The “end” of the end of history is not necessarily something that we need fear or mourn. Rather, it is an affirmation of what many conservative thinkers have long recognized about human nature: that comfort and ease, however sweet, do not long satisfy; that above all we hope to be part of a story that is larger than ourselves.
“All the paintings, palaces, and museum cities mean nothing in comparison with their primal creative force. The mighty current that left all these creations in its wake like colorful seashells can never run dry—it continues to flow deep underground.” —Ernst Jünger
I was impressed by Chuck Chalberg’s recent essay “The End of ‘The End of History’?” featured in The Imaginative Conservative. At the outset, I would note that I agree with his argument. Francis Fukuyama’s influential “End of History” thesis, which heralded a post-historical Eden where liberal values like free-market capitalism and parliamentary democracy would reign unchallenged, is on the retreat today, if not defunct altogether. Indeed, many scholars who were inspired by the End of History idea (including Mr. Fukuyama himself) have made much ado trying to pin down exactly where they went wrong in formulating their weighty prognostications. As Dr. Chalberg suggests, the answers they have come up with range from the resurgence of Russia and China and their successful use of “authoritarian capitalism” to the corruption of the liberal ideal within the very states that originally gave life to it.
Few, however, have considered another possibility: the inadequacy of the liberal worldview itself. In this respect I would ask the reader to consider the often-overlooked tagline that accompanied Mr. Fukuyama’s book: “The Last Man.” This is an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s poetic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which the half-mad prophet of modernity bemoaned the coming of a new type of man, the “last man,” whose highest values would be the material comfort and security supposedly guaranteed by an advanced state of technological progress. The passage from Zarathustra in which Nietzsche elaborates on this key concept is worth quoting at length:
I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.
Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.
‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ thus asks the last man, and blinks.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea; the last man lives longest.
‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth…
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
‘Formerly, all the world was mad,’ say the most refined, and they blink…
One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.
To be fair, Mr. Fukuyama never claimed that the “end” of history would mean the end of all conflict, or that it would free us from the tragedy of the human condition. Nevertheless, Mr. Fukuyama’s overt reference to “The Last Man” suggests that the type of future he predicted was one in which Nietzsche’s pitiable archetype would be well at home, for it was at the end of history that humanity would have at last found its formula and settled all of its “big questions” once and for all. “We have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink.”
Does such a static vision of life ultimately prove satisfying to the human spirit? To be sure, the principal “goods” associated with liberalism—free enterprise, human rights, and political participation—are nothing to turn our noses at. Even in our century, much blood has been spilled on their behalf, and the sudden return of history contra Mr. Fukuyama suggests that there will be still more scores to settle on that account. But there is also a thinly veiled sense of nihilism lurking beneath the End of History’s optimistic façade. In this regard, one can almost hear the lyrics to John Lennon’s song “Imagine” echoing softly in the background:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Indeed, it was the capacity to “imagine” just such a future that, according to the political philosopher Leo Strauss, was at the heart of the uniquely German antipathy toward the modern world that characterized the works of the so-called Weimar Conservatives—Ernst and Friedrich-Georg Jünger, Oswald Spengler, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, and the like. In Strauss’ essay On German Nihilism, it is telling that we find yet another overt reference to the “Last Man” figure:
What they [the Weimar Conservatives] hated, was the very prospect of a world in which everyone would be happy and satisfied, in which everyone would have his little pleasure by day and his little pleasure by night, a world in which no great heart could beat and no great soul could breathe, a world without real, un-metaphoric, sacrifice, i.e. a world without blood, sweat, and tears. What to the communists appeared to be the fulfilment of the dream of mankind, appeared to those young Germans as the greatest debasement of humanity, as the coming of the end of humanity, as the arrival of the latest man.
In short, what the end of history lacks is the chance of experiencing the Ernstfall, or “serious moment,” for such a moment depends on the possibility of conflict—on the possibility that one is prepared to live and, if necessary, die for something; whether an idea, a faith, or even a culture or civilization. At the end of history however, there would be no such opportunity. “In the post-historical period,” Mr. Fukuyama wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care-taking of the museum of human history.” Put another way, we can imagine the Homeric hero Hector risking life and limb for the doomed city of Troy. But can we imagine him doing the same for, say, the World Trade Organization?
In this sense then, the “end” of the end of history is not necessarily something that we need fear or mourn. Rather, it is an affirmation of what many conservative thinkers have long recognized about human nature: that comfort and ease, however sweet, do not long satisfy; that above all we hope to derive some higher meaning and purpose from our existence—to be part of a story that is larger than ourselves, and that does not begin or end with us alone.
Perhaps most telling of all is the conclusion that Mr. Fukuyama himself reached regarding his own thesis:
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands… Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.