Our Virgilian Civilization (Or, the Devil Was the First Whig)

I recently came across an interview with the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor that, for just a moment, brought me up short. The general subject was the theological project of ressourcement, that is, the fruitful endeavor of such theologians as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar to return to the sources of Catholic theology, especially the Fathers of the Church, with the aim of deepening the Church’s understanding of the faith it proclaims.

Whereas an earlier generation of theologians had proposed that a revival of the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas would allow the Church to speak to the modern world with its increasingly “scientific” understanding of reason, some ressourcement theologians saw the pursuit of a rigorous, renewed scholastic system as a winnowing of the Church’s historical wisdom and a withering of its spiritual life. They did not think modern scientific progress was something to be imitated. Indeed, in some ways, it was something from which modern man had to recover.

What brought me up short was Taylor’s invocation of this project only to turn around and, in the next sentence, proclaim the progress of history:

I would also like to mention that, for the Church, being faithful to the past is essentially synonymous with remaining as close as possible to the intuitions that have made the world a better place and with working at spreading these out further, in the direction pointed to by the “signs of our times.” . . . I think that, morally speaking, humanity is evolving. Of course, this evolution is not linear, but if we look at things on the scale of centuries, the human conscience has gained in breadth and depth.

Taylor has a well-earned reputation as a philosopher who builds up mammoth, often brilliant, historical arguments in support of fairly banal conclusions, many of which sit troublingly well with those of a secular and liberal sensibility. This invocation of moral evolution seems a case in point.

I know that the notion of moral evolution is a familiar one to our age, one inculcated, for instance, in our public schools. The tale of moral progress, the claim that there is a “right side” of history, and that “history’s arc bends toward justice,” is a frequent and undefended assertion in our time. I found myself turning upon it with visceral irritation.

To be sure, the times are always changing and, within that change, we can detect at the very least technological progress. Pope Benedict XVI, in Spe Salvi, argues that technological progress has not necessarily been “matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth,” and in that respect “is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”

The historian T. Jackson Lears has written of the nineteenth century as an age that confidently announced the moral progress of human society as the inevitable flower of its technical achievements. But this, Lears contended, was just so much “evasive banality.” Man’s technical grip upon the world may have been growing tighter, but his rule over himself most certainly did not.


When T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral was first performed, in 1936, amid the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, the poet was so wary about claims of progress that he equated time itself to a circle. He has Beckett say:

We do not know very much of the future
Except that from generation to generation
The same things happen again and again.
Men learn little from others’ experience.

Eliot denounced theories of human progress as mere “whiggery,” and, as Samuel Johnson once quipped, “the first Whig was the devil.” The language of human progress is often not merely evasive but demonic, dismissing goods won for us by the past, merely because they are old, and pretending that whatever good we have in the present is somehow the free gift of the hour with its enlightened mind, rather than the achievement of the striving of our ancestors.

You do not have to admit to standing on the shoulders of giants if, so far as you are concerned, you were born, or self-made, already on the heights. Such thoughts invade a curmudgeonly mind such as mine, at the phrase, “moral evolution.”

The French philosopher Rémi Brague argued decades ago that the spirit of western or European civilization is that of “Romanity” or “Secondarity.” The Romans, he observed, knew they were barbarians, but they appreciated the achievement of Athens and, later, Jerusalem. If they were “stinking barbarians,” they could become civilized by following behind, humbly (and in second place) those who had come first and plowed the furrow of culture before them. The achievement of the West lay in receiving into itself what began before and outside of it.

Put another way, the traditional relationship of the West to the past is Virgilian. Theodor Haecker wrote of Virgil as The Father of the West, because the Roman poet anticipated at the natural level much of what Christian civilization would realize only through grace. But Virgil is to be praised not merely because he serves as prologue to our coming greatness. To the contrary, in the figure of “pious Aeneas,” he shows us the proper relationship of past, present, and future.

In the second book of the Aeneid, Aeneas, defiled with blood after fighting Greeks all night during the sack of Troy, asks his father, Anchises, to gather up gods of the hearth in his hands. Aeneas himself then bears Anchises upon his shoulders. Piously accepting the burden of the past upon his back, he takes by the hand his young son, Ascanius, guiding him away from the flames of the burning city toward the mountains of the future that lay beyond.

This is how we progress. Not by proudly unburdening ourselves of all but present self-satisfaction, but by understanding that the present advances into the future only by way of piety to the past that has begotten it. We improve only by following; we achieve something new through our creative fidelity to the past.


*Image: Aeneas and Anchises by Leonello Spada, c. 1615 [Louvre, Paris]


Tonight and Monday evening, watch Courage and Conviction: The True Story of Christopher Columbus. Here’s the trailer:

James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.