Daydreams, Nightmares and Christian Realism
As we look at our present nihilistic culture, malnourished in the absence of fides et ratio and living only on a meager diet of panem et circenses, it is hard to perceive any sign of true progress, unless we see progress as synonymous with suicide. Whether the homicide, genocide and infanticide of secular fundamentalism can be seen as its own ultimate suicide, there is no need for the rest of us to follow such self-destructive notions of “progress”. On the contrary, as Chesterton reminds us, “true progress consists in looking for a place where we can stop”, which, in the dark ages in which we now live, means a place where we can stop the rot.
“The foundation of the true doctrine of progress is that all things tend to get worse,” wrote Chesterton. “Man must perpetually interfere to resist a natural degeneration; if man does not reform a thing Nature will deform it. He must always be altering the thing even in order to keep it the same.” Chesterton used the example of a gatepost to illustrate this point, stating that we cannot preserve a gatepost by leaving it alone. If we leave it alone we will be leaving it to rot. If we wish to preserve the gatepost we have to be continually painting it. If this principle of conservation is the “foundation of the true doctrine of progress” it means that conservatism (properly understood) is progressive! It seems that the laws of “natural degeneration” imply that there are only two possible paths upon which humanity can progress, the path of conservatism (conservationism), or the path of decay.
It is noteworthy that Chesterton builds the “true doctrine of progress” on the principle of entropy, thereby uniting a fundamental law of physics with a fundamental law of metaphysics. Just as the laws of thermodynamics dictate that matter and energy ultimately “decay” towards an ultimate state of inertia, so the laws of Christian metaphysics dictate that matter and energy ultimately “decay” towards ultimate inertia through the effects of evil (sin). Just as entropy can only be overcome physically through the input of material energy from beyond the closed system, so it can only be overcome metaphysically through the input of spiritual energy (grace) from beyond the closed system. Chesterton, as a metaphysician of the first order, connects the physical and metaphysical with congruous precision.
This spiritual entropy, which theologians prefer to call Original Sin, is a via media5 between the fallacy of progressive optimism, otherwise known as the ascent of man, and the opposing fallacy of nihilistic pessimism, which could be called man’s descent. “One class of popular writers are perpetually telling us that the world has always been growing better and better,” wrote Chesterton; “others, rather less popular, that it has for some time been growing steadily worse. Personally, I cannot understand anybody thinking it has ever grown steadily anything.” Reality is not in the process of becoming, whether we wish to perceive it as becoming better or worse, but, on the contrary, it simply is. The laws that govern reality are unchanging and unchangeable. Original Sin is as much an integral and integrated part of the cosmos as are the laws of thermodynamics and, in consequence, it cannot be extricated or repaired by any man-made progress. We cannot progress beyond what we are, i.e. fallen beings made in the image of God, and no technological progress or ideological innovation is going to alter the fact. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!
One of the most astonishing paradoxes at the heart of reality is that change itself is subject to unchangeable laws. Mutability is an immutable law of the cosmos! Even time does not change, in the sense that it is settled. A clock can only measure the passage of time because time itself does not change. If time altered its speed, if it became faster or slower, a clock would be useless as a means of measuring it. A clock only works because it measures something unchanging.
It seems, therefore, that progress can be perceived in three distinct ways. It can be seen by the optimistic materialist as an inexorable ascent towards a golden age in the future; it can be seen by the pessimistic nihilist as an inevitable descent into the primeval soup of deconstructed meaning; and it can be seen by the Christian realist as the recurrence in every age of the unchanging struggle between spiritual entropy (sin) and spiritual energy (virtue energized by grace). We should note, by the way, that the juxtaposition of “Christian” and “realist” is not an act of supercilious and patronizing self-justification on the part of the author but is the technical phrase applied by philosophy to the orthodox position of Christian philosophers such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas as distinct from the nominalism and de facto relativism of William of Ockham and his followers. In the final analysis, the choice is between the delirious daydreams of the optimist, the nihilistic nightmares of the nihilist, or the perennial realism of the Christian.