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1968: The Birth of Secular Eternity

One of the most idiosyncratic features of human communities is the way they think of time, even though there has been little reflection on that in political theory. To mention just one example that indicates how different the collective experience of time may be, I allude to the South American Aymara people, who associate the past with the spatial front, and the future with the spatial back. That is, past is ahead of us, and future is behind us. In this framework progress in time makes perhaps less sense, since the very concept of progress is, at its root, advance in space, and we can hardly move back to the past. (In science fiction, time travel to the past is a problem just because we presuppose that in the past we would be as free to act as we are in the present, and shall be in the future—that is, we take our present back with us to the past!)

The dominant Western vision of time is, obviously, the opposite. We look forward and constantly move to the future, whereas the past becomes more and more distant. Of course, our tradition is not as simple or unanimous as this. There are different strands of conceptualizing and perceiving time in it. The modern age, for instance, has been marked by the epochal conflict between two profoundly different political attitudes: that of glorifying the distant past, and that of awaiting the fulfillment of all political prophecies. What is common in these different strands of time-perception is, as Hannah Arendt discovered, the significance that both progressivists and reactionaries attribute to birth, to the beginning. Not only individuals but also political communities are born, miraculously or planned. The present is interesting only either because we need it to nurture what was born long ago, to amend and augment the past, as Arendt says, or because it is pregnant with the future. The obsession with the beginning is, thus, central to both the conservative and the liberal mind, and makes them share the same conception of time, in which past and future, represented by the corresponding political forces, fight the ultimate war of Western political history.

In my view, this great, in some ways apocalyptic, struggle has come to an end, at least in Europe. In Western Europe, the Second World War ushered in liberal democracies run by parties that essentially gave up not only the political contest between the forces of past and future, but also pursuing moral ideals. And they made a compromise to deal only with welfare affairs. Old Europe died, was buried, and no new Europe was born. Nor was there any reason to wait for a new one.

In Eastern Europe, the final victory of the Communist ideology, with Lenin’s prediction that in Communism the state would no longer exist, or would require only the most primitive administrative skills to manage, led to a similar result. The “last fight” was faced and won, so what? The newborn had to be protected, of course, but conservatism just does not fit professional progressivists and revolutionaries. Gagarin’s 1961 journey was not a first, but a last one. It was the last beginning. And, in some ways symbolically, he died in 1968.

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This is, I think, what the 1968 revolutionaries failed to see at first. Contrary to their presuppositions, the forces of the past did not exist any more. Contrary to their perceptions, the present was not pregnant any more. Hence, and this is my thesis, put inevitably in rough terms, 1968, at least in Europe, essentially changed the conception of time and introduced the present as the ultimate category of political thinking. However, this is not a present related to the past or to the future, that is, a present favored against past or future, yet still understood in their terms. This is an eternal present, characterized by a consciousness cleansed from any reference either to the past or to the future.

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The eternal present is basically a timeless, atemporal time. It is a theological notion, of course, and may be interpreted in two ways. God does not need time, for He created it, and exists ontologically independently of it. But theologians tend to think that both the saved and the damned will still experience something like time, for, as Kant put it in “The End of All Things,” a state in which there is no time is a dreadful state, since no change, no reflection, no emotion, no pleasure, and no pain is conceivable there. But, as he himself stresses, we cannot help yearning for eternity, which must, therefore, contain something humane as well. For him it is our eternal, unchanging moral maxims that give us a pre-taste of an eternity that is not inhumane. For theologians, the saved live in the state of the visio beatifica, enjoying the sight of God, yet they are still waiting not only for a new Heaven but also for a new Earth.

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How can such a relativized, that is, not entirely atemporal, conception of the eternal present make sense in our world? Only analogically, of course. But analogies must be grounded in aspects of real identity.

One of them was already mentioned. Contemporary Europe is not a result of the epic wars of modernity. She is after the Apocalypse. But she is not related to it. She was not born. And this was finally revealed to her in 1968. One great and enduring act of that year was the ultimate condemnation and rejection of politics, of anything related to power, to political ideals, to institutions, to collective forms and norms. Communism died that year, too. It just took twenty more years to bury it, but the guiding principle of 1989 was still Václav Havel’s and György Konrád’s antipolitics. But politics is made within time, it presupposes time, being a joint business of past, present, and future. In the eternal present, however, time is unreal, and there is no room for politics, for collective action. European governments look more and more like ghosts on the stage of world politics, and whereas they have agreed upon a constitution that proclaims its independence from past and future, they simply lacked the political power to tie it up with the present. The new French president wanted to overcome the ghosts of 1968. But isn’t he himself one of them?

