You want to be the kind of person who does the right thing even when it’s hard. You came to college to learn about truth and goodness. You want to end up on the “right side of history” alongside those heroes from history: abolitionists, suffragettes, defenders of the weak and innocent. But now your professors and fellow students are telling you that to be a good person, you have to give up on objective truth and morality, because these things are definitely not on the side of goodness. They are telling you that unless you give up on God, truth, and morality, you’ll join the ranks of slaveholders, sexual oppressors, and fascists, forever banned from the right side of history.
Don’t worry, there’s good news: there is no right side of history.
That doesn’t mean there’s not good or evil. More on that to come.
This progressive morality is a crude form of Marxism, which promises that history will bring about the class war and the abolition of inequality. But the idea that history is a self-revelatory entity that will justify itself is much older than Marx. The turmoil on campuses to overthrow tradition, eliminate morality, and silence truth is just the foam on top of philosophical poison that has been bubbling for millennia. It’s not just about history or politics. It’s an attempt to justify existence itself.
Is Morality Progressive?
The great Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, in his masterpiece Main Currents of Marxism, traces the roots of the Marxist dependence on history back to a disagreement between (who else?) Plato and Aristotle about the relationship between matter and goodness. Plato, broadly speaking, indicates that true Goodness is an Idea; therefore matter, by being matter, is necessarily separated from it. Aristotle argued that matter can be good if it exists in accordance with the laws of goodness, which govern both ideas and matter.
With the introduction of Christianity, the conversation quickly got personal, because instead of talking about ideas and matter, philosophers could talk about God and creation. The question came up as to why God created matter. Christianity believes that as long as there was only God, there was no evil, but almost as soon as He created, there was evil. So why did He create? There are two possibilities:
(1) God created, not knowing the possibility of evil.
(2) God created, knowing the possibility of evil.
Option 1 leads, inevitably, to progressive historicism: the “right side”/“wrong side” language implying that history is an entity capable of increasing moral self-awareness. If God was unaware of the possibility of evil and then learned of it through creation, then God’s concept of morality is changing in response to the things He learns through history. In other words, there is no objective morality. History is God’s attempt to understand and cope with evil. If God is powerful, He will eventually defeat evil, so progress through history is actually progress toward the defeat of evil through the knowledge God has achieved. (note: In the ninth century, the pope denounced this view as heresy.)
“But my professors don’t believe in God!” you’re probably saying. “Why does any of this matter?” Simply because in the eighteenth century philosophers started substituting “Humanity” (capital H) for “God.” Do that in the paragraph above, and you have a textbook explanation of progressive morality. It’s not an attempt to find goodness; it’s an attempt to understand and defeat evil. The progressive condemnation of things that were previously considered morally good (sexuality mores, respect for religion, promotion of civic virtue) makes perfect sense; our understanding of morality has progressed so that we can now see those things as evil.
The “right side of history” is a trap because we can never know if we are on it or not. The next generation could come along and disprove everything we think we know; in fact, as we’re seeing right now, they could discover that we are all villains of the highest order. The moral goal today is inclusion (of certain things); tomorrow it could be stability or efficiency (as in Soviet Russia or Maoist China), and the protests, rallies, and strikes of the “heroes” on your campus could be condemned as seditious or downright evil.
Morality Outside of History
There’s another option, of course. It is possible that God created the world knowing that evil was a possibility. Free will (which God chose to create) meant that created beings could choose evil, which they did. This wasn’t inevitable, but it was a possibility all along. So goodness—living according to God’s will—and evil are objective realities; they don’t change as history progresses, because God isn’t changing with history.
Don’t worry if your convictions are showing up on the “wrong side of history” lists on campus. History has no sides; it is simply a record of what has come before. The rapidly changing progressive “morality” of college campuses doesn’t give any real insight into the nature of good or evil.
If you’re truly interested in goodness, look instead at the moral teachers who’ve fixed their idea of morality outside of history. (A few names to start with, which are disappearing from syllabi: Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, Aristotle, Christ, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn.) You might not be on the right side of history, but you’ll be right anyway.
Jane Scharl has a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from the King's College in New York, and has previously written for National Review Online, InEarnest Magazine, and Comment Magazine.