The linear conception of history is so seductive, even antagonistic groups like Enlightenment philosophers and Marxists adopt it. It pervades their attitude toward religion. Both believe society matures as it sheds its religious heritage. Infantile societies practice religion, but progressive societies are secular, they maintain.
Voltaire viciously expressed Enlightenment hostility toward organized religion when he declared, “Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.” Yet it was the later philosophe Condorcet who linked progress and secularization. Condorcet argued that societies move in a linear fashion, progressing from tribal times to his own age before climaxing in an era which had yet to come, an era guided by reason. Nothing has impeded human progress, nothing has prevented the arrival of this glorious stage more than religion, specifically Christian antipathy to all things related to science and philosophy. Fortunately, the future is bright since humanity is slowly abandoning religion. Advances in science and philosophy have strengthened the human condition. The trend will continue: “The time will therefore come when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history….” Reason will replace superstition, paving the way for the elimination of sickness, poverty, and even war.
Marx continues this linear conception of history by arguing that societies advance from the Ancient, to the Feudal to his Modern (bourgeoisie capitalist) Age, the socialist stage and finally, the glorious communist stage, with class struggle driving history. Marx maintained that the bourgeoisie use religion merely to enslave the working class. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” But the future is bright because the demise of capitalism is inevitable and with it will crumble the religion it bequeaths to the modern world. The decline of religion is every bit as inevitable and magical as the victory of the proletariat. Like Condorcet, Marx didn’t just condemn religion, he proclaimed its demise as society progressed from capitalism to communism, from primitive to progressive.
Why are these linear conceptions of history so seductive? The first and foremost reason these linear conceptions of history seem plausible is because time moves in a linear fashion. We experience things successively because God created a physical world where cause precedes effect. This is true of history too because, at least superficially, historical events proceed from event A, to event B, to event C, ad infinitum. The linear conception of the past seems most rational since humans experience the world this way and therefore interpret history this way.
The linear conception of history also allows us to be self-righteous and dogmatic, further justifying zeal for the cause. In other words, since my values will prevail in the future, I can easily disparage those who are destined for the “dust bin of history.” (The phrase was appropriately coined by one of Marxism’s most famous theorists, Leon Trotsky. Marxists remain one of history’s most linear and dogmatic groups, even insisting their philosophy was scientific.) Alternatively, if horrific ideas may one day reign supreme, or mine are merely transitory, I have to respect differences. This helps to explain why so many secularists will resist ideas that suggest the weakening of their values. They would have to tolerate the ideas they so vehemently protest. And how can we create our own visions of paradise if we tacitly grant respect to the roadblocks?
There is just one problem with linear conceptions of the past: They are undermined by history.
The Italian Renaissance Shows that History is Cyclical
A cursory overview of history reveals cyclical patterns. One of the lessons of the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is that ideas that lie on the margins of elite culture rise again. Dormant values, seemingly part of a bygone era, return. Anyone who believes that the past is dead conveniently ignores the Renaissance. I want to suggest the probability of a Judeo-Christian Renaissance when intellectuals and philosophers adopt past dominant values in the name of light and progress.
We must analyze the historical conditions that provoked the Renaissance because they are akin to modern secular culture. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the burgeoning Catholic Church filled the power vacuum that existed in Europe. And the Church, like modern liberal secularists, believed its values to be superior and contrarian to past values, specifically the pagan values of Greece and Rome. Greco-Roman civilization was polytheistic, the new Christian kingdom was rigidly monotheistic. This one God sent his chosen Son to die for the sins of humanity. Anyone who followed the teachings of Jesus obtained salvation. To adherents, this made it inherently more progressive, humanitarian and outright superior to the decrepit values of the past.
Whereas today secularists believe Christian morals impede progress and that societies can advance only with the spreading of secular morals, early Christians believed precisely the same thing about values. Pope Gregory the Great declared it was the purpose of the Church to bring people from the darkness of paganism to the light and brilliance of the Catholic faith. His moment, a moment when the papacy was still in its infancy, Gregory compared to dawn: “The Church of the elect will be fully day only when the darkness of sin is no longer mixed in with it. It will be fully day only when it shines with the perfect warmth of a light that comes from within.” Liberal secularists who dogmatically proclaim the inevitable triumph of their values are hardly unique. Their heritage is deeply Catholic.
