For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not. Yet I say with confidence, that I know that if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time. Those two times, therefore, past and future, how are they, when even the past now is not; and the future is not as yet? But should the present be always present, and should it not pass into time past, time truly it could not be, but eternity. If, then, time present—if it be time—only comes into existence because it passes into time past, how do we say that even this is, whose cause of being is that it shall not be—namely, so that we cannot truly say that time is, unless because it tends not to be?—St Augustine, Confessions
Ever since Plato’s famous ruminations about eternity in the Republic, political philosophers have argued that there is a fundamental relationship between politics and time. Plato argues that the world of temporality is rather like shadows cast on a wall: a mere fleeting appearance, which gestures to the beauty of the immortal world of forms. In the same manner, our imperfect institutions can only stumble to approximate eternal justice. Scholastic thinkers, such as St. Augustine, have ruminated on the nature of time, observing that our sinful nature means that anything we build is subject to decline and fall over the course of history. In the modern era, Hegel and Marx argue that human history is a butcher’s rack of atrocities, and can only be redeemed through a recognition of the slow progress of human freedom and reason. Existential philosophers from Nietzsche to Heidegger have insisted that the modern world is wracked by nihilism, as we have gradually weaned ourselves off the dream of an eternal Christian afterlife and been forced to deal with the finite nature of our existence. In the vast expanse of cosmic time, our lives barely register; life is just a shadow of the true reality: annihilation. From nothing we came and to nothing we return.
But what conception of time do we have in our contemporary, postmodern epoch? Patrick Deneen’s essay “Progress and Memory: Making Whole Our Historical Sense” provides some clues. Deneen is the greatest conservative thinker of our era, and, in the course of analyzing the fractured relationship between different political perspectives and time, he argues for a conservatism which makes our sense of time whole. But progressives, as we’ll see, view time differently from Deneen’s characterisation of them: aligning it with freedom.
The Modern Politics of Time
Deneen proposes a quadripartite taxonomy of political perspectives and associates each with a particular orientation to time. Physicists continue to debate the relativity and even existence of temporality (see Lee Smolin and Roberto Unger’s The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time). But Deneen approaches time in a more human way: dividing it into past, present and future. His essay contends that there are three deficient political perspectives, each of which privileges one dimension of time, while sincere conservatism alone treats time as a whole.
According to Deneen, liberalism is fixated on the present. The liberal rejects the past’s authority over her actions and uses political power to undermine tradition’s hold on the present. In Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen claims that this present-centeredness helps explain why liberalism has always been defined by a paradoxical relationship to the state. On the one hand, liberals want complete freedom from political authority and militate against institutions like the Church and against conventional morality. This leads them to demand substantial liberties, guaranteed by law. But, on the other hand, liberals want to be free of the natural contingencies of life—both those that existed before birth and those that emerge as we age—which leads them to call for intense state intervention to ameliorate suffering. Liberals also tend to feel little obligation to either their ancestors or their descendants. The point of existence, for them, is the pursuit of self-interest by individuals who live in the here and now. Freedom means owing nothing to either the past or the future.
By contrast, progressivism is an optimistic outlook, which looks firmly to the future. Deneen notes that many progressives from Marx onwards have admired Darwin’s evolutionary theory, reading into it a progressive vision of history as constant improvement. Progressives radicalize the liberal position by asserting that the point of life is absolute freedom from contingency. They therefore support even grander state intervention than liberals do, in order to accomplish this. However, progressives also feel that the present does not live up to this project: the best is yet to come. Life as it is currently lived is imperfect and unjust: those unfortunate enough to live now are denied the utopian society that is always yet to arrive. Rather than resign itself to such a fate, in its darkest iterations progressivism demands more and more power, to transform the present into the future as quickly as possible. This can include liquidating any features of the present that are seen as barriers to the realization of a future utopia.
Deneen uses the term nostalgism to describe the mirror image of progressivism. If the progressive is an optimist, always looking to the future, the nostalgist is a relentless pessimist, who fears that humanity’s best days are behind us. Nostalgists fantasize about a highly idealized version of the past. If the progressive is willing to overlook the negative consequences of his relentless pursuit of cosmic justice, the nostalgist is willing to overlook the racism, sexism and violence that characterized the alleged golden age. In their most reactionary moments, nostalgists are willing to cause tremendous damage in an attempt to turn back the tide of history.
Deneen concludes his essay by discussing authentic conservatism, which he argues is the only political philosophy that maintains the wholeness of time. To its critics, conservatism often looks like a variant of nostalgism. Deneen admits that conservatives are often uniquely respectful of the traditions and values of the past. But a thoughtful conservative also accepts that time will inevitably bring about change, and that this is to be cautiously welcomed, where beneficial. Such a conservative will try to ensure a political and cultural continuity between what came before, what is now and what will be:
The conservative disposition conserves time in its full dimension—past, present, and future—and above all defends those forms of culture that provide safe transmission of the past through the present and into the indefinite future. Conservatism misunderstands itself when it considers itself as solely or exclusively about the past—though, of course, it gives a special pride of place, centrality and importance to inheritance, memory and tradition. It was none other than Burke who articulated the essential wholeness of time, positing—against the likes of Hobbes and Locke—that the social contract was not merely “a partnership between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.”
To invoke Edmund Burke, for Deneen, the true conservative sees society as a contract between the dead, the living and the as yet unborn.
Constructing an Alternative Progressive Conception of Time
There is a great deal to admire in Deneen’s essay. But he is too hard on his political opponents and too soft on conservatism. Most of us emphasize one dimension of temporality over the others. Deneen himself often expresses a nostalgic admiration for antiquity and the Christian epoch, while condemning modern liberalism for its subjectivism and superficiality. His argument for conserving all the dimensions of time recalls Martin Heidegger’s account of “ecstatic time” and authenticity. Like Deneen, in Being and Time Heidegger sees the modern world of “clock time” as radically inauthentic and present focused. He calls for a more holistic approach to temporality, which entails a rejection of the modern world and a return to an idealized premodern ruralism. Conceiving of the fullness of time often seems to mean stopping the clock altogether.
This is what Deneen misses about the progressive vision of temporality. At their worst, progressive conceptions of time embody the utopian optimism he rightfully criticizes. This can lead to a fierce condemnation of the present and a resentment of the current world. But, at their best, progressive conceptions of time have a redemptive quality that is absent from the other approaches. In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel, for example, notes that most of human existence has been truly rotten. When one adds together all the wars, discrimination and mindless destruction, history can look like a “slaughter bench,” lurching from farce to tragedy. This was also the position of Schopenhauer, who follows Macbeth in arguing that history is a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” This led Schopenhauer to an ultimately pessimistic philosophy of existence.
The problem is that, if history makes no progress, all the past sacrifices and suffering will have been pointless. Progressives deny this nihilistic conclusion, while insisting that the just future world will redeem the trust our ancestors placed in us to both preserve and build upon their accomplishments. In antiquity and the Christian era, such redemption was expected to come from an external deity, who would perfect the world at the end of time. Hegelian progressives secularize this goal by insisting that the better future will come about through free human acts.
Progressives insist on redeeming the past by combatting ongoing injustices, in order to establish a better future for ourselves and our descendants. Progressivism is therefore holistic—though it also insists that truly free human beings must sometimes let go of the past by breaking decisively with its vulgarities. There is nothing admirable in conserving the legacy of apartheid, Jim Crow or Nazism—even though we must remember them and guard against their recurrence.
Conceived in this way, a progressive conception of time is not only plausible, but inspiring. It rejects utopianism by insisting that it is always our free responsibility to make the future better than the present, while revering the past as part of a shared and ongoing struggle to achieve justice in this world.