TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Logic of History

The following paper was presented at Telos in Europe: The L’Aquila Conference, held on September 7-9, 2012, in L’Aquila, Italy.

We live in an age of History Wars.

Most of them are national in focus.

There is, however, one that touches on the issue of Western civilization, and that is the perceived conflict between Western civilization and world history.

Advocates of world history castigate Western civilization for pretending to be universal when, in fact, it is partial and prejudiced.

It points to the evils that the West has inflicted on the world and its failure to deliver on its promises. It claims that the West claimed to have invented many things that were invented elsewhere, to possess characteristics that made it superior when, in fact, the rise of the West owed much more to contingent factors than to the excellence of its culture. It focuses on what might be termed Western hubris, its sense of its own superiority. There are two points that I should like to make:

  • “World history” is very much a Western, indeed Enlightenment, project. It takes the Western desire for universality to its logical conclusion in the historical sphere. It is an extension of Western civilization. We must have a genuinely universal history in which all parts of the world are recognized equally. This means cutting the West down to size and pointing out how it has often failed to live up to its promise of delivering a just outcome for humanity. This raises the whole issue of universality and the possibility of a historical process that both has been universal in nature and will achieve some sort of universal outcome. One might conjecture that the whole idea of universal history is itself the ultimate expression of Western hubris.

  • The critique of the West is not without some foundation. Two camps often form: those who believe that the West has been carrying universal values which are the source of light and truth for the human race and those who can see very little good in what the West has done. For the latter group, the West is the source of the contemporary ills of the world. Yet these two positions are not necessarily contradictory. Consider the case of my own country, which has its cultural and intellectual roots in the Enlightenment. The largely British settlers developed the continent using the techniques of modern science and technology so that it was able to help feed and clothe the world. They also dispossessed the indigenous inhabitants and were the source of such things as disease that led to the deaths of many of those people. The two go together; as we create so do we destroy. The successes cannot be used as a justification for the destruction that followed in their wake; nor can the destructive capacities of the West be used to say that such settlement should never have taken place. We live with all the consequences of our actions, both good and evil. Moreover it can be argued that democratic societies like Australia, which sought justice for some of those who suffered in their home societies, could only do so by creating injustice for others in the lands that they appropriated.

The point is that the Australian case is not an isolated one in the history of the West; it is the history of the West. This is because, I think, just as creation and destruction are locked together in an eternal dance, so the great achievements of the West always have been and always will be linked with things which are less desirable. To think that the West is only composed of those positive qualities of which its advocates boast is to engage in a somewhat disingenuous game. The bad things in the history of the West cannot simply be labeled “anti-Western” and a narrative constructed which describes the triumph of the “True West.” This is to assume that we are indeed moving toward a universal West in which all the good bits will hang together in some sort of harmonious unity. Democracy, liberty, science, and a desire for the common good will all triumph and we shall create a peaceful and harmonious world.

But even a cursory inspection of Western history reveals such a hope to be false. Take the case of the Ancient Athenians. Herodotus tells us that democracy unleashed the power of the Athenians. That power was celebrated by Thucydides as Athenian daring and innovation. The Athenians built both an empire that they dominated and an extraordinary cultural achievement. Yet they were also extraordinarily cruel and domineering. Think of the crude “might is right” doctrine of the Melian Dialogue. Thucydides understood very well the price to be paid for such excesses. In his History the plague follows immediately after Pericles funeral oration.

The Athenian case disproves the thesis that democracy somehow has a connection with a desire for peace. Democracy, that great Western icon, unleashes the power of the people, and that means both creativity and aggression. American history is hardly the history of a pacific people. The same was true of the first French republic. In fact the West is historically that part of the world where popular government has been most manifest. The modern history of the West can be viewed as a history of Western restlessness and the unleashing of the power of individuals and states. It is also the history of perhaps the most violent place on earth.

Now I am not condemning the West for its violence and its wars. All I am saying is that I think, in opposition to Adam Smith and in agreement with Machiavelli and John Anderson, that violence and struggle are conducive to creative endeavor while peace is the ultimate foundation of servility.

