From Wittenberg to Wal-Mart

Mark Lilla has a great review of Brad S. Greenberg’s The Unintended Reformation in The New Republic, in which he provides one of the most elegant and plausible explanations of declinist thinking I’ve read recently.

“Since chronicles try to be comprehensive, they are wonderfully messy documents—messy like the truth. They leave the impression that the outcomes of human action depend on choices the actors make in time, that they are weaving the tapestry as they go.

“The Hebrew Bible belongs in this tradition. What makes the chronicle of the covenant so dramatic is that it follows the unpredictable encounter of divine and human freedom in all its emotional twists and turns. God chose Abraham, but would Abraham choose God? In the event, he did; but then Isaac had to choose whether to remain faithful to their covenant, as did Jacob and Esau, and so on down the line. The story that emerges is meaningful not because it exposes the irresistible work of providence, but because it doesn’t. It teaches that you must choose to be chosen.

“Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them. But few of us are. Chronicles place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders, which is a burden we would like to shirk. We want comfort. So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths that early civilizations comforted themselves with were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in an Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. It’s not our fault, and perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost. Pazienza.”

It’s a compellingly simple explanation: the work of civilization is hard, man, and we’d all rather put our feet up and have a beer in front of the telly.  If we succeeded in the past, it is because we were fated to do so, and if we are struggling and suffering now it is because such suffering was also fated and certainly not our fault.  We are still the most favored and best beloved, and we are promised even greater blessings for this undesirable present which we endure.  No action is necessary on our part, and we certainly ought not to get the idea that we should interfere in grand patterns of history which are beyond our power to comprehend, let alone shift.

The tension and difference between historiographical understanding as the “World We Have Lost” versus the “Goodbye to All That” narrative is clear, but as Lilla notes, they tend to lead to the same place.  The World We Have Lost vision of history removes concern over the contemporary workings of society by insisting that we are, and have always been, walking a path that was immutably charted out for us and we must place our faith that though the road might now be hard, it is all part of the plan (and all that suffering will be redeemed later, anyway, if we simply place our faith in the movement and wisdom of forces much greater than ourselves).  The Goodbye to All That view of historical progression offers a schism between a before where all was benighted human muddling, and an after in which revelation has placed us on The Path (though as Lilla also points out, this view leaves one prone to despair and a frustrated nostalgia when the future fails to keep pace with the wonders we hope for).  Either way, though, it’s all out of our hands: we can’t explain it and we certainly can’t change it, all we can do is endure and obey.

In the course of explicating the topic at hand (Gregory’s book) Lilla also introduces a third historiographical perspective, that of The Road Not Taken, describing a point of view where, at some particular point in the past, the faithful travelers on The Path wandered off into the weeds, or (more usually) were led astray by some misguided or definitively evil being with malign intent, and though (as with the Goodbye to All That narrative) we chose the correct path at the beginning, we are living in a fallen world produced by the impatience of all those who would not wait for modernity to arrive until well after the process of modernization was complete and we could see which aspects of modernity would be desirable and which aspects of traditional ways of life were preferable, with a robust Church to adjudicate between them without the need for a theologically and philosophically troubling need for tolerance toward pluralism.

The mood disorder of the contemporary moment is to find ourselves torn between the political myths of Goodbye to All That utopianism (suggested by Lilla as the particular affliction of the left) and World We Have Lost declinism, pawing over Road Not Taken historical fables as if we could simply and easily undo the problems we face in the present and step directly into a golden world if only we would turn away from the missteps which have drawn us from our fated path.

The failing of both of these views lies in the idea that history happens somehow despite our choices and actions, that history happens as it is ‘intended’ or fated to happen, a view which eschews any idea that we, though the weight of individual human choices, actively produce history as we move, leaving it in our wake like the phosphorescent wake of a ship moving through tropical waters.  Both views ignore the immense power of compounded human behavior, the fact that society and history are fundamentally no more (though certainly no less) than the compounded effect of human behavior in and over time.

We are, as Lilla notes of the actions of earlier humans, represented in such historical chronicles as the Bayeux Tapestry, “weaving the tapestry as [we] go.”  If that tapestry is now full of holes and fraying, it is our choice that it be so (abdicating responsibility for the conditions of modern life is a choice; as Eric Liu has noted, society becomes how we behave).  The belief and insistence that we are at the end of things is less a description of actual historical conditions than a statement of unwillingness for it to be otherwise.

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