The Meaning of History
by Erich Kahler
Braziller, 224 pp., $5.00
“The problem of the meaning of history is the problem of the meaning of man, the problem of a meaning of human life. We stand at the crossroad between the annihilation of the West and the unification of humanity. This is the time, if ever there was one, to raise fundamental questions.”
These lines form the concluding passage of a learned, argumentative, often stimulating, but in the last resort somewhat puzzling tract for the times. Its author scarcely needs an introduction. He belongs to that small group of contemporary thinkers for whom the term “philosopher of history” seems to have been specially invented: if only because, if it did not exist, one would not know how to classify them. In Britain—if we can for a moment forget about Toynbee—Dr. Kahler’s nearest counterpart is the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. In Germany, historical metaphysics are currently in bad odor, but though Spengler is discredited, a more traditional manner of philosophizing about history is part of the current effort to underpin the integration of Western Europe. Germany indeed is the home of this type of speculation. Long before Spengler there was Ernst von Lasaulx, a conservative pessimist of the mid-nineteenth century whose influential writings anticipated much subsequent talk about cultural decline and barbarian invasions. Lasaulx, a follower of Schelling and a relative of the mystical philosopher Franz von Baader, is not mentioned by Kahler, which seems a trifle odd, since Kahler’s own thinking about history appears to an outsider to have something in common with Lasaulx: notably in the emphasis he lays upon the unique significance of Christianity as a new spiritual principle cable of regenerating the historical process: that is, starting a new “cycle” on European soil, after the preceding Hellenistic-Roman cycle of growth and decay had come to an end.
It will be seen that Kahler is in a distinguished tradition. It is a tradition for which, to be quite frank, I don’t much care. Some of it derives from Hegel, but it is the side of Hegelianism that appeals to theologians rather than to historians. Though Kahler is a liberal (Lasaulx was a somewhat heretical Catholic, for whom Socrates prefigured Christ), and an unabashed champion of the Renaissance (“the beginning of man’s settling down on earth for good”), he tends to credit Christianity with the introduction of a new kind of historical consciousness which made it possible to break away from the Greek belief in eternal recurrence. He even goes so far as to assert that “only the sharp Pauline and Augustinian severance of spirit and body, and the ensuing release of purely secular interests and activities, made possible the kind of historical consciousness which we find evolving in men of the twelfth century.” This, with all due respect, is circular reasoning. The “consciousness of the twelfth century”—meaning the consciousness of the theologians—was of necessity bounded by what the Church had retained of early Christianity. Approved writing consisted for the most part …