In Defence of the Past

Auguste Comte (1798–1857)

Auguste Comte was one of the most famous and admired thinkers of the early nineteenth century, but fell into obscurity in the course of the twentieth. This is a shame, because Comte’s philosophy is an optimistic one, and his methods are useful in resolving many of the problems we face in the West today.

Comte is best known as the inventor of positivism. His “law of three stages” theory earned him admirers such as John Stuart Mill in England, the Young Turks (not the YouTube commentators), and nineteenth century Mexican educational reformers. The motto ordem e progresso (order and progress) on the Brazilian flag is derived directly from Comte’s ideas.

According to Comte, civilizations pass through three stages of development: the theological stage, the metaphysical stage and the positive stage. In the theological stage, the society believes that all things were created and are controlled by a supernatural being. In the metaphysical stage, the society resorts to reason to explain observed phenomena while still embracing aspects of theology. In the third stage, reason and scientific inquiry explain all phenomena, and the society embraces choice and innovation.

Comte believed that societies naturally progress to the positive stage due to the human hunger for intellectual maturation. Comte’s theory therefore looks keenly towards the future. But it also looks fondly upon the past. According to Comte, every generation is more privileged than the last, because every generation has behind it a larger fund of learning and vicarious experience from which to draw in confronting its problems.

The idea that the past often holds the key to the future might seem obvious, but its acceptance is not widespread. The inherent danger of progressing to the third stage, as we are now seeing, is that our hunger for progress leads us to jettison what is tried and tested for what is different or new. This inclination may be desirable in fields like science and technology, but it is leading us down darker paths in the realms of aesthetics and politics.

Consider the examples of architecture, easel painting, and literature. In these fields, the trend is not to build on the past but to consciously break away from it. Painting passed through several golden ages, from romanticism to impressionism to surrealism, but has today devolved into the dots and random lines of abstract expressionism. Architecture had several golden eras, but the latter ones—brutalism, late modernism, and deconstructionism—are not, I suggest, among them. And in literature, the stream of consciousness style which began with Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger has regressed into the obscurantism of postmodernism.

This is due to the view of many, particularly cultural elites, that art must be new if it is to be valid. One need only read the submissions guidelines of any literary journal to see evidence of this. Two things are generally called for. The first is “diverse” voices, a “progressive” idea that treats a person’s inherent characteristics as a relevant criterion for their suitability for publication. The second is work that “experiments with form” or displays “new styles of writing.”

It is notoriously difficult to write a good short story. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that writers are being invited to invent new forms when in most cases they have few proven skills as conventional story tellers. James Joyce demonstrated these skills in Dubliners before charting new terrain with Ulysses. Picasso was an accomplished portrait painter before he experimented with abstract forms. Artists are being hectored to run before they can walk, to produce something new before they’ve produced anything good.

The same trend is evident in politics. Among many, what is new is considered good seemingly by virtue of its novelty, with outcomes that are even more worrying than in the aesthetic domain. We are now at the point where an accusation of sexual assault is as good as a conviction, where punching someone the assailant believes to be a “Nazi” is not just accepted but applauded. We are now at a point where, if a group arbitrarily deems a person racist or misogynist, that person is excluded from debate and often has his or her livelihood threatened.

These are the new frontiers of progressive politics. But are they in fact good ideas? The fashionable answer is “yes.” The honest answer is “no.” What is new in politics is no more necessarily good than what is new in art. Ideas, like aesthetics, pass the test of time precisely because they are good, and for this reason ought not to be jettisoned lightly.

A system which demonstrates this is the common law, one of the finest examples of the positivist method. The common law is the English legal system in which abstract principles are applied to novel facts to produce a just resolution to a dispute. It uses reason to achieve equality and logical coherence, ideals safeguarded through a hierarchical system of review to rectify bias and human error.

It is no coincidence that England has never had a violent revolution of the type seen in almost every comparable nation in the world over the last few centuries. Indeed, modern Britain has been one of the stablest democracies in the history of human civilization. This is in large part because the courts of common law have slowly conferred rights on those subject to its jurisdiction through incremental reasoning, drawing upon a vast fund of accumulated learning.

