Is Great Art Ahead of Its Time?

Daniel E. Ritchie

Spring 2024

Throughout nearly 40 years of teaching, I often heard talks or read articles on Chaucer, Milton, Swift, or some other canonical author that dealt with race, class, or gender. Frequently the scholar concluded, somewhat to his astonishment, that the old guy was "ahead of his time." Perhaps the scholar had seriously looked into Swift's critique of empire in Gulliver's Travels or found new insight into Chaucer's sympathy for the Wife of Bath. Milton's portrayal of the mutuality between husband and wife, 350 years after his death, comes as a surprise to some scholars — though it was known and appreciated by women who read Paradise Lost in the 1700s.

 When my students wrote such things — again, fairly often — my marginal note went something like this: "Perhaps he was ahead of his time. But perhaps we don't really understand his time very well. What we do know is that he was popular in his time or shortly thereafter. But setting that aside, isn't it more important to ask what questions he provokes for our time?"

After describing similar anecdotes to a colleague some time ago, I asked a different but related question: If these writers, so central to our culture's formation, were "ahead of their time," who are the people who fashioned the oppressive culture from which today's critics are seeking to liberate us? I then joked that Homer must have been "ahead of his time," since Penelope tests Odysseus near the end of the Odyssey when she confirms his identity by tricking that wiliest of strategists into revealing the secret of their bed's location — something only Odysseus could have known. Not to concede the point, my colleague responded: "Well, apparently Homer was ahead of his time."

Now, I studied Homeric Greek in college — not very successfully, but enough to respect the philologists, archeologists, and classicists who have helped us understand the culture in which the Iliad and the Odyssey were written. I would never offer an original opinion about that culture. Still less would I speculate about its allegedly progressive or regressive elements.

But Greek cultural history was irrelevant to my colleague's remark; all that mattered was classifying Homer's work according to our modern-day notions of progress. That classification procedure, of course, is regularly applied to Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and every other significant writer. It asks: How closely do their insights and values match ours? And it assumes they're "ahead of their time" when they anticipate the present — and better still when they anticipate a future, even more progressive culture.

To censure this approach as "woke" is to foreclose conversation. Instead, I'll call it "progressive historicism," because it sees education as a historic narrative of progress and liberation from the past. Ultimately, this mode of critical judgment turns education into a technique. And, consciously or not, its practitioners ultimately treat human beings as processes forged by historical forces in the journey to liberation.

Such an approach injures our view of past authors and their relevance for today. It also mars the way many new historical novels, films, and television series set about representing the past. It turns education into a system for classifying great works by their position along the supposed arc of history. And it damages our view of human nature.

Yet for all the shortcomings of this approach, I see it more as heretical than erroneous. Heresies take a partial truth and emphasize it out of all reasonable proportion. But they often raise significant questions about theology — or, in this case, history, art, education, gender, and the human condition. We would all be better off if we stopped, listened, and received those questions, and used a similar approach to works of art themselves.


The colleague of mine who insisted that Homer was ahead of his time might accept some of the observations I've made. I'm sure she would also add, however, that society does change. Don't authors and critics, therefore, have a responsibility to direct such change in a positive way?

Certainly. When Plato exiles the poets from his ideal city, he holds out hope for their return if they can show how they benefit the polis. One can read Aristotle's Poetics as a response to Plato's challenge: Plays that refine the proper objects of our social compassion ("pity") or horrified rejection ("terror") are good for our cultural health.

It is completely different, however, to praise an author for anticipating the cultural values of our day — or the values of some future, utopian era. That assumes the critic already knows what habits of the heart and mind are needed for social flourishing. Aristotle's ideal playgoer, by contrast, needs to learn something from Oedipus or the Oresteia.

A second assumption implicit in progressive historicism is that the social role of art is to uncover the oppressive cultural regime of the past and replace it — or reinterpret it — with stories of resistance and liberation. In the process, the splendid, multi-layered work of great authors is flattened into a single dimension. Historical complexity is forced into a single narrative. And the enduring questions that mark truly classic works are allegedly answered, with no troubling, fruitful, or beautiful implications that await future readings. It's the politics of oppression and liberation all the way down.

