Classical Heritage: Classive and Progressive

Preface III: Our Classical Heritage

Part II: Classive and Progressive, Considered

* * *


OUR ARCHITECTURE and monuments are, in truth, in fact, us.  When we cease to be who we are, our statues, memorials and monuments will be removed to museums

—Museum, from Mouseῖon, “a seat, a house for the Muses”—

SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima, Architects, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 2007

or be destroyed (as too often is seen, these days).  If we cease to believe in the Muses, in Beauty, in Goodness, and in Truth, why have museums, why not merely have storehouses to catalog scientific reference?  Why have architecture? Why not merely have construction, the function of building.   Look ahead. 

Classical Heritage
Carl Paul Jennewein, The Spirit of Justice, Washington, D.C., 1964

The Classive and the Progressive are in practically every instance, incompatible.  As you can see, these objects are to one another neither neighborly nor companionable: The ideas which create the Classive and the Progressive are in conflict.  Just now, this District of Columbia is an ideology in conflict with itself; it will be itself, straight, or twist into another thing; Washington, The District of Columbia will continue classive or will mutate into the progressive.  What Washington, D.C. becomes is your choice, more than mine.


Thornton, Bulfinch, Walter, et alia, architects, The United States Capitol Building, 1791

Perhaps you have employed the word “classive” in reference to a building, picture, or statue, a song or hamburger; perhaps you know this thing classical, to derive from the Latin, locus classicus, “a place, belonging to the highest class”; perhaps you know this thing “class” to differ from its subordinate “genus”.  For instance, a Genus might be “temple”, the Class of which would include those forms ascended from the Greek prototype, whose proprium, whose “properties” are columns (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, et cetera), architrave-frieze-cornice, pediment, beauty-harmony-nobility, and that humanely divine essence which we recognize in the God, and in one-another. 

Classical Heritage
Andrea Palladio, Villa Capra, known as “La Rotonda”, near Vicenza, Italy, begun, 1567
Classical Heritage
John Russell Pope, The Jefferson Memorial, Washington, The District of Columbia, completed 1943

The modern classives first realized that they were “Classical” in contrast to that other thing, the mystically barbaric “Goth”.  You will remember the Gothic excesses, the ecstatic, horrific visions, the wonder and the terror, the wont first witnessed in the Gothic, barbaric Sack of Rome (390 Anno Domini), in the degradation of civility, the debasement of genteel custom, the rejection of humane excellence.  Excess upon excess, failure upon failure until the Mouslem constriction and the Dark Age … a tedious history bothersome in detail … from the sacks of the Visigoths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths to the sack of the Germanic Lutherans, who, in AD 1527, raped Rome (effectively ending the High Renaissance), and then, most recently, in the Germanic, progressive mysticism, the zeitgeist, “Time’s Phantasm” which, with increasing vigor, with increasing barbarity, sacks the beautiful, the good, the true.


L’Enfant Plaza, known as “Pei’s Plaza”, I. M. Pei, et alia, architects, Washington, D.C., begun 1963, continually under repair, demolition and reconstruction

Perhaps you have employed the word “progressive” in allusion to a tilted iron-wall, a canvas-drip, or a happy-metal curlicue, in reference to insurance, taxes, or automobiles; perhaps you know that the quality “progress” differs from the thing manifested in “progressive” works-of-art, in persons and in products. In truth, tell me, are today’s philosophers better than Socrates, is Pollock better than Raphael, is this year’s toaster better than last year’s toaster … progress does not, necessarily, progress, and, as-you-know, most prophecies fail to foretell, correctly.

The romantic mystics, Hegel, Danto, et alia, prophesied that in progressing, progressive-art would find fulfillment in the achievement of its ending, its perfection, its nirvana, as some have said, in its obsolescence.  And yet, progressive-art is serviceable in the destruction of the beautiful, the good, the true, those classive virtues which are inconvenient to libertines, anarchists, criminals, and, sometimes, progressives. 

Franck Gehry, Eisenhower Memorial, approved 2017

Perhaps I am being too harsh.  Even so, in the battle for self-preservation, for dominance among sub-species, iconoclastic progressives destroy all evidence of beauty (witness the progressive additions to classical buildings), undermine goodness wherever it can be found (reference progressive legislation), and contradict reason (read, if you are able, the typical dissertation, twistingly tortured).  In each instance of progressive building, legislation, dissertation, the every-person is likely to recognize that the progressive is less experimental than mystical, more artistic than scientific: The progressive is, in practice, a methodology, not a modernity.   

