But the creators of the myth of progress also created a politics and a rhetoric of progress which defined progress as material abundance, as an ever-increasing autonomy of the individual from society, and as a license to transgress the limits of human nature. They impregnated history with a “narrative” in the sense used by modern political journalists: a tendentious reading of the past designed to influence the actions of citizens and politicians. The Enlightenment narrative undermined the ability of our common traditions to perform their proper functions: to anchor us in the past, to provide us with a noble ancestry, and to foster in us reverence for our forebears and for established authorities—many of which, after all, deserve reverence. The myth of progress with its attendant urge always to be “on the right side of history” in the end enabled that great naïveté of progressive elites: that good intentions and scientific models are enough to bring us into a more desirable future. It also sanctioned their authoritarian urges, for it is their narrative of progress that justifies the enlightened in sweeping aside any obstacles—legal, moral or constitutional—that stand in their way. As modern history has proven over and over again, real progress occurs in an environment of ordered liberty; authoritarian societies are stagnant societies.
As the French philosopher Rémi Brague once put it, intellectuals formed by the Enlightenment are like the ancient Christians who embraced the Marcionite heresy: they reject the authority of the Old Testament and see our ancestors who lived before the Enlightenment as deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Only the New Testament of modernity offers them truth and salvation. Modernity, however, is a process, not a state, and it is hard to inculcate loyalty or reverence towards a process. Yet loyalty to and reverence for its past is the principal basis of harmony and cohesion in any society. In this respect the legacy of the Enlightenment must still be questioned. Can any society survive that belittles its past and regards the present state of affairs, the lives and fortunes of its people, as nothing but a corpus vile for ever more radical social experiments? Can we raise our children to be relentless critics of tradition and still expect them to participate constructively in civil society? Do we want the arts, literature and philosophy of the past to nurture the next generation or merely serve as targets of their indignation? Ritchie Robertson would surely protest that such was never the intention of any Enlightener, and he would be right. But the unintended consequences of our acts, when they turn out badly, still constitute an indictment of our practical reason.
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