This second assumption has still more troubling implications. For the progressive critic's analysis may not be liberating at all: The practices he assumes to be virtuous may actually be vicious.

The treatment of Jane Austen over the last half-century can illustrate the problem — though the same could be said of the treatment of Shakespeare, Milton, Emily Dickinson, and others.

Austen's works are as popular now as they have ever been with the general public; they do not languish in the college syllabus, nor do they await the occasional visitation of the lonely scholar. They are regularly turned into films, plays, and adaptations. But all of Austen's novels end in a marriage that promises to be happy. And for certain feminist scholars, especially since the 1980s, that poses a problem.

In her immensely influential book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir taught feminists to see marriage in opposition to "promoting [a woman's] personal development." She could only countenance marriage as a "provisional" association that could be ended at will, and that remained open to other sexual liaisons with both men and women. A woman, she continued, must further be liberated from the obligation to bring her unborn children to term. She must be freed from the duty to care for any children she chooses to bear. Finally, she must have a well-paying job to release her from the "vassalage" of a husband's financial support. Only then can marriage find a place in Beauvoir's vision of women's equality and self-development.

While elements of Beauvoir's larger analysis have been questioned, her critique of marriage — certainly the kind of marriage that concludes Jane Austen's novels — is clearly in line with later feminist criticism of Austen. As we consider this criticism, then, isn't it fair to compare Beauvoir's dream with the social realities it helped shape?

One might say that middle-class American women can now live most of Beauvoir's dream, if they wish (except for access to state-sponsored childcare — for that, Beauvoir recommended the Soviet Union's example). Since 1970, the percentage of Americans ages 25 to 49 who live with their spouse and at least one child has dropped from 67% to 37%. Meanwhile, out-of-wedlock births have risen tenfold — from about 4% to 40% — since 1960. Have these cultural changes and their accompanying social structures resulted in liberation?

Well, as of 2018, 25% of single American women were living in poverty, compared with 4.7% of married women. Sociologists Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang found that, in 2022, married women with children reported being happier with their lives than their single, childless counterparts. Meanwhile, children brought up in single-parent homes are faring poorly. Even the New York Times is willing to print what many have been saying for decades: that children from married couples are overwhelmingly better off — even better off than children whose single parent is well paid — on metrics ranging from education to behavioral stability to future income prospects.

Of course, the social class most exposed to Beauvoir and her followers — college-educated Americans — pay the least attention to her views. Their marriage rates are relatively strong. The cultural strata that reflect Beauvoir's views are inhabited by less-educated Americans. And these people are suffering.

Not surprisingly, declining marriage rates have been especially harmful to black women. In 2022, 24.5% of black single mothers in the United States lived below the poverty level. Conversely, married black couples are doing quite well. If they bucked the trend and established a two-parent, married household with children, black couples earned a median income of approximately $105,000 in 2017. That's not as much as white or Asian households earned ($125,000 and $150,000 respectively), but who would scoff at a median income that tops $100,000?

In short, what Beauvoir and her followers criticized looks a lot like liberation, and what they promoted looks more like oppression — or, to use language of a more recent vintage, structural social injustice.

Thematic analyses, like those based on Beauvoir's writings, always shortchange literary knowledge by compartmentalizing literature. To "analyze" is literally to "unloosen" the parts in order to understand their separate components. But literary works, from poetic lyrics to novels, seek to represent some aspect of life in all its complexity. Literature restores in us a fuller understanding of life; literary criticism that limits itself to analyzing particular ethical, social, religious, or political themes — even important themes like identity, race, or justice — cannot embrace the full humanity of a great text. And if a critic adopts a narrow view of any virtue — justice as equality plus individual agency, for instance — literary criticism becomes little more than classification. If one's reading of Austen is framed by the ideas that Beauvoir popularized, one's analysis of her novels — however logical — amounts to asking and answering one question: Is Austen the right kind of feminist? Her novels' rich psychological, social, emotional, and even religious conversations about men and women in love become irrelevant.

