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What Is History?

Shapes of Philosophical History

by Frank E. Manuel
Stanford, 166 pp., $4.75

The Prophets of Paris

by Frank E. Manuel
Harper & Row, 349 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Utopias and Utopian Thought

edited by Frank E. Manuel
Houghton Mifflin, 321 pp., $6.50

The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators From Vico to Freud

by Bruce Mazlish
Harper & Row, 484 pp., $10.95

The Unique and the Universal

by J.L. Talmon
Braziller, 320 pp., $6.50

What is history about? What, to be more specific, is the so-called philosophy of history about? We know who invented the term: It was Voltaire who in 1765 wrote a pseudonymous tract on the subject (characteristically, to amuse a lady friend). But Voltaire, as was his habit, popularized a notion already developed by a more original thinker—in this case Turgot, who in 1750, at the ripe age of twenty-three, had addressed the Sorbonne on a topic then quite new and startling: the “progressions of the human mind.” The title was preserved by Condorcet for his famous essay of 1794, composed in the shadow of the guillotine, the Sketch of a Historical Survey of the Progressions of the Human Mind. Thus the concept of a philosophical history, or philosophical treatment of history, made its appearance on the eve of the Revolution and took final form while the great event was in progress. After Turgot and Condorcet had left the scene, it was taken up, and converted into a rudimentary sociology, by Saint-Simon. Fourier, and Comte: the second generation of the “prophets of Paris” discussed by Professor Manuel. While across the Rhine, in the footsteps of Kant and Herder, Hegel set about to underpin the new doctrine with a metaphysic of his own, later to be “stood on its feet” by Marx. So far the story is familiar, and the authors here under discussion have a wealth of material to go on.

Nonetheless we still need to be told what exactly the term “philosophy of history” was meant to convey. Voltaire, Condorcet, and the other pioneers clearly supposed they were describing mankind’s emergence from barbarism to civilization. Their successors became progressively more modest. As time went on, they narrowed their field of vision from the whole of human history to that of Western Europe, then to the history of particular institutions, and finally to their own age. Then it occurred to someone that the business of the historian was itself an interesting subject, worthy of sustained thought. “Philosophy of history” thus came to mean “reflection upon the writing of history,” rather than concern with the historical process (if there was one). By now the circle is closed: Historians are so busy writing about historiography that they scarcely have time left to consider what actually happened. As for the philosophers, their task has been re-defined for them: It is no longer to write about the meaning of history, but to ascertain what historians have thought of it. From an author not represented in this collection I quote the following statement (contained in an introduction to a volume of essays on the philosophy of history): “Philosophy of history today is about historical knowledge, not about history itself.”

THIS SEEMS WORTH PONDERING. It is true, of course, that other branches of specialized investigation too can be viewed under a double aspect: that of their ostensible theme, and that of the mental discipline to which the study of the subject gives rise. “Chemistry.” to take an example, is the name given to the theory and practice of chemists, and it is also the description of a certain field of natural phenomena. “History” then, we may say, is about the res gestae—the fall of Rome, the Crusades, the French Revolution, and so on—and it is likewise the label applied to the collective endeavor of certain specialists, the historians. There appears to be no problem here, but hold on: The subject matter of history, we are told, exists as such only because the historians have sorted it out for us. But for the collective enterprise of “history” (the discipline), there would be no history known to us: We would never have heard of the French Revolution. For that matter, the participants themselves would have been unable to set to work but for their possession of certain historical concepts which enabled them to distinguish one category of events from another. The Republic, for example, was proclaimed in Paris in 1792 because educated Frenchmen had heard of the Roman Republic. Moreover, what was involved in this appropriation of the past was not mere reminiscence, but philosophical interpretation as well. The Republicans thought of themselves as reincarnated Romans because they had imbibed a certain idealized conception of antiquity from their reading of Polybius or Tacitus. These ancient authors indeed lacked the modern notion of progress; they believed that history moved in cycles. But in other respects they furnished their descendants the intellectual tools wherewith to draft political constitutions and laws. Thus the historian not only mediates the past: he also helps to shape the present and the future. What really happened in Rome was perhaps less important—or so it appears—than what the ancient writers have told us about it, for it is from them, rather than from the remote circumstances themselves, that we draw those edifying conclusions which (if we are wise) will determine our own political conduct. It would seem then that history is not only made for historians; it is actually made by them. That at any rate is what the philosophers of history would like to believe, though not all of them have managed to persuade themselves of the importance portance of their role.

