A reformed history must be imaginative and humane; like poetry, like the great novel, it must be personal rather than abstract, ethical rather than ideological. Like the poet, the historian must understand that devotion to truth is not identical with the cult of facts.

The middle decades of our twentieth century have been marked intellectually by the publication of historical writings of the first importance—even though simultaneously there has occurred a decline in the teaching of history to the rising generation. I have in mind such historians of a philosophical cast as Arnold Toynbee, Eric Voegelin, Christopher Dawson, Herbert Butterfield, John Lukacs, and Friedrich Herr. The scope of their work is vast so I confine myself to one strong theme which runs through the books of many of our major recent historians: the meaning of historical consciousness. This subject is best examined by particular attention to the writings of John Lukacs.

Permit me to commence with certain lines from “Gerontion”:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving tarnishes the craving.

Here Eliot’s gypsy witch called history may be understood in two senses. In the one sense, Eliot means the word “history” as we understand that word ordinarily: the record of a nation’s or a civilization’s past. In the second sense, Eliot’s meaning is best defined by Elizabeth Drew: “‘History’ is human experience lived without the framework of a Logos; lived by the ‘knowledge’ supplied by empirical science, It is man relying on his own desires and ‘whispers,’ believing that he can control his own fate; directed only by arbitrary expediency….” Yet in both of Eliot’s meanings through the dying lips of Gerontion we touch upon the urgent concern of our chief twentieth-century historians with the meaning of historical consciousness. Is history no better than el amor bruja, ensnaring us in contrived corridors? Or was Gerontion mistaken? May there exist great truths to be perceived through historical learning? Perhaps, after all, the framework of a Logos may be discerned, however dimly, by the historian possessed of a philosophic habit of mind. Before we stumble into Gerontion’s cunning passages and issues, permit me to make it clear that when I refer to possible great truths to be perceived through historical study, I do not have in mind any nineteenth-century notion of Progress, not yet any ideological infatuation, instead, I am acutely aware of Gabriel Marcel’s warning against “that armed ghost, the ‘meaning’ of history.” We know the past only fragmentarily and imperfectly: It is fatuous to suppose that our scant knowledge of the past might enable us to foretell the future. Yet that fatuity has afflicted men of learning, Hegel among them, and many of the great movers and shakers of our century. On this subject, Raymond Aron, in his book The Opium of the Intellectuals, is insightful:

Those who aspire to command history seem to dream either of eliminating the intervention of accidents, of great men and chance encounters, or of rebuilding society according to a global plan and discarding the heritage of unjustifiable traditions, or of putting an end to the conflicts which divide humanity and deliver it up to the tragic irony of war. Reason teaches us precisely the opposite—that politics will always remain the art of the irrevocable choice by fallible men in unforeseen circumstances and semi-ignorance.

Amen to that. So I, like the living historian I am about to discuss, do not follow the armed ghost. To seek for truths in history, for these philosophical inquirers, distinctly is not to indulge in dreamy visions of unborn ages, or to predict the inevitability of some political domination. Rather, the truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will; about the significance of human existence; about the splendor and the misery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology. For historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness. For elucidation of this declaration, we turn to the writings of John Lukacs. Applying a philosophical intellect to the study of history, Lukacs believes that historical studies may become the principal literary form and way to wisdom in the dawning age. This does not mean that he endeavors to present a “philosophy of history”—on the contrary, he agrees with Burckhardt that the notion of a philosophy of history is “a centaur, a contradiction in terms; for history coordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical.” A bold scholar, Lukacs stands in the line of Tocqueville and Burckhardt; also he has read Samuel Johnson through and through. His own specialty is contemporary history, and he is the author of a well-known short history of the Cold War, and of a lengthy study of eastern Europe during and since the Second World War. His Decline and Rise of Europe (1967) was in part a prolegomenon to Historical Consciousness. He is a master of the neglected art of annotation—footnotes and appended notes, witty and illuminating. In humane letters, he has read widely in several languages, and deeply. Writes Lukacs:

I believe that the future of Western thought will be historical, but, I repeat, this does not mean a philosophy of history but a chastened historical philosophy, concentrating on the historicity of problems and of events, assuming the uniqueness of human nature anew, presenting no new definitions, no freshly jigsawed categories, emphasizing the existential—and not merely philosophical—primacy of truth: a more mature achievement of the human mind than even the mastering of certain forces of nature through the scientific method, and certainly more mature than the simplistic conception of causalities.

