April 23, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Vacant God, Part III
The Philosophy of History
IT IS NOT UNTIL modernity that one encounters the after all quite bizarre figure of a philosopher who claims to have finished philosophy in all fundamental respects. Perhaps there is something of this sense about Aquinas—but Aquinas was no philosopher; Aquinas was a theologian. Yet almost direct out the gate of every major philosophical sub-tradition in our time one finds these “systems”—these curious unwieldy enterprises with which inevitably come presumptions of finality. Be it Hobbes or Kant, Descartes or Wittgenstein, Spinoza or Marx—there is a sense that philosophy shall be worthless until philosophy shall be done—done from the ground up, done without any points of error or doubt. The ancients do not so strike us. There is indeed something more philosophical about the classical sense of philosophy. Their sense seems to differ from the system-builders’ on two major points: first, they did not attempt to mathematize philosophy; second, they did not demand that philosophy should prove itself to them, and certainly not in any kind of merely practical results. They did not demand of the tree that it should feed the hungry to thereby excuse itself. The truest philosophers of our day did not suffer from the system-maker’s disease, but even they bear the mark of the same urge that brought it about. The historical course of unambiguously modern philosophy is thusfar bound by Heidegger on the one end, the state philosopher, and Machiavelli on the other, the courtier; but the representatives of ancient philosophy are Socrates, executed by the city, and the apolitical Epicurus, ensconced eternally in his garden.
We have already seen that these philosophies which claimed finality through the methods or ways of science failed in their attempts, and we have seen also why: scientific method of any sort is a tool, and without philosophical underpinnings is a tool which rather impossibly presumes to determine its own ends by means not of its making. Science, bereft of philosophy, cannot even explain why one should pursue science rather than, say, football or crime. Philosophy cannot be grounded in science, because science is necessarily grounded in philosophy. There is indeed, underlying all scientistic ventures, an unspoken commitment to historical philosophy: it is the philosophy of history that in our day reigns supreme from an invisible throne, and which gives to science its justification. We must understand how and why this came about.
Now, the philosophical system we have so far neglected in our unforgivably cursory glance at these past centuries, was in some ways perhaps the most successful and influential of any of them, though its influence is of a subtler and also less bruited nature than that of a Kant or a Descartes or a Hobbes. It was Hegel who announced in no uncertain terms the end of history—that providential moment in the philosophical questing of ages when a last philosopher, standing the final summit of progress, surveys the sum total of philosophical knowledge and errors of the past, and synthesizes them into a grand whole in which all fundamental problems come resolved, and even the most Gordian of knots unravels itself voluntarily to his eyes. Hegel, who was thrilled beyond reckoning by the ascendancy of Napoleon, fancied himself to have reached that summit: in his soul, he felt philosophy attain the end of its journey. The love of wisdom had given birth at last to wisdom itself.
If we may speak of Hegel a moment historically—and I think his philosophy itself tacitly yields us this right—we must observe a strange circumstance. Even as this presumed final philosopher was announcing the flight of Minerva’s owl, the greatest mind of his generation was developing a philosophy out of Kant, in a direction having nothing to do with history and its vagaries. Even as this presumed wise man was announcing the end of history, there was conceived in the womb of a middle-class Dutch Jew a certain leonine and tasteless intellectual, infatuated with the idea of history and the end of history, whose irresponsible and passionate provocations of the poor class would spark revolutions great and small, and would lead to the widest blood-letting the world had ever known. To all appearances, history did not arrest itself with Hegel’s proclaiming its end; even in the sacred halls of philosophy proper, it did not appear so much as to break stride. Hegel himself seemed most won over by the clarity of his vision; but this clarity, though it infected several generations of second-rate German philosophy students, failed again and again to touch the minds of the greatest thinkers to follow Hegel.
