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Permanence & Progress: How to See the Past As an Icon & Not As a Golden Calf

If you are reading these words, you already have a great devotion to the past. After all, this is a publication devoted to supporting the concept of classical education, which focuses heavily on the way young people should absorb the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual heritage of human civilization. The classical education movement emerged in part because of the perception that many mainstream institutions had jettisoned too much of that heritage (and some of its best pedagogical principles). That act of detaching from the past was largely guided by the progressivist notion that the current generation is more advanced and enlightened than those who have come before us.

Before we get any further I want to assure you that I agree with those perceptions. Moreover, I believe that the basic thrust behind the classical education movement is sound and praiseworthy. While we did not homeschool (our kids went to parochial schools and largely to either prep schools or Catholic high schools), our family life centered on common prayer and reading aloud from the classics. My eldest is a proud graduate of the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Now that my bona fides have been established, I want to make an argument that might be a little more controversial, but which is based on the ancient Aristotelian idea of the “Golden Mean,” as I hope to show.

In short, my contention is that there is a danger when those who criticize progressivism fall into the opposite error. Peter Kreeft once described progressivism as “chronological snobbery” because it looked down its nose at the past, but he admitted that such snobbery can work both ways. It is possible to disdain the present, too.

This is where the topic gets tricky. What is the opposite of progressivism? Traditionalism? The reactionary mindset? Declinism?

Personally, I’d vote for “declinism,” because it gets at the heart of a certain mindset which insists that pretty much everything is getting worse and worse—that we live at the nadir of human history.

But rather than slinging labels around, I’d prefer to refine my position a bit and settle on something more concrete, limited, and (I hope) defensible.

So let me reformulate: I believe that those who oppose progressivism can become so alienated from, and antagonistic to, the present moment (and the very recent past) that they end up distorting and caricaturing the past.

The corollary would be that only when we have a right relationship to the present will we be able to fully appreciate the past. Note that I say “right relationship to the present.” I am not saying “believe in the superiority of the present.” The principle of the Golden Mean as elaborated by Aristotle prohibits us from idolizing either past or present.

To illustrate my thesis, I’ll be drawing from the realms I know the best: literature and the arts.

Perhaps a story will help make all this a bit less abstract. Recently I learned an unexpected lesson about these matters in an unlikely place. A friend of mine, Jim Savage, recently retired as the music director of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, emailed to say that he hadn’t taken well to retirement and had volunteered to help out with a downtown parish. There was some lovely art in this parish, he wrote. Would I like to come down and see it?

I had heard about this parish but didn’t even know where it was, though in nearly two decades here in Seattle I’d been through every street in the downtown core. I’d heard the word “Josephinum” used to describe it and also “Christ Our Hope” but I was still a bit confused about it when Jim’s invitation arrived.

When I came to the address I was given, I entered a marble-covered lobby that looked more like a hotel than a church. Jim came out and told me that in fact the building was originally The New Washington Hotel, built in 1911 and only recently converted by the diocese into a multi-use facility, including housing for low-income and homeless populations. “Christ Our Hope” is a large chapel in what was formerly the grand ballroom of the hotel.

But the spot that intrigued me the most was the “Totem Room,” in which a large fireplace is surmounted by a depiction of Mount Rainier. Flanking this are two totem poles. The original totems on the fireplace, which had fallen into decay, had been made by a non-native artist and the decision was made to replace them with poles crafted by a native woodcarver.

The priest in charge began by suggesting that the new totems be made to reflect authentic designs from the historical past. It’s certainly what I would have proposed: restoring the totems to the way they would have appeared in the historical past.

But the artist, Odin Lonning, of Norwegian and Tlingit ancestry, declined to follow that suggestion. “That’s not how it works,” he replied.

When Jim Savage told me that, I was flummoxed. Surely the native Pacific Northwest tribes were by nature deeply traditional and their art reverenced and mimicked the designs that had come down to them over hundreds of years.

Jim said that Lonning had countered the priest’s suggestion, saying that native artists worked in a historical continuum that included the present along with the past. The style of carving remained traditional, but the new work needed to acknowledge both the past and the present—the life that had given rise to the new piece and the story of the institution that now owned the property.

And so Lonning’s poles contain not only traditional representations of the salmon and the raven, but images of Pope Francis, Mother Cabrini, Chief Sealth, and other figures from church and region, past and present, including a bear holding the baby Jesus.

With that explanation it suddenly became clear to me that Lonning’s artistic practice did not merely imitate the past but extended it into the present—past and present dancing together and celebrating a living tradition that did not end but endures and points toward the future.