It has taken time for this new consensus to establish itself. The first steps were halting. As Professor Manuel notes in his Stanford lectures (reprinted under the title Shapes of Philosophical History) “the rediscovery of the classical corpus during the Renaissance was accompanied by a revival of pagan cyclical conceptions of philosophical history.” Now this way of looking at things, aside from being heretical, had the additional disadvantage of leading to pessimistic conclusions about the role of policy makers and their learned advisers: If history moved in cycles, the results were foreordained. Hence no Renaissance philosopher could flatter himself with the notion that his own work might inaugurate an epoch-making rupture with the past and the dawn of a new aeon. These writers also had to circumvent the hostility of the Church, which insisted on the unique importance of events such as the rise of Christianity—or the so-called conversion of Constantine (better described perhaps as the incorporation of the Church within the Roman Empire). As late as the eighteenth century, Vico—writing in Naples under the eyes of the Inquisition—thought it prudent to exempt sacred history (that of the Jews and Christians) from his law of cyclical recurrence. The new method had to insert itself gradually into the interstices of the older theological faith, “slowly carving out for itself a separate field, secular history, in which the circular views could be applied with relative impunity without disturbing the Judeo-Christian axis of world history,” as Professor Manuel puts it. Thus the emancipation from theology was effected by means of the Graeco-Roman myth of eternal recurrence—at any rate in so far as it became permissible to treat the varying fortunes of states and empires as instances of a “law” not ordained by providence. The evident paradox here lies in the fact that these writers had to revert to a pre-Christian viewpoint before their eighteenth-century successors could formulate the distinctively post-Christian approach which had shed the cyclical superstition along with the theological blinkers.

VICO, STILL RATHER MEDIEVAL in his assumptions (as has recently been shown by Professor Momigliano), forms the link between one age and the next. His Szienza Nuova (the final version of which appeared in 1744, a few months after his death) retains the ancient distinction between sacred and profane history which to his French contemporaries—Montesquieu or Voltaire—had become meaningless. But then Naples was a backwater and Vico read neither French nor English. His rediscovery by the German pre-Hegelians, and by Hegel himself in the next generation, was mediated by their common obsession with the history of Rome: the only period that Vico had thoroughly studied. That at any rate appears to be Momigliano’s view. I am not quite sure whether Professor Manuel would agree with him, although he notes Vico’s dependence on the ancients and his archaic cast of mind. At any rate there can be no doubt that for the Renaissance humanist, down to Vico who is perhaps the last major representative of the type, Rome was both the source and the guarantor of the cyclical world view, “the exemplar nation of the ancient world” (to quote Professor Manuel once more):

for Machiavelli, Raleigh, Bodin, Le Roy, as it would still be for Montesquieu and Toynbee. Here they all found the perfect historical cycle, an empire with a dated foundation, an apex, a long continuum, and a known demise. If Rome fell, what nation, however glorious it might appear, could expect to live forever?

This theme could indeed be given a theological twist, as may be seen from Toynbee’s latter-day treatment of the subject (the “real” history of the world is one of successive religious revelations), but in its origins it responded to the newly felt desire for a “secular” treatment of so-called profane history: non-Biblical history, that is.

I pause here to remark that writers whose instinctive sympathies are with cyclism have some trouble deciding whether or not it is to the credit of the Jewish-Christian tradition that it introduced the notion of a possible escape from the cycle. The difficulty is enhanced for authors who are both Christians and conservatives. To most of them, the Jewish-Christian vision of history constitutes a source of embarrassment. Professor Karl Loewith is a case in point, as readers of his study, Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949), must have noticed. Like other writers of this school (Professor Tucker comes to mind) Loewith is torn between two conflicting impulses: that of crediting the Jewish-Christian spirit with a unique insight into the human condition and a corresponding regret that all those subversive prophets of revolt, from Voltaire and Condorcet to Comte and Marx, should have drawn their inspiration from a secularized form of theology. Professor Manuel, being a moderate, liberal, is less perturbed by such thoughts, but he too experiences a slight twinge of unease, as may be seen from his introductory chapter on the conflict between Stoic cyclism and the early Church. He even hints at a tenuous connection between Augustine and Auguste Comte. The reverse side of the medal—the filiation from Polybius to Machiavelli and then to Nietzsche and Spengler—offers fewer difficulties, since no one has ever doubted that Nietzsche revived a Hellenic and Stoic conception.

