The catastrophe of our time which conventional wisdom identifies readily – even ad nauseam – is the calamity we are promised if we do not deal effectively with the causes and consequences of global climate change. But there is an even greater catastrophe unfolding in our midst. It is nothing less than the wholesale destruction of the fabric of our civilization and it is far more threatening to the welfare of humanity than the natural changes to our climate.
Two reasons should assure us that global warming is not going to wipe out the human race. For one, that elusive force of nature, ‘political will’, seems now to be in harness to lead the charge against this threat. Secondly, human ingenuity, scientific and technological resourcefulness are all on our side to ensure that we will probably cope reasonably well with the effects of this unruly phenomenon.
Much more destructive of our fragile civilization than the climate-change denial everyone is getting so worked up about is the consignment of our wealth of human memory and tradition to the scrap-heap of history.
Surely one of the greatest malaises of our time is our failure to value our past? That failure is primarily the result of our self-inflicted ignorance. Everywhere around us we see public policy undermining that vital umbilical cord which links – or should link – successive generations of mankind down through the ages. The end result is a denial which amounts to blindness – creating an empty black hole where there should be a vast reservoir of truth and wisdom. The consequences of such a radical denial cannot but be catastrophic.
It is not that we are unhappy to indulge our nostalgic sentiments with pastiche historical concoctions like Downton Abbey, or the bizarre mindless faux historical narratives of Dan Brown. All this, some of it little more than vain fantasizing, without the foundation of truthful scholarship, without the training of young minds in the skills involved in the pursuit of historical truth, will at best be nothing more than a superficial gloss. At worst it will be up there with the Wagnerian fantasies of Adolf Hitler, foundation stones for new tyrannies.
As veteran film-maker Ken Loach said recently, when asked about the popularity of British drama, such as Downton Abbey: “This rosy vision of the past…says, ‘Don’t bother your heads with what’s going on now, just wallow in fake nostalgia.’ It’s bad history, bad drama. It puts your brain to sleep.
“It’s the opposite of what a good broadcaster should do, which is stimulate and invigorate. You might as well take a Mogadon as watch it.”
What history must do – and include in that concept everything we know about archaeology and the study of historical literature and art – is unite us with the generations of men and women who have preceded us, not for a moment denying that among them we find the good, the bad and the ugly. The loss of intimacy with the minds of the past which is evident in the minds of the present must remind us of one thing. It must recall for us the hordes of barbarians who descended on the civilizations of the past – the Vandals, the Goths and the Huns on the Roman world, the Viking hordes invading the Celtic world, and in our own time, the Islamic jihadists and their destruction of the remnants of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East.
Just recently in Britain a campaign has had to be launched to prevent the removal of archaeology from the senior school curriculum. The subject is now joining art history and classical civilization in the school bin. Sir Tony Robinson, presenter of the serious television history programme, Time Team, is dismayed at the trend. “It feels like the Visigoths at the gates of Rome,” Sir Tony told the Guardian. “All these incredibly valuable and important subjects are being cast into the fire.”
At the heart of all this is a denial of the value of our knowledge of the past and of the traditions of of our ancestors. Denial of tradition is a denial of our humanity and it is at the heart of modern individualism, that ideology which is even more inimical to our common good than Communism was.
All this, in part at least, is a consequence of the neglect of history and its systematic removal from school curricula.
Dorothy Day, reflecting in the mid twentieth century on the loss of the sense of the past and the sense of their origins among young Americans, wrote, “Tradition! We scarcely know the word any more. We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them. We scorn nobility in name and in fact. We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington.” She regrets the loss of the sense of origin of the Irish, the Italian, the Lithuanian who have forgotten their birthplaces and “no longer listen to their mothers when they say, ‘when I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily.’ They leave their faith and their folk songs and costumes and handcrafts, and try to be something which they call ‘an American’”.
G. K. Chesterton read the issue politically, interpreting the denigration of tradition as something alien in a true democratic heart. “Tradition is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving the vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about.”
The enemies of tradition have probably always existed. Their interventions in history have, for the most part, been violent ones. But it was not until the Enlightenment that they really took on an ideological character. In the culture war which their emergence sparked, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were the leading protagonists. Yuval Levin in his masterful book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, shows how the issue of tradition, its value and relevance, became the hinge on which the future character of our society and our world was going to turn – and is still turning.
Paine was a man who clearly believed, as he wrote in Common Sense, one of the seminal texts inspiring the American Revolution, that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
For Burke such an idea was a dangerous anathema, because it ignored all the essential realities of our human nature. For him history was a process of clarification through experience, and political change is among its constant features. But if ignorance of history and tradition prevail in a society then such change is at a terrible risk of being chaotic and human suffering will be the consequence.
Yuval Levin sums up: “Paine seeks to understand man apart from his social setting, while Burke thinks man is incomprehensible apart from the circumstances into which he is born—circumstances largely the making of prior generations.”
“Burke expressly denies that we can look out for the needs of the future even as we reject the lessons and achievements of the past. Access to those lessons and achievements is one of the most crucial needs of the future, as he sees it, so the present-centered vision of the revolutionaries must involve betraying the future as much as the past: ‘People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors’”
“If ‘the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken and no one generation could link with the other,’ Burke worries, then ‘men would become little better than the flies of a summer.’”
For Burke our links to our ancestors – through our knowledge of their history and the traditions which have come down to us from them – are “capital” to which the present and the future are entitled, the accumulated knowledge and practice of our forefathers. The radicals, Burke argues, seek “to deprive men of the benefit of the collected wisdom of mankind, and to make them blind disciples of their own particular presumption.” He therefore sees himself, Levin explains, as a defender of the present, not the past, and sees the revolutionaries as a threat to present happiness as well as to future order.
The radicals of the Eighteenth century, like Paine, wanted to start the world anew. The gender-bending radicals of our day, driven by the ideology of radical individualism are going even further. They, ignoring the wealth of human experience evident in the history of mankind, want to take our very nature and fashion it in the image of their own strange fantasies.
We might borrow a thought from Burke’s contemporary and fellow alumnus of Trinity College Dublin, Oliver Goldsmith, reading the concepts of history and tradition into his word, “pride”.
“Princes and Lords may flourish, or may fade:
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
but a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed can never be supplied.”
We live dangerously when we live without the benefit of the wisdom of our forebears, despite all their flaws and failures.