Alike the sub-species “Classive”, the sub-species “Progressive” is recognized in its proprium, its properties which are, in the common, majority opinion classified “ugly”, or variations of ugly: dissonant, disjointed, disagreeable, inhumane, et cetera.  Yes, we all have heard the full-American-population, rich-and-poor, coasters-and-landers, young-and-old employ progressively pejorative words when classifying the mean and menacing objects of Urban Renewal, Brutalism, Cubism, and the rest. 

Marcel Breuer, et alia, architects, The Hubert H. Humphrey Department of Health and Human Services Building, Washington, D.C., 1977

In fairness, the “Modern” (ascendant of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment) should not be associated with the Progressive, exclusively.  The Modern is also beautifully Classive, increasingly so, especially in these United States where classically inspired homes and furnishings vastly outnumber the progressive fashion—at least in instances where citizens, not bureaucrats make the choice.  And yet, you likely have noticed that progressive architects and bureaucrats (who require you to live-in, work-in, and visit progressive buildings) tend to choose for themselves the traditional, Georgian house.  Curious, isn’t it.


Briefly, “Modern” is the notion developed by the satirist Jonathan Swift in describing the battle of books “classical” and “modern”; the classical representing the ancients, the “modern” representing the now old-fashioned, 18th Century.  In telling satire, Swift described an actual battle of books, fierce and frantic, ripping and tearing and mayhem in fulsome 18th Century manner.  Which side won?  Well, although the mods fought fiercely, Swift acknowledged that all things modern are dependent upon classical precedent, tradition, and form.  With some reservations, Swift allowed the ancients to triumph.  How so?

Battle of the Books, TT, Jonathan Swift, 1706, Title Page
Battle of the Books, TT, Jonathan Swift, 1706, Title Page

“Classive” is the living tradition of beauty, of liberty, of the many layered ideas of words, all words descriptive, artistic, scientific.  The classical was born in the ascendance of the humane, in the model of harmonic health in each bodied mind.  The classical abides in all persons who strive toward God-like perfection, who admit a marvelous presence: The classive recognizes the perfect divinity in all things.

“Progressive” is the assumption that through science a universal perfection will be achieved; perfection in body, behavior, society, and in government.  The progressive is the belief that all-the-universe is material, that all materials can be known, that when by science all is known, science will achieve its end and all problems will be resolved.


Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, architects, Boston City Hall, 1968
David Schwarz, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee, 2007

The classive is modern; the progressive is modern; both the classive and the progressive are contemporary, and both ascend from the ancients through philosophy, yet, the progressive denies its antiquity while the classical acknowledges its tradition. Apart from the corporeal world, all that we see is, in the first instance, designed by the artist; our civilization is an aesthetic construction formed of ideas which form and reform us. I cannot in fact say that the competing progressive and classive philosophies resolve themselves into political parties; yet, I can observe that philosophical tendencies form persons, monuments and memorials which are recognized in parties social and political. The question before us: Are we merely physical creatures, or are we divine creatures which transcend the physical; the answer to this question will determine the shape of our monuments, our memorials, our civic art and our future.

* * *

* Our Classical Heritage, Part I, considered our classical progression, our ascendance.

Forum Romanum

** Our Classical Heritage, Part III, will consider The Founder’s intent, and, for context, will include a brief History of Ideas.

Cover Mosaic: Madaba Map; detail, Jerusalem; Church of Saint George, Madaba, Jordan, circa 560 Anno Domini  

Classical Heritage

For particulars concerning the character of The District of Columbia’s style, “Our Classical Heritage”, you might reference, The Classical Architecture and Monuments of Washington, D.C.: A History and Guide.
This from the book’s description: Classical design formed our nation’s capital. The soaring Washington Monument, the columns of the Lincoln Memorial and the spectacular dome of the Capitol Building speak to the founders’ comprehensive vision of our federal city. Learn about the L’Enfant and McMillan plans for Washington, D.C., and how those designs are reflected in two hundred years of monuments, museums and representative government. View the statues of our Founding Fathers with the eye of a sculptor and gain insight into the criticism and controversies of modern additions to Washington’s monumental structure. Author Michael Curtis guides this tour of the heart of the District of Columbia.


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