Philosophers today are much engaged with questions about the essence and meaning of History. In English literature we find such significant works as on the one hand the volumes of Arnold J. Toynbee's A Study of History and on the other R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. One can cite in addition Karl Löwith's Meaning in History. One of our younger philosophers in Germany Gerhard Krüger begins his essay ‘Die Geschichte im Denken der Gegenwart’ with the statement: ‘Today history is our biggest problem’. Why is it so?
I: The Problem of History and Historicity
(The Question of the Meaning of History)
Man as subject to History. The Question of Order in Historical Change. Historical Relativism. Nihilism and the Question of how to overcome it.
The reason is that in recent years the historicity of man has attained great prominence—‘historicity’ in the sense that man is at the mercy of the course of history and that in a twofold sense:
(1) It is not of course a new conception that the life of the individual is interwoven with the course of historical events. As Erich Frank says: ‘The situation in which the individual finds himself is the result of that which he himself and others before him have been and done and thought of historical decisions that cannot be revoked. It is only by taking account of this past that man can think and act and be. In this the historicity of his existence consists.’1 Man cannot choose the place from which he starts. But is it possible for him to set a certain goal at which he wishes to arrive and to choose the way on which he wishes to walk? Men have at all times been aware that this is possible only to a limited extent. They have comprehended that they are dependent on circumstances and that the achievement of a plan of life involves a struggle with opposing powers which are often stronger than man's own virtue. They know that history takes shape not only through the actions of men but also by fate or destiny.
(2) This perception has in our day acquired special urgency in consequence of the events of world-history. Men have become conscious not only of their dependence but also of their helplessness. They have come to feel that they are not only interwoven with the course of history but are also at its mercy. And today this feeling has a peculiar bitterness. For a truth which is not new as such has now become clear with frightening distinctness. It is the truth which Goethe expressed in the verse:
Ach unsre Taten selbst so gut als unsre Leiden
Sie hemmen unsres Lebens Gang.2
The powers which rule as fate over man are not only foreign powers opposed to his will and plans but often such as grow out of his own will and plans. It is not only that ‘the curse of the wrong deed ever must beget wrong’ as Schiller said but good intentions and well considered beginnings also have consequences which no one could foresee and lead to deeds which nobody wanted to do. Erich Frank says: ‘Man began to recognise that the course of history is marked by the divergence between aim and accomplishment. Man's goal may be set by his own will yet the results following from his actions do not conform to his intentions.’3 ‘It is a well-known fact that in history the results of our willed actions reach beyond the mark of their intended goal thus revealing an inner logic of things which overrules the will of man’4 and he takes as example the French Revolution. It intended a liberal constitution and a federation of free nations and it led to a military dictatorship and to imperialism; it intended peace and it led to war.
Today this is especially clear in the field of technics. Technical attainments are leading to consequences of which their own authors are frightened. Things which were projected and worked out for the improvement of human life threaten by their consequences to damage or even to annihilate mankind. A very simple example is the danger threatening the provision of water in Germany as well as in Switzerland. This arises from the regulation of the river courses as a result of which the level of the subsoil water is sinking and it is increased by the effluents of chemical works which are poisoning the water of rivers and lakes and even in part the subsoil water. Means for the improvement of traffic and trade lead to damage of human life.5 I need hardly mention that wars by which a nation intends to make its existence safe can have the contrary result. And now we have learned that peace agreements and treaties may also have unforeseen consequences which bring new disaster in their wake.
The question therefore arises whether our personal existence still has a real meaning when our own deeds do not so to speak belong to us. To quote Erich Frank again: ‘Man's whole life is a struggle to gain true existence an effort to achieve substantiality so that he may not have lived in vain and vanish like a shadow’.6 But this question arises also when we look back into the history of the past. ‘History is a sequence of critical actions which bring a new present into existence making that which was present irretrievably past.’7 This definition envisages history as a permanent process of change as the rhythm of coming to be and passing away. Is the historicity of man such that he is at the mercy of this change as a ball in the play of the waves? Or is it that though powerless he is nevertheless a person in himself feeling himself superior to this change conscious of having a ‘true existence’ of verifying it yes even of gaining it in the struggle with fate even in destruction? As Horace says:
Si fractus illabatur orbis
Impavidum ferient ruinae.
In his speech De Corona Demosthenes says of the warriors who fell in the battle of Chaironeia: ‘What was the part of gallant men they all performed. The success was such as the deity dispensed to each.’
