century Enlightenment, the beginning of the slow death of Christianity in Europe and a burgeoning confidence that science, as it becomes ever more perfect, will answer all our questions and provide for all our goods. The idea of the existence of God was not disproved. God and the propositions of theology simply became irrelevant. Of God, Laplace said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

The Enlightenment begat Romanticism,  which is the religion of sentimentality and feeling and with it the idea of art as entertainment. Beauty became detached from truth. Instead of being the natural accompaniment of truth – as you might say, truth’s by-product – beauty became something merely aesthetic, to be pursued for its own sake. (And, incidentally, subjective – only a matter of opinion.) Concomitant with all this was the rejection of the ancient and traditional belief in absolute moral values, the collapse of deontological ethics: actions were no longer performed because they were the right things to do – that is right in themselves – but only in order that desired consequences might result. And so these desired consequences were the start of the search for further desired consequences and so on forever – like an overture by Rossini, a series of penultimate climaxes postponed into everlastingness. There was, as Hamlet said, “Nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet’s statement was incomplete: we should add and feeling.

The Copernican revolution had the very opposite result of that which is generally thought: it did not locate the centre elsewhere but in mankind. God had died and man became the measure of all things. And as science enabled him to construct a brave new world, Utilitarianism enabled him to create his own values, to declare the rights of man universal. The significance of the idea of evolution does not lie so much with Darwin as with the likes of Herbert Spencer and H.G. Wells who really did think that, as the species was evolving physically, it was also progressing morally: getting better all the time. Commentators in the press and radio and TV presenters forever refer to things which are cruel and barbaric as medieval – and somehow manage to ignore the fact that in the wonderfully progressed 20th century there were more people slaughtered in wars than perished in the wars of all the previous centuries added together.

“Going forward” then is what, it is said, we are always doing. We have only the linear notion of time which continues in a straight line, always onwards towards the sunlit uplands. But there are other notions of the character of time and hence of history. One of these notions, to be found in ancient and classical civilisations, was of time as cyclical – the eternal return.  This view was revived by Oswald Spengler and applied to history and civilisations in his Der Untergang des Abendlandes  – The Decline of the West – (1918). In a spectacular analogy, Spengler likened a civilisation to a tree or a plant which has its life cycle: so it grows from seed to sapling, to mature foliage and then it begins to fade and weaken towards its eventual death. There could not be a more stark contrast with our secular dogma of Progress. Eliot puts the cyclical view of history epigrammatically: “Do you need to be told that what has been can be again?”

So where are we today in the cycle? With Spengler, I believe we are towards its end. Since it is not a straight line but a cycle, we have been here before. C.H. Sisson has something illuminating to say about St Augustine: “What makes St Augustine so interesting is that he lived through times which are very much like our own – and rejected them.”

And what did Augustine himself have to say?

“Why do you seek an infinite variety of pleasure with a crazy extravagance, while your prosperity produces a moral corruption far worse than all the fury of an enemy?”

There were theatres putting on gross pornography and the sadism and blood lust of the gladiatorial arena. Augustine described and condemned these scenes of depravity:

“Full publicity is given where shame would be appropriate; close secrecy is imposed where praise would be in order. Decency is veiled from sight; indecency is exposed to view. Scenes of evil attract packed audiences; good words scarcely find any listeners. It is as if purity should provoke a blush and corruption give grounds for pride.”

And the public squalor was accompanied by intellectual bankruptcy: Augustine said, “Listen to sense, if you can still hear sense – your minds so long clouded with intellectual nonsense.”

And so the squalor and the nonsense come round again: Renaissance anthropocentricism; Enlightenment atheism; Utilitarian ethics; the dogma of Progress. All alongside the loss of decency, the decay of public life – what Augustine called full publicity given to things which are shameful.

From the theological perspective, there is something to be added to Spengler’s picture of the death of the tree. In the Judeao-Christian tradition – now abandoned by Europe – after death comes judgement. And after judgement, one can go up – or, of course, one can go down.