Take Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's agenda-setting book of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Gilbert and Gubar quote from The Second Sex often and allude to this famous claim of Beauvoir:

[Woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute — she is the Other.

For Gilbert and Gubar, Austen's heroines are admirable precisely because they promise, early in the novels, to reject this definition. Early on, they see themselves as the Subject. "Austen never renounces the subjectivity of what her heroines term their own 'madness,'" they write, "until the end of each of their stories." But ending with marriage is a problem. So, Gilbert and Gubar then return to Austen's characters to find a "madness" that will link them, theoretically, to Bertha Mason, the actual "madwoman in the attic" in Jane Eyre. Austen's characters were ahead of their time, apparently, until their psychological and social development resulted in marriage at the climax of each book.

"Because the relationship between personal identity and social role is so problematic for women," Gilbert and Gubar explain, "the emerging self can only survive with a sustained double vision." The pair finds this "doubleness" — which is surely required at times of all adults — degrading. It terminates the characters' affirmation of subjectivity and madness, which they illustrate with a lament for the heroines who marry at the end of Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility:

The mortifications of Emma, Elizabeth, and Marianne are, then, the necessary accompaniment to the surrender of self-responsibility and definition. While Marianne Brandon, Elizabeth Darcy, and Emma Knightley never exist except in the slightly malevolent futurity of all happily-ever-afters, surely they would have learned the intricate gestures of subordination.

I'm not sure what the conditional, final phrase means. But in literature, as in life, mortification at one's deeds often spurs us to change our character and accept responsibility. It motivates us to grow up. And if "[m]atrimony [is] the origin of change," as Austen's narrator asserts barely two pages into Emma, presumably the narrator thinks that all characters will change in unanticipated ways after the wedding bells have ceased. Why should a happy marriage "malevolently" prevent one's future from holding the same admixture of happiness and sorrow that one has experienced in the past?

Not all feminists are happy with the dominant feminist treatment of Austen. As far back as 1990, Julia Prewitt Brown criticized Gilbert and Gubar (along with several other major feminists) for limiting their readings to the thematic question: "[D]id she or did she not advocate traditional, patriarchal marriage?" Since the novels end in marriage, Brown continued, feminists "tend to argue that she did...despite the irony and satire." And such "allegiance to...the established order" is unforgiveable.

To do the kind of thematic reading demanded by progressive historicists, one must ignore the irony and satire essential to literary art, discount any good the author's works have done, and conclude with a self-examination of one's own purity. One reviewer concludes her treatment of a book that condemns the "patriarchal complicity" of Hannah More and Maria Edgeworth — Austen's reform-minded contemporaries — with the question: "Am I a daddy's girl too?" This approach can teach readers to classify a work according to the beliefs they bring to the book, but it cannot make them stop to receive something new from Jane Austen or her contemporaries.

The criticism of Gilbert, Gubar, and their many allies implies that Austen's heroines should simply affirm their adolescent impulses and retain them unchanged into adulthood. Then Marianne, and perhaps others too, could have gone insane like Bertha Mason and achieved an attic of their own.

If we set all this aside and return to Sense and Sensibility, we can join Austen's exploration of Marianne's mind as she describes the latter's ultimate acceptance of the steady affection of the much older Colonel Brandon: "Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims."

The reader knows that Marianne was not born to an extraordinary fate; he knows that all mature adults go through a process similar to what she endured. And yet, Austen attracts a sympathetic reader to Marianne because her tone invites us to allow Marianne the right — even as a young adult — to consider her fate "extraordinary." Austen's complex tone continues, gently bringing Marianne through her psychological recovery into a mature sexual relationship — marriage to Colonel Brandon — and to a new set of social responsibilities:

Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion [for Willoughby], as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting...she found herself at nineteen submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.

Marriage particularly oppresses a woman, writes Beauvoir, by "exempting her from any other participation in collective life." This makes sense only if "collective life" is defined as wage-earning labor and politics in Beauvoir's highly conventional Marxist understanding. After her marriage, Marianne will be intimately involved in the social and economic life of Delaford. The responsibilities of Emma Woodhouse (at Highbury) and Elizabeth Bennet (at Lambton) will be similar — and perhaps even more politically charged. At the end of Persuasion, Anne Elliot will join the sorority of the naval wives, ceaselessly preoccupied with public affairs and their intrusion upon the lives of military families. As clergymen's wives, Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price (of Mansfield Park) will care for their parishes spiritually and economically in ways their husbands cannot. In short, everything in Austen's novels prepare her characters for their individual and collective lives as adults.

