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On the Wrong Side of History

Winter 2015 - Vol. 57, No. 1


This editor's note appears in the Winter 2015 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


Garrett Mattingly begins his biography of Catherine of Aragon by contrasting “one foam-capped wave” in the “boiling torrent” of history, “which seems to sweep everything before it,” with the lonely, resistant “rock,” over which “the flood sweeps,” and “the spectators note only the individual tragedy, unconscious of the solid base cleaving the current below. But the integrity of the granite,” he continues, “not less than the fury of the rushing water, shapes the final course of the stream.”

Integrity and fury are all too apt as attributes for Catherine and Henry VIII, the intimate tormenter of her final years. Henry, whose reign began auspiciously, eventually developed the paranoid brutality of Stalin along with the promiscuity of Bill Clinton. Many contemporaries would doubtless regard the two modern figures as occupying, in their divergent ways, “the right side of history.” Henry VIII, had he known the phrase, might well have justified his harsh, dishonorable treatment of his loyal, loving, and virtuous wife by observing that she was “on the wrong side of history.”

These two historical personages, Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, ought to give us pause when we set about judging men and women by how successfully they adapt themselves to current cultural and political trends. Under the tutelage of Thomas Cromwell, Henry was an exponent of the latest ideas of statecraft: royal absolutism, centralization of power, and the rationalization of any means to achieve these goals. This project entailed the absolute necessity of producing a male heir to solidify and extend the Tudor dynasty (a “need” that coincided conveniently with the king’s unbridled erotic proclivities), and Henry went through six wives, disrupted and radically altered English society, and initiated a reign of terror to bring this goal about.

Clio, the muse of history, is, however, an ironist. The boy that Henry finally sired died a teenager, and since neither he nor the two despised, disowned daughters provided any issue, the dynasty died out with their generation. Henry had certainly ridden the crest of history and changed his world, but the outcome would have been unimaginable as well as appalling to him. Catherine, very much on the wrong side of history, with her naive faith in divine Providence, died with her “integrity of granite” intact.

The easy lesson for conservatives to extract from her example would be adamantine resistance to all change. To be “on the right side of history” may be construed as little more than a pretext for timeservers. “Know thou this, that men / Are as the time is,” says Edmund to a nameless “Captain” as he assigns him the “man’s work” of murdering the aged Lear and his daughter Cordelia (King Lear 5.3. 30–31). Yet Catherine was no reactionary. She was renowned in her life as a patroness of arts and letters, as a supporter of humanist reform of education, and as a gentle, charitable woman. From the beginning she had more liberality than her husband and as deep a commitment to improving the cultural as well as the political standing of his realm. In fact, she epitomizes the kind of thoughtful person who appreciates what may be called genuine progress, as opposed to the progressive, in heedless pursuit of any and all change with no regard for the cost in ruined fortunes, lives, and institutions.

In her modest way, Catherine anticipates the patron of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. Burke resembles her in his liberality and in his commitment to the reform of corrupt and inefficient institutions, but also in his capacity to distinguish between reform and sheer destruction and degradation. Like Catherine, Burke was also much misunderstood, both in his own time and ours, precisely because men are so prone to misjudge the “direction” of history and our proper relation to it.

This particular melancholy fact is apparent in two of the reviews in this issue of Modern Age and always lurks about discussions of conservatism as a perspective on politics and morals. In his review essay of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, Paul Lewis highlights one of the more revealing aspects of the relationship between Burke and Thomas Paine: the latter’s shock that the same man who had supported Irish relief, the prosecution of Warren Hastings for malfeasance in India, and reconciliation with the American colonies responded nonetheless with severe censure to the excesses of the French Revolution.

Burke foresaw the violence and tyranny that would emerge from the Revolution before the worst excesses were apparent, and Clio, the ironist once again, had Paine come very close to decapitation at the hands of Robespierre had the latter not been victimized first by the unleashed fury of revolutionary passion. Paine seems never to have learned the lesson, and this is equally true of many of his contemporary ideological descendants, including Drew Maciag, who attempts to recruit Burke for progressive politics in Edmund Burke in America. Ted McAllister’s review makes short work of Maciag, but also raises important questions about the relationship of Burke and conservatism to history and natural law, which mark the poles of tension in any philosophy of politics and morals worthy of the name.

This tension is likewise on display in Robert Kraynak’s meditation on the Founding Fathers of America, who, like Burke, also tempt contemporary political observers to claim them for their own views and policies. Professor Kraynak sets forth an admittedly “personal” view of how the Founders might have regarded contemporary issues, but he does so in a way that must be acknowledged as reasonable, if not necessarily persuasive to all readers. His views are tempered by an implicit recognition that sensible men and women cannot simply be identified with one “side” of history or the other, because the current of history is very hard to determine when one is caught in its eddies and whirlpools. Clio is an elusive as well as an ironic muse.

In “Debs Is Different,” Jason Morgan shows how revisiting a well-known and widely discussed document can change our view of the place it occupies in history. Placed in context and read with care, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, usually regarded as a Catholic baptism of the progressive labor movement, can be seen as a very cautious, sober endorsement of union activity, which is most important as a bulwark against socialism. Morgan shows that the misprision of Leo’s careful argument is largely owing to the biased progressive interpretation of Msgr. John Ryan, who wished to situate the papacy on the right side of history—an example of “spin” before the term was current.

Ronald Osborn’s meditation on the role of fate in Herodotus’s vision of history goes back to the beginning of the Western tradition to call our attention to the long lineage of our worry over the relationship between individual human agents and the material and temporal conditions of the world they inhabit. In Osborn’s telling, while the Greeks of Herodotus’s day have not escaped the wheel of fate, they have found it worthwhile to fight for the reduction of malicious caprice in human interactions. At the other end of history, Peter Lawler adds another chapter to his urbane project of rethinking postmodernism. Sustaining “The Universal Truth about Particular Persons in America” in the face of what appears to be the irresistible imperative of technological revolution is a struggle not unlike the Greeks’ resistance to the seemingly irreversible expansion of the Persian Empire. For Lawler, postmodernism is not the inevitable next stage in the march of modern history; rather, it is that time, that state of affairs, in which the equivocal turns and reversals of progress are recognized.

By this point, some readers may suspect that I am deliberately avoiding mention of our lead essay, Thomas Hibbs’s “Is Cinema Art?,” because it will not fit into the paradigm of these meditations “on the wrong side of history.” To the contrary, Hibbs reinforces the theme in the very process of considering whether and how it is possible for films to rise to the artistic level of the Iliad, Michelangelo’s Pietà, Hamlet, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is not just that we can assess works of art only in relation to other works of art; we can in fact recognize them as such only within an appropriate cultural context. If cinema is the modern art par excellence, it is not because it has displaced earlier forms and made them irrelevant, but because it remains in continuity with them and continues to fulfill the same human needs and aspirations.

The same principle applies to culture and society as a whole. To place persons or ideas on the right or wrong side of history is a contradiction: it assumes that the one rendering the verdict has transcended the tide of historical necessity that determines the validity of what he judges. Historical determinism is, however, an all-or-nothing proposition: if it applies to one man it applies to another. What is more, determinism of this kind undermines moral choices. There is no right or wrong side of history, but right and wrong do exist. It behooves us to strive for the one and eschew the other.          —RVY