And, contrary to popular opinion, Britain has, or at least, had a proud human rights record until politicians began to impose themselves in all aspects of civic life following the Second World War. In 1701, Sir John Holt, the Lord Chief Justice of England said: “As soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free.” This sentiment would not be repeated in most other societies until more than a century later.

The common law demonstrates the value of looking bravely towards the future while guarding jealously the values that have stood the test of time. It is a shining example of the potential of Comtean positivism to deliver human beings from discrimination and persecution.

So how would the common law answer the questions those committed to the politics of novelty today pose? It says that violence is only justified in self defence. That guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. That the only limit to political speech is that which incites imminent violence. In sober moments, most would agree that these values are preferable to the reactionary calls to deprive people of their rights without the due process of law.

It is true that times change, and that our values require constant reflection and recalibration. But certain features of human nature—our desire to be free, to be equal under the law, to be able to voice our opinions and to determine our own futures—are immutable and universal. If we are keen enough observers of human affairs, and have enough regard for the wisdom of those who went before us, we accept these facts as axiomatic and are unlikely to want to disturb them.

It might be a good moment for us to stand back and place our contemporary problems within a wider historical context of intellectual inquiry. This is not an appeal to revert to old ways of thinking. It is an appeal to intellectual humility, to acknowledging that the questions we now face have been confronted before, and that the answers we came up with then might still be the right ones.

In the aesthetic domain, artists should focus on producing work which is good before attempting to invent new forms. Diversity is great. So is novelty. But these are means to an end, not the end itself. Happily, today we have more art and a larger reservoir of human understanding available to us than anyone who has ever lived. The past is not something to look back on with shame or contempt. Whether it is because we got things wrong or because we got them right, the past is our servant, the key to a richer future and higher states of consciousness.

So let us eschew the politics and aesthetics of novelty and reorient our thinking towards what, over time, has proved to be true and good.


RJ Smith is an Australian writer and academic living in Paris. He teaches law at La Sorbonne and runs a blog called Polite at You can follow him on twitter @always_polite


  1. Great article. One quibble, although most modern architecture is an abomination, built on the basis of pure utility, cheapness and temporary value per square foot, there are examples of modern architecture, which, whilst appearing technological in construction on the outside, are monuments to thriving human spaces on the inside. Sir Roger Scruton makes this distinction when talking about the general trends in human habitats and working spaces.

    Anyway, here’s a brief tour of the Lloyd’s Building:

    Generally, I agree with the writer, in that there is a tendency to sneer at the idea of beauty, the Enlightenment and human progress overall, despite the fact that by almost every metric human life seems to be getting better at an incredible rate. Part of the cognitive dissonance in analysing the world, comes the perverse incentive that media has for doom-laden prognostication and feeding our flawed availability heuristic, in order to sell news. Another part lies in the resentment intellectuals feel at largely being displaced as arrangers of human affairs, by the fact that the iterative processes of the market routinely outperform the most brilliant minds, with human agency relegated to the role of fine-tuners, diagnosticians and adjusters. But the largest part of all, resides in the justification for major political upheavals, the desperate need to reassert relevancy over the commons and regain primacy over the running of human affairs. It is, after all, one of the primary reasons why all Socialist states ultimately fail disastrously- because even if Socialism is not often run by intellectuals, it is almost always advised and staffed by them.

  2. “It is no coincidence that England has never had a violent revolution of the type seen in almost every comparable nation in the world over the last few centuries.”

    Actually, it had TWO in the Seventeenth Century, the Civil War and the so-called “Glorious Revolution”, though it conveniently managed to fight much of the first and all of the second in Ireland. Revolutions against England occurred in 1715, 1745, 1776, 1798, 1848, and 1916 etc.

  3. C. S. Lewis famously termed the automatic deprecation of the past as “Chronological Snobbery” though he would not have agreed with Comte’s deprecation of the supernatural.

  4. Nice quote, I’ll have to remember than one. Of course, in the modern context that snobbery is best described as selective horror. Selective, in the sense that it singles out Western civilisation, for sins that were uniform throughout history, and simply amplified by relative technological prowess, and horror, in that they simply cannot conceive that mans place in nature, is both brutal and necessitates brutality, a depraved, deprived struggle to reach 25, toothless and old before one’s time.

