Everyone is familiar with the way sorrow and promise go hand in hand. You do something wrong, and if your character is sufficiently sound, you are sorry for it, and you say so: to yourself, and better yet to the person you have wronged as well. But that is not enough, because to be genuine, the apology must come with a pledge to repair the offense you have committed. So that the sorrow for wrongdoing is followed by atonement, which is to say, the fulfillment of a promise.
Sorrow and promise go together in another, deeper way. We human beings are many things, but above all we are thinkers and builders. Like all other creatures, we live in time, and so things change around us; they decay and die. Because we are thinkers -- homo sapiens -- we are aware of the fact of decay; we are aware that things which end, approach their end; and then, having lost them, we feel sorrow. But because we are also builders -- homo faber -- we feel an irresistible urge to build, and often this means to rebuild what was lost, in symbol if not always in substance. And to build something is to make a promise: a promise to the future.
Civilization is built on promises. There are the promises between citizens, which we call morals; and the promises between citizens and the state, which we call laws. Because laws are explicit, we tend to think of them as primary structures, but they are secondary to the invisible moral structures on which they are constructed and on which they depend.
The ancient Jewish creation myth of Genesis tells us that long ago, mankind was cast out of timelessness and into history; out of a walled garden which was safe from time and other carnivores, into suffering and loss and the awareness of the future. For most of human history -- certainly for all of agricultural history -- we have built settlements which aimed to recover some of the conditions of paradise: if not timelessness, then at least a measure of safety, whether from the ravages of nature, or from the wrongdoing of other humans. We built cities rounded with higher and higher protective walls, until our civilizations became so vast that physical barriers alone could not protect them. The barriers which remained were invisible and internal, serving the same purpose as the walls of antiquity: to defend society and the sacred individual from chaos and dissolution.
The civilizations inhabited by humans are, like the bodies inhabited by human souls, subject to dissolution: vulnerable to the relentless flow of time and the more prosaic forces of neglect and malevolence. To live in any such civilization, and to love it despite its flaws, is to be cursed with the longing for vanished things, which is a kind of sorrow. But that sorrow is balanced by our promise to build on, and in, the ruins we inhabit. In this way, any continuous civilization is a promise which is always being broken, and which every new generation strives to fulfill.
To build well -- to build structures and societies which are durable and livable and humane -- it is not enough to be motivated by the desire to fulfill the promises of history; one must also be moved by the love of vanished things. These two passions must remain balanced. To love the past too much is to overlook the mistakes and the suffering which are common to all history, and to blind oneself to the possibilities inherent in the present. But the desire to build better futures, without the understanding of the importance of tradition and the imperfect nature of the designed world, can very easily become a fever for revolution and change at any cost -- and in history as well as medicine, the body afflicted by a fever does not always survive.
To understand that the foundational event in humanity was the introduction of death into a deathless universe, is to understand one of the core difficulties of human existence: as thinking, remembering creatures in a world of vanished things, and as builders in a world which is always falling apart, we need an organizing principle which can reconcile sorrow and promise.
Revolution is one such principle, because to be a revolutionary is to answer the inevitable sorrow of history with a promise to rewrite it. It is a kind of singularity, to borrow a physics term popular among transhumanists; a point in time where titanic forces converge, and past which nothing can be seen or predicted.
It is understandable, when confronting the darkness of history, to reach for revolution as an organizing principle. The idea of "burning down" a corrupt and decaying system can be as seductive as fire itself; if death is inevitable, why not hasten it and be done?
Of course death itself is the ultimate sorrow: the final injury to which we are all subject. At the same time it is the universal promise: the only promise made to all living things, the only promise which has never been broken. In that sense it is also a singularity: the temporal destiny of all living systems, past which the future is unseeable and unknowable.
Because revolution promises change and death is the end of change, these two phenomena can be seen as opposites, but this is not so. In fact they are mirror images, which is not the same thing. They are mirror images because whereas death erases the future, revolution erases the past. It is no coincidence that many of the most murderous and destructive revolutions in human history adopted the conceit of destroying time by nullifying tradition; of resetting or even smashing the historical clock. Whether it was the French Revolution, China's Cultural Revolution, or the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, they all attempted to construct a future without a connection to the past. Thus unbalanced, they slid into chaos, mass murder, and the needless destruction of otherwise viable social structures.
The deadly tendency of revolutions to destroy both what is healthy in society and what is corrupt, cannot be avoided any more than death can. It is in the nature of the thing, because human societies, like human minds, are composed almost entirely of memory. What you do is done in the present; what you are is what you have done. In fact one of the primary purposes of human society is to preserve memory beyond the lifespan of the individual human mind. Only in the context of civilization can something of us remain in the world when we are no longer a part of it.
But the lifespan of a civilization exceeds the human lifespan precisely because it is always dying and always being reborn, changing all the while in ways which are often subtle, but ultimately consequential. Only in constant, incremental death and resurrection -- animated and informed by the spirit of its own history -- can a society transcend death and avoid or escape the lethal seductions of nihilism and civil conflict.
This is why evolution, rather then revolution, is the organizing principle we seek.
Only evolution operates at a slow enough pace to preserve the necessary balance between inevitable destruction and irresistible creation. Only evolution allows one to hold in one's mind the vanished things of the past while building new things, as one always does, in the ruins of a lost civilization. Revolutionaries often claim a love of justice as their motivating principle, dismissing any effort to embrace evolution rather than revolution as callousness, or cowardice, or mere "reformism". This is open to question, but even if it is true (and even if revolutionaries love justice as much as they claim to) it is beside the point. Unless the love of justice is grounded in deep and sober understanding -- in learned respect for history and tradition -- it can only ever be a superficial love. It can only ever be love at first sight.
Being in love may be joyous, or painful, or both by turns; but it is all in the present. Being in a relationship, on the other hand, requires shared experiences. It requires a past; a history. Humans can no more do without this than they can do without love itself.
To be part of a civilization is to be in a kind of relationship -- that is, to have a history -- with all the people who inhabit it. The weight of all that history constrains us, but it also grounds us. Properly understood through learning and custom and tradition, it prevents us from moving too quickly in any one direction. The revolutionaries among us would say that it also prevents us from quickly rectifying the errors of the past, and they have a point. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the weight of history tends to stabilize rather than mobilize a society, and that this makes a society slower to embrace any solution to a given problem. But on balance, this is still a benefit -- because human coexistence is a deep and complex problem, and by definition most solutions to complex problems are wrong.
By embracing evolution rather than revolution as an organizing principle, we do not condemn ourselves to stasis or obsolescence. To choose evolution over revolution is to decide to adapt, rather than destroy, the complex structures in which we are embedded. It is to take on the slow, difficult work of understanding and consensus; to attempt to strike a balance between change and continuity. It is to accept the inevitability of suffering and the human flaws in all human systems. It is to be open to the promise of improvement, while refusing to let an imagined future be the enemy of the real and sorrowful past.