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What the Left and Right Both Misunderstand About History

Just before the Battle of Jena in 1806, the great philosopher G. W. F. Hegel saw Napoleon riding by and, pointing to him, declared him to be the World Spirit. It was no empty or idle compliment. Rather, Hegel saw in Napoleon the culmination of the process of history. History was at an end in the person of the great general and emperor who had come to embody the post-revolutionary state.

Hegel is without doubt the most influential of the speculative philosophers of history. He sought to find the deeper dynamics (and thus the ultimate meaning) of the historical process by identifying patterns in history. Others had done so before—the Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun, for example—but the impact of Hegel is incalculable. His immediate successors are typically distinguished into two streams—the Right Hegelians who used his thought to promote forms of conservative social thought, and the Left Hegelians who used his philosophy as the foundation for radical social and religious criticism.

When one of the latter—a young man named Karl Marx—turned Hegel’s philosophical idealism on its head and connected it instead to materialism, the result was Marxism. The rest, as they say, is history—dark, bloody, and oppressive.

Speculative Philosophies of History

And that takes us to the heart—and the challenge—of speculative philosophies of history. Terry Eagleton recently observed that “Marxism is a theory and practice of social change.” That’s a fine summary not simply of the ambitions of Marxism but of all speculative philosophies of history, because they typically offer justification for particular political viewpoints or actions speciously rooted in alleged objective historical processes.

In doing so, they either grant moral legitimacy to courses of action or declare that moral judgment on them is irrelevant because history is ultimately a matter of impersonal processes, not free agency. These are the theoretical underpinnings of claims to being “on the right side of history” or about the moral direction in which the arc of history bends.

Speculative philosophies of history generally fall into one of two types. There’s the teleological type that sees history as moving forward in a specific manner, in which eras or epochs are marked by fundamental change with what has gone before and where the ultimate meaning of history lies in the future. Teleological philosophies of history tend toward utopianism and, in practice if not always in theory, toward totalitarianism.

Many Hegel scholars see his political philosophy in such terms, and his comment about Napoleon would certainly be evidence of that. But perhaps Marxism is the obvious example here, with its scheme of historical development whereby feudalism is replaced by bourgeois capitalism, which eventually collapses under the weight of its economic contradictions and is replaced by a state in which private property is abolished and history reaches its end. But the left has no monopoly on such teleological visions. Nearly 30 years ago Francis Fukuyama, a modern-day Hegelian, (in)famously declared history to be at an end with the collapse of Soviet communism and the triumph of Western free-market democracies. And the Nazi theory of racial conflict was also tied to teleology, as the work of its chief historical ideologist, Alfred Rosenberg, made clear.

The second type of speculative philosophy of history is the cyclical. Here there’s no future end inevitably to be attained by building on successive epochs. Rather history consists of a series of repeated patterns or cycles that simply continue indefinitely. Typical of such a philosophy of history is the idea that civilizations rise and fall in accordance with particular social dynamics. In the 20th century, Arnold Toynbee was without doubt the most articulate and influential example of this approach.

All of this might be of great interest to academic historians but of what relevance is it to the general populace or, more particularly, to Christians? So what if Marx turned Hegel on his head, or Toynbee thought civilizations all rose and fell in similar ways? Does that make any difference to how the typical Christian should think or live?

These are obvious and reasonable questions, the answer to which is: It makes a great deal of difference, in large part because such speculative philosophies of history have so permeated our culture that they shape how people think about the world and their place in it. As noted above, phrases such as “on the right side of history” are poker tells that clearly indicate the influence of such approaches.

Cyclical History and the Alt-Right

Recently, this influence has become more obvious with the rise of the so-called alt-right. At the heart of President Trump’s 2016 campaign stood Steve Bannon. Bannon is an open admirier of a book called The Fourth Turning, written by William Strauss and Neil Howe and first published in 1997. This work offers a cyclical view of history, specifically that of the United States, as its subtitle indicates: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.