Now, this does not disprove the man. Perhaps they were wrong while he was right—but then, the “end of history” means nothing to the philosopher as such, save that he must strive, as he has always had to strive, to put his hands on a difficult and elusive truth. Perhaps Hegel did indeed for the first time draw off the veil of Isis and gaze upon her unadorned; but if so, the vision died with him, and the end of history must have been naught but the summit of philosophy’s Sisyphistic toils; in which case again, Hegel and his wisdom can mean nothing to philosophy itself, and less still to us, who must yet push that stone once more to its apex. Or perhaps—and this, as it seems to me, is indeed the philosophy implicit in our time—Hegel was wrong only about the scope of his wisdom, but not about its depth: which is to say, the end of history did not represent that point at which human opinion totally converts itself to wisdom, but only the point at which the nature of history itself is revealed, as ineluctable ascension to Truth. Given that we cannot take Hegel’s philosophy in all its particulars as truth: yet they furnish us the historical moment beyond which knowledge, in the form of science, shall begin its final and total expansion, and society, in the form of democracy, shall commence to spread throughout the world, and to perfect itself in all centers. To be sure, perhaps we shall find ourselves now and then in the throws of some setback or reversal—even a dead animal, after all, must shudder before it rest—but from now forthwith, the reversals become ever rarer, the successes more frequent and more fixed, and the final end of universal truth and democratic harmony can already be perceived as ineluctable.
I do not say that this is a philosophy commonly conscious in the minds of today’s citizens. Nonetheless, I believe it lies there, perhaps buried safely under countless other preferred ideas and numberless comfortable platitudes. I say more that the worldview of our present day is impossible without this philosophy of history. It is always the presuppositions most fundamental to a person and ultimately most treasured by him that prove the most difficult to lay one’s hands upon in his soul; like the taproot of the tree, they are best and most deeply buried, and surrounded ever by great tangles and knots of surface roots. Nonetheless, these are always or almost always expendable to the life of the trunk; but cut the taproot, and the tree itself shall wither.
When we put our faith in democracy, pronounce it the greatest of all political systems in the history of man, and assert through word or deed that it is and must be the system of governance for any aware human being, we are perforce revealing our belief in the end of history. When we put our hopes in science, and complacently await its solution of all problems and dissolution of all difficulties—even those it itself has caused—when we unskeptically expect it to explain the very nature of the universe in which we find ourselves, and the lives which we have been given within that universe—then we are perforce revealing our belief in the end of history. When we continue to live as though the ideas of the overthrow of the West by barbarians within or out, or nuclear holocaust, or the decay of democracy into tyranny, were naught but unhappy, impossible hypotheticals entertained by sick minds, we are showing what underruns our philosophies like a subterranean river and nourishes all their deepest roots. Certain it is that every age is to some extent naïve, ignorant, and selfishly fearless of its own extinction; sure that every people, holding itself to be immortal, is the spawn of myriad blind follies and myopic blunders. But never has any time, nation, or populace so smilingly fabricated its own demise as we.
Here is the reverse side of the same prejudice: in even the soberest and most scholarly historicizing of our period we find almost inevitably a tendency toward triumphalism. There is an attitude of superiority in our investigations of the past, a certain pomposity in all but the best of them, as though we were looking down on those past ages from great heights—not just down on their mere events, but down on their very societies and their greatest accomplishments and their finest personages. Our research is so often condescension, our conclusions contempt. History to us seems to be but the study of how fragmentary and erroneous pasts sorted into a complete and true present.
Now, history was not born in the year 1800, not nearly; its nominated father was a Halicarnassian twenty-five hundred years ago. Neither was it even in his day a novelty, this realization that nations and peoples are prey to endemic and profound errors, prejudices, and wild follies, inculcated in them by their societies. It was well known by all thinking men from classical Greece to modernity, that the human being, in a decisive way, begins and generally ends his life as the product of his soil, that he inherits, along with its conditions, laws, and mores, also its presuppositions. We are speaking here of nothing less than the insights which formed the very first instigations to philosophy. Nay—even before that, long before, it shows its face: at the very dawn of the Occident in the very first verses of Homer’s second epic poem:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of…
That different societies possess fundamentally different premises is so far from being a modern discovery, that it is to be found in the deepest roots of all the tradition leading up to modernity. Socrates himself spoke in deadly earnest when he said a philosopher must prepare himself for death, must want to die: that he must die to all that is but contingent in his life, which is to say, his culture, his society—or, to speak in modern terms, his historical moment.
