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Is History a Tale Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing?

Thomas McCarthy (Race, empire, and the idea of human development [2009]) begins his graceful and lucid reflections on the idea of universal history in the wake of Kant with this provocative statement: “The philosophy of history is now widely believed to be extinct” (p. 131). McCarthy provides several reasons for this—“the idea of progress” can scarcely survive the 100 million murderous war deaths of the twentieth century. Our post-modern mood of disenchantment and skepticism regarding the very idea of “giant narratives” scuppers even thinking about “universal history” from the outset. Constructing such a grand and sweeping vision of the entire human species has “an air of hubris, if not megalomania” (p. 131).

Yet, says McCarthy, the genre resists disappearance. We see striking evidence of this in the enthusiastic reception of Francis Fukuyama’s End of history and the last man (1992). Although this work eventually suffered severe critique, its reception speaks to the way globalization in the information age and the collapse of communist regimes had made it possible to imagine the unity of the human race in more profound ways than in early modernity when Europe ventured out to discover and assimilate the strange other. Let’s look briefly at some of the ways the western imagination from Augustine to Marx has found meaning in historical unfolding.

Augustine: history as a struggle between two cities

When Kant, Hegel and Marx articulated their particular versions of universal history, they were appropriating and transforming the “philosophical theology of history that dominated in the West since Augustine,…” (p. 134). Before Augustine, Greek thought used biological metaphors to structure its thinking about development. They assumed that living things had an internal driving force propelling them to fulfil their intrinsic purpose. Like history, living things moved through their inevitable cycle of growth and decay. This cyclical notion of inner movement held sway over human thinking for a millennium before Augustine’s City of God (De civitas Dei) in 410 AD was written as a deeply distraught reflection over thirteen years on the meaning of the sack of Rome.

Augustine refuted the classical, cyclical notion of time. In its place he proposed the God-created world, fallen drastically yet redeemed at history’s decisive point: the incarnation of Christ. With a regal sense of cosmic drama, St. Augustine of Hippo (P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a biography [1969]; G. Bonner, St. Augustine of Hippo: life and controversies [1963]) imagined history as a struggle between two cities: one city, the earthly, “glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (D. MacCulloch, Christianity: the first three thousand years [2010], p. 305). “No structure in this world, not even the Church itself, can without qualification be identified as the City of God, as biblical history itself demonstrated from the time of the first murder: ‘Cain founded a city, whereas Abel, as a pilgrim, did not found one. For the city of saints is up above, although it produces citizens here below, and in their presence the City is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes’” (MacCulloch, p. 306).

This luminescent quotation expresses the Christian vision of history: a beginning with origins in Transcendent deity, the event of the coming of the redeemer, and history’s meaning fully revealed in the eschaton. History, then, has an in-built teleological direction. The novum has appeared and ultimate redemption for the chosen constitutes the end-point.

Thus, the idea of intrinsic purpose and cyclical movement of the ancients has been transformed into the providential workings of the Transcendent Single One. This grand meta-narrative of creation, fall and redemption held sway in western Christendom until its erosion in the age of critical inquiry and turning towards the earth as devoid of intrinsic meaning (H. White, Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-Europe [1973]; N. Frye, Great code: the Bible and literature [2006]).

Peter Brown (1969) in his finely textured biography Augustine of Hippo: a biography states that the City of God “drained the glory from the Roman past in order to project it far beyond the reach of men, into the ‘Most glorious City of God’” (p. 311). In his influential work, Meaning in History (1949), Karl Lowith argues that Augustine offers us a “dogmatic-historical interpretation of Christianity” (p. 166). Augustine is not interested in profane history. He is not going to get muddy doing empirical work. “What really matters in history, according to Augustine, is not the transitory greatness of empire, but salvation or damnation in a world to come” (p. 168).

Thus, for Augustine, “With reference to these supra-historical points of origin and destination, history itself is an interim between the past disclosure of its sacred meaning and its future fulfilment” (p. 169). The interim space contains only a “secret history within secular history, subterranean and invisible to those who have not the eyes of faith” (p. 172).

God remains apart from history, but history as a thing in itself moves surreptitiously with the pedagogical intent of teaching humans through suffering to find hope in the end of time. Here we can sense the residues of Greek fatalism and the growth metaphor of decay persisting in Augustine’s theology of history (transmuted into his severe doctrine of incapacitating original sin [Bonner, 1963, pp. 370-382]).