  5. While reading the article my thoughts wandered. Recently i attended the POLA art gallery in Hakone Japan. In the foyer my attention was drawn to a series of random bell like sounds. I explored and found the Clinamen created by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. My experience of that work was a mixture tears and laughter and quiet stillness. I experienced similar complex emotions when viewing some work by Louise Bourgeois in Sydney many years ago. The search for such profoundly moving experience is why I, and i imagine others , view art. Mostly i am disappointed.
    video of the work can be found on line.
    It seems to me that many people who, in their hearts, know they are mere dabblers contine to create and exhibit their work and try to search for that elusive spark. The same is true in music and theatre. One tries and fails but reaches the stars. Perhaps it is necessary to have pool of mediocrity to give birth to the great ones.
    Anyway … an interesting article covering many points.

  6. Excellent article. As pointed out above, the statement on revolution should be somewhat adjusted for the English civil war (which was also somewhat related to the wars of religion that were ongoing in all of Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries ) - but to my knowledge it did not reach the levels of violence seen in the French Revolution of 1789 or the Russian Revolution.

    However, the author is on the right track that it is true that compared to much continental Europe, Britain has had a smoother, more peaceful (at least internally) and more democratic history, especially since the Enlightenment.
    Similar things can be said about the Dutch Republic and to the Scandinavian countries, so Britain is not unique. More broadly, even today the safest and most peaceful societies are all constitutional monarchies, which is a result of peaceful evolution peacefully to their current state. I hope it can stay like this but I do have serious doubts.

    As for art, I am horrified by how awful contemporary offerings are, and it is obvious how fracturing societies have an effect on this. A few years ago there was an exhibition in Vienna on russian artists who lived through the revolution. Whereas the was beauty and joy in the pre revolutionary paintings, with tender depictions of their wives and girlfriends, their work after the revolution became fractured and cynical, which suggests mental deterioration and psychosis. This trend seems to have taken over. The worst I have seen was in the museum of contemporary art in Zurich, where they have a simple concrete block on a pedestal. Occupying half a room.

    Truth be said, much of high brow art today has two functions. The first is to humiliate the viewer by presenting them with bullshit that they are supposed to take seriously. Picasso was particularly guilty of this in his later years. The second is to function as a tax evasion device for the ultra rich and a scam for stealing public money.

  7. I have been considering those for quite some time.

    I am reminded of a scene in the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead, in which the main character, an architect played by Gary Cooper, is showing a model of his design for a high-rise office building.

    His model is a drab, flat and unattractive rectangular shape with no heart or soul. His disappointed clients have secretly commissioned a snap-on addition to the model which adds a few decorative features and is actually quite subtle and understated.

    Naturally, Gary Cooper flies into a rage and quits the job and the profession, preferring to engage in humble toil as a ditch digger.

    I saw these fictional movie clients - bankers and businessmen - as the true heroes of the film. I admired their courage in standing up against the arrogance and brutal stupidity of the architect.

    How I wish more corporations would, in the real world, stand up against these architectural bullies.

  8. A bit off-topic but your post made me wonder what a different kind of news might be like. I suppose we couldn’t even call it “news” in the sense we understand it now. What if instead of fragmentary, disconnected, and ephemeral stories, there was a place that focused on long term trends? The kind of trends that develop slowly, and hence are easily missed, but are of critical importance. For example, the emergence of bureaucracy as the universal form of organization is one such trend.

    Stories and discussions would be connected and historically grounded in the context of such trends. Even the current outbreak of irrationality we know as the SJW movement could be examined as an historical phenomena (what are its antecedents? What have other outbreaks looked like in the past?) rather than engaging with its daily outrages.

    News, though occasionally stimulating, does not foster real understanding and may even inhibit it. Understanding requires a longer term perspective in which information is connected and in context. News thrive on novelty, I wonder if some medium might succeed that avoids novelty in favor of deeper analysis–more like a book than a newspaper.

  9. Very interesting comment. I do think there is a huge market for it, both individually and in a commercial sense. I also think it would serve as an early warning system of sorts, culturally and particularly in relation to child-rearing. Liberals are very good at bringing positive cultural change, but they also have a tendency to through the baby out with the bathwater- failing to understand the importance of fathers to childhood development was a diabolical sin of neglect.