The basic thesis of the book is simple. America’s history “happens” in cycles of 80 to 100 years and follows a basic pattern:

  1. an era of peace and prosperity (the first turning);
  2. an era of rising political consciousness that leads to criticism of established institutions and a certain amount of social conflict (the second turning);
  3. a period of open cultural warfare (the third turning); and
  4. a major crisis that leads to the collapse of social institutions, a clearing of the cultural and social ground, and thus opens the way for rebuilding (the fourth turning).

Then society is back to its state of peace and prosperity.

The time period for this process—80 to 100 years—isn’t arbitrary but reflects the fact that the whole process is shaped by the values of, and relative distribution of power among, generations. Essentially, the four-fold scheme represents the rise and fall of four generations. The dominant class in each “turning” shapes the values of the next generation in a manner that will bring about the next phase, the next turn, in the process.

The pattern has a specious plausibility to it when applied to the United States. The American Revolution, the Civil War, and the World War II are all, according to the authors, “fourth turnings” and all occur within the 80- to 100-year cyclical range. And now, of course, we stand some 73 years out from the end of World War II and, according to Bannon, are ripe for a fourth turning that will shatter society as we know it and make way for the building of a new America in its wake.

Such a view of history is ripe for our current moment. On both right and left, there’s a pervasive fin-de-siècle ethos. The rise of Trump and populism has shattered the confidence of progressives. The fractious nature of identity politics has called into question what binds societies together. Liberal democracy is under huge strain. Previously undisputed social goods—freedom of speech, freedom of religion—are now matters of indifference or even objects of hostility. Throw in the rise of militant Islam and the financial crisis of 2008 and it doesn’t take too much effort to make the case that the outlook is conducive to anxiety. The idea that we’re living in a “fourth turning” time is highly plausible.

So how might a Christian think about this idea? I’d suggest in three ways: first, by understanding the flaws that speculative philosophies of history typically involve; second, by recognizing that the significance of such philosophies lies not in their truth but in their use; and third, by having a more sober view of how to think about history, one that may not be distinctively Christian but that is nonetheless compatible with the Christian faith.

Typical Problems with Speculative Philosophies of History

There are numerous obvious problems with this theory. First, cyclical views of history all presuppose that the patterns of the past will be indefinitely repeated in the future. Such arguments are therefore vulnerable to the problem of induction: If we allow, for the sake of argument, that the pattern holds true in the past, that’s no basis for certainty it’ll happen in the same way in the future.

Second, such schemes don’t make allowance for the role of impersonal factors in shaping history. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, if they don’t often destroy societies, can certainly alter them in fundamental ways.

To justify particular decisions of President Trump because we’re in the fourth turning, or gay marriage because the arc of history bends toward justice, are both unacceptable from a Christian perspective.

Third, such schemes don’t offer any account of how the interplay of different societies and cultures might alter the course of the cycle. If this is true of earlier examples cited to prove the cycle, such as World War II (scarcely caused by the domestic American situation) how much more is that the case today? The values and attitudes of the younger generation are no longer simply shaped by the older generation or by the immediate social and cultural structures of the society in which they live. Technology, with its facilitation of worldwide popular entertainment and personal communication, has dealt a lethal blow to that idea. And that means both that the basic generational dynamics on which this theory depends have been shattered and that the interaction of different cultures is now unimaginably complicated compared to even 20 years ago.

Fourth, all such schemes have at minimum an incipient determinism that is problematic on at least two fronts. First, they don’t allow sufficient significance to the role of free human agency in history. And (as a consequence) they offer a means of moral absolution for any action deemed to be in accordance with the predetermined and inevitable cycle of history. And this latter point is where the matter becomes of real concern to Christians, because any scheme that either denies the moral agency of individuals or shifts the criteria for evaluating the ethical status of an action to some speculative historical scheme is incompatible with the Christian faith. To justify particular decisions of President Trump because we’re in the fourth turning, or gay marriage because the arc of history bends toward justice, are both unacceptable from a Christian perspective.

