Staring Down History


“The web of history, as a whole, appears to be woven from folly and childish vanity. Often, too, from puerile wickedness and love of destruction.”

So says Immanuel Kant, in the introduction to the little squib on Universal History he dashed off between the first and second editions of his Critique of Pure Reason. I wouldn’t be quoting it if I didn’t agree.

But before I get the sympathetic reader’s hopes up, I must warn him that the nine “theses” which follow, progress towards a worldview that is downright Hegelian. From his “cosmopolitan” position, Kant thinks it may be possible for the enlightened to trace the workings of Nature (capital N), through human freedom, towards some ultimate world state. Or if you will, an “end of history.”

Hegel and Marx were nothing if not “enlightened.” (Gentle reader is to understand that I have just employed what could be characterized as “savage irony.”)

My issue with Kant’s little tract is not only where it goes, but how it gets there. It is not written in what Herder called the “heavy gossamer” of Kant’s mature philosophical style. Had it only been so, it might have passed safely over everyone’s head. But no, the whole thing is perfectly clear and coherent.

That history has meaning (note the omission of an article before “meaning”) I am not inclined to doubt, for I am a Catholic, and a believing one at that. There is, to begin with, the benchmark of Jesus Christ: a before, and an after Him.

A conception of “futurity” is present in both Scripture and Tradition, and the idea that Christ will return to judge the quick and the dead is not an afterthought. But the mapping of that broad scheme, onto the succession of very earthly political events is, shall we say, problematic.

We can see that the desire to do so might constitute a very Christian heresy. It is hard, even impossible, to imagine the succession of, say, Locke  Hume  Kant  Hegel  Marx  Lenin  Stalin, etc., emerging from any other “faith tradition,” even in the course of its decomposition. We have the “reason,” which Catholic Christianity took to mind, in the scholastic sweep of the High Middle Ages, now twisting in the heart of Salvation.

History without Christ is meaningless. Kant, to my mind, correctly described it in that opening quote; for what is left to men, ends badly. It ends worse, when some purpose is assigned to history itself, which men may then decide to speed along.

As a young man, I got to meet refugees from one of the many triumphs of the “enlightenment” project: Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the slaughter of everyone who even MIGHT be “in the way of history.” For example, anyone who wore glasses, or could read and write.

        Jacob Burckhardt

Jacob Burckhardt, among my favorite historians – a poet among plodders – may  now be praised for taking the opposite direction to the Kantian path. He does not vex himself with “progress” or “laws.” He is unimpressed by the manipulators of “evidence” – the salesmen of “theories.” In his efforts to dismiss the “science” of history, he restores it as an “art.” He, like Kant, is a product of the Protestant tradition; but turning incrementally back to the Catholic understanding.

Men, acting in consort, and with the Grace of God, may achieve wonderful things, in their season. And then those accomplishments will, in their season, pass away. More deeply, even what is most beautiful (and Burckhardt “discovered” the Renaissance city as a supreme “work of art”) will be achieved as all human achievements: at terrible cost. Often, at terrible moral cost, as Burckhardt did not shrink from expounding.

That is how things are down here, and only fools think the very conditions of human life can be altered, or consistently “improved.” Dangerous fools. The wise are inwardly humble, and outwardly cautious in giving their advice. They do not confuse Time with Eternity.

Evil is not the opposite of good. It is the privation of the good. This is the Catholic teaching, and it is correct. The teaching it opposes is essentially Manichaean. The teaching of Christ, that we “resist not evil” speaks to this, profoundly.

My thoughts above are occasioned by reading not philosophers, but daily newspapers, published in the year 1914. In particular, the Daily Telegraph has been so kind as to put its back issues for that year up on the Internet, day by day.

It is an English paper: the “great events” are seen mostly through the visor of British politics. We are shown into the vanished world of Asquith, and Lloyd George. From this distance, we can fully appreciate how parochial it was; and by analogy, how parochial in every European capital. We begin to see how helpless are these men, in their vanity and incompetence, as they dig their own political graves, and the actual graves of millions.

That is “the first draft of history,” in the raw: red in tooth and claw. And one hundred years later, we are still picking up the pieces.

Burckhardt’s notorious colleague, Friedrich Nietzsche, the apparent atheist, is an acidic critic not of Christianity (which he considers to be milquetoast), but of false Christianity. He is worth reading from this remorselessly Christian perspective: for what he is capable of destroying, is capable of being destroyed. He does not even say that God is dead. He says that God has died, which is rather more subtle.

The God of History has died, indeed, hung up on His Cross. The Resurrected God points beyond history.

Christianity does not make life easier to bear. It makes life harder to bear, and the only excuse that can be given for it, is that it is the truth. It is not in the slightest way “escapist.” It demands a faith that can look straight, into the pit of carnage, and not be shaken by it.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
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David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: