Among the most certain and melancholy ways to recognize a civilization or society is facing terminal decline is when it ceases to look toward a brighter future and when it is caught between two unacceptable alternatives–nostalgia in the greatness of the past or short-sighted moves designed to appease the masses today without any regard for the future. When both of these approaches are combined it is very likely from a historical perspective that a society, no matter how great, is in deep trouble. It is one thing to recognize this fact, though, and another to examine why, and so let us do so here today.
So long as an institution or a society has a vision for a better future, it can maintain the support of its people throughout grave difficulty. A love for the past alone, without the prospect of a better future, only turns a society into a retirement community, where fading memories and gloomy reminisces about the good old days drive away those who are young to abandon their roots and culture for alternatives that offer something for the future rather than a long and grim lifetime full of regrets. No matter how great a society or institution once was in the past, it will not endure unless it continues to have something to offer for the present and future. If all we have is the past, we can write antiquarian historical works about the dead culture, like that of the Etruscans, and get on to life in the present.
As a student of history, I am by no means suggesting that anyone should ignore the glories of the past, if they can be found. On the other hand, if all one has is looking to recapture the past without a vision of a better future, then the past has ceased to have meaning. This is what makes traditionalists in general so problematic. Most traditionalist rhetoric paints a false picture of a past without its hypocrisies and problems and then presents that regressive vision as a counterfeit future vision. Only attempting to resurrect the past indiscriminately ends up resulting in a zombie apocalypse, as a rigid adherence to the forms of the past without taking the problems of the present into consideration makes the past undead by attempting unnaturally to prolong institutions beyond the point where they are truly alive and well. Sometimes old forms, no matter how treasured they are, must be left to be honored and treasured as historical memories and inspirations for the future, if they no longer command the loyalty and love of the greater society at large.
After all, man was not made to slavishly copy laws and constitutions and traditions. Our institutions are created to serve us today and to serve our interests and help us fulfill our dreams and goals and visions for tomorrow. If they cannot do so, then they do not deserve to exist, no matter how revered they have been. Edmund Burke was wise in pointing to government as an organic covenant between the dead, the living, and those yet unborn. Those who are genuine conservatives do not conserve the best of the past simply because it is old, but because it is good, and still relevant and still serves our best interests now and in the future. So long as the past still lives and is still able to be purged of its corruption and the natural process of decay, it is still alive and still presents a future-oriented vision. But all too often I see from those who consider themselves to be conservatives only a longing at the past without any idea of a better world that a sound understanding of the past can help us create.
But traditionalism is not the only ditch that societies can fall into, even if it is a popular one (one of the saddest examples being that of the city of Novgorad in Russia). Another telltale sign that a society or institution is in a terminal state of decline is when the exigencies of the present and the interests in a given elite in holding on to power overwhelm all concern for the future. When short-sighted actions are taken against the longer-term interests of an institution or society, and when little thought is given to the future ramifications because the short-term pressures are so immediate and urgent, one knows that the institution or society is in grave danger of collapse, because short-term thinking rarely translates into long-term success.
One of the crises of a wide variety of nations today, whether we are talking about the United States, Europe, China, Thailand, or their populace, is the debt crisis. Whether we are speaking about our personal debt (whether in building it up or attempting to get rid of it completely) or that of our societies, all too often our financial goals are largely short term. We borrow tens of thousands of dollars to earn degrees in the hope of landing good jobs that require such degrees, and often do not find them, making it impossible for us to handle our financial obligations. On the other extreme we may live very simply and seek to avoid any debt at all but have no greater vision or purpose to invest in for the future, enjoying neither present pleasure or the possibility of a better tomorrow because of our fears about the future.
In many cases, the behavior of governments as well as private citizens oscillates between greed and fear. We demand results now and are not willing to take the time to build for a better future either in our personal or business relationships, and our governments and corporations are the same. What are the quarterly results? What is the weekly unemployment data? What is the price of gasoline at the pump or food in the grocery store? There is no long-term loyalty, because we are seeking the immediate fulfillment of our wants and needs. A lack of long-term interest or planning, however, eventually comes home to roost. Without loyalty we cannot expect for happy or enduring personal relationships, stable or successful lives, or a bright future with loving institutions of family and community. All of these require a future vision and tangible steps taken to achieve that future in order to endure present suffering or overcome the wounds and errors of the past.
A vision of the future is what provides us with a sense of perspective that allows us to be patient and to persevere. Where there is no vision, rewards must be immediate and constant in order to be worthwhile, since the future value of any decision or relationship is assumed to be zero in the absence of a long-term view. Acting with the future in mind, and making decisions that pay out well over the long term (and that address presents needs and concerns) requires us to value the future and recognize that sometimes it requires a great deal of time and effort to create something of lasting value. Sadly, this perspective seems to be vanishing, and in its place we have insecurity in all aspects of our lives, and no prospect of a better future unless we can stop living in the nostalgia of an imagined past and stop acting in a short-term way, but instead think about how we are going to make a better tomorrow. It’s not easy, but it’s only a hope of a better future that makes life endurable today.