The end of history concept—the belief that there will be an endpoint to social, intellectual, and political progress—is a powerful idea that pervades modern-day secular thought. The spread of gay rights, the rise of universal government-run health insurance, and environmental awareness has hubristically led “progressive” secularists to describe a coming “Age of Enlightenment” when Americans recognize the “truth” of left-wing values. Modern secular progressives envision a day, an end of history, when their values triumph across the social and intellectual stratum, even in the most conservative bastions.
This idea that history moves in a predictable direction originates in Scripture. The Book of Isaiah is filled with prophecies about an end of days when a hegemonic Israel and its monotheistic values reign over a ruined Egypt. Old Testament prophet Daniel predicts Christ’s triumph and the millennium, influencing subsequent Christian authors, such as John who wrote the Book of Revelation. It interprets the end of history as a titanic struggle of good versus evil, ending with the utopian Reign of Saints. This, in turn, shaped the mind of the most important Christian philosopher to describe an end of history, St. Augustine.
Augustine was the first thinker to propose a comprehensive linear philosophy of history. It begins with God’s creation of the universe and ends with the return of Jesus and Judgment Day. These ideas shaped Western Culture for a millennium. Even the greatest scientist in history, Isaac Newton, dedicated large amounts of his prodigious intellect studying the Book of Daniel trying to determine, when will Jesus return?
The rise of secular philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not expunge the end of history idea from intellectual history. Like so many other Christian ideas, they were cloaked in new nomenclature, but the fundamental essence remained intact. Enlightenment philosophers, like all of us, could not completely escape their intellectual heritage. The spiritual morphed into the material, but this is analogous to a snake shedding its skin: all differences are superficial. Closer examination reveals continuation, not distinction. Among secularists, an anthro-centered world challenged, and to some degree replaced the theo-centered world promoted since the dawn of civilization, but these new prophets still adopted the Judeo-Christian notion that history moves in a linear fashion, complete with an end-point. Now, man orchestrates historical events, not God.
These new end of history prophets preached human perfection and paradise, yet they were bereft of any sort of divine origins. For example, Enlightenment atheist La Mattrie, who maintained virtue could only be achieved in a society without religion, proclaimed, “In a century as Enlightened as ours it has finally been demonstrated . . . that there is only one life and one happiness.” The perfect no longer existed in the afterlife that had been banished by the Enlightenment, now for secularists it could only be created in this lifetime.
Condorcet provides the best example. He described a utopian end of history, a world guided by reason, void of organized religion, war, and disease. Condorcet interpreted history in Christian linear fashion, complete with an end point. “Our hopes for the future condition of the human race can be subsumed under three important heads: the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.” This occurs in the tenth and final stage of history, for Condorcet. Social and intellectual progress end when human beings live by “reason.”
These prophets and their linear teleological systems continued in the nineteenth century, most notably with Hegel. He interpreted history as a struggle between two antagonistic ideas, the thesis and anti-thesis. The struggle is resolved with the formation of a synthesis, but contradictions within the synthesis lead to a new thesis and antithesis, so the process begins anew. This is progress. Ultimately, all of history ends when the spirit (geist) obtains complete self-awareness. History ends when the abstract and concrete are unified.
Hegel influenced two of the most significant end of history theorists in the second half of the nineteenth century, Augustine Comte and Karl Marx. Their rigid materialism denied the existence of any sort of geist in the universe, but they maintained a linear, progressive interpretation of history, complete with an end point. Comte interpreted humanity as progressing from one age guided by religion, to one guided by philosophy, then a final age of history, the scientific or positive age. Comte acknowledged that these stages—religion, philosophy, and science—are related, however, because one evolves from the other. (Churches were actually constructed in different parts of the world to promote what Comte described as a “religion of humanity.” It adherents called it a secular religion.) His philosophy of history ends with the triumph of science. The scientific or positive stage means the mind is guided by science, bringing it as close as one can come to absolute truth. He deemed sociology the “queen of the sciences.” A society based on scientific principles is the highest point humanity can achieve and therefore means the end of all intellectual history.
Comte’s sociological partner, Karl Marx, continued the Hegelian dialectic and merely substituted classes for ideas. No thinker has influenced modern day progressives more than Marx. Like Comte, he believed in the inevitable progress of his values. All of history, argued Marx, was a conflict between classes. These conflicts resolve with the inevitable overthrow of the malignant capitalist system by the workers, ushering in a new age of socialism. Gradually, the state will wither away, leading to the perfect age of communism. This utopian end of history is void of classes and religion. Again, religious paradigms still guide secular thought. Paradise will just arrive in this world, instead of the next.
The most dramatic end of history prophecy in recent times came when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in his End of History and the Last Man that liberal-democracy had triumphed and that history will be manifested through the expansion of liberal-democratic values. Dr. Fukuyama, like Marx, openly acknowledged his debt to Hegel by opening his book with a call for a return to Hegel’s philosophy of history where history travels in a linear process and corresponds to progress. The far-left Communist experiment had failed in Eastern Europe and the far-right ideologies of Fascism and Nazism proved no more successful. He proclaimed that liberal democracy (not socialism like Marx) had triumphed and that history was merely the advent of liberal-democratic values. This means voting, parliaments, equal rights, capitalism (or some form of it), constitutions, freedom of speech, press, and religion. Those who deny these values run counter to history. Some modern-day conservatives, sometimes called neo-conservatives, have adopted this view. It can be seen in their confidence of spreading liberal-democratic values to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is too early to assess the significance of Dr. Fukuyama’s theories, but Condorcet, Comte, and Marx profoundly influenced the minds of secular twenty-first century progressives just as Daniel, Augustine, and John did for Christians, with one notable difference: these new ends of history were ushered in by man, not God. History still moves in a linear fashion, complete with a final paradise, but the abandonment of an after-life means this perfection must be achieved on Earth, in this lifetime. The abandonment of the spiritual meant the new utopias are created in this material world by leading progressives and their values.
But these human-made, secular ends of history can never come for a host of reasons. I want to emphasize the fact that any man-made end of history is impossible for the simple reason it would require intellectual concordance between the intellectuals and the masses. This is impossible because intellectuals must distinguish themselves from the masses in order to have an identity, just as fashion models must always dress differently. Every society must have a group of thinkers who define themselves as such, but how can independent thought exist if everyone adopts the same values? If any ideology ever completely triumphs, why the need for intellectuals to encourage others to think differently and critically examine society? A uniform intellectual climate renders the intellectual worthless. Dr. Fukuyama asserts the existence of a Last Man, but the intellectual, virtually by definition, can never be the “Last Man.” In this context, the Last Man, as posited by Nietzsche, is the antithesis of the ubermensch, or superior man who is not constrained by mores. The intellectual can never be mundane.
God gave humanity free-will and we all exercise this in one form or another. The intellectual uses free will to critically examine the world around him. One thing binds all intellectuals together: they critique the societies they are part of. In fact, it seems not to matter what kind of society they are part of, intellectuals condemn the status quo. At the height of the Cold War, American intellectuals like Horkheimer, Adorno, Chomsky, and Zinn generally critiqued American consumer capitalism while their Soviet counterparts, the dissidents, critiqued Soviet socialism, the most economically equal society the modern world has ever seen. Accordingly, despite the overwhelming triumph of Western capitalism over Soviet socialism, despite the fact it has become the dominant economic system of the age, the most vocal critics of this system are the intellectuals. They must use their talents to design a new and marvelous world, a New Jerusalem. The existing world can never suffice. Even if progressive values sweep across the world, there must come a point when intellectuals abandon them in favor of something new, something fresh. Otherwise, they will be indistinguishable from the morose masses.
The need to intellectually distinguish themselves is so great, they at times even have to distinguish themselves from each other. The late Pierre Bourdieu, for example, who the New York Times once called France’s most influential intellectual, admitted he flirted with anti-intellectualism and feared becoming part of, if not at the top of, the intellectual class he criticized. Upon achieving faculty status at the University of Paris, time-honored tradition required he give an inaugural address to the faculty and other eminent intellectuals like Claude Levi-Strauss and Michael Foucault. Bourdieu’s topic? A critique of inaugural addresses.
Bourdieu was contrarian, like Rousseau in the eighteenth century and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. Whereas eighteenth century philosophers stressed reason and glorified Newton, Rousseau stressed emotion and questioned whether science actually improved humanity. He launched a counter attack against his Enlightenment brethren that contributed to German Romanticism and luminaries like Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Schopenhauer. Their complex and vast metaphysical systems, in turn, provoked the contrarian Nietzsche: he denied the validity of any system and defied conventional philosophical discourse by writing in aphorisms. He refuted Enlightenment emphasis on reason. These ideas shaped the thought of other social critics like Horkheimer and Adorno. In other words, the intellectuals and their values can never rule society because civil war will ensue among them.
Jesus warned of false prophets, or those who promise us righteousness without Him. Only God can stop political, intellectual, and social progress. If history does follow any laws, they must be God’s laws because thousands of years of human history has revealed no iron human laws, only those who think they find them. There can never be a human-created end of history because there are no permanent man-made values. One of these lessons of history is change and unpredictability, not permanence. A cursory overview of intellectual history from the dawn of civilization shows that the mind of the intellectual class is always changing. Why would we assume this trend will end?
Believing in timeless values is psychologically self-serving, but it belies rational thought and historical perspective. Those who seek earthly perfection and any sort of end of history seek in vain. When an end of history does occur, it will be established by God because only He is timeless.
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 Progress of America (1875) by Domenico Tojetti (1806-1892) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.