None of this then is the invention nor the particular discovery of modernity. What was born in our time, and what was once called the historical sense, is the ability to transport oneself, not physically to foreign nations, but mentally to foreign times—to see through to their individual traits, their particular types of soul, activity, ambition, and especially valuation—to live a while in radically other conditions, and to inhabit the “worldviews” of peoples vastly different to one’s own—not primarily in reason and in philosophy, but rather in “feeling,” in sympathy and in vital imagination. At least the interest in such a sense, we may say, really is a peculiar outgrowth of our epoch and era. One of the most excellent representatives of the historical sense is certainly Jacob Burckhardt, whose insights into the Italian Renaissance and into Ancient Greece are nigh unrivaled. Yet this historical sense, so precious to us, would not have been much valued in prior ages, even had it existed. It would have been considered rather superfluous and indifferent—for why should anyone care what was the real tenor of life among deceased peoples, or how they felt as they got about their work, or what they thought when they worshiped their gods? Given that their philosophical premises were wrong—given that even if these premises were correct, the feeling of their time had nothing to do with it—then why should it be of the least importance to a thinking man, how these peoples lived their interior lives? And indeed, even among us, such sense is really of value only insofar as we are scholars of history or else artists. It is, after all, not necessary to understand all the ways of all existent human societies now or ever, in order to understand the essence of all theoretically possible human societies. Indeed, merely understanding all the ways of all existent human societies now or ever is by itself insufficient, for it always remains possible that some future society will come, totally different from and superior to all the societies that exist now or ever have existed. One needs, not history, but philosophy; the historical sense, from a theoretical point of view, is fairly irrelevant to the real philosophical questions at stake. Our historical sense, in which we all implicitly pride ourselves, is really not so great a quality as we appear to believe.
More yet: what does it mean to say that our entire time possesses “historical sense,” as opposed, say, to certain individuals in our time? We certainly believe our entire age to be endowed of this sense, else we could not bear to see, for instance, an average high-school student critiquing the illiberality and logical errors of Aristotle; we should take this to be as callow as an average high-school student who critiques the scientific discoveries of Einstein. We permit the one and not the other because we believe that Aristotle has been superseded, and that the high school student, be he ever so mean in his capacities, yet enjoys membership in a time which is so much more enlightened than Aristotle’s, that its least son or daughter must be superior to that poor deluded old Athenian philosopher. We hold that we, who are universally imbued with the historical sense, enjoy an implicit comprehension of Aristotle’s time and the errors of the time, and thus also of the errors of Aristotle himself, which no one before modernity enjoyed.
Yet, all other questions aside, is it not absurd to believe that the average high-school student has really “sensed” the history of Aristotle’s day? It requires an exquisitely balanced, rich, and unbiased soul to go so voyaging: a spirit free of distorting errors and intolerance; a mind not predisposed to judge by appearance nor prejudice. To assign such a power as that to an entire people—indeed, to an entire age, simply because it arose in a fortunate hour—presupposes a liberation of great masses of human beings from the chains of historical determination, and a coeval elevation of their vision above the level common to all prior ages. In other words—the “historic consciousness” is a disguised method of speaking of the world’s historic ascent these past centuries; the idea of history in our time presupposes that some incredible progress has been made in the fabric of our very souls. Even beyond the fact that there is something unpleasantly self-serving in this notion of history, it is also not at all so evident a proposition as we seem to believe. For such an historical progress to be true, there would have to be a rationality guiding history, either within the human soul or without. If within, then we must perforce conclude that each human epoch forms the rational response to that previous, which claim really has nothing to do with the real course of events, and the accidents which may clearly overtake a person, a people, or an age; if without, then one really must demand to know: what is the guiding rationality, where is it located, and how do we perceive it?