Authentic literary discussion of the novels can take into account all of these historical elements without flattening the characters or plots. And unless one is in the grip of an ideology that classifies Austen's characters according to whether they are sufficiently ahead of their time, it is frankly hard to see how readers can predict a passive, individualistic, or socially uninvolved future for their heroines — still less a "malevolent" one.


Nearly 30 years ago, I took students to see King Lear at the Minneapolis theater that Tyrone Guthrie started a decade after he helped launch Canada's Stratford Festival. The theater's program notes referred to recent scholarship on "alternative Shakespeares," which sought to implicate Shakespeare's texts in the contradictions of their hierarchical, early capitalist framework. This scholarship was based on Marxist presuppositions as filtered through the theories of Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and Lucien Goldmann. The Guthrie production's director translated this scholarship to the sexual realm and presented Lear as a sexually abusive father, all based on a strained reading of Lear's speech to his daughter Regan shortly before the latter turns him out on the storm-driven heath: "'Tis not in oppose the bolt/Against my coming in."

In his production, the director intended to give us an incestuous, privileged king who got what he deserved: His madness and death were justified. But for the director's intention to succeed, the Tragedy of King Lear had to fail. Characters get what they deserve in crime fiction. In tragedy, the character (however flawed) gets more than he deserves. Tragedy thereby calls into question the very moral structure of the universe. It inspires words like these: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods/They kill us for their sport." If audience members left the Guthrie thinking that the play merely explained an unjust, hegemonic sociopolitical system with an abusive father at its head, I doubt they were challenged to learn anything new. Still less were they moved to explore the nihilistic edge of the play that Shakespeare actually wrote.

Except that they were. After the play, the actress who played Cordelia came out for a question-and-answer session with the audience. She told us how much she had learned about reconciliation from playing her role. "Thou hast [one] daughter," shouts a minor character to a fleeing, insane Lear, "who redeems nature from the general curse." And in the fourth act, Cordelia's forgiveness and tender care for Lear constitutes one of the most profound representations of grace in English literature. In Lear, Cordelia's grace does not nullify the radical doubts that the play raises. But it is a response. And thanks to an actress who submitted to Shakespeare's play rather than a director's intentions, Shakespeare's Lear was able to communicate with us.

I had a similar experience at the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) 2017 production of Coriolanus. Brilliant military success wins Coriolanus the consulship in the young Roman republic, but the man himself is hard to like. He hates the cynical, populist tribunes. He won't flatter the people's prejudices. The Tragedy of Coriolanus portrays a leader who ultimately won't listen to anyone — not to the people, not to his trustworthy advisors.

But the RSC's director, Angus Jackson, explained in an interview that the problem really begins before the play that Shakespeare wrote. It begins, he continued, with the Roman patricians' inherited privilege. Their privilege infects all of the characters, and they all become unsympathetic. The assistant director later told us that the creative staff imagined a hopeful sequel to the tragedy, which they would name Volumnia and Virgilia (the names of the main female characters), that would portray a thriving republic. In other words, the directors found the meaning of Coriolanus before Shakespeare's play begins and after it ends.

By contrast, the actor who played Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu, portrays Coriolanus as ever true to himself — which makes perfect sense of the play's tragic outcome. He has incorruptible personal integrity but no ability to serve lesser mortals. Aren't we all searching for leaders who can combine the two qualities? The Coriolanus played by Dirisu embodied his tragic failure to unite them, despite the wishes of the creative staff.

To mount a play from the past, or to write a historical novel or film, depends on an individual artist — a writer, actor, or director — who receives true insight from the past. It depends on someone who can simultaneously avoid mere antiquarianism — Shakespeare in puffy pants — and progressive historicism. But today, even the films, books, and television series that brim with nostalgia for the past seem constrained to create protagonists who are "ahead of their time." If our openness to the past as a foreign country should ever disappear, the loss will be great.


