How Progressives Stole Christian History

The Greeks invented philosophy. They gave us Herodotus, the father of history, too. Their philosophy of history was cyclical, meaning they believed history had highs and lows, but lacked purpose. The Christian intellectual tradition first proposed that history moves in a linear fashion, corresponds with progress, and culminates with a utopian end point. Modern day “progressives” have inherited this Christian philosophy, and merely substituted their values.

It was the great St. Augustine who initially posited a comprehensive teleological (with an end) philosophy of history. Drawing upon Old Testament conceptions of history, Augustine divided the past into epochs, one following the other: Adam to Noah, the time of Abraham, the era of David, the Babylonian Captivity, Jesus and the age of grace, and, finally, the Second Coming, when God’s justice reigns on Earth. “How great shall be that felicity,” Augustine imagines, “which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all!” The final triumph of God is the end of history, the end of all progress. Its advent is inevitable.

Christianity corresponds with Enlightenment because one must know God in order to acquire knowledge, since all things come from God. Augustine declares in Confessions, “Can we say, then, my Lord and my God of truth, that you favor the astronomer? Far from it. Let him know all that can be known of that science, but not know you, and he is lost, while blessed is the man, ignorant of astronomy, who knows you.” The non-believers live in absolute darkness, separate from God and truth. Augustine compares them to those described in 2 Timothy 3:7 who are always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. The enlightened, righteous man knows God and his wisdom.

No thinker in history has been surrounded by so much change as Augustine, because the Roman Empire was crumbling. The Mother of the World, the Eternal City, was sacked three years before Augustine published his City of God, but the barbarian rampage was just a necessary condition for a new age. The fall of Rome meant the world was progressing, in a linear manner, from pagan darkness toward Christian Enlightenment. The Roman world was sin-ridden, its gods were helpless, hence its collapse. A new dawn beckoned.

For roughly a millennium, Augustine’s conceptions of history—as well as Christian views on progress and Enlightenment—dominated Western thought. These concepts were challenged during the Renaissance when humanist critics of scholasticism, favoring Greco-Roman culture and intellectual insights, argued for a cyclical narrative of history, again void of purpose. Unlike Christian humanists, such as Erasmus and his circle, these pagan humanists thought history did not move in a straight line, but was littered with highs and lows. Contra Augustine, the Classical Era became a new high point in history, and the Middle Ages was deemed a “dark age,” characterized by barbarianism and Catholic Church domination. The humanists hoped to restore the best aspects of Western civilization by harkening back to the glory of antiquity. Instead of relying exclusively on Scripture and Thomistic philosophy for wisdom, they encouraged the study of pagan authors like Cicero and Virgil. Man is the measure of all things, they insisted. What Augustine deemed a bygone era, humanists found inspiring. (Yet, we should not miss the irony that both Augustine and Thomas, following their patristic forebears, also mined the insights of pagan authors.)

This cyclical narrative was short-lived, however, as the linear conception of history returned with a vengeance during the eighteenth century “Enlightenment,” complete with new notions of progress, and new ends of history. Like they did with so many ideas, Enlightenment philosophes adopted Christian concepts, and merely cloaked them with secular details. Like all of us, Enlightenment philosophes could not completely separate themselves from their past. Augustine’s teleological, epochal, and linear conception of history provides a paradigmatic example. The details changed, but the Christian belief that societies progress toward a final utopian end as certain values thrived continued.

The greatest representative of this view is Condorcet. The French philosophe adopted the Augustinian philosophy of history: humanity progresses in a linear manner through historical epochs complete with a beginning and end. History ends when reason guides man instead of “religious superstition.” Condorcet’s end of history is, for him, utopian: it’s a world void of hunger, disease, torture, war, and organized religion. In this inevitable final stage, humanity “will arrive the moment in which the sun will observe in its course free nations only, acknowledging no other master than their reason; in which tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments, will no longer exist but in history.” Enlightenment is achieved, social and intellectual progress end when human beings live by reason. This is the end of history.