WHERE DOES MARX STAND in the matter? In spite of his Hegelian leanings and Hegel’s own syncretism of the Hellenic and the Christian heritage, there can be no doubt about the answer: He represents a revival of the Hebraic strain within the European tradition (but also of the Promethean theme which he shared with Goethe and the Romantics). This is an awkward topic, but Professor Manuel does not flinch from it, though he duly stresses that Marx owed more to the French than to the Germans. The latter, including Hegel, were caught up in the Lutheran disjunction of Spirit (internal) and the world (external), while the French—notwithstanding their Catholic upbringing—had got beyond these dichotomies. “While the French wrote a secular history of man’s expanding capacities and his outward achievements, the Germans composed a history of introverted man, a Protestant world history,” as he puts it. Marx learned a great deal from Hegel, but for his revolutionary materialism he had to go (quite literally) to Paris: In the 1840s that was the only place where one could encounter authentic revolutionaries and where socialism was allied to materialism. Elsewhere, notably in England, socialist writers tended to find fault with the new economics on the grounds that it was subversive of Christian ethics. In France this type of argument attracted only critics who idealized the past, and they were mostly Catholics who on principle detested both rationalism and the Revolution. Writers like Comte, who combined rationalism with sympathy for Catholicism, and enthusiasm for science with dislike of individualism, were rare. In the main, the new socialist school, though critical of bourgeois liberalism and individualism, stuck to the notion that the Revolution had inaugurated a new epoch whose culmination would witness the fulfillment of the radical program. As for the Communists (then mostly working-class followers of Babeuf, who in 1797 had paid for his conspiratorial fantasies on the scaffold), their doctrine in the 1840s could be succinctly summed up in the phrase that the bourgeoisie had confiscated the Revolution for its own benefit.

The gradual emergence of French socialism from the tradition formed by the intellectual ancestors of the Revolution provides the main theme of Professor Manuel’s learned study of the Parisian “prophets” (now available in a paperback edition). One can only hope that students will make use of this admirably concise and lucid introduction to the subject. It is indeed specially designed for them: unlike his Stanford lectures whose somewhat world-weary tone (and lack of notes) suggests a different destination—that of becoming the successor to Carl Becker’s well-known tract on the Heavenly City of rationalism. Becker is now rather dated and the best advice one can give to readers in search of a critical study of the Englishtenment is to start with The Prophets of Paris and then go on to Professor Manuel’s lectures on “philosophical history.” In the earlier work they will find, among others, a lively account of the Saint-Simonian school, a splendid portrait of that crotchety old inventor of “utopian” socialism, Charles Fourier, and a brief but incisive discussion of Comte. Utopianism is also the theme of the weighty volume of essays edited by Professor Manuel, with contributions from Lewis Mumford, Northrop Frye, Crane Brinton, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Mircea Eliade, and other scholars. Individually these essays, or most of them, are impressive, but having completed the journey, at least one reader found himself somewhat at a loss for a guiding thread through the labyrinth of a tradition originating (if Eliade can be trusted) in the hermetism and solar symbolism of the Renaissance. However, this is a very scholarly collection, and at $6.50 priced rather below its intellectual value.