The Real Significance of Many Speculative Philosophies of History

One of the lessons which Marxism and Nazism should’ve taught us is this: a theory doesn’t have to be true in order for it to be influential. In fact, speculative philosophies of history are rarely just philosophies of history. Rather, as we noted in Eagleton above, they’re also practices for effecting social change. Marxism’s primary practical purpose wasn’t to understand history but to justify revolution. When the conditions weren’t theoretically right for such, those hungry for power, such as Lenin and Mao, simply changed the theory to suit the circumstances.

One of the lessons which Marxism and Nazism should’ve taught us is this: a theory doesn’t have to be true in order for it to be influential.

The same is true with books such as The Fourth Turning. They offer a vision of the past that endows the present with particular significance (playing to human vanity) and also justifies a certain political stance. If for the liberal the arc of history bends toward social justice (as defined by the liberal), so for Bannon and the alt-right the inevitable cycle of history now justifies disrespecting, undermining, and ultimately overthrowing the established order with a casual violence.

Well, what’s the point of the individual resisting the great movement of history? And just as the gulags or Auschwitz can be justified within the framework of Stalinist and Nazi views of history, so on a lesser scale the iconoclasm of Bannon and company makes moral sense within the context of the fourth turning.

Christian Approach

Given the above, the Christian should eschew speculative philosophies of history.

Now, I need to qualify that statement a little. As Christians, we hold to a teleological view of history: we’re moving forward to the eschaton, where Christ won’t only be King but will be seen to be King, and where every knee shall bow and every tongue confess his rule.

Yet the movement of secular history—literally, the history of this saeculum—isn’t such that we’re able to discern its progress in the kind of fashion required in both Hegelian-inspired and cyclical philosophies of history. From the perspective of the end, our age is flat: people are born, marry, eat, drink, and die, and will continue to do so until the moment Christ returns. Whether that’s next week or thousands of years from now, no examination of the intrinsic qualities of this current moment will reveal.

Yes, as anyone familiar with the Bible knows, Jesus does speak of the signs of the end of the age (Matt. 24:3–14). But he also cautions that no one knows exactly when the end of the age will come (Matt 24:36). Modesty in this regard is the order of the day. And many of the signs that Jesus mentions are generic, such that the mere existence of persecutions or wars or earthquakes is insufficient as evidence that the end of time is imminent. The Christian’s task is always to be ready for the end but also to be a faithful steward of the present (1 Pet. 4:10). And the Christian historian’s task is to explain aspects of the past, not to predict the path of the future.

Human history isn’t organized as some Hegelian dialectic, idealist or materialist, nor is it a series of predictable cycles. Humanly speaking, it’s a chaotic mess, not susceptible to any single grand scheme or obvious pattern, possessing no intrinsic morality and bending in no particular ethical direction. And we forget that at our political peril.

Human history isn’t organized as some Hegelian dialectic, idealist or materialist, nor is it a series of predictable cycles.

Historians—and therefore historians who are also Christians—of course always have the task of explaining the past but of doing so with the modesty that comes from acknowledging history’s chaotic nature. It’s true that many speculative philosophies of history can help here. Elements of Marxism highlight how economic factors shape human behavior. As Charles Taylor has shown, Hegel is invaluable in understanding how historical identities are formed and how significant, for example, the politics of recognition is for explaining matters such as the rise and significance of gay rights. Even Toynbee offers useful reflection on the internal dynamics of empires that are lumbering towards extinction.

The best historians are eclectic in their approach. But they’re also modest. What the historian must avoid is the temptation to extrapolate from making modest explanatory comments about the past to making comprehensive claims about the shape of the future. That move takes the historian from the realms of the descriptive into that of the prescriptive and opens the way for the morality of action in the present to be relativized in light of a speculative future.

And that brings me back to Hegel. When he pointed to Napoleon as the World Spirit, the game was up. He wasn’t doing history at that point but politics—simply identifying his own political sympathies with the great tide of history. After Moscow in 1812, Waterloo in 1815, and the desultory years on St. Helena, Bonaparte wasn’t the end of history. He wasn’t the Spirit of the World, merely an example of the spirit of the age. It’s a lesson Christians tempted by speculative philosophies of history, right and left, would do well to remember.

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