Of course, there are many excellent counterexamples. To mention just two novelists whose works are set in the Middle Ages, think of Sharon Kay Penman and Sigrid Undset. And for historical films dealing with race, consider Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Amma Asante's 2013 film Belle. For all its liberties with history, I'm a fan of Belle, which depicts a mixed-race young woman in 18th-century England. Still, its reception illustrates a third problem with progressive historicism: its effect on education.

Progressive historicism's influence on education affects even more people — especially the young — than does its influence on historical films, books, and new productions of classic plays. Consider these two passages, separated by three pages, from a 2019 Advanced Placement (AP) World History text, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart:

Enlightenment thinkers sought universal, objective knowledge that did not reflect any particular religion, political view, class, gender, or culture....They ignored the extent to which European, upper-class male perspectives colored their "objective" knowledge.

....John Locke claimed that man was born with a mind that was a clean slate (tabula rasa) and acquired all his ideas through experience. Locke stressed that cultural differences were the result not of unequal natural abilities, but of unequal opportunities to develop one's abilities. Similarly, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith remarked that there was little difference (other than education) between a philosopher and a street porter: both were born, he claimed, with the ability to reason and both should be free to rise in society according to their talents.

Now imagine a student named Megan, who is of Asian and black heritage, writing this in her AP essay:

Many Americans have held to Enlightenment beliefs that people are equal, regardless of race and gender, and should be free to develop their talents. But these beliefs reflect European, upper-class male perspectives and are not objectively true.

Megan's claims are shocking. One may consider her thinking confused. Yet although her rejection of human equality is not what the AP graders want, she has legitimately based her claims on her history textbook. The confusion doesn't lie with Megan; it lies in the book's insistence on covering the words of Locke and Smith with the veil of progressive historicism — an insistence, by the way, that runs throughout this textbook.

Consider a related example from events in the same era. NPR hailed a painting that served as part of the background for the film Belle as "an 18th-century portrait ahead of its time." Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was the natural daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved West Indian woman. In 1765, Lindsay brought Dido to England, where she was baptized and brought up by his aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and William Murray. Murray, known to history as the Earl of Mansfield, was already the highest jurist in the land as the Lord Chief Justice. As part of their household for 30 years, Belle became the companion of another of Mansfield's great-nieces, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who lived there as well. The two cousins were about 17 years old when David Martin executed the beautiful double portrait that was the focus of NPR's report. In it, Belle and Lady Elizabeth were treated as equals.

Belle served as Mansfield's secretary and was provided for in his will. The equality she enjoyed in the Mansfield household is depicted better by the portrait than the film, but the latter shows the complexity of her great-uncle's mind. It imagines Belle influencing a complex slavery case that came before Lord Mansfield in 1783 and putting into his mouth a paraphrase of his famous decision in "Somerset's Case" from 1772.

In that case, James Somerset was brought to England as a slave and escaped, whereupon his owner sued for his return. Mansfield's decision found no support for slavery in English common law, declaring the practice "so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law." Somerset was freed.

But was Mansfield ahead of his time? Was the portrait? Slavery had been criticized by leading British figures since the late 17th century, from John Locke and John Holt down to William Blackstone, Adam Smith, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Burke, to say nothing of the abolitionists themselves, from Granville Sharp on.

The year before his most famous decision, Mansfield extended a dinner invitation to James Beattie, a well-known philosopher whose Essay on Truth had attacked David Hume's arguments for the inferiority of black people. Years later, Beattie recalled that dinner, noting that the 10-year-old Belle "repeated to me some pieces of poetry, with a degree of elegance, which would have been admired in any English child of her years." Belle went on to marry a white person — as did Francis Barber, the free black servant of Samuel Johnson, and black author Olaudah Equiano. Neither Barber's position nor his race prevented Johnson from praying with him.

These are the people who formed the culture of 18th-century Britain. Their stories are of their time, and they deserve study. By reducing these people and their actions to locations on a progressive timeline that measures "behind" and "ahead of," educators confuse our thinking in order to confirm a theory.

