I have been puzzling over the term “progressive.”
In Virgil's Aeneid, when the hero arrives before the queen of Carthage, he announces himself in words that strike the modern reader as odd: Sum pius Aeneas, he says; I am pious Aeneas. But Virgil did not intend any air of self-satisfaction in those words. The adjective pius is the special denomination of the virtue to which Aeneas gives his heart: pietas, or duty to his father, his fatherland, his household gods, and the great gods above. Just as Odysseus is polytropos, a man of many shifts and turns, and Achilles is dios, godlike in his youth and beauty, so Virgil's hero is pius, pious, remarkable for duty.
What Virgil means by this is not an affectation, or an emotion of any kind, but a habit of thinking about holy things, particularly the holiness of the relation between father and son, which is, for the poet, the root of true patriotism. When the gods tell Aeneas that he must leave the burning city of Troy and take his people to a new homeland far away, his father Anchises—like any stubborn old man—at first refuses to go. He wants to die in his Trojan home, but Aeneas will not leave the old man’s side. It requires a sign from the heavens to persuade Anchises, and when he agrees, Aeneas carries his father on his shoulders (for Anchises is crippled), and takes his small son by the hand, while the father carries the figurines of the household gods, departed ancestors now made divine. It is the poem’s great emblem of piety. Indeed, whenever Aeneas has a decision to make—do we put in at port here, or press on?—he consults his father, the chief of the tribe. His greatest sorrow is when Anchises, optimus patrum, the best of fathers, dies suddenly aboard ship. He will descend to the underworld, specifically to speak with Anchises again and to learn what he must do to secure a homeland for his people. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in ancient poetry, Aeneas attempts to embrace Anchises three times, and three times his arms pass through the dead man's shadow; the two will never touch one another again.
Piety is thus a natural virtue that is open toward religious devotion. We see this quite poignantly in the first book of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. That good emperor, in his loneliness and quiet devotion to the common good (which usually had him stationed at the frontier with his armies, against his naturally peaceful disposition), represents the best of a pagan world that had spent its last. In that first book, however, Marcus recalls in gratitude, one after another, the people to whom he owed the forming of his character: his mother, his teachers, and most of all, the wise and humane emperor Antoninus Pius, who had adopted him as his son, groomed him to be his successor, and raised him in the Stoic submission to divine providence. Nor is this a peculiarly pagan virtue. “Honor thy father and thy mother,” says the Commandment, the one that bridges our duty to God and our duty toward our fellow men.
Yet we, in the modern world, are suspicious of piety and, indeed, often applaud its violation. In The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler subjects his father to savage irony, and celebrates his supposed freedom from Victorian hypocrisy. Woodrow Wilson, puritan moralist though he often was, once explicitly said that the purpose of modern education was to make men as unlike their fathers as possible. John Dewey, in How We Think, reduces parents to mere repositories of prejudice and superstition; the modern school is to enlist the parents as supporters of its cause, its values, and not the other way around.
Rhetorically useful in this enterprise is the slandering of one’s forefathers. They were bigots. They beat their wives. They could hardly read. They got drunk all the time. They fornicated just as frequently as we do. They brawled a lot. They used primitive tools. Sometimes these ascriptions are flat lies, and provably so; sometimes they are uncharitable exaggerations of a genuine vice; sometimes they are simply irrelevant. What’s most notable is not the dubiousness of the claims, but the strange fact that anyone would want to make them at all—that anyone would feel virtuous for claiming them, as Plato’s Euthyphro, wholly self-absorbed and ignorant, celebrated his own piety just as he was about to prosecute his own father for murder. What about celebrating the virtues of our forebears, and inveighing against the only vices we can actually do anything about—our own?
But this brings me again to the term “progressive.” What does it mean?
If I call myself a liberal, I claim to uphold the principle of individual liberty. It may well be that liberal policies actually destroy liberty, but that is a problem with the use of the term “liberal,” and not with the nature of the term itself. If I call myself a conservative, I claim to uphold the principle that tradition is a source of wisdom from which we dare to swerve only with great reluctance. It may well be that policies called conservative actually destroy tradition, but again, the problem lies with usage, and not with the nature of the term. I am a localist, because I believe that local government and local groups should do most of the practical governing in our lives—the educating of children, for instance, keeping the peace, and celebrating feasts. I am a distributist, because I advocate a wide distribution of personal property. Some people are monarchists, some people are republicans, some people are even anarchists. But what is a progressive?
The term does not actually denominate anything. It is the obverse of reactionary, which is itself merely a term of abuse. That is, the reactionary reacts irrationally against something new and wonderful, and the progressive is the upholder of that novelty. About where we are going, nothing is said; the term is empty. Hitler thought he was progressive. Stalin thought he was progressive. And by their own lights, they were right about that; they were energetically progressing somewhere, “into the future,” as another empty platitude has it. Now I do not mean to say that contemporary self-styled progressives are like Hitler (whom the erstwhile progressive Margaret Sanger admired) or Stalin (whom Western progressives lionized for twenty years). All I mean to say is that the term’s purpose is self-approbation. Perhaps nowadays it is equivalent, practically, to “sexual libertarian with a statist vision of political life,” but in itself, the term implies no such thing. It implies only that the user thinks well of himself and not so well of other people, particularly his own forebears, whom he by definition wishes to leave behind.
The progressive, as it seems to me, is therefore always in a position of impiety. If once he were to admit, “In many ways my grandparents lived a better life than I do, because they practiced virtues we have forgotten,” then, to that extent, he would cease to be progressive. He would ask, “Where are we going, and do we actually want to arrive at that place?” But that is a question whose answer requires wisdom, gained from the ages, that is not our own. It is a question that the pious man asks by habit. It is, indeed, why Aeneas journeyed to those shades below.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.