    On the cultural trends front, I think Niall Ferguson hit the nail on the head, when he compared the current technological transformation to the invention of the printing press, although people being burned at the stake is figurative and virtual, at the moment, there are early sign that it might be becoming literal, especially in relation to ICE facilities and in terms of border enforcement. I think there are also some parallels to the Salem Witch Trials. It is worth noting that Witch Trials in Britain, also had significant numbers of female accusers, with the links between reputation damage and female aggression well understood in psychological circles.

    On an interesting note, I think we now have the answer to the old first year philosophy question, what would a Matriarchal society look like? Terrifying, I think is the answer. Apart from slower progress in the sciences, due to this desire for consensus thinking, rather than the combat of ideas, it seems that mob or vigilante justice would be very much the order of the day. Also, a great deal more meddle intrusion into the ordinary citizens life, often masquerading as the desire to help. I have yet to see the feminists making the rounds to address the current bump in male suicides, but I am sure it won’t be long until they begin to offer the prognosis that men just need to talk about their feelings more.

    No! Men need to seek guidance, when appropriate. Talking about feelings, is an unfortunate diagnostic necessary to help a young man find a solution to the way he currently feels. It helps formulate a plan of action, especially within the context of CBT.

  10. Your rights do not disappear simply because someone has violated them.

  11. I always used to think that the reason why Matriarchal societies didn’t exist in the past, was because the primacy of the masculine sphere prioritised safety, security and food supply over community needs in hunter/gatherer societies- but now I’m not so sure. With the SJW progressive movement we have our first proto-matriarchal society to study, up close and personal. In defence of women, historically the feminine sphere was always governed by a gerontarchy, with the older woman ruling the younger with an iron fist. Indeed, some have suggested that the veil was introduced in Islamic societies at the behest of older women, in order to cement their power, by governing breeding rights.

    So perhaps the stability of the feminine sphere is balanced by the masculine sphere on the one hand, and the preeminence of older, wiser women on the other. It is certainly a view I’ve seen Camille La Paglia describe to an extent, in talks and discussions. So perhaps if, just as younger men are left unsupervised by older men they become football hooligans, younger women left unsupervised by older women become social wreckers, intent on pushing boundaries and definitions to the point that society breaks.

    It is a bit worrying. As I think I’ve mentioned in the past to you, Ray- my participation in Quillette, is part of a long-term strategy to polish my prose enough to be able to write a sci fi novel. I might have to ask Claire at some point to recommend a list of publishers unafraid of a bit of controversy, who haven’t yet bowed to the demands of the outrage mob, in the form of sensitivity readers.

    It’s a bit ironic really, given the synopsis of the novel involves a culture of offshoot humans returning to Earth with company, to help humanity tackle climate change, without significantly damaging the global economy or human progress. Because with everything I’ve learned and researched about anthropogenic climate change, and knowing what I do about human nature, it’s a pretty straightforward, evidence-based prognosis, that in almost every conceivable scenario, anthropogenic climate change ends up worse with any attempt to intervene, overthrow, or somehow reform the global economy.

  12. I suspect you may put too much overthinking into my comments. Gravity exists because it’s real. Rights are an illusion, a thought experiment. I personally love rights, and wish rights were better protected. But that’s the real point, that if nobody protects the rights, you find out they don’t actually exist without enforcement. The right is something people agree exist, like national borders. If you don’t protect a national border, does it really exist?

  13. Well said Morgan. I believe the term is subsidence.

    I think it’s the same process happening in Jakarta, which is forcing them to relocate it, as the capital of Indonesia.

  14. I think you have made an interesting point. My view has always been that ‘‘rights’’ are what is left after government has diminished the one inherent right of all humans to do absolutely what they bloody-well like.
    The point of State is to uphold the rights that are left to us by providing peace and good government.

  15. @ Ray and Geary: another event from yesterday here in my street, related with your comments above. A father with his son of 4 yrs old, I guess, biking in my street, the boy on a kids bike. After checking there was no traffic, the father yelled to his son " Now, yes, go for it, as fast as you can!!".

    I laughed, and thought immediately, would any mother, ever, however wise, say such a thing to her sweet kids, boy or girl? I fear, never!

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