Now, generally speaking, there are three ideas of history which one might adopt—three ways in which history and its movement may be perceived to flow. In the first, common to most every traditionalistic and primitive ethos, and frequently evident in the feeling and methodology, for example, of the Ancient Greeks, perceives history as a gradual descent from divine origin to lower and ever more terrestrial states—a regression from the origin, in which origin alone perfection is seen to dwell, to an already decadent present, in which a continuously dwindling humanity has reached its lowest point yet. We may call this the traditionalistic account of history. In other minds, especially those governed by theocratic powers and by the idea of the one, omnipotent deity, and by theories of eschatology, and by classic philosophy—in times, for instance, such as the Christian Middle Ages, and in men such as Socrates—history is perceived as an indifferent and often chaotic shifting from better to worse and back once more; a turning of Fortuna’s wheel or the natural rotation of human societies, at least until such a moment as God introduces himself and redeems the world through its consummation. We may call this the cyclical or milliannialist account of history, depending on whether the idea in question presupposes a God to break the cycle and achieve a permanent rest. These two views must acknowledge that philosophy is in principle possible in any given time. Its realization, to be sure, may be rendered difficult or even impossible by any number of accidental social or political conditions; but there is nothing in the historical fabric of any given epoch which makes philosophy impossible as such. Finally, there is that view which is common to us and to our day, which conceives of history is an unbroken or mostly unbroken chain from lower to higher—a ladder of many rungs extending to ever more elevated vantages. This is the progressivist view of history, and by this view, philosophy was impossible before modernity; before modernity, the truth could not be perceived, because it was veiled, not by this or that accident, but by the very medium of history itself, which encircled the vision of past human beings with invisible, unknowable prejudices from which they could not escape.
Ascribing this view of history to modernity may seem contradicted by the occasional figure like Spengler, who in a magnificent show of cynicism proclaims the end of history in a quite different sense from that trumpeted by Hegel: namely, as its retraction, its dissolution, its final collapse and foundering in the sucking swamps of decadence and decay. But even such men as this are characteristically modern. What distinguishes their ideas from the traditionalistic idea presented above is the mood of gloom which pervades it. The Greeks, who were largely traditionalistic, did not look with an evil eye upon their necessary decline from the excellence of the gods and of the heroes; latter-day figures such as Spengler, however, are decidedly pessimistic, if not nihilistic, in outlook, quite contrary to the general spirit of their times. But in point of fact only a time infatuated with progress could produce men to whom the vision of decline and the sight of ruins seems so irrevocable, so tragic, so—nostalgic. What we read in their agony is the loss of their faith; what we read in their cynicism is the betrayal of their hope. They are but modern men stood on their heads, they are but progressivists turned sour. Their very existence calls into question, not only the idea of progress, but also of the end of history. For if history had really ended, if Minerva’s owl had really flown, then how should it be possible that serious men might doubt the clarion arrival of these events? Do not such men, in their mere existence, bespeak the falsity of the idea of progress? Or do they not cast at least the shadow of doubt upon it? Do they not compel us, at least, to attempt to understand this idea with a little more clarity?
The idea of progress comes down to us from the very roots of modernity: it is a Renaissance idea, and it is even to be perceived, I think, in that spirit so contrary to the Renaissance, but so original to us—namely, the Reformation. For Protestantism, while it was in one way a radical return to tradition—that tradition entombed in the Biblical account of the life of Christ—nonetheless was effected by the mind and independent judgement of a single man against the entire bent of his age, which set, if nothing else, a dangerous precedent. And while Protestantism is a much more complicated and unstable faith than Catholicism—Catholicism, which has two thousand years to thank for its extraordinary and inimitable clarity of vision—the continuing fragmentation of Protestantism indicates that restless modern spirit which truly believes in the attainability of perfection here on earth, and holds the actions of man responsible for its gradual realization.
But be this as it may, it is at least clear that the idea of progress was totally alien to the Middle Ages. We have already indicated the view of history generally accepted in that period. What then led to the birth of progress in the Renaissance? In the first place, it was a mere question of vitality. Any time which does not perceive itself stagnant or decadent—any time which embodies a self-conscious dynamism—is like to enjoy a natural feeling of power and potency, of pride in the continual surmounting of ever higher boundaries and challenges, of—progress. And it is eminently natural, given that ages, too, abhor and fear death, that this feeling of progress should be projected onto future generations to vouchsafe the noble present against its own decay and demise: to conquer its mortality through the promise of continuation, through all future ages, of what it has once begun. The Renaissance was too vital and vigorous an age not to infuse its progeny, too, with the same sense of fore-going and ascent which it found glowing so unsuppressibly in its own soul.
