Over at his fine blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, John Fea asks
So back to my original question: I wonder if progressive historians tend to be more favorable to “change over time” than “continuity” when studying the past.
My response would be yes; precious few of "progressive historians"--the majority of "historians" these days--are aware they're proceeding from a set of philosophical assumptions that may or may not be true.
The core Enlightenment [for lack of a better term] assumption is a belief in human progress, if not the perfectibility of man himself. Thus President Obama spoke the other day of "moral evolution."
What is modernity? Rest assured, Barack Obama is a modern man. "Moral evolution?" Surely you kid, Mr. President.
We are a mere 80 years from the Japanese Empire's Rape of Nanking and 75 years from the Holocaust, which occurred in the cradle of modern philosophy [Kant, Hegel]. And we are but another 75 from perhaps the final breaths of Christendom in Europe.
To the classicist--and many Christians both Thomistic and Calvinistic--human nature is the only constant in human history, and the story is not good. As Zhou en-Lai apocryphally said of the French Revolution, "it's too soon to tell." So it is with modernity's theory of history:
The very possibility of "human progress" or "moral evolution" is far from self-evident; it's the modern conceit, but is an unproved assertion. If we take in the body count of the 20th century, "human progress" is so far a provably destructive fantasy.
For those of us who maintain that it was Christianity that was the engine of whatever human progress there has been, the moderns who consign it to the sidelines in favor of "reason" pose an implacable obstacle to the inquiry. [As we each have learned.] One need not accept Christianity's truth claims to give it primacy in "moral evolution," and that's why many "Christian historians" are turning to Christopher Dawson* these days for a little fortification.
The Lord of the Flies always stands ready to reclaim what is his.
*"Drawing on St. Augustine, Dawson saw the conflict between the City of God and the City of Man
in every age, from the simple dualism between Christian civilization
and barbarism in the pages of Bede to the sharp inner tensions
seen in the writings of Pascal. Although recognizing its
divisiveness, Dawson had kind words for the reformers' zeal for
the Gospel, as it provided an impetus for a reinterpretation of
the Catholic faith that gave rise to the Baroque era and the great
works of the counterreformation.
In a passage evocative of contemporary problems, Dawson described
the fundamental challenge to Christian culture as "the revolt
against the moral process of Western culture and the dethronement
of the individual conscience from its dominant position at the
heart of the cultural process." The medieval insight concerning
the central importance of the rationality and freedom of the
individual personality, an insight that is a hallmark of Western
thought, is in danger of being overwhelmed by a re-absorption of
the individual person to a collective identity, whether it be
based upon nationality, ethnicity, or gender.
When Western society no longer emphasizes moral effort and
personal responsibility, Dawson questions the very survival of
civilization as Christendom has known it for a thousand years.
Modernity is not merely a return to a pre-Christian paradise, as
some New Age adherents would claim; rather, it is a sudden
wrenching of the course of history. Instead of a slow reversal of
the past millennium, Dawson says, "Neo-paganism jumps out of the
top-story window, and whether one jumps out of the right-hand
window or the left makes very little difference by the time one
reaches the pavement."
It was the Christian synthesis of freedom and community that made
modern democracy and political liberty possible, a relation that
was not well understood by the dominant Whig school of history in
his day nor by the various critical theories of our own..."