What this Tlingit artist had said and done brought me back to some of the most formative moments of my youth. The thinker who was my mentor in college, Russell Kirk (1918-1994), author of the seminal work, The Conservative Mind and founding father of the modern conservative movement, once wrote: “Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.”

Kirk was also fond of quoting the great eighteenth-century political thinker, Edmund Burke: “Society is a contract between the past, the present, and those yet unborn.” He also liked a saying by the nineteenth-century theologian, John Henry Newman, a staunch opponent of the progressivism of his day (which he called “liberalism”): “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.”


“Tradition cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”

T.S. Eliot


Permanence and progression. Aren’t those two things locked in a titanic, perpetual war against one another? Certainly they often come in conflict, particularly when advocates of one or the other fail to hit the Golden Mean and end up siding with one extreme or another. Kirk termed those who landed in the extremes proponents of “ideology,” which he defined as an abstract system of ideas that had drifted away from the complex, contingent facts of quotidian life.

Kirk’s brand of conservatism resolutely refused to idealize any past era as the “golden age,” from which all subsequent history was a precipitous decline. He believed that all historical change involved loss and gain. The conservative was someone who didn’t refuse change but who understood the importance of the “permanent things” and how difficult it is to preserve them. Hence his call for prudent change. Prudence is the classical virtue that is eminently practical, that attempts to figure out how grand ideas and principles need to become embodied in the concrete laws, customs, artworks, and culture of any time and place.

One of the aspects of Kirk’s intellectual life that most intrigued me as a young man was his passion for engaging with some of the most daring and innovative creative writers of the twentieth-century. When he himself was young, he traveled extensively in the British Isles and befriended such writers as Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot. Both are widely considered exemplars of the literary style known as High Modernism—a form of writing that also included figures like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

At first I was puzzled by his embrace of writers whose very style seemed to celebrate modernity over the historical past. After all, High Modernism in literature and art based much of its appeal on how radically different it looked from the art of previous eras. As I pointed out recently in Comment magazine (“Full Circle: Art and Revolution,” Fall 2016), High Modernist artists like Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky created works that seemed like deliberate attempts to shock the public. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon depicted a group of nude women not as lovely nymphs or goddesses but as prostitutes looking directly at the viewer. And Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring celebrated ancient pagan fertility rites, causing a riot at its premier in Paris. Both came across to their contemporaries as slaps in the face of good Christian values.

But T.S. Eliot was one of Kirk’s heroes, and I discovered that he had become an orthodox Christian, so I thought that perhaps he was somehow exempt from the sins of the other High Modernists. Yet the more I read his poetry, including the poetry he wrote after his conversion, the more I realized that he never really abandoned Modernism. Like Joyce and Woolf, Eliot continued to employ literary techniques like fragmentation and obscure allusions, along with themes and motifs that seemed straight out of existentialism and other forms of modern despair and alienation.

Kirk guided me toward a balanced, nuanced interpretation of Eliot’s work. For one thing, he asked me to look more carefully at Eliot’s use of fragments in his writing—odd phrases, cut off from their original contexts. I assumed such fragments meant that Eliot was somehow celebrating chaos, brokenness, and disorder. Kirk responded by forcing me to consider how a fragment might operate on the reader. A fragment, he said, was like a puzzle piece: it was isolated and had a jagged edge but for that very reason it forces the reader to figure out what it was once connected to. When, in Ash Wednesday, Eliot leaves a fragment hanging—“After this our exile”—it is an invitation to recall that this phrase comes from an ancient hymn to the Virgin Mary. The full context is: “After this our exile show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Thanks to Kirk’s mentorship I saw how Eliot could have his cake and eat it, too. He could be true to the modern experience of a broken, fragmented world—think of the destruction of World War I and the ways that technology and urban life have chopped up our experience—*and* suggest that we need to search for the sources of wholeness and meaning that we have forgotten.

When I could finally appreciate how Eliot could be both a Modernist and a proponent of a deeply traditional Christian worldview, I was in a better position to spot the errors in the arguments of my contemporaries who believed that all art and literature created in the modern era was inimical to that worldview.

It dawned on me that those who were convinced that all modern art was useless and diseased were like the ancient religious heretics known as the Gnostics. Those of you who know a little church history may recall that the Gnostics believed the world we live in was not created by a good God but by an evil demi-god. They saw matter itself as gross and held that only pure spirit was good. The Gnostics thus denigrated creation and the body and sought for ways to escape the world to some purely spiritual realm. That’s why they opposed Christianity, which celebrated the resurrection of the body.