From this, we may say that the idea of progress arose within the Renaissance from two interpenetrating events: first, the rejection of the Church as the seat of spiritual judgement; second, the reclamation of antiquity from its long, but gratefully not eternal, perdition. Through the second of these, the Renaissance reminded itself of human potentiality, and established in a single forceful movement a precedent toward overcoming the past; and through the first, the Renaissance won its right to manifest that potentiality in its own future. The bold abandonment of the moralism inherent in the millennial Church gifted to the Renaissance this feeling of its expansion, growth, originality, and liberty of life and being, which gave such enormous impetus to this idea that it has survived even unto our own time. In the Renaissance, the bow of the soul had been drawn tightly indeed. Better than a thousand years of intellectual tyranny and suppression beneath the pale specter of Christian faith—better than a thousand years of shuttering one’s blinds, and hiding in the shadows cast by one’s sun. A thousand years like that are not broke from lightly, but when the burden is shed, what lightness does one not suddenly feel! What a sense of liberation, of flight, as though the very winds had returned! All of this might have been countered by a certain healthy modesty in the form of the awe of antiquity, if the rediscovery of antiquity had not instead spurred the fierce Renaissance spirit to surpass that which it so greatly admired. We have this magnificence of the Renaissance soul to thank for those awesome works of art that come down to us—but we also have it to thank for our own dangerous faith in progress, which is ambiguously interwoven even in that selfsame idea of art, and which today appears something like a blind man being led about by an untrained dog.
The idea of progress, which founds our notion of science and grants it its present almost unquestioned mandate, was thus the product of a mere historical accident: namely, the rebirth of classical antiquity in modern times. This indicates, however, a break between antiquity and modernity, a long slumber, during which the progress initiated in Greece seems to have stalled if not retrogressed. It took all the ingenuity of our modern fathers to interpret the Middle Ages as but a variation on the theme of progress. Even if their ingenuities are allowed, however, we must still acknowledge that the idea of progress is strictly modern; that it emerged for the first time in modernity, and that it was given its internal power by nothing other than the Renaissance.
This historical accident was later and retroactively encoded in the philosophy of history. I say later and retroactively, because the philosophy of history was a relative late-comer to Modernity, and certainly was not born coeval with the idea of progress itself in the Renaissance. The philosophy of history inherited the idea of progress; it interpreted it after the fact. This is to say, it abstracted an historical phenomenon and interpreted it as being, not contingent on history, but rather essential to it. On the basis of this special interpretation of history, which is by no means a self-evident and necessary interpretation, the philosophy of history was able retrospectively to confer an enormous privilege on all those aspects of human activity which themselves appeared to embody the idea of progress. Among all the plethora of human endeavors at that time, two stood forth most clearly as being particularly kin to the idea of progress: political liberalism and the late-born theoretical methodology called science. These two endeavors appeared indeed to represent precisely the gradual improvement and augmentation of scope and power that one would expect from the human embodiments of historical progress. They were taken, in short, as being retrospective evidence of the idea of progress which this philosophy had already adopted as its own. Liberalism in the political sphere, and science in the theoretical sphere, were thus granted a degree of philosophical prominence and even predominance, which they had hitherto enjoyed only sporadically, if ever. Whatever their internal worth, they owe their triumph in the modern world primarily to this fact.
Now, the idea of progress cannot merely be presupposed. There is nothing to guarantee that progress will not last a very long time before being suddenly overturned, nothing to guarantee that progress, no matter how certain it seems, will not tomorrow retrogress and fail, its achievements demolished. There is nothing even to indicate to us that what appears to us as progress is not merely decadence seen from a false perspective. And indeed, we of today, if we but open our eyes a little, can certainly not take these notions any longer on faith. To speak of only the most obvious causes for a rebirth of skepticism: we have seen how liberalism might cede to the worst kind of tyranny and how it might tend toward the most contemptible kind of mediocrity, or how science can produce also cancers and the destruction of the natural world, how it can reduce the beautiful variety of life and push the entire planet toward naturalistic catastrophes, how it can produce weapons of such violence and potency that they can potentially eradicate their very makers utterly from the face of the globe. None of this, I say, can any longer be ignored. But if our very faith in progress is thereby shaken, what then shall we say of our pleasant communal progressivist brand of historicism? And if this should also falter, then must we also not return once more and with fiercer gaze to consider the special relationship of science and philosophy? Must we not question as well our gentle obedience to science, must we not come a little to loathe the easy scientism of our day? Must we not wonder—if philosophy is not the greater power after all?