Although lucid, Historical Consciousness and Lukacs’ other books are complex and never doctrinaire or ideological—which naturally diminishes attention to them in the quasi-literary mass media. Lukacs’ candid convictions, never shrouded, tempt the critic to digress at length on Lukacs’ distinction between “the public” and “the people” (for, like Plato, Lukacs is a lover of distinctions); upon his mordant criticisms of positivistic historians; upon his remarks about national character; or his discussions of objectivity and subjectivity; or his doubts about Darwin; or his appreciation of Heisenberg. This historian casts his net wide. But I must endeavor to take up Lukacs on his central theme of historical consciousness. “We are outgrowing some of our standard intellectual ‘problems,’ at least in the West, where the conflict between science and religion has become outdated,” Lukacs writes; “and it is at least possible that history and religion, and history and science, may be brought together, but on a higher level.” We live today in an intellectual interregnum. “It is, for example, historical thinking that provides us with the best explanation of the chaotic development of scientific thinking during its last phase,” Lukacs continues; “and it is not impossible that as we struggle through a tremendous jungle of dying concepts and half-truths, many convergent paths in science, history, and religion may emerge before us: There are certain discernible symptoms that point in these directions.” Historical studies conceivably may lead us out of the jungle, but this is not certain: excessive specialization, positivistic prejudices, shallow scientism, and the thinness of culture in the mass age afflict the historical discipline, as they afflict every other field of study today. Lukacs’ book Historical Consciousness is intended to help in effecting a grand reform of historical writing and teaching.

Lukacs readily confesses that often historical thinking has been disorganized and weak, and that historical consciousness may be employed to deceive. A reformed history, he declares, must be imaginative and humane; like poetry, like the great novel, it must be personal rather than abstract, ethical rather than ideological. Like the poet, the historian must understand that devotion to truth is not identical with the cult of facts.

It is easier to write a mediocre history than a mediocre novel. It is more difficult to write a great history than a great novel. Certainly this is the reason why, in the last two hundred years, there have been more great novels than great histories. Probably this is why the Western world is yet to see the appearance of a truly classic historian, a historian Dante, a historian Shakespeare.

In the modern age, we have known no Thucydides, no Polybius, no Livy, no Plutarch. Obsessed by the Fact, a nineteenth-century idol, most modern historians have forgotten that facts, too, are constructions—and meaningful only in association. It is the event, rather than the isolated fact, which is the proper concern of historians. In the commendable sense, the genuine historian must be at home with fiction. If the historian is to supplant the novelist as culture’s guardian, he must learn to write more nobly and more philosophically than he does today. “In the beginning was the Word, not the Fact; history is thought and spoken and written with words; and the historian must be master of his words as much as of his ‘facts,’ whatever those might mean.” Lukacs is appealing here not to linguistic analysis, not to semantics, but to rhetoric in its original signification. Popular interest in good historical writing increases nowadays. Yet this may work mischief if the writing of history is dominated by “professional intellectuals”—that is, by positivists, ideologues, Benda’s treasonous clerks. Meritocracy among historians would be as dismal as meritocracy in the state, “a poisonous development.” Increasingly, guardianship of traditional common sense and of the language has been abandoned by most intellectuals for “more advantageous occupations…. Yet these melancholy developments have not weakened my belief that among all kinds of people, in these very times, and even in the United States, an appetite for all kinds of historical knowledge, and their historical consciousness in many different ways, is growing.”

A restored historical consciousness must rest upon certain very old insights. The most important of these insights, Lukacs implies, is the power of religious understanding—lacking which, there can exist no order in the soul and no order in the state; indeed, no history which can be recorded without a shudder. Here Lukacs stands with Johann Huizinga, Christopher Dawson, and Herbert Butterfield, whom he quotes frequently. Cartesian objectivity is a limited thing, and dying; our situation is post-scientific, rather than post-Christian; the new physics undoes the smug pseudo-certitudes of the mechanists. Human nature is central once more, and it may fall to the historian to renew our apprehension of that nature.

