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History as Philosophy

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 of learned commentaries on Paul and Augustine. From this it does not in the least follow that Christianity had a built-in bias toward an open-ended and dynamic view of history. If such a bias existed, why did it not make itself felt when Paul and Augustine wrote? Because material conditions were not favorable? But if we are thus in the end referred back to ordinary history, why not begin with it?

The fact is that Kahler—like Schelling, Hegel, and the conservative Hegelians who dominated nineteenth-century German writing on the subject—operates with a dual concept of history: there is the gross, material, exoteric process which Marxists and positivists write about; and the inner, spiritual, esoteric story that consists in the dissemination of world-shaking Ideas. The Ideas—Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity—keep history going through the ups and downs of the external movement. The latter may be cyclical—cultures do grow and decay—but it also displays an underlying continuity. History, seen as the story of Man or human-kind, is developmental, in the sense that spiritual growth or evolution takes place, even though entire civilizations may disappear or be destroyed. The underlying movement can be described as “cyclic expansion,” a concept which allows for dark ages and other retrogressions. The various religious and secular faiths are vehicles of this continuous movement, which is self-transcending and of its nature can have no final consummation. On the whole, then, Kahler accepts the Enlightenment view of history, though in a sophisticated form, as befits a modern, for whom optimism about Man must always be tempered by awareness of the fragility of civilization.

In the concluding chapter the reader is warned that, though History will doubtless go on, Western history may already have passed its peak. It is interesting that Kahler (like Lasaulx) believes the future may belong to the Slavs: apparently on the grounds that their “basic human substance” is still unspent, whereas ours, it seems, is pretty nearly exhausted. But the “colored peoples of Asia and Africa” stand an even better chance: the “long dormant vital power of their masses,” Kahler thinks, may “take up the torch and carry it further,” though perhaps “after a new dark age.” Not a very alluring prospect, but fortunately there is an alternative: “we, the West” may decide to “join forces with these peoples of the future, regardless of ideologies and leanings, and…all together, realize what potentially exists already, an organized, supranational world order.” This—aside from being beneficial for obvious prudential reasons—would have the incidental advantage of investing History with a meaning: it would “mean the completed rounding of the cycle which began at the source of that Western civilization now shaping the population of the earth. It would confirm the meaning of history as form: at the same time, it is a goal, however transient.” There are no final goals (except for the preservation of life itself), but there are intermediate aims which we may reasonably pursue since they are in tune with our own historical “cycle”: the one that began in Greece and Judaea. I am not quite sure, though, why this particular tradition—if it really embodies a unique spiritual experience—should be in danger of extinction: from a theological viewpoint this is surely a heretical notion; conversely, if theology is abandoned in favor of anthropology (to paraphrase Feuerbach), it is no longer quite so plausible to hold that the uniqueness of Western civilization is due to the manner in which the Greeks and the Hebrews conceived the universe. We can all agree that Greece and Judaea have been more important to the history of mankind than some of their neighboring countries. What seems questionable is Kahler’s thesis that the source of the dynamic element in later Western history is the Judaeo-Christian view of history as meaningful. He comes close to suggesting that history—what really happens—depends on men’s notion of what is happening. What gives coherence to the whole process, it seems, is the manner in which it is experienced: first by privileged individuals, and later by people in general. The Greeks—and in a different way the Jews—discovered history, and this is why “real” history begins with them.

Let me say I have some sympathy for this approach, if only because it is a useful antidote to Toynbee. It is nice, in this age of United Nations sentimentalism, to come across a writer who insists that Western history is unique; that cultures are of unequal value; and that an underlying continuity may be discerned through the turmoil of events. It is also refreshing to encounter a philosopher who has the termerity to dispute Professor Popper’s dictum that history “has no meaning.” For this alone, Dr. Kahler deserves the gratitude of all practicing historians, not to mention intelligent laymen not yet brainwashed into unthinking obedience to the reigning positivist orthodoxy. All the same, I cannot help feeling that he weakens his case, and hands arms to the enemy, by identifying “history” with “historical consciousness.” He does not indeed go quite so far as Hegel, but near enough to alarm anyone who has learned from Marx to distrust such metaphysical constructions. Moreover, one cannot escape a feeling that he wavers between a genuine indeterminism, for which the future is truly open and ours to make, and a view of history as an ongoing process of which we are part and in which we are carried along willy-nilly. It is possible to reconcile the two concepts by placing them at different “levels,” but this leaves it uncertain whether politics is carried on at the level of genuine freedom and indeterminacy, or whether the whole process is a shadow-play whose outcome is already determined. I am not sure either that I understand his toying with the notion that if we fail, the torch may be picked up by others. If Western civilization “represents…the leading strain of human evolution” (personally I believe this to be true), one does not see how its disappearance could be anything but a catastrophe. Notwithstanding these reservations, I hope I have made it clear that Dr. Kahler’s essay is a distinguished piece of writing in a tradition which was once important, and which will perhaps disappear only with the culture that gave birth to it.

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