But prudence. The very least that can be said is this: we cannot any longer take progress for granted. We must inquire into its roots. We have already indicated the historical origin of the idea of progress in our time, but that if we are not to be modern in our inquiries we must recognize that this is very far indeed from providing a philosophical analysis of the same. The first thing that captures our attention is this: in our very presentation of the idea of progress, we have elided a dire philosophical difficulty for the very philosophy of history which over all other philosophies has adopted the idea of progress as its own. The problem is quite simply this: given that the idea of progress is historically determined, on what grounds then can one claim its rightness? The idea of progress, which issued from history, can be justified only if history itself is the unfolding of progress. But that can only be shown if the idea of progress is itself justified. The justification of progress appears to rest on no other ground than the idea of progress. It is a circular argument, and therefore—disproved.
Here is counter-argument on behalf of the progressivist-historicist philosophy. That particular philosophy of history which forms the theoretical underpinnings of science proposes the entire unfolding of history as the gradual ascent from the lower to the higher, as the manifestation of progress. All historical events are but events contingent upon the long arc of historical improvement. This idea is clearly a modern idea; we have already suggested that the idea of progress belonged to no other age before our own. The idea of progress is therefore an historical event, an issuance of the progress of history. Its issuance in modernity thus marks the historical moment at which the truth of historical progress and the idea of historical progress coincide for the first time in the mind of the philosopher. Put otherwise: its issuance in modernity marks that point at which the truth about history, upon which all of human life is contingent, reveals itself for the first time to the human mind; it marks that moment at which the human being becomes, at least potentially, conscious master over his own destiny. That unique and utterly special moment is called the end of history, because beyond that moment, the human being is no longer merely contingent upon his historical exigencies, but is capable of understanding, and therefore commanding, them. History in the sense of events and progressive human actions is not finished; history in the sense of the seemingly impenetrable mystery enclosing and directing human life, is.
Putting our work so far into brief synthesis: science cannot defend science through scientific method, nor can so much as justify its existence in the world, nor provide any legitimate reason why anyone should pursue its methods and its practices, study its method or its theories, or grant it moral or material support. It can at best adopt a base mercenary attitude, bribing the affection of human beings and feeding their affects through its great practical successes. This becomes increasingly difficult, the more that science also results in extremely destructive or potentially destructive technologies which are capable of ramifying the life of human beings in undesirable or even horrible or even annihilating ways. Science—though it itself remains rather blindly and tenaciously resistant to this fact—thus has increasing need of philosophical justification. Science depends for all deeper justification and all deeper defense on a special kind of philosophy, called philosophy of history. This philosophy justifies and defends science via the thesis that history itself is progressive, which permits us to see in the progressive nature of scientific research proof of science’s intimacy with the scope and aim of history itself. The philosophy of history as progress derives its own exclusive justification from the theoretical premise of the end of history, the moment at which humankind fully understands its plight in the universe, and thus wins the ability to take command of its destiny. This understanding results in the famed “historical conscience” which modernity, and modernity alone of all the ages of the world, has been gifted. Science is the means by which mankind, endowed with historical conscience, may finally arrive at the true view of reality and command its destiny; the human being, comprehending the progressive nature of the universe, may turn that progress to his favor by means of science, and finally elicit, perchance after many generations of toil, total theoretical comprehension of the nature of the world, and consequent total practical mastery over it, by means of the scientific method.
Science, as it is understood, practiced, tolerated, adored, and patronized today, rests ultimately on the idea or better yet on the claim of the “end of history.” Either this ground, or none at all, stands below it. Then we must set the shovels of our philosophical-mindedness to investigate precisely here, to see what, if anything, may be found.
Return to Part II
Continue to Part IV