The attempt of Christians to spread these values plays a decisive role in the post-Roman Era. St. Patrick, for example, remains an iconic figure in the Catholic faith for his ability to spread Christianity, leaving polytheism in his wake. Christianity, in hindsight, was the wave of the future. Had someone in the year 500 had the foresight to see several centuries into the future, they would have seen the diffusion of Christian values across Europe. The Catholic Church, by definition, is a universal institution and by the year 1000, it darn near succeeding in making its values universal across Europe.
Leading minds in the Middle Ages were steeped in Christianity. They ignored some of the great works of Greek and Roman writers, such as Homer, Sophocles, Lucretius and Ptolemy, believing their works only impeded progress and human salvation. Poems, treatise, philosophical texts and speeches disappeared forever. Since these works were written by pagans—those whose core values were different than theirs—how much wisdom could they possess? The foundation for learning seemed inadequate, therefore the sources needed to be excised. Homer’s Illiad, for example, described the existence of a myriad of Gods. They were stories of myths. Lucretius’ universe was an infinite one without a creator. How reasonable is that? These values doomed the Roman Empire, according to Catholicism’s greatest philosopher, St. Augustine. History justified the extermination of these sinful values and the suppression of their progenitors.
Modern secular intellectuals forget that their Christian predecessors were profoundly gifted, proving the minds of intellectuals are malleable. Bede, Augustine, Plotinus, Pope Sylvester, Clemente of Alexandria, Tertullian and Origen provide quintessential examples of the Christian intellectual. Few modern intellectuals can match the productivity and significance of these magnificent thinkers. The most educated intellectuals studied these men, then taught and practiced their Christian values in the centers of medieval learning, monasteries. (Today, the centers of learning are Academia. They are secular bastions.)
The Bible remains the most historically significant book ever written, but despite the fact that it has guided Western civilization for nearly a millennium, it is not part of contemporary progressive education. Leading left-wing intellectuals rarely refer to it. Secular progressives consider their values to be fundamentally at odds with its Judeo-Christian past, so the Bible, despite its significance, has suffered the same fate of Homer and Sophocles in the early Middle Ages for the same reason: Progressives see the Bible as a story of myths and values fundamentally contrarian to their own. For progressives, the Bible contains no hallowed truths. Its opinions are deeply disturbing, such as Leviticus “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” In short, the Bible contains the same problems that the works of classical authors did for Christians. Hiding them from our youth seems noble. No rational progressive would ever encourage intensive study.
The obvious flaws in this logic will be a rallying cry for the new Judeo-Christian intellectuals.
It should not take special knowledge of history to realize that there has never been a permanent value or morality adopted by intellectuals. Rather, the minds of intellectuals evolve and change. Although the modern secular intellectual may find a shift back to theology unfathomable or even scary, the Christian intellectual would have felt the same way about a shift to deism, secularism, agnosticism or atheism. Minds change. And when they do, they are naturally drawn to the past since we are all shaped by our past, whether it be at an individual or cultural level.
These linear conceptions of history are intellectually seductive, but history seems to favor cyclical patterns. No one can deny the rise of secularism over the last century, but this does not mean that Christianity has reached its zenith. The Greco-Roman Renaissance proves that marginalized ideas return. Although today secularists lambaste Judeo-Christian values, believing they impede progress, intellectuals during the Middle Ages made precisely the same arguments against pagan Greece and Rome.
A new group of Petrarch’s, Machiavelli’s and Erasmus’s will emerge, preaching a return to the old values. They will find wisdom in the distant past. Like the humanists of the Renaissance, they will be met with resistance by those who seek to maintain the status-quo, those who fear a return to a past age contrarian to their own, but like the humanists, they will see the value and relevance of old ideas. Genesis will be reproduced like Homer, Ezra will be the new Sophocles, Mathew is Aristotle and the Book of Revelation is Cicero. After all, Christianity guided Western civilization for one thousand years and remains the backbone for Western civilization. It’s only logical that one day, a new group of intellectuals, seeking to distinguish themselves, will recognize this truth and seek to return to consciousness the achievements of the past. Judeo-Christian ideas that are scorned by intellectuals and academics will—accordingly—be resurrected.
Editor’s note: The portrait above of Desiderius Erasmus was painted by Hans Holbein in 1523.