On the cyclical nature of history, on eschatology, and on the narcissism of theory.
Eschatology is the belief in a final end of things. In religion, eschatology is judgment day; in history, it is the belief that history will one day come to an end, that human affairs will reach a final state of being from which little will subsequently change. All such notions have been held many times, and have been proven wrong just as many times. Whenever there has been a belief in a historical “end” among thinkers, that end has had a remarkable tendency of nearly falling by happy coincidence within the lifetime of the thinker in question. The belief in eschatology is totalitarian. Anyone who believes in an end of history, be that ending the consummation of Prussia (Hegel), communism (Marx), democracy (Fukuyama), or anything else, is in some ways tyrannical, because the end suggests an end to striving and to change. The temptation of positing an end of history and human affairs is always strong, because it is the intellectual equivalent of lying down in bed after a long work day and saying: it is finished, we are done. It is an expression of laziness, of an inability to live with the negative and to support the uncertain. The ability to hold the negative leads to a clearer and also more creative view of things, tantamount to John Keats’ “negative capability”, the ability to pursue beauty and betterment even when it leads to uncertainty and discomfort.
In addition to being an expression of laziness, the belief in an end also tends to be narcissistic, because the thinkers always seem to believe that they are the privileged ones who are to experience that end. Just like revolutionaries want to be able to say that they experienced the radical moment in history when everything changed, which makes them mindlessly want to take up arms against anything at all, as long as it is a proper revolution, so too totalitarians want to be the embodiment of the end of history and preside over its quiet but magnificent conclusion. In the former case: Après moi, le déluge; in the latter case: Après moi, rien d