That the single-handed approach still has its advantages may be seen from Mr. Bruce Mazlish’s work, whose subtitle relates to “the great speculators from Vico to Freud.” It goes without saying that the determination to cover so much ground all at once has to be paid for by rather heavy reliance on secondary sources. But granted this necessity, one can see that there is some advantage in bringing a single viewpoint to bear, instead of calling upon a small army of authors, however distinguished. At any rate I fancy that The Riddle of History will be of more use to students than Utopias and Utopian Thought. They will find in it what they need first of all: concise summaries of biographical data, plus brief discussions of Vico, Voltaire, Condorcet, Kant, Hegel, Comte, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, and Freud, all in one volume of less than 500 pages. This may suitably be termed a tour de force. There are not many writers who have the courage to undertake this kind of compression, and if Mr. Mazlish has done nothing else, he has shown that the job can in fact be performed without sacrificing either scholarly standards or the interest of the reader.

THIS SAID, I AM OBLIGED to add that Mr. Mazlish does not convince me. That is to say, he does not persuade me that there is a definable theme running through the doctrines he has chosen to dissect, though, in a very general sense, it can be held that most of them exemplify a certain commitment to the overriding aim of the Enlightenment: that of elaborating a non-theological view of history. So much indeed is common ground among the authors he has selected for critical study (with the notable exception of Toynbee). In other respects it seems to this reviewer that he has unduly flattened the radical contrast between the true heirs of rationalism (down to Kant) and the Hegelians or pre-Hegelians (e.g., Herder, who is not discussed at all). And what is Freud doing in this galère? His philosophical views, insofar as he had any, were in part derived from Schopenhauer; for the rest they reflected his naive commitment to Victorian liberalism and positivism. Neither is very relevant to the understanding of the historical process, yet Mr. Mazlish introduces Freud as “the last of the great classical philosophers of history,” apparently on the strength of his speculative essays on anthropology. This seems to me mere eccentricity. The fact that Freud has become an American culture-hero does not entitle him to a place in a portrait gallery of the great philosophers of history. And there are other aberrations, notably a perverse effort to find a place for Hegel in the Cartesian tradition and an irrelevant attempt to psychoanalyze Marx, in the hope of getting at the roots of the aberration which prevented him from perceiving the true beauty of nineteenth-century bourgeois society. There is something rather endearing about this notion that a man who revolted against Victorian capitalism, or against the Prussia of Frederick William IV, must have had something wrong with him—dislike of his father perhaps? Unluckily for this type of investigation, Marx was notably fond of his father and had an uncommonly happy married life, a circumstance which leaves Mr. Mazlish in a state of acute bewilderment. It never seems to occur to him that an elemental loathing of bourgeois society might be regarded as a sign of spiritual health, rather than as a symptom of mental disorder.

When he gets away from his worry about Marx’s unconscious (curiously, he does not attempt to analyze the more conservative writers in his selection, and he has missed a splendid opportunity by excluding Rousseau, whose weird habits would surely have confirmed all his dark suspicions about the mental make-up of revolutionaries), Mr. Mazlish is a better guide. He has certainly digested a vast heap of material and made sure of his references, so that even where one disagrees with him, at least one knows exactly what he is getting at. Where the subject lends itself to treatment in the light of contemporary sources, e.g., in relation to Spengler and Toynbee, he makes some effective critical points, apart from giving the student a useful guide to the doctrines under discussion. He is rather good, for example, on Toynbee’s Alexandrianism. I confess I had not expected an American critic to see through Toynbee’s identification of the British Empire with the Roman. This is really the key to his vast panoramic travesty of world history, but when (like the reviewer) one lives in London, one tends to regard this sort of thing as a family secret.

PROFESSOR TALMON, needless to say, has a different perspective altogether. The Unique and the Universal (the title of his essay collection) relates in the main to a single theme, that of nationalism; and the author’s position at the University of Jerusalem makes it inevitable that he should approach the subject with the recent Jewish catastrophe very much in mind. However, these essays (which include an eloquent tribute to the late Lewis Namier) are by no means to be regarded as an emanation of a specifically Zionist consciousness. They relate to their author’s antecedent studies of the French Revolution and the rise of democracy in Western Europe. Professor Talmon’s theme is the significance of history, not simply of Jewish history, though only one chapter (that on Herder) is explicitly devoted to the “philosophy of history.” It will come as no surprise to readers of the author’s earlier studies to find him in these collected essays resolutely attached to the neo-conservative philosophy of his teacher Lewis Namier (born Bernstein-Namierowsky). There is a difference, though: Namier, a British citizen by adoption, was a Tory in politics as well as philosophy, while Professor Talmon is committed to the State of Israel and is thus a democrat, if no longer a socialist. This introduces a certain awkwardness, for while it is (or at any rate was) fairly easy to be a Tory if one had access to the British Establishment, it is less easy for an Israeli scholar to maintain an ideological position historically associated with the long reign of the aristocracy. However, both Namier and Dr. Talmon had a predecessor in Disraeli, and in a manner of speaking they can both claim to have inherited his somewhat romanticized view of European history.

