John C. Wright sees four stages in the progress of the Progressives:
The first stage is Worldliness. This is the legacy of the Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire and Thomas Paine. The Worldly Man diminishes the importance of the Church, seeks disestablishment, and promises that all men of any denomination will be able to live together in peace provided all religious activity is a matter of private conscience rather than public organization. Why this promise was kept in the United States after their revolution but broke in France after hers is a discussion too deep to breach here. Without the guidance of the Church, the denominations fragment into ever smaller groups, and eventually lose the ability to guide public policy. Again, this did not happen until my generation in America, but it happened a generation earlier in Europe.
Capitalism and political liberty become the agreed-upon highest principles of the social order: each man is secure in his rights, especially property rights, if he respects the rights of others: thrift, industry, honesty in dealings, reliability, productivity, and so on replace the ancient virtues of faith, hope and charity in the limelight of public imagination. Most Worldly Men are deeply religious in private life; indeed, worldliness cannot long endure without a solid foundation of Christian tradition to feed and sustain it. In the last few years in America, the foundation is exhausted, and the public routinely condemns Christianity as vile, and denounces all faithful Christians as bigots. See the recent debacles concerning Chik-Fil-A, Duck Dynasty, Orson Scott Card, and Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
The second stage is Ideology. Man’s soul cannot long endure without a superhuman purpose to which to devote himself. If Christ and His kingdom is no longer available, man invents various chimerical utopias or causes or callings to take the place of the New Jerusalem. The most famous and most successful, while at the same time the most illogical and bloodthirsty, is, of course, Marxism. However, the basic assumptions of Marxism underpin all Progressive thinking. Marx divided the world into the Elect and the Reprobate. The Reprobate are the sadistic oppressors. The Elect are the helpless victims. The Reprobate have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The Elect have no flaws whatsoever. The two are locked in a remorseless Darwinian struggle for survival at any cost, and the battle is one in which no quarter and no mercy is possible, and no negotiation has any purpose, save to win concessions from those gullible Reprobates who do not realize the deadly and implacable nature of the struggle.
This simple, nay, this idiotic black-and-white analysis can be fitted to any cause. Feminists see Males as the oppressors and women as victims. Greens see mankind as oppressors and nature as the victim. Race-baiters see Whites as oppressors and Blacks as victims.
Loyalty to the cause becomes the agreed-upon highest principle of the Ideologue. Truth and honor and honesty are jettisoned with unseemly haste and enthusiasm. Ideologues like telling lies. They love lying, and will lie even when it is counterproductive (see the Obamacare debacle for an example). The other virtues are offspring of this one virtue: the willingness to lie for the cause, to betray one’s family for the cause, to accuse the innocent for the cause, to riot for the cause, to shout down any opposition to the cause, replace the values of honesty, productivity and efficiency.
However, unlike the Worldly Man, the Ideologue is willing to sacrifice for a cause greater than himself. He can correctly despise the Worldly Man as worldly, even selfish. Despite that he is in reality less honest and less noble than the Worldly Man, the Ideologue feels more honest and more noble, because he has the zeal and fervor of a religion in his soul, despite that it is an atheist religion or antireligion. In some ways, this stage of corruption is healthier than the previous, for the criminal idiocy of the Ideologue is powered with the confidence of a true believer, whereas the common decency and common sense of the worldly man is powered only by the weak and self-condemning moral vacuum of selfishness.
The next corruption is Spiritualism, which throws off the materialistic worldliness of the Ideologue, and the weak and wavering ideals of the Worldly Men, and retreats into full-blown mysticism. The most popular forms of Spiritualism in the modern world was the blood-and-iron mysticism of the National Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany, known as the Nazis; but there were other variations, such as theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, the occultism of Crowley, the ideas of Blake or Shaw, and any number of modern New Age claptrap.
This is the point at which the corruption reaches incoherence because by the ineffable nature of mysticism, no definition of Spiritualism can be drawn. At most, one can notice some familiarities between some of the properties, such as a fascination with vegetarianism or reincarnation or homosexuality or pacifism, or an insistence on the universal nature of all religions. Spiritualism is syncretism, and seeks a synthesis of all world religions, provided only that Christianity is demeaned from its world-historical significance. For better or worse, the principle of individual and secret enlightenment which runs through spiritualism prevents them from forming a unified organization, except in the single case of the Nazis, where the political program, which was Socialism, trumped other considerations. The Nazis attempted to syncretize Christianity into their rather confused program not because (as has often been falsely said) they were friends of the Christians where Communists were not; it was because they were Spiritualists, whereas Communists were Ideologues. Spiritualists do not seek an intellectually coherent or satisfying picture of the universe.
Do not be deceived. Worldly Men seek not to destroy, but merely to privatize and de-emphasize the Church, as a danger to public peace and good order, or as an oppressor of private conscience. Far different is the Ideologue. Ideologues seek to destroy the Church by replacing it with an atheist socialist utopia, or perhaps with the goddess Reason as briefly appeared in the French Revolution.
On the other hand, like the Gnostics of old, the modern Spiritualist seeks to destroy the Church by incorporating parts of Christian teaching into an alien and antithetical philosophy. But those who worship Tashlan are no friend of Aslan, if you take my reference. Once Christ is merely one lightworker among many, along with Socrates and Buddha and Lao Tzu, Vespasian and Swedenborg and Edgar Cayce and Obama, then, by definition, he is not Christ at all.
The final corruption is Nihilism, which dismisses the delirious daydreams of the spiritualists with the same intense skepticism with which it rejects the hypocritical ideals of the Ideologues and the uninspiring pragmatism of the Worldlies. The best exemplars of nihilism are Nietzsche and Sartre.
Nihilism is the default metaphysical assumption of our current time. It says that there is no one truth applicable to all circumstances. Truth is relativistic, plastic, variable, inconstant.
Nihilism preaches that all philosophies are worthless, since they are ‘narratives’ that is, social myths or lies, instigated for the unseemly purpose of self-flattery, or for controlling the lower orders, or for some other hypocritical, false and unadmitted purpose: Never for the love of truth. The one thing the Nihilist believes to be absolutely true, that no one seeks truth for its own sake, or for any honest reason. He is the Cretan who says all Cretans are liars.
Unlike the ideologue, the Nihilist does not believe that tearing down one myth will reveal a truth beneath. It will reveal a void. Into this void any man can, by his willpower, establish the laws of reality as he sees fit. The motto of nihilism is ‘Believe in Yourself’ or ‘Embrace Your Own Truth.’ The only sin in the nihilist system is the attempt, even if peaceful, to persuade others that an objective standard of right and wrong exist.
Because of this, nihilism has only one enemy in the modern age. Ideology is not an enemy, because the Ideologue is true to his own truth. The Spiritualist is not an enemy, because he invents his own truth which happens to be ineffable. Nor is the Buddhist nor the Jew an enemy, because the Nihilism is compatible with Buddhism at least insofar as Buddhist rejection of life as an illusion is concerned, and the Jew seeks only to live according to laws and diet particular to his own people. Only Christianity is the foe. (Logically, Islam, which is a heresy of Christianity, should also be a foe, but the Islamic glorification of self destruction and their fanatical hatred of the West and all things Western endears them to the Nihilist.)
Nihilism has not won a complete victory yet, but its basic principles are assumed as the default in polite society.
Bruce Charlton calls Wright’s essay High Journalism of permanent value.