Secondly, does the eternal present entail a sort of hedonism? Hedonism, the enjoyment of the present, favoring it over future and past, is no doubt related to eternity. But it is still a heroic attitude, so to speak, a fight within time, fought on two fronts, against ancestors and descendants. It is still part of the old framework. It is only when severed from any time-reference that enjoyment becomes an aspect of eternity. But this is no more a kind of hedonistic, orgiastic pleasure. Remember: visio beatifica is seeing and getting saturated by the sight of God. We, the heirs of 1968, are fully accustomed to the comforts of modern life, and rarely think we enjoy them. What we are more often called to enjoy are things to see and watch.

Thirdly, in eternity there cannot be suffering. The dominant, that is, essentially 1968-type of liberalism tends to think that cruelty and coercion are the greatest vices for they cause suffering which is absolutely intolerable and unacceptable. [1] The main purpose of society is to minimize or avoid suffering. The classical liberal maxim, the harm principle, which permits everything for everybody provided that no harm to others is caused, is now generally thought to be inefficient. The political community has a primary duty to alleviate or terminate suffering, without regard to its causes and circumstances, and without regard to the scope and depth of intervention. The ground for it is that suffering and pain dehumanizes and thus makes us unfit for eternity. They are not simply bad, they are outrageous. The right for euthanasia is most firmly grounded in the emotions the sight of suffering elicits in us.

Fourthly, it is hard to find anybody in mainstream European politics who does not subscribe to the idea that human rights, and especially human dignity, overrides any other moral and political value. The aspect of the eternal present is unmistakable here. Human rights do not change, neither in collective, nor in personal histories. Like Pallas Athene, modern children are born with a complete armory of human rights. Rights cannot be defended, nor attacked; they cannot be debated, speculated about, like justice, order, freedom, loyalty, and other moral concepts. Perhaps in Edmund Burke’s time metaphysical rights really were like “rays of light which pierce into a dense medium,” but in eternity we see them as and what they are, transparent and unchanging.

Fifth, we tend to favor the present in everyday practices, too. Again, this is not a hedonistic and individualistic feeling of carpe diem. This is a collective, rather than an individual, obsession with time, or with being up-to-date. Unlike Faust, we do not want to stop time because our goals have been achieved. We are already lords of time, hence we must make it pass. Our communication means, mobile phones, Internet access, reality shows, news channels, digital and web cameras, our passion for watching sporting events, especially those where new records can be expected, serve this collective purpose: to make time pass together, and prove to be masters of time.

Kant thought that divine eternity would be dreadful for us. We saw that the eternal life is probably different for us human beings. It is dynamic, rather than static. But dynamism does not necessarily imply the old conception of time, consisting of past, present, and future. We know what Kant did not, for we experience it, that the eternal present thrives on change. First of all, note the endless talk about change. Talking about change has not changed a bit in the past two decades. It is as if we were never allowed to stop to think about talking. And since social discourses deal mainly with change, we are almost never allowed to think otherwise than in terms of change. In the perfect present, like in Communism, change was ultimately prohibited. In the eternal present, change is practically prescribed.

But are we really masters of time? Everything that is being done now, will be forgotten in the next moment, for there is only one present: the eternal one. Anything that once existed, but does not exist any more, never did exist. Anything that does not exist yet, will never exist. It seems we have no power over time, after all. And therefore we do not know where we are. This is why anguish and sadness fills the earthly eternal present, lurking behind the joy of the saved. The inhabitants of the earthly eternal present are nowhere. They are not anxious and agitated by fear. Rather, they are sad and anguished by their powerlessness. For those living in the eternal present lack the basic human political, i.e., community-creating, capacities, recorded by Hannah Arendt: the power to forgive and the power to make promises. By forgiving, we have power over the past. By promises, we have power over the future. But in order to forgive, we need the past; and to make promises, we need the future. Without them, we lose our power. And since we have no past, we cannot remember, we cannot enliven it, we cannot forgive—we cannot act. Since we have no future, we cannot make plans and anticipations, we cannot justify our actions, we cannot make promises—again, we cannot act. Only God, who alone is Lord of Eternity, knows where the way back to time lies. [2]

Notes

1. For a penetrating criticism of this view, advanced most notably by Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty, see John Kekes, Against Liberalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997).

2. The comparisons drawn between the last four types owes much in spirit to Aurel Kolnai’s seminal paper “Three Riders of the Apocalypse,” in Privilege and Liberty and Other Essays in Political Philosophy, ed. Daniel J. Mahoney (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 1999).

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