In Part 2 of the series, we saw how Colville's own claims undermine the vision he presented in Part 1. Specifically, we saw how appealing to the past, indeed being backward-looking, can be a rejection of the limits and evils of the status quo, as seen in the Rebellion of Star Wars. We also saw how his notion of D&D as not any particular product or brand but a tradition, and a tradition which his whole online project is designed to present and pass on to a new generation, is a fundamentally conservative approach to the game.
All of this leads us to a foundational question: What is progress? At its root, to progress is to "step forward", but forward to what? The future? No. There is nothing especially interesting in "progressing" to the future, if that just means "getting older" or "being later than that which came to pass earlier". Rather, that to which one makes progress is a goal or an end. We progress when we do that which brings us closer to our goal, and we regress when we draw away from that goal.
Do we have any reason to associate progress with the future? In one sense we do, because in our own lives, we cannot be said to progress if we become worse, or fail to become better. Both stasis and corruption are contrary to progress, and as all of these are lived out in time, there is a perfectly unobjectionable sense in which we associate progress with the future. However, what is unjustified is the presumption, common from the late 18th century until the present, that the historical process itself has some intrinsic tendency towards the human good, the goal towards which humanity as such (inevitably?) tends.
For many in the late 18th century and widely in the 19th and 20th centuries, that end was a liberal one. On the liberal view, the human good is found in maximal human freedom, freedom to seek his good by his own best lights, and according to this "Whig" reading of history, there is an intrinsic tendency to freer, more liberal societies. Whatever is contrary to liberalism would not only be regressive, but also backward-looking, a resistance to the future which, on this view, will come to pass.
For Marxists, liberalism is seen at itself a sign of alienation, one which is opposed to that final unleashing of the fulness of human possibility which can only come about with the elimination of the social, economic, and cultural praxis that impedes the free, spontaneous activity of each to fulfill and perfect his powers, powers which, absent the false consciousness arising from capital, would also inevitably express itself for the good of each and the good of all. On the Marxist view, while this future will come about through revolution, it is nonetheless inevitable, the inexorable end of human activity. To resist revolution, to stand for liberal freedoms, is to be opposed to what must come, and thus to be reactionary, counter-revolutionary, and so opposed to the future itself.
Even milder versions of this view have found their way into the politico-cultural lexicon of recent years. It has become commonplace to accuse opponents of one's politics of social transformation as being on "the wrong side of history." On this view, there is only one (ultimate) possible outcome of human society, and this outcome will vindicate any and all efforts made to reorder society now in light of what the future inevitably will hold. All opposition, then, is necessarily irrational, as much as resisting universal gravitation or the Pythagorean theorem. Moreover, it is to be "trapped in the past", even to "turn back the clock", as though the promoted praxis is the only real expression of the march of time towards the future.
It is generally in light of some version of the above sentiments, i.e. those which perceive a tendency in human history towards some good, that we find the adjective progressive used to identify this or that policy. If the future is seen as one of liberal or libertarian freedom, then progressives will advocate a minimal state, maximal individual liberty in political and economic spheres. If the future is seen as one of material human flourishing and access to public goods, then, as was common in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, progressive politics were those which promoted public heath (sewers, water, etc.), limited hours, the weekend, increased suffrage, publicly-funded education, public parks and nature reserves, and the like. If a Marxist, a progressive politics will be illiberal, abandoning the notion of rights of the individual in place of revolutionary change to eliminate the social basis for the rise of capital.
Yet, even given this imaginative connection which progressive politics has with an imagined future, one which is seen as the lodestone of history, does that place it in opposition to being conservative, to being backward-looking or even reactionary? Perhaps for Marxists this is so, insofar as the Marxist reading of history rejects the idea of a better past to which we can turn for a model. The goal is always, ever, and only future. However, we have no good reason to think that the Marxists are correct here. Perhaps the best articulation of the fallacy of associating progress with a refusal to be backward-looking can be seen in C.S. Lewis' discussion of progress in his famous apologetic work Mere Christianity:
We all want progress, but progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it's pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.
We can promote progress, in other words, by going back, by reaching back into the past for what has been lost, what has been forgotten, what was pointing us to the goal we seek. In the language of the moment, if we want to arrive at the good we seek, we sometimes need to "turn back the clock". We need to be "backward-looking", not because the past is better qua past any more than the present is best qua present or the future qua future. A backward-looking progress is not regressive, but restorative.
Indeed, this is one of the most important reasons for a society, whether on the small-scale level of fans of Dungeons & Dragons, or on the full-scale level of proper, human societies, to be traditional. To be traditional, to cultivate and prioritize tradition, is to accept that it is folly to presume that the options and preferences and perspectives of the present have some special value, or even worse, must be better in light of being more recent than that which has come before. As G.K. Chesteron reminds us in Orthodoxy, to be traditional is to be truly democratic, truly to give weight to the insight of one's fellow man:
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father.
Moreover, to be traditional one must be conservative. To pass on what one has received not merely to suit one's own preferences, but to do justice to the whole of the wisdom of the past, and particularly that wisdom which expresses itself in what has continued to shape a community over the course of many years, across many different situations and by people of quite varied perspectives, requires resisting the temptation to edit, to cull, to "fix", to hide or obscure, merely because this or that feature of the tradition does not make sense to me or that I cannot provide a full account justifying it. To be conservative is to recognize that there is more wisdom to be found in institutions and practices long standing that is clear or able to be articulated by any one person, or even any one generation. Change will happen, of course, and in our engagement with what has been received, we will inevitably leave our mark. Yet, we do so best not by repealing what has been, but by receiving the whole as best we can and passing it on as best we know how.
Should we seek, then, to make our music, our hobbies, and more than that our society more inclusive? Make its riches more widely available, more widely enjoyed? Certainly! Are there aspects of what he do, how we have received our culture, our music, our hobbies, that communicate, even unwittingly, that not all are welcome, not all are invited? Sadly, this seems also to be the case. But will we find our solution in appealing to a non-existent future of our own imaginings, one which will necessarily be limited by our own best lights? Or, will we find a better way by passing on the fulness of what we have received, making best use of it, letting the double action of receiving and handing on guide us to invite to our tables those who also have a share in what has been?