Kant: history as the developmental unfolding of an enlightened world

Kant inherits this general way of thinking, but McCarthy (2009) points out that “modern conceptions of natural law and natural history had somewhat altered the notion of development” (p. 135). In the seventeenth century John Locke’s social contract thinking claimed that reason would enable humans to transcend the “state of nature.” By the eighteenth century, it was particularly unsettling for those who might imagine that history was unfolding according to God’s hidden purposes to learn that researchers began to rend the cloak of providence to ascertain “laws and causes governing natural processes of development, not only in biology but also in social entities” (ibid.).

While it was true that the “normative demands of natural law clash with empirical accounts of natural history” (p. 135), Kant sets forth confidently to resolve this problem. With reason liberated from prejudice and religious straight-jackets, Kant is now free to offer a developmentalist understanding of the enlightened world. Reason can be applied to the control of natural processes; a potentially unlimited expansion of our mastery over nature.

It can also be linked with enlightenment by promising a “gradual diminution of the power of prejudice, superstition, blind custom, and un-reflected tradition, and a continuous increase in the practical power of reason” (McCarthy, 2009, p. 135). History has purpose and an end-point: the “cosmopolitan world order and a global ethical community” (p. 136). The crooked timber of humanity can smooth its rough edges over time through ethical action (watched over and goaded by a remote God transformed into a regulative ideal).

Kant refuses to abandon the “city of man” to the “forces of inevitable degeneration and decay, while reserving any hope for lasting peace to an otherworldly city of God” (McCarthy, 2009, p. 136). Yet Kant does not actually completely abandon shaping the Judeo-Christian narrative to his rationalizing ends. McCarthy (2009) strongly affirms that Kant’s hope was “bound up with a practically rational faith in a just God, the Lord of nature and history, whose plan for both includes, as its ultimate end (letzerzwick), the perfection of all our rational capacities, and as the final end (endzwick), the gradual realization of an ethical commonwealth, the kingdom of God on earth” (p. 137).

But what McCarthy labels as Kant’s “theodical moment” is no longer believable in our time. We cannot affirm easily the idea of a steady march of God-spirited progress or anticipate a happy ending. However, we recognize that Kant implicitly understands that human beings are not condemned forever to the “glittering misery” of civilization. They can learn and act their way towards the ethical commonwealth. They can choose to act ethically and press us beyond egoism and self-interest.

Hegel: history as the unfolding of human capacity for freedom

Hegel knew that his “philosophy of history” (the original phrase is Voltaire’s) had to find a way through history’s horror chambers, bloody battlefields and baffling contingencies. Like Kant, Hegel remains within the Judeo-Christian meta-narrative, but the “cunning of reason” now either replaces God or serves as his agency. Reason, or Absolute Spirit (a secularized notion of the Christian logos), acts on history’s subjects “by the power and cunning of reason, which is to Hegel a rational expression for divine providence: thus the motives, passions, and interests of history are indeed what they appeared to be at the first glance, namely the human stuff of it, but within the framework of a transcending purpose, promoting an end which has no part of conscious intentions” (Lowith, 1949, p. 56).

Terence Ball (“History: critique and irony.” In T. Carver (Ed.) The Cambridge companion to Marx (1991) explains that: “Spirit, one might say, is a set of potentials waiting to be actualized or developed. Spirit expresses itself by developing these nascent powers, the most important of which is the capacity for freedom” (p. 125). The “cunning of reason” works its providential way dialectically—new life springs forth from death and decay, even horror, arriving at a higher, more rational form of life in the end. The learning process for Hegel works subterraneously to achieve more freedom for humankind in its state, civil societal and economic institutions and forms of consciousness. Would that were so!

“As Hegel saw it, history is the story of spirit’s struggle to overcome obstacles in its search for freedom or self-emancipation. In the course of these struggles, spirit itself changes, becoming ever more expansive, inclusive, and universal” (Ball, 1991, p. 125). But Lowith (1949) thinks that: “More decisive than the material limitations of Hegel’s vision is the inherent weakness of his principle that the Christian religion is realized by reason in the history of the secular world—as if the Christian faith could ever be ‘realized’ at all and yet remain a faith in things unseen” (pp. 58-59).

Hegel makes the unseen visible on history’s landscape–on the horizontal plane of life lived with eyes gazing forward and not upward. Lowith (1949) states that the rationality of the seventeenth and eighteenth century committed itself to the idea that “progress is an indefinite advance toward more and more reasonableness, more and more freedom, more and more happiness, because the time is not yet fulfilled” (p. 60).

Learning processes are built in to the very unfolding of history itself. Despite Hegel’s monumentally complex (and often abstruse) efforts to save the Christian meta-narrative, Lowith correctly asserts that it is only when “men” feel independent of God that they could imagine a “theory of progress”. Later theorists of modernization, McCarthy (2009) states, nonetheless extracted the core idea that there are “internal logics to some cultural developments, which must be captured in any adequate account of sociocultural transformation” (p. 137). This is certainly evident in the great sociological texts of Weber, Durkheim, Voegelin, Parsons and Habermas.

McCarthy (2009) thinks that “Hegel’s idealist immanentism” actually appropriated “Greek models of development as growth” (p. 138). The seeds or germs of potentiality, harbouring their own self-development, resided in the historical process itself. History has its own acorn seeds that will grow to requisite fulfilment. Hegel makes the brilliantly complex philosophical move of identifying “freedom” as the seed of our essential being “thereby placing political formations at the center of human development” (p. 138). What a mind!

The institutionalization of freedom develops along with the evolving forms of the consciousness of freedom (from art to religion to philosophy). The “overcoming of an outmoded stage of development requires a ‘determinate negation’ by institutional forms that measure up to the level of critical consciousness attained; forms of political organization that fail to do so are inherently unstable” (p. 138).

Habermas has, I think, assimilated this resonant idea into his own social evolutionary learning framework. Hegel implicitly acknowledges that human beings do achieve differing levels of learning as they make their way through history. The Christian imaginary of “hope in Christ” takes on the secular, incarnational form of dialectical overcoming of the negative and the oppressive (H. Kung, The Incarnation of God [1987]).

Marx: history as dialectical movement to the socialist utopia

Hegel’s driving force of history and cultural development is this invisible and mysterious Spirit. Marx (and later post-Marxian scholars) acknowledged the “need to bring ‘material circumstances’ centrally into the explanation of cultural developments and shared the view that what drives history is not the unfolding of reason itself but changes in the mode of production, political struggles, and a variety of other such ‘natural factors’” (McCarthy, 2009, p. 139).

Now the post-Hegelian “philosophy of history” shifts on to the terrain of political economy. “To be sure, Marx combined the theoretically grasped necessity of developmental processes, which he naturalistically appropriated from Hegel’s contemplative view of history, with a practical orientation toward history more reminiscent of Kant” (p. 140). In this sense, McCarthy wryly observes, Kant is more our contemporary than Hegel.

But even Marx the atheist has not fully escaped the Judeo-Christian mythic meta-narrative. Now, however, history is governed by inexorable economic laws. It is not the wispy Spirit that makes its way through various stages toward the inevitable classless society, driven relentlessly onwards by the revolutionary force of the historically incarnated industrial proletariat. Thus, even with Marx the residues of providentiality persist in this secularized theodicy. And this designated proletariat looks suspiciously like Hegel’s transcendent Spirit turned on its ethereal head.

Developmental idealism as beautiful vision

McCarthy (2009) sums up the significance of developmental idealism: “The ‘key element’ in the shift from classical, cyclical notions of development into modern, progressive notions was the paradigmatic status ascribed to the growth of knowledge. Cognitive development—directional, cumulative, and apparently limitless—was variously understood to be the core of a process of enlightenment that would finally emancipate humankind from the claims of ignorance, superstition, and prejudice; the notion of a general progress of the human spirit encompassing morality and politics as well as the arts and sciences; the vehicle of an ever-increasing mastery over nature and society and thus of growing human happiness; and the main catalyst for the progress of civilization and reordering of human life” (p. 143).

This is still a beautiful vision. But in the second decade of the twenty-first century, few scholars and citizens share in the enlightened optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are jaded to the bone and have called into question the inter-connection of reason, truth, morality and happiness. Many scholars are busy scuttling and revising the “enlightenment narrative” itself (J. Sheehan, “Religion, and the enigma of secularization: review essay. American Historical Review, vol. 108 (4), October, 2003).

We know that “scientific and technical progress” sits uneasily with our growing awareness of the damage of weapons of mass destruction, global warming, ocean depletion, extinction of species and our unwillingness to feed the world. Marx’s “teleology of nature and providentiality had to go” (McCarthy, 2009, p. 145). Yet, the swirling debates around Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) provide strong evidence of considerable resistance to any narrative that restricts human flourishing to the immanent plane.

Habermas himself is committed to human flourishing. He profoundly recognizes the dangers in scientism and any abandonment of religious sources of motivation and morality. Nor does he abandon the core idea of a developmental logic of our species learning processes. But he restricts his interest in “religion” to its semantic potentials for motivational and moral resources and does not engage philosophically with its truth-claims.

More articles by:

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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