In this sense a Christian and a historical understanding of human nature may very well complement each other—especially now when our world is suffering from a decay of love, a condition which is obscured by the grim preoccupation with sex, and obfuscated by an increase of bureaucratic welfare and of legalistic tolerance, with the corresponding decline in human sensitivities. In this sense we are already living in a world where unassuming love, again, becomes curiously and existentially practical.

There is no man but historic man. Forgetting this truth, we justify Hegel’s observation that we learn from the study of history how mankind has learned nothing from the study of history. The Darwinians “fantastically elongated the history of man on this earth,” mistaking the Java or Peking or Rhodesian anthropoids for humanity at one end of the scale, and projecting into an unprovable Progressive future—”Ye unborn ages, crowd not on my soul.” But abruptly we have become aware that through the progress of technology it now lies in our power to terminate human history some two thousand years after the birth of Christ: man working upon himself retributive providential judgment, as man has done so often in the past. The Last Judgment once more can be reasonably postulated as the terminal event in history. If all history is a drama, the time cries out for a new Thucydides. More and more, the people of our era become conscious that, as Santayana expressed it, those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it; and, one may add, to repeat it without pleasure or hope. When the moral imagination is starved, when generation cannot link with generation, Kipling’s fable of the Hive is realized; and the fire awaits. Like his mentor Tocqueville, John Lukacs seeks historical understanding that we may prophesy in our time. To prophesy, I need hardly remind this readership, is not the same as to predict. Lukacs does not believe that a scientific knowledge of history can enable people to predict tomorrow’s events or the next century’s events. Yet a knowledge of human nature derived from historical thinking may enable a talented historian, or indeed any person well schooled historically, to foresee with reasonable prospect of fulfillment the consequences of certain tendencies or courses of action—supposing, always, that such tendencies or courses are not interrupted or diverted by other influences (whether contrived or seemingly happenstance). What most of the Hebrew prophets did was to foretell the coming of divine wrath, should not Israel mend her ways. Rather in that sense, Lukacs and certain others prophesy as historians.

For John Lukacs, like T.S. Eliot, foresees the coming wrath. Here the titles of certain chapters in his book The Passing of the Modern Age must suffice to suggest his disgust with our time: the monstrosity of government; the impotence of powers; the separation of races; the conformity of nations; the purposelessness of society; the fiction of prosperity; the dissolution of learning; the meaninglessness of letters; the senselessness of the arts; the destruction of nature; the decay of science; the faithlessness of religion; the mutation of morality.

Because of the disintegrating of our moral order, Lukacs argues, we stand now upon the forbidding threshold of the new Dark Age. The nineteenth-century notion of ineluctable Progress is undone altogether. Our ancestors of the last century expected our present technological developments.

What they did not see was the state of the minds and hearts of millions of well-fed and well-clothed men and women in these air-heated and air-cooled rooms. They could not imagine how in the greatest city of the Western world millions would be living next to each other as entire strangers; that millions of the better off would flee the city at night, abandoning entire portions of it to hostile people of various races; that in the richest and largest of buildings robberies would occur at any hour of the day; that no one would dare to cross the city parks and few would dare to walk midtown streets at night; that an enormous body of policemen, large enough for the armed forces of a Middle European republic, would be distrusted and feared and yet unable to insure order and safety; that many of the schools of the city would fulfill only a desperate and necessary function of daytime custodial prisons, with police patrolling their corridors, where teachers and overgrown boys and girls would confront one another with screaming hatred and concealed weapons; that hundreds of thousands of people, including children, would be dependent on narcotics; that thousands of well-to-do people would implore their psychiatric doctors to place them in certain hospitals where, injected with soporific drugs, they could be put into a state of cold sleep for months.

Thus we arrive at the end of the Modern Age. What will succeed? An anarchic poverty of body and mind, perhaps, with great slaughter, smiting and sparing not, as in Cambodia. Perhaps; but also, as even the melancholy Hungarian Lukacs reminds us, perhaps not. For among living historians, Lukacs is the chief champion of the doctrine of free will. His often-made point about free will is best expressed not by Lukacs, however, but by the writer with whom, according to Lord Acton, the serious study of history begins: Edmund Burke. Thus turn we to the First Letter on a Regicide Peace. Here Burke distinguishes between individual human beings and great states. The latter are artificial combinations and moral essences. And Burke comments, “I doubt whether the history of mankind is yet complete enough, if ever it can be so, to furnish grounds for a sure theory on the internal causes which necessarily affect the fortune of a State. I am far from denying the operation of such causes: but they are infinitely uncertain, and much more obscure, and much more difficult to trace, than the foreign causes that tend to raise, to depress, and sometimes to overwhelm a community.” Then Burke continues:

