Alexandra Hudson recently brought a 2018 James Hankins essay to my attention. Since I reviewed his book Virtue Politics, I thought I might share it:
Machiavelli makes the further point, however, that a healthy skepticism about the present doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past. Some people might think that to claim all times are equally happy or unhappy means there is nothing to be learned from the past. Machiavelli disagrees. Even though roughly equal quanta of goodness and wickedness have always been in the world, they have always been unevenly distributed. Some peoples are better at some things than others, and for longer periods of time. The Romans were good at domination, for example, and they dominated for a long time. It’s worth studying the causes of human excellence so we can try to replicate them and perhaps improve our own lives and politics.
Of course, in Machiavelli’s day, the default setting was to believe the ancients were better. That was what the Renaissance was all about, after all. Nowadays, however, as Rémi Brague has put it, the dominant cult of modernism has taught most intellectuals to be Marcionists. They don’t believe there is anything to learn from the Old Testament; our ancestors before the Enlightenment were deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Modern intellectuals are supersessionists; they believe, in defiance of all historical experience, that the future must always be better than the past, which can be safely discarded. Intellectuals are needed, they think, to stamp out the evils of the past, ban or burn books as necessary, and erect Great Firewalls to keep out unscientific beliefs, so that we may all be piloted safely into Utopia. They want to sail toward the Right Side of History, which nevertheless seems always to lie somewhere to port. But one of the sad drawbacks of being a utopian is that the future has no moral standards and can offer us no moral models. It has prophets but no philosophers. For those we must go to the past.
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