This is the subject of tragedy the tragedy of the Greeks as well as of Shakespeare. Tragedy reveals the true and peculiar essence of man when it shows ‘the great gigantic fate’ as Schiller said ‘which raises man in crushing man’. In the same sense Pascal wrote in his Pensées: ‘… Mais quand l'univers l'éraserait l'homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue parcequ'il sait qu'il meurt et l'avantage que l'univers a sur lui; l'univers n'en sait rien” (347).8 Again: “La grandeur de l'homme est grande en ce qu'il se connaît misérable. Un arbre ne se connaît pas misérable. C'est done être misérable que de se connaître misérable; mais c'est être grand que de connaître qu'on est misérable’ (397).9
Even the ancient Greeks saw the world as a sequence of coming to be and passing away although they were looking not at history but at nature. But for Greek thinking also the question arose about the essence the ‘true existence’ of man. And it was answered by the consideration that the change was not subject to chance but occurred according to laws and that there was an order into which man fitted well. When man understands the order and his place within it it is his home. For the law of the order is reason (logos) and the essence of man is also reason the eternal element in all flux of coming to be and passing away.10
This world-view disintegrated in the philosophy or theology of the Gnostics. For them the order of the world according to fixed laws appeared as a prison in which the genuine self of man was incarcerated. The genuine self was something beyond the world and its order. When a man perceived the essence of the world and of his genuine self then he realised his own freedom with regard to the world and he understood that he would get rid of the prison when the self left the world at death and rose to the heavenly home.
Shall we say that this is the solution of the problem? Is it true that man gains his ‘true existence’ in fleeing from the reality in which he finds himself? Then the price which he must pay for his consciousness of freedom would at bottom be radical nihilism a nihilism by which the world man lives in is judged as nothingness. If it is true that it belongs to the essence of man that he is endowed with will and lives responsibly in relationship with his fellows then the gnostic answer is a great self-delusion. This comes to light in the gnostic anthropology according to which man consists not only of body and soul but also of the celestial spark the genuine self which is prisoner within soul and body. The gnostic ascribes the whole of the natural and psychical life to body and soul and nothing therefore remains as a positive content of the self. In consequence the self can be described only in negative terms. Man cannot say what his own genuine self is. Of course the gnostic may dream that after death he will exist in his genuine being and he may anticipate this future existence in mystic ecstasies but even so it remains a negative self. Gnosticism is at bottom nothing but a proof of the fact that man is haunted by the question of his genuine self of his ‘true existence’ which he cannot realise in the world of change because it is not something objectively demonstrable.
We may ask whether Christianity is able to offer a way out. The man of the Old Testament knows nothing of an order of nature governed by law comprehensible in terms of rational thought. But he believes in a God who has created the world and given it into the charge of man as the place for his dwelling and working. Man conceives God as the ruler of history who directs the historical process to a goal in accordance with His plan. Therefore he is sure that there is an order in all occurrences although not one which is intelligible to reason. Certainly human life is weak fragile and ephemeral but the word of God stands unshaken and man can rely on it. God is indubitable authority and man has to be obedient but in this very obedience he is quite safe and secure and gains his ‘true existence’.
The Christian Church amalgamated the Greek and the Old Testament traditions. Medieval man feels himself surrounded and supported by the divine order which rules in nature and history. The authority of God meets him in the Church. When he obeys the commandments of the Church he is free. That means: he is able to realise his genuine life to gain his ‘true existence’.
I cannot describe how in the course of the centuries this faith in divine order and in the security of man within it was shaken. The Renaissance certainly but also the Reformation the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are steps in this process—a process in which the value of the tradition was destroyed and the divine authority incorporated in it became questionable and doubtful.
The idea of freedom changed. Freedom was no longer understood as freedom for one's real and genuine being for realising ‘true existence’ even in obedience to the eternal order the obedience which raises man out of the stream of earthly occurrences. Freedom was now understood in a purely formal sense as freedom from… namely from the tradition and its authority. The modern striving for freedom began as a striving to become free from the authority of the Church. This did not yet mean freedom from authority as a whole. Neither in the movement of Enlightenment nor in that of Idealism was it denied that there are eternal laws in obedience to which man is really free the laws of the true the good and the beautiful. In fact it was the conception of virtue as obedience to these laws which was essential for the Enlightenment. And the conception of autonomy in Idealism is not to be understood as the arbitrary will of the individual who chooses the laws of his actions as he likes. Autonomy means that the free man cannot obey a law prescribed only by tradition a law which he has to obey blindly without using his own judgment. For that would be heteronomy. The free man can only obey a law that he knows as the law of his own being and to which he freely assents.
