To Look Ahead is to Look Behind

I have previously written about the quality of our elected representatives being more accurately representative of our own shortcomings than we would like to admit. Such pride has become commonplace in our time, that we can so quickly point out the failings of others while ignoring those same failings within ourselves. What America, and indeed all of Western Civilization needs, is a reintroduction to humility.

Society has shifted and now has at its core a paradoxical set of values: it values only the fact that it holds nothing as objectively valuable. When nothing is sacred, holy, or traditional, the only moment of any value is neither yesterday, nor tomorrow, but the present. To hold to any sort of real tradition is to ground oneself in something that is immovable and unyielding, but to do so would be to impede progress and sacrifice autonomy. Hence, the we value only our lack of values – even while insisting that we still hold to the old ways and beliefs – because values are derived from tradition; and tradition is a weight – a worthy weight to be sure, as its weight comprises all that we are and all that we know and love, a weight that keeps us from being swept away, not so much a weight, perhaps, as an anchor; and the weight of one’s luggage must be accounted for when one undertakes a journey.

This is not to proclaim that the we are inherently immoral, rather that the common worldview makes any sort of true morality a dubious proposition. Many view the weight of tradition as a burden; yet, tradition as a burden is a joy to bear. If one disregards tradition, it is unlikely that one will possess an accurate understanding of truth, as truth is eternal and unchanging. Eternal and unchanging from what point? From precisely the Point, and the Point of Points, one that stretches infinitely toward all horizons. To embrace the truth is to embrace not only tradition, but to submit oneself to the reality that one is not his own god, that there exists something higher than him – a Greater Good. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of the individualist culture that has built up over time.

To value tradition is to value transcendence. Sir Roger Scruton once said that “Traditions are answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.” The world is not molded to mans desires; rather are his desires so molded by the reality. Alastair Roberts, in a phenomenally well-balanced view of Brexit, refers to this liberal/conservative divide as Cosmopolitan and Provincial, and points out that Provincials (conservatives) find true wealth in their communities and in their shared cultures, histories, religious beliefs. Such beliefs are held not because of some desire to stand in the way of the greater good, but because to the view of the Provincial the greater good is dying a slow and steady death along a godless march towards nebulous “progress.” In order to find sympathy in society, one who values the good must demonstrate the joy that comes through living a life of simplicity and fidelity. The case must be made that something does not lose its value when it loses its varnish. Does one discard wine or a fine vintage because it has grown old?

If one believes in the universal value of permanent things, why can’t these same values be held as the standards for desirable leadership? Some will say that such ideas are impractical and relevant to the way the world works, that this worldview is too romantic and too little realistic; yet a quick glance at the state of the world yields the clear view that something very great is missing.

Orwell famously said, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it hates those who speak it.” Now as always, unfamiliarity leads to disdain. I do not believe that we shun our traditional ideas and beliefs because of their impracticality. I think we shun them because we know that what we have mocked and ridiculed actually is the proper order of the world, and we have simply drifted so far away from it as to hate it. Chesterton put it this way:

“It is a primary panic that I feel in our rush towards future visions of society… It is a fear of the past; a fear not merely of the evil in the past, but of the good in the past also. The brain breaks down under the unbearable virtue of mankind. There have been so many flaming faiths that we cannot hold; so many harsh heroisms that we cannot imitate; so many great efforts of monumental building or of military glory which seem to us at once sublime and pathetic. The future is a refuge from the fierce competition of our forefathers. The older generation, not the younger, is knocking at our door… And the upshot of this modern attitude is really this: that men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”

“They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.” Americans, or Westerners, or Christians look forward and embrace the moral mediocrity of the present because they are afraid to look back. Look back to what? To a past where men stood up for what was right, regardless of what insults or threats were thrown his way? To a past where the ideas one claimed to believe were values he based more than his reputation on? “The brain breaks down under the unbearable virtue of mankind”; man is afraid to look back for fear of seeing how far he has fallen.

Ultimately, change for the better will not and cannot come from any government. It may only come from the bottom up. Even if every elected official from sea to shining sea were avid readers of Burke and Kirk, it would matter nothing unless the electorate shared their traditional values. Change must come from the bottom up, but if those values are not held by the individual, they cannot be expected to be the impetus for change at the higher levels of power.

The only difference between a candle under a basket and a candle extinguished is the basket. Furthermore, the candle cannot light itself, but rather must be lit by those desiring its light. No amount of complaining about the unlit candle will ignite the wick. It requires action motivated by a deep desire for light. If we want the light, then it must be we who light the candle.

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