Yet Condorcet merely inverts Christian philosophy: History does not end with the return of Christ, but rather with the extinction of his religion. Progress corresponds with secularism, not God’s triumph. The details differ, yet the paradigm persists. Accordingly, although early French Revolutionary radicals destroyed many Christian symbols, they continued Christian ideas of worship by constructing new “Temples of Reason” and establishing a “Cult of the Supreme Being.” Like the French philosophes, Revolutionary leaders held onto their religious heritage. They castigated religion, but they couldn’t discard it.

Christian linear and teleological systems of progress continued in the nineteenth century, most notably with Hegel and Marx. Like Augustine and Condorcet, Hegel divided history into epochs (e.g. Oriental, Greek and Christian), complete with a utopian final end point. His originality lies in the introduction of the dialectic as a means to understand the past. History is a struggle between two antagonistic ideas, the thesis and anti-thesis. The struggle resolves with the formation of a synthesis, but contradictions within the synthesis lead to a new thesis and antithesis, so the process begins anew. This is progress. Ultimately, history ends when spirit or mind (geist) obtains complete self-awareness. Awareness of the spiritual ends Hegel’s history. Rejecting the materialism of the Enlightenment, Hegel attempted to return spiritual elements into the Western intellectual tradition.

The spiritual philosophy of history terminated with Karl Marx, however. Marx turned Hegel’s geist-centered philosophy of history into one with a rigidly atheist and Communist end. With Marx, the material fulfillment of man transcended his spiritual needs. His ideal world banished God. The teleological, spiritual, and linear determinism of Augustine and Hegel morphed into a teleological, material, and linear determinism in Marx.

Two key factors distinguish Marx from Hegel, and from these differences descend modern day “progressives.” First, Marxists assert the primacy of political activity. For the new secular intellectual, political activity replaced theological discourse as the means to improve mankind. The purpose of philosophy, argued Marx, was not to interpret the world but to change it. Secondly, Marx was a materialist. He viewed the world as a struggle between classes instead of ideas. Class trumps everything. The history of the world, after all, is nothing but the history of class struggle. Class conflict guides history through epochs like the Ancient, Feudal and Modern (Capitalist) eras. Ultimately this class conflict resolves with the collapse of capitalism and the emergence of socialism, then finally, utopian communism. Communist man is fully Enlightened and progressive, as opposed to the backwards capitalist. Like the return of Jesus and the utopian Reign of Saints, Communist paradise will come. The final triumph of Communist values and the victory of the proletariat are inevitable. In accordance with Augustinian philosophy of history, Marxist history is periodized, linear, and teleological. His values correspond with progress and Enlightenment. The righteous should be assured, their paradise will come.

Twenty-first century progressives politically descend directly from Marx, the most influential left-wing thinker in history. Along with quasi-socialism and secularism, the modern leftist “progressive” grafts some more contemporary issues to Marxism such as race and gender identity politics, environmentalism, abortion, and socialized medicine, all in the name of “progress.” Those who believe in these causes have achieved Enlightenment, secular progressives maintain. These utopian ends of history cannot be discarded, or society retards. History ends with the triumph of left-wing values because how can any society further change and progress? Like the return of Jesus, Condorcet’s final stage of history and the victory of the proletariat, they are the future. The details differ, but the Christian paradigm persists.

Modern day progressives have inherited tenets from Christianity, because we have all inherited traits from our past, even at the intellectual level. Christian principles continue to shape even allegedly secular minds because Christianity guided Western civilization for over a millennium. Enlightenment philosophes like Condorcet, nineteenth-century writers like Marx, and subsequent contemporary “progressives”—all of whom considered themselves enemies of organized religion—cannot completely discard their Christian heritage.

David Byrne

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David Byrne earned his doctorate in history from Claremont Graduate University. His research focuses on the history of ideas, especially the relationship between theology and thought. His most recent publication is titled "The Victory of the Proletariat is Inevitable: The Millenarian Nature of Marxism." It appeared in Kritike: An Online Journal of Philosophy.

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