The past becomes narrow, predictable, and trivial when we fit it into the narrative of progressive historicism. It becomes rich, instructive, and endlessly troubling when we open ourselves to its complexities. Some of progressive historicism's most insightful theorists ultimately come to observe, if not fully grasp, the limits (not to say contradictions) of their own system. Derrick Bell, a founder of critical race theory, wrote that despite the triumph of civil-rights legislation and jurisprudence, "[i]t is time [that blacks] concede that a commitment to racial equality merely perpetuates our disempowerment. Rather, we need a mechanism to make life bearable in a society where blacks are a permanent, subordinate class."

For Bell and many other critical race theorists, the bottom line is that racism will always be essential to America's constitutional order. This is the opposite of Ralph Ellison's claim that black culture should make us all suspect that "whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black." No: The critical theorist must transform gold into lead for everything to fit the narrative of progress, and that narrative structure can never change. But for Bell, it is progressing toward never-ending racism. Extremes meet, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge liked to say, and whether the ideology has a utopian or dystopian endpoint, everything has its place. The point of education, according to the progressive historicist, is to show students how it all fits.


Progressive historicism harms our understanding of the past. It harms our artistic representations of the past. And it harms our education about the past. But its fourth error is more serious yet: Its assumptions shift our view of the human condition away from our flawed human nature and the virtues we need to flourish as individuals and communities. Instead, it depicts human beings as merely the sum of historical processes.

Thoughtful historicists want to liberate us from the processes that have shaped the social institutions that, in turn, have formed us — our education, work, family structure, leisure activities, and religion. New understandings of race, class, gender, the environment, and spirituality, they claim, will free us from our past oppressive identities and form a new, liberated consciousness. But this process is quite unlike older visions of character-shaping institutions. It differs from an Aristotelian understanding, which Lorraine Smith Pangle explained in these pages as aiming at the ethical perfection of our rational nature in light of a common good. And it differs from Jewish and Christian understandings, which emphasize our creation in God's image, our sinfulness, and the need to return to God.

David Corey (also in these pages) has explained the relevance of Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed in spreading this mode of thinking throughout the educational establishment. Freire's longed-for world, Corey writes, "is not...the world as it is, but as it might be after it is transformed by men." What we call our "human nature" cannot bring that future world, free from oppression, into being: Old understandings of human nature are incapable of such transformation. But, thankfully, we "are not really [human] 'beings' at all," in Freire's model. Instead, we are "processes, for as beings, [Freire writes] we 'could no longer be if [we] were not in the process of being in the world.'"

The most important source for this view is Karl Marx's brilliant Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he defines man as a "species being." This is not just a version of Aristotle's insight that human beings, as a species, are political animals; it rests on a far more comprehensive anthropology.

According to progressive historicists, we only become human through the particular processes — material production, for Marx — that the critic recognizes. This is a comprehensively social process. Apart from it, the individual does not rise to the notice of Marx or of any other critical theorist. We are not first created as individuals in God's image, nor does our humanity reside in our pursuit of reason and virtue. Marx thought all such conceptions were purely theoretical and individualistic. "[T]he essence of man," he observes in his Theses on Feuerbach, "is the ensemble of social relations....The essence of man can therefore be understood only as [a] 'species.'" And we become human only when we understand the social process as the critic does.

Marx's understanding of the human condition is crucial to all subsequent critical theory. It's one reason why all intersectional critiques of the past and hopes for the future have a similar structure, whether they are based on class, economics, race, the environment, or gender. The critique always identifies an "original sin" that prevents our social development. For Marx, it's private property and the division of labor, but it could just as easily be the patriarchy, environmental degradation, heteronormativity, racism, colonialism, or some intersectional combination of them all. One's consciousness is then liberated by understanding these social dynamics and shaping one's life to the "practical overthrow of the actual social relations," to quote Marx's equally brilliant German Ideology.

