The Right Side of History

I cringe whenever I hear somebody speak about being on “the right side of history.”  This was a locution used by President Obama when he praised the 2015 Supreme Court ruling – that horribly erroneous ruling – that “found” a right to same-sex marriage in the U. S. Constitution.

If, like G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx (not to mention such mass murderers as Lenin and Stalin), you think in terms of being on the right or wrong side of history, you must have four preliminary beliefs:

1. That human history has a long-term goal.

2. That that long-term goal is knowable.

3. That you personally know what that goal is.

4. That you know how this or that particular event fits into the movement toward that long-term goal.

How can we know that history has a goal?  Perhaps it doesn’t.  Perhaps history, as a wit once said, is just “one damn thing after another.”

We know that acorns have a goal – becoming oak trees.  But we wouldn’t know this if there had been only one acorn in the world; we wouldn’t know this even if we had studied that particular acorn very, very carefully.  No, we know the long-term tendencies of acorns because we have witnessed countless acorns becoming, or at least trying to become, oak trees.

Human history, by contrast, is sui generis.  It isn’t as if we have witnessed a thousand distinct human histories on a thousand distinct planets.  No, we are witnessing the one and only human history.  Regardless of how carefully we study this unique thing, we won’t know how it will turn out in the long run.

Of course, there are certain relatively long-term trends that we have been able to observe.  Is it possible that these trends will tell us where things are headed in the long run?

If we had been present at Rome in the year AD 181, we’d probably say, “It is clear by now that our great Empire, which in its seed-time was nothing more than a small city-state in central Italy, but now governs the most valuable portions of the planet, will eventually come to govern all nations.”  The year AD 181, by the way, was the year Edward Gibbon chose as the beginning of his long story of the decline and fall of the Empire.

Or if we had been looking at the Euro-American world in the year 1901, we might well have said, “It now seems clear that the world is steadily getting better and better – more educated, more scientific, more liberal, more democratic, more wealthy, more healthy, more respectful of human rights.

The American Civil War, terrible as it was in many ways, was a clear indication of the direction in which history was moving – toward a greater recognition of the dignity of every human person.  Progress in all of its possible forms is what history is about.  The human race is destined eventually to live in a kind of Utopia; and who can doubt that the 20thcentury will be a great century of peace and humanity?”

A few years later, beginning in August of 1914, the world commenced many decades of great wars, totalitarian dictatorships, mass murder, etc.

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Or if we had been living in the mid-1930s and had an eye on Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in German, and Stalin in Russia, we’d perhaps say: “The trends are clear.  Everywhere liberalism and democracy, which seemed to have a great future only a few years ago, are in retreat.  Everywhere totalitarianism is on the rise, and who among us is so naïve as to believe that it is possible to reverse these trends?  We can see the wave of the future.  The human race is destined to live in Dystopia and neo-slavery.”

Yet Nazi Germany was destroyed in 1945, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Nobody knows the long-term future of the human race.  Nobody knows toward what goal the long arc of history is bending.  Hegel didn’t know, Marx didn’t know, Spengler didn’t know – even Barack Obama doesn’t know.  We are sailing on the great ocean of history in a leaky boat, and we have no instruments that will allow us to see beyond the horizon.  No matter in which direction we look we cannot see where, if ever, we’ll make our eventual landfall.

Those who evaluate the moral worth of X (let’s say abortion or euthanasia or same-sex marriage), by judging what contribution X makes toward achieving history’s ultimate goal, have no basis for moral evaluation if history has no goal or if we cannot see that goal.  Worse, even if we could see the goal, history is such a long-drawn-out affair that we cannot possibly tell if X helps or hurts in getting to the goal.  Who knows, for example, whether, a million years from now, the Holocaust will be seen as having (somehow, paradoxically) served or hindered the advance of the human race?

Christianity teaches that the sin of Adam and Eve was a “happy fault” since it was a precondition for the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ.  And it also teaches that the tragedy of Good Friday was a precondition for the triumph of Easter Sunday.  Yet it holds that both wicked events were truly sinful without denying that they were also truly beneficial in their longer-term results.

The greatest crimes of the 20th century, that century of immense criminality, were committed by people who thought they understood what history’s ultimate goal was.  And they justified their crimes in terms of that goal; they saw themselves as faithful servants of the great (and inhumane) God of Progress.

We who speak English are fortunate that the words “history” and “mystery” rhyme with one another.  Let that odd coincidence remind us that, rather than relying on the God of Progress, we’ll do better to rely on the God of the Bible. And that, rather than relying on the judgment of history, we’ll do better to rely on the judgments of conscience.

David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

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