It is often impossible, in these political enquiries, to find any proportion between the apparent force of any moral causes we may assign, and their known operation. We are therefore obliged to deliver up that operation to mere chance; or, more piously (perhaps more rationally), to the occasional interposition and the irresistible hand of the Great Disposer. We have seen States of considerable duration, which for ages have remained nearly as they have begun, and could hardly be said to ebb or flow…. The meridian of some has been the most splendid. Others, and they the greatest number, have fluctuated, and experienced at different periods of their existence a great variety of fortune. At the very moment when some of them seemed plunged in unfathomable abysses of disgrace and disaster, they have suddenly emerged. They have begun a new course, and opened a new reckoning; and even in the depths of their calamity, and on the very ruins of their country, have laid the foundations of a towering and durable greatness. All this has happened without any apparent previous change in the general circumstances which had brought on their distress. The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumerable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature.

In those last two sentences, Burke may refer to the reverses of Pericles, of Coriolanus, of the elder Pitt, of the Constable of Bourbon—nothing of which imagery can be apprehended without historical consciousness. His common soldier is Arnold of Winkelried, who flung himself upon the Austrian spears at Sempach; his child is Hannibal, taking at the age of twelve his oath to make undying war upon Rome; his girl at the inn is Joan of Arc. Chance, Providence, or mere individual strong wills, Burke declares, abruptly may alter the whole apparent direction of historic events. Burke, in 1795, was gloomy enough; but he did not surrender to historical determinism. Lukacs, in 1968, took a dim view of the prospects for our civilization; but he rejected historical determinism and all forms of materialism and mechanism as applied to the study of human beings. He found correspondences to his historical thought in the quantum physics of Werner Heisenberg, particularly in Heisenberg’s Gifford Lectures at St. Andrew’s. Lukacs makes ten points about the discoveries of Heisenberg. First, no longer does any scientific certitude exist. Second, the ideal of objectivity is illusory. Third, by nature, definitions are illusory. Fourth, there is no absolute truthfulness of mathematics. Fifth, “factual” truth is an illusion. Sixth, the mechanical concept of causality has broken down. Seventh, potentialities return to scientific speculation. Eighth, not the essence of “factors,” but their relationship, counts. Ninth, the principles of “classical” logic are no longer unconditional: New concepts of truth are recognized. Tenth, at the end of the Modern Age the Cartesian partition falls away. For the fashion in which Lukacs finds corresponding developments in historical thinking, I must refer you to his Historical Consciousness, space not sufficing here. In substance, Lukacs tells us that the will is free; we enter once more upon the mystery and wonder of human existence, redeemed from “reductionism”; and for those willing to learn, the historical consciousness may be fuller than ever it was before. I offered a passage from Burke as an eighteenth-century parallel to Lukacs’ ideas; now I offer a passage from Arthur Koestler (at the end of his slim Roots of Coincidence) which summarizes Lukacs’ point better than Lukacs puts it himself:

We have heard a whole chorus of Nobel Laureates in physics informing us that matter is dead, causality is dead, determinism is dead. If that is so, let us give them a decent burial, with a requiem of electronic music. It is time for us to draw the lessons from twentieth-century post-mechanistic science, and to get out of the straitjacket which nineteenth-century materialism imposed on our philosophical outlook, Paradoxically, had that outlook kept abreast with modern science itself, instead of lagging a century behind it, we would have been liberated from that straitjacket long ago.

In large part, Lukacs says, our bent world at the end of the twentieth century has been deformed by false understandings of the human condition. We are beginning to free ourselves from those delusions, and to learn afresh that human beings do possess free will. But news of renewed concepts of the human condition penetrates only very slowly to the mass of people—by reflections and refractions, Coleridge said—and so possibly the social and intellectual age we have known may perish even while people of imagination (always a tiny minority) are at work endeavoring to restore a moral order. A fuller and acuter historical consciousness is one important instrument for our regeneration. This must commence with self-consciousness, Lukacs reasons: “For self-consciousness and self-knowledge are marks of the historical evolution of the Western mind in the twentieth century: man turning inward rather than outward, the recognition that he is facing himself, alone.” We begin the study of mankind with the study of ourselves. Lukacs says that he is a dark-room, not a camera: That is, far from being some “objective” detached observer, the human being is the active developer of impressions—in historical consciousness especially. Indeed, this power of fuller perception by our historical consciousness may be the chief advantage of man at the end of the twentieth century over his predecessors. “There are two ways in which we can speak of progress in history,” Lukacs writes.