Given the influence of this mode of critical thinking, it is no accident that so many theatrical productions, historical novels, films, and textbooks reflect some version of this critique and its hopes. They may not acknowledge their ideas' provenance any more than Anne Hathaway's character in The Devil Wears Prada can recognize that her lumpy blue sweater is a poor relation of fashions by Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurent. But the line is clear enough.

More and more, our cultural productions and educational approaches follow this pattern: They diagnose past evils and discover or create protagonists whose liberated consciousness will promote the "overthrow of actual social relations." The lives of these protagonists anticipate the process that we must all undergo to eliminate the structural social injustices they uncover. And the actual results of following their advice — the social injustices attributable to the decline of marriage, for instance — become invisible. Instead, their lives and theories are proleptic: They are "ahead of their time."


The appeal of progressive historicism is obvious: It claims to respond to significant injustices in society and promises hope for the future. Because the theory is so highly intellectual, one can labor on behalf of liberation from the comfort of a table — like Marx at the British Library — or a lecture podium. And because it claims to understand the world, its tone can imitate the certainty of Beauvoir or the exasperation of Derrick Bell. But because the actual processes of history will always thwart its utopian aspirations, the thoughtful progressive is condemned to outrage. Bell used the resigned comment of a black Mississippi woman in 1964 to describe his stance: "I lives to harass white folks." The title of the 2021 book by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar puts it even more pithily: Still Mad.

Literary and historical representations created from these ideologies fail to explore the inner tensions that accompany great art. They possess little of the existential uncertainty that surrounds real historical characters and events, little of the complexity we find in well-drawn literary characters. They give us suffering without tragedy, ridicule without humor. For those, we need representations and criticism that take men and women not as processes, but as we find them.

Our Greco-Roman and biblical traditions offer a much deeper understanding of how our social and individual natures interact. Alasdair MacIntyre illustrated this when he wrote of Aristotle: "It is the telos of man as a species which determines what human qualities are virtues." T. S. Eliot's vision of a "Christian organization of society" sees Aristotle and raises the stakes: "It would be a society in which the natural end of man — virtue and well-being in community — is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end — beatitude — for those who have the eyes to see it."

So, is there something wrong with pointing out evil and hoping for a better future? Not at all. That's the partial truth beneath the heresy of progressive historicism. Samuel Johnson says that whether a writer wishes "to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong." But the progressive historicist does not just take this truth too far; he begins from a different point altogether.

Unlike most progressive writers and critics, Johnson is aware that great literature is often at war with itself: The purpose of literature, he writes, is pleasure, and pleasurable literature does not always teach us knowledge of right and wrong. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Johnson's analysis of Shakespeare's Falstaff and his interaction with Prince Hal:

But Falstaff, unimitated, unimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee? Thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised but hardly detested....Yet the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety....The moral to be drawn from this representation is, that no man is more dangerous than he that, with a will to corrupt, hath the power to please; and that neither wit nor honesty ought to think themselves safe with such a companion, when they see Henry seduced by Falstaff.

Johnson's ability to perceive what the young prince sees in Falstaff — reflected in the text and ratified by audiences over the course of four centuries — is the opposite of classifying Shakespeare's histories according to Johnson's own moral categories. Johnson holds strongly to his religious and moral beliefs. Unlike the progressive historicist, however, his moral critique of Falstaff is balanced by his ability to receive the plays and delight in them. This ability is described succinctly by C. S. Lewis in a somewhat broader context:

A work of (whatever) art can be either "received" or "used." When we "receive" it we exert our senses and imagination...according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we "use" it we treat it as assistance for our own activities.

To recover a more humane culture, we must treat its creators not as processes in the evolution of social liberation, but as human beings. We must stop using their creations to herald a future world and instead immerse ourselves in theirs. "The first demand any work of art makes upon us," Lewis continued, "is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." So perfectly does Johnson do this that he seems to forget that Falstaff is a fictional character. It's as if he's observed Hal and Falstaff from a bench at the Boar's Head Tavern.

I don't really care if Shakespeare was ahead of his time. Do you? After reading Johnson, I want to go back to Shakespeare, to enter that tavern — perhaps along with you — and to be a part of his.

Daniel E. Ritchie founded the Humanities Program at Bethel University.


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