WHAT THEN—to revert to the question from which this discussion started out—is the philosophy of history designed to accomplish that cannot be done by ordinary historiography? And what sort of place does it occupy in the intellectual consciousness of the present age? Instead of reverting once more to the various doctrines already mentioned in passing, I am going to suggest one or two fairly brief and dogmatic answers to these two related questions. In the first place, it seems obvious that the historical consciousness, as it begins to unfold from the eighteenth century onwards, is indeed a revolutionary innovation. Whatever its own historical roots, it represents a radically new way of seeing the world: neither cyclical (that is, tied to the familiar model of the natural cosmos) nor dependent on the Jewish-Christian mythology, though in its origins it still combines elements of both the Greek and the Biblical approach. This last is hardly surprising. It would indeed have been odd if the new worldview had emerged ready-made and free from all traces of its own birth. Such miracles do not occur in nature, let alone in history.

Secondly, it must be evident that “philosophy of history”—meaning the attempt to see world history as a whole, instead of sub-divided into fragments—does not necessarily imply what is called “historicism,” that is, the belief that the outcome of the process can be pre-determined, either in thought or in action. Such notions may indeed be so derived from philosophy (and have been derived by theologians, as well as by adherents of the cyclical myth), but so may their opposite: the conviction that history is open-ended and undetermined. Critics of “historicism” overshoot the mark when they read fatalist implications into the attempt to grasp what evolutionists used to call the “law of development” of history. For granted the ability to discern such a law, it might simply tell us that there is a single world-historical continuum underlying the histories of the various cultures known to us; and it is in no way evident that this unitary view implies either fatalistic acceptance of a supposed cycle of growth-and-decay, or belief in the imminent advent of a golden age. The true fathers of the “philosophy of history,” the rationalists of the eighteenth century, simply wished to affirm that world history is a totality held together in the last resort by the fact that it is the history of man. This assertion is in principle compatible with both science and theology; it is quite un-metaphysical and commonsensible; and there is a further important point in its favor: it happens to be true. This being so, it is not easy to see why it should evoke so much distrust.

THE EXPLANATION may be that too much was originally expected from the discovery that mankind had a history which could be understood. In the ideology of early liberalism, and then of nineteenth-century Anglo-French positivism and progressivism, the concept of a unitary world history was employed to underpin what liberals called “civilization.” This had the inevitable effect of antagonizing the less civilized nations: first the Germans, then the Russians, and latterly the Chinese. Since for various reasons they either disliked the fruits of progress, or felt they had been excluded from them, these nations conceived it their business to denounce the Anglo-French version of historical philosophy as a myth, and then to construct counter-myths, either cyclical (Nietzsche-Spengler) or revolutionary (Marx-Lenin). The joke here is that Marx was himself a Western progressivist (though not a liberal in the political sense), so that the eastward spread of his doctrines, however barbarized in the process, was bound in the end to promote the Westernization not only of Russia, but also of the Celestial Empire of China. Although this cannot at the moment be said in China without grave risks to one’s health, it is a truth which in the course of time may come to dawn even upon the captive audience of Comrade Lin Piao. Since the globe is round, one does not see how the Chinese can escape the consequences flowing from the technical unification of the world, and one of these consequences (as the Vatican has lately begun to realize) is that all doctrines of human evolution have to be cast in universal terms, i.e., in terms appropriate to mankind as a whole and not just to one privileged section of it. In that sense, if in no other, the rationalist enterprise originally involved in the philosophy of history may now safely be said to have attained its goal.

Letters

Freud Defended March 9, 1967

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