A Gnostic view of history sees a historical period—usually the present—as uniquely evil, something that needs to be escaped in favor of the past. Such a view is inherently full of despair, because it imagines that our own time is cut off from the influence of the life-giving and renewing grace of God.

What is difficult for some of us to accept is that even if we might not think of ourselves as Gnostics, we are constantly tempted to believe that all that is going wrong in the world, from moral decadence to political anarchy, has put us in the very pit of historical Hell. And God knows there’s plenty of evidence to make us believe that.

But such a belief is misguided, even if understandable. Ironically, one of the most devastating effects of a declinist rejection of the present is that by cutting us off from all that is good in the past, our ability to rightly understand the past is severed from its source. The present is a ship towing the past behind us; when we cut the tie to what we carry, it drifts away, becoming smaller and harder to see clearly.

Eliot understood this. In his famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he made a startling observation. The past, embodied in tradition, cannot be separated from the present, embodied in the contemporary “individual talent.”

"[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity."

Then comes the real gob-smacker of a statement. Eliot continues:

“What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.”

According to Eliot, then, the addition of every new work not only adds something to the tradition but actually changes the past—or at the very least enables us to see facets of the past that we’ve never seen before.

Rest easy, this isn’t progressivism sneaking in the back door: Eliot is not saying that the present is better than the past, just that it is the vantage point from which we stand. And as any reader of literature knows, it’s crucial to understand point of view.

When Eliot says that we gain a mastery of the tradition through great labor, he doesn’t mean that we just study it, as if we were pulling all-nighters to cram for a test. No, he’s after something more radical than that. He means that the best way to acquire the tradition is to add to and thus change it. It is not a passive act but an active one. Think of it as a sort of kinetic learning.


“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”


Jaroslav Pelikan


You might say that in order to gain the past you need to create in the present in the light of that tradition. Virgil’s Aeneid is both an homage to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but it also changes and adapts the Greek epics to his own circumstances in a Roman Empire ruled by Augustus. Aeneas journeys like Odysseus and fights like Achilles, but he’s weaker and more unsure of himself than his predecessors; he’s also laboring under a task that has deeper political implications than any that confronted Homer’s heroes.

Permanence and progression.

I suspect that you’re either scratching your head at this point, or shaking it in disagreement. At the very least you might say: “What does making new work in the present have to do with young people studying and learning the heritage of the past?”

Here’s the thing: meaning is made not only by creating a new work of art but in the act of reading itself. Yes, a work contains certain fundamental elements that are simply there for the taking, but as many great writers have testified, there is more to be found in a masterpiece than even the author intended. The inescapable fact is that when we encounter a work from the past we bring with it everything that we know and are in the present.

So here’s another corollary. If a student does not engage at least to some extent with the literature of the present, their understanding of the past will also become distorted or opaque. Discovering how novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson draws upon John Calvin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman enables us to see that entire tradition more clearly—because we see it breathe like the living thing it is. Reading Christian Wiman helps us to grasp John Donne, Soren Kierkegaard, and Emily Dickinson in new and vital ways.

The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan perhaps put it best in his book, The Vindication of Tradition: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

As vigorous as he was in vindicating tradition, Pelikan recognized the dangers of traditionalism. He invokes a set of distinctions that arose out of the Eastern church during the debates over the meaning and value of icons in the eighth and ninth centuries. In response to attacks on icons—attacks that claimed they were detrimental to true worship, theologians distinguished between icons, tokens, and idols. The idol (think golden calf) pretends to be an embodiment of the divine truth it represents, but it really ends up just pointing back to itself. The token, Pelikan says, points beyond itself but is just a passing, random image that establishes no true connection to what it represents. The icon, by contrast, not only embodies what it represents but also sends us to the transcendent source of that image.

So one might say, following Pelikan, that tradition—or, more broadly, our reverence for the past—becomes an idol “when it makes the preservation and repetition of the past an end in itself; it claims to have the transcendent reality and truth captive and encapsulated in the past, and it requires an idolatrous submission . . .”

Tradition becomes an icon, he writes, “when it does not present itself as coextensive with the truth it teaches, but does present itself as the way that we who are its heirs must follow if we are to go beyond it . . . to a universal truth that is available only in a particular embodiment, as life itself is available to each of us only in a particular set of parents.”

As we seek to educate our students and ourselves, may we come to understand tradition (and the past) as an icon, not an idol. We know how much we receive from our parents—and yet we know that we are individuals in our own right and that their legacy only becomes active when we engage the unique circumstances we find in the world around us.