The point is that advocates of the West may believe that it is possible to move toward some sort of universal harmony in which democracy, peace, and human creativity will somehow come together and co-exist. The citizens of the West made their choices over many hundreds of years, and they created a civilization that they believed, or at least hoped, was universal. They came to believe that they had created a template that would deliver, through history, something new and better for humanity. In recent times defenders of the West have created a somewhat sanitized version of that template that describes the rise of science, of democracy and the universal values of humanity. But then the critics, many of whom are in the world history camp, quite rightly pointed to the very dark history of the West.

This dialectic of excessive expectation and extreme criticism will never be resolved so long as we maintain a history of the West that is founded on excessive expectations about human beings. We need to look at the history of the West with eyes wide open, with a willingness to consider that history realistically, with an appreciation that the achievement of great things may go hand in hand with less desirable things.

It strikes me that the bad conscience of the West, as exemplified by its various History Wars, comes out of its inability to survey its past with a cool and dispassionate eye. We fall into either excessive praise or diatribes of denunciation; the West is either the source of all that is good and great or the source of all the evil that plagues our world. One of the problems is that when we look at history in a realistic fashion then a number of things become apparent:

  • The first is that human actions are always partial and cannot realize universality or perfection. We make our choices and they are always imperfect in the sense that they take one road rather than another and that they entail both the good and the bad. Human beings cannot hope to comprehend, let alone realize universality because of their nature as finite creatures.

  • No civilization, not even the West, can be the expression of universal values. This does not mean that the West does not include some things of great value, only that in choosing some values, it excludes other things of great value. For example in his account of the West, Philippe Nemo contrasts the West with Orthodoxy pointing out that one of the characteristics of the West and its religion is its worldliness, an argument which, in a different context, Rene Guenon and the Perennialists used to argue that the true spiritual tradition of humanity was not to be found in the West. John Grey, arguing against the universalism of liberalism, pointed out that the excellences of modern secular liberalism almost by definition excludes others such as the capacity to attain great spiritual illumination.

To me a realistic approach to history is founded on the recognition that we all inhabit the City of Man and that it is illegitimate to pretend that we can somehow transcend our human condition and pretend that we can reach the City of God within the saeculum. That is not to say that we must descend into some sort of Hobbesian or Machiavellian pit. We must look at the world and its history in the awareness that great acts of creation invariably involve acts of destruction and that we cannot make the world right through our own exertions. The creation of a universal order is beyond our capabilities. If, as Augustine argued, Rome never had a res publica because true justice never resided in it, then one could also claim that the West has never been a true civilization because its universal pretensions are illusionary.

In this regard there is a lot to be learned from Augustine’s excursions into Roman history, primarily through his use of Sallust, in Books II, III, and V of The City of God. His accounts of Roman republican history appear puzzling because they appear to be at odds with each other. In Book II Augustine wants to emphasize the corrupt and dissolute nature of the republic as he argues that Rome was in trouble well before the birth of Christ. In Book V he argues that the Roman Empire was ordained by God and that Rome was rewarded with power in this world because of their virtues.

Much of this is very confusing, but what it does tell us is that the history of the City of Man cannot be comprehended using a simple moral schema. The Romans were both highly moral and susceptible to extraordinary corruption and brutality. In their own eyes they only fought just wars but those just wars turned out to be for their advantage. In short, in The City of Man there is no universal story of human beings realizing all that is true, just, and great.

Now it seems to me that there is something to be learned from a consideration of the Roman Empire for our current age:

  • The history of the West is imperfect almost by definition. The West may have achieved great things but its history is not marked by the triumph of virtue, far from it. But neither is it marked just with corruption and evil. To comprehend the history of the West in a single universal story is to become enmeshed in a series of contradictions.

  • That what matters is not the West as something physical, as an imperium, or a form of political entity that we can expect to continue forever. We know empires, states, and the like last only so long. What matters is the spiritual inheritance bequeathed to us from within a civilization. It is our inheritance that we should guard jealously, even as we recognize its partiality and appreciate that it has both given us many great things denied us others and contains evils. But it is still valuable. We should love it but not to excess. What worries me, working at a provincial university in a provincial country, a far-flung outpost of the West, is how fragile that inheritance is. It so easily slips through our fingers.

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