In the Christian sense history is a teleological process, moving toward the end of mankind, the Day of Judgment. This may or may not be complemented by another recognition, which is that there is such a thing as human evolution, but perhaps only in the sense of the evolution of our consciousness—an evolution which, if determined at all, is determined from the inside. Since history is a kind of philosophy made up by examples, and since every one of these examples has actually taken place, every generation is potentially richer in its consciousness; it has more examples to draw upon, it knows more varieties of human behavior, ever different incarnations of human problems, more evidences about the complexities of human acts and about the divagations of human hearts. I wrote potentially because…the increase of the historical information available to us does not necessarily mean a corresponding increase of historical understanding.

In speaking here of history as “a kind of philosophy,” Lukacs does not embrace the notion of a philosophy of history. The search for that, he remarks, was a certain phase in the development of modern historical consciousness. “The greatest Western historians have always understood that a sane understanding of human nature literally pre-empts the need for a philosophy of history. Therefore, they knew, too, that—save for certain specialized branches of research—there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a historical method, even though history has become a principal, perhaps the principal, Western form of thought.” What we find in Lukacs, then, is not some new philosophy of history, but instead a fresh approach to the character of historical consciousness, illuminated by humane letters, psychology, and natural science. I have not done John Lukacs justice here: In this brief compass, I am able only to suggest the individuality and quick penetration of his thought—frequently digressive and deliberately personal in approach. I conclude our present examination of Lukacs by quoting two of his asides which may seem sufficiently laconic, not to say sibylline. These observations have a bearing upon the nature of personal and historical consciousness.

The first passage concerns imagination and perception.

Self-knowledge, and the existing potentiality of past-knowledge, are involved intimately with imagination—a word which suggests a colorful mental construction on the one hand, and an inward tendency on the other…. The part played by the imagination, as Collingwood rightly puts it, ‘is properly not ornamental but structure; and the meaning of this truth goes beyond our interest in history. If, for example, imagination is more than a superstructure of perception, the term ‘extrasensory perception’ is, strictly speaking, misleading, for all human perception is, to some extent, extrasensory.

The second Lukacs passage which I submit for your meditation refers to the notion of “absolute time” typical of the Bourgeois Age. Then John Lukacs continues,

Now we have to learn something about the relativity of our notion of time, that what we had been thinking of as absolute ‘time,’ too, is but a concept of human mind, a fiction, that mathematical time and living duration are two different things…. There is no human being who has not experienced the relativity of time (though he may not have recognized its meaning): that there is a sense of time which resides within ourselves, whose dimensions may on occasion stretch to impossible lengths or contract within an instant to the standing stillness of death, and that this personal sense of time does not always correspond to the mechanical and mathematically progressing—and therefore man-made—categories of clock and calendar. 

You will have perceived that John Lukacs has been doing his best to exorcise that armed ghost we call historical determinism. His weapons against ideology are the arts of humane philosophy. Though he is an enemy to arid unnecessary abstraction in historical writing, and an able practitioner of the art of concrete representation, still he must employ to some extent the vocabularies and the concepts of metaphysics and theology. If some people find Lukacs—like his exemplar Tocqueville—too ready with large generalization, let me remind them of Coleridge’s admonition regarding the invisible power of ideas, in his Essays on His Own Times:

In every state, not wholly barbarous, a philosophy, good or bad, there must be. However slightingly it may be the fashion to talk of speculation and theory, as opposed (sillily and nonsensically opposed) to practice, it would not be difficult to prove, that such as is the existing spirit of speculation, during any given period, such will be the spirit and tone of the religion, legislation, and morals, nay, even of the fine arts, the manners, and the fashions. Nor is this the less true, because the great majority of men live like bats, but in twilight, and know and feel the philosophy of their age only by its reflections and refractions.

Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Fall/Winter 1980).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is “The Muse Clio” (c. 1689) by Pierre Mignard (1612–1695) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email