But the decisive change in the concept of freedom took place under the influence of natural science and of Romanticism. Modern natural science stemming from Bacon Hobbes Locke and Hume and developed in the nineteenth century acknowledged as real only what can be proved by sense experience and what happens according to physical laws which can be expressed in terms of mathematics. Man himself also became the object of natural science and therefore the question of his real self as something distinct from the world of sense experience was eliminated and with it went the question about eternal spiritual laws according to which the individual has to live his life in responsibility. Of course human life is determined by laws but by natural laws. Therefore man is understood as a natural being and anthropology becomes biology. Human life is understood as determined by climate and geography and economic conditions.
As a result the concept of the Good changed. The good is only the useful that which promotes the natural life of the individual as well as that of the community (for the presupposition is that what is useful for the community is likewise useful for the individual). In consequence history is conceived as early as Montesquieu (1680–1755) as natural history. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) believed that history could be raised to the rank of a science by transforming it into sociology. Karl Marx (Das Kapital since 1867) invented ‘dialectical materialism’ and transformed the Hegelian idea of the objective mind (Geist) developing in history into an economic history. According to this theory spiritual concepts are illusory ‘ideology’ born of economic conditions.
The consequence of this was the dissolution of the concept of truth. Bacon and Locke had already drawn the conclusion from the view that all knowledge depends on experience. For if experience changes in the course of time then knowledge is a daughter of time. That means that knowledge of truth has historical character it depends on the situation in time.
Historical relativism is primarily the product of Romanticism. Romanticísm denies that a universal human reason which could conceive truths of absolute timeless value exists at all. Each truth can only claim relative value. So the quest for truth becomes meaningless and faith in reason as a power in history and as the foundation of thought and knowledge vanishes. It is history which determines the destiny of reason. Later on we shall see how the Hegelian philosophy tries to combine both aspects: the conception of mind (Geist) which determines history and at the same time is subject to history. In actual fact the ‘historical school’ the offspring of Romanticism did not adopt this philosophy.
In the enlightened eighteenth century the old conviction of the constancy of human nature was still maintained. ‘Human nature was conceived in terms of substance as something static and permanent an unvarying substratum underlying the course of historical changes and all human activities. History never repeated itself but human nature remained eternally unaltered.’11 In fact Hume had already destroyed this conception of human nature by replacing the concept of mental substance by the concept of mental process. But Hume did not yet see the consequences for history of this substitution.12 It was Herder who broke away from the concept of the unity of human nature. He distinguished types of humanity which differ not only in physical but also in mental characteristics. In fact he thought that the individual types were constant namely fixed by nature; they are products of nature. From this it follows that human history must be understood as natural history. Later on we shall have to speak in greater detail about Herder. Now it is sufficient to say that the ideas of Herder were elaborated further in the Romantic movement in so far as the individuality of the individual as well as that of peoples or nations was understood by analogy with plants and the historical process was therefore seen as a process of natural evolution.
To sum up. What is the result of all this? It seems to be a consistent relativism. The belief in an eternal order ruling the life of men broke down and with it the ideas of absolute goodness and absolute truth. All this is handed over to the historical process which for its part is understood as a natural process ruled not by spiritual but by economic laws. History begins to become sociology and therefore man is no longer understood as an autonomous being but is seen as at the mercy of historical conditions. His historicity does not consist in the fact that he is an individual who passes through history who experiences history who meets with history. No man is nothing but history for he is so to speak not an active being but someone to whom things happen. Man is only a process without ‘true existence’. The end it seems is nihilism.
Can there be a salvation from nihilism? Can there be a way to detect meaning in history and therewith meaning in historical human life? Can we detect a law an order in the course of history? Today we often hear the call: back to tradition! But is it possible to renew tradition by a bare decision? And which is the tradition which we have to choose? The ancient or the idealistic or the Christian tradition? Can we close our eyes to the fact that each such tradition is a product of history and therefore has only relative value? Is it possible to ignore the historicity of man? Or must we say that the historicity of man is not yet fully understood and must be thought out to its final conclusions in order to banish the conclusion of nihilism?
Such questions can be answered only when we consider exactly the essence the idea of history. It seems to me that the very problem is veiled by the one-sided question about meaning in history.
From the book: