The appeal to be “on the right side of history” is a popular card for progressives to play. Whether it’s immigration policy, statist climate change propaganda, or laws and court rulings over homosexual and transgender “rights”, we are constantly warned about being “on the wrong side of history”. If we get this or that social policy wrong, we’re told, history will not be kind to us. But what is “history” in this context? Is history’s verdict simply determined by a quick snapshot of the arbitrary will of a majority at any given time?
Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, explains the problems with “the right side of history” approach.
Philosophically, the expression is abhorrent because of its “Marxist twang” (to borrow historian Robert Conquest’s phrase). The idea that history moves in a predetermined, inexorable path amounts to a kind of Hallmark-card Hegelianism. Marx, who ripped off a lot of his shtick from the philosopher Hegel, popularized the idea that opposition to the inevitability of socialism was anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. The progression of history is scientifically knowable, quoth the Marxists, and so we need not listen to those who object to our program.
In the chapter on tradition in Dietrich von Hildrebrand’s outstanding Trojan Horse in the City of God, he highlights the glaring paradox in progressive thought, which heaps scorn on tradition and any notion of objective truth. At the same time, these progressives appeal to a Hegelian elevation of history as the standard by which everything should be judged as objectively right or wrong.
It has, for example, become fashionable among progressive Catholics to speak of man’s ‘responsibilities to history.’ . . . But on the other hand, the dethronement of truth and the debunking of all objective values has the consequence of destroying tradition. And this is to deny any meaning to history. To kill tradition brings about the dissolution of history, for history presupposes tradition.
As von Hildebrand says, variations on the “responsibilities to history” line frequently crop up within the context of modern man’s take on the Church’s moral teaching. Shouldn’t the Church get with the times, for history’s sake, on matters pertaining to sexual ethics, for example? Contraception and homosexuality are the primary targets these days. We’re told that the majority supports a shift on these points, so why not get on board? If most contemporary Catholics cannot relate to the teachings of their “out-of-date” Church, what will become of the institution in the long term? How will “history” judge an institution like that?
Such calls are misplaced, writes von Hildebrand. “If there is no objective value except that of being ‘up-to-date,’ it follows that tradition, the transmission of truth, of ideals, of cultural treasures, is meaningless and there can be no meaning in history.” We should not conflate eternal truth with a Hegelian, mystical (and false) construct of “history”. History in the true sense, is the story of God’s self-revelation to His people. It’s the story of God’s love and fidelity to a fallen mankind. History is not “predetermined and inexorable” as Hegel would hold. History’s path depends on man’s response to God’s love. Will we cooperate with God’s plan for us or not? It’s His judgement, not history’s, that should concern us and factor into our actions today.
The correct approach, von Hildebrand argues, is instead to remind Catholics that the Church is larger than the confines of a narrow snapshot of the majority’s will taken in the present moment in history. And our true contemporaries as Catholics are more in number than the sum taken from a quick head count of those on earth right now.
If one asks, “Who are our real contemporaries?” in the deepest sense of the term one should answer: “The saints of all times, from St. Peter to Pius X, from Mary Magdalen to Maria Goretti, and all the saints to come.” This is so because the saints have a living message of ultimate importance for everyone, a message that testifies to the reality of redemption through Christ and to the change of the face of the earth through the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
* Featured image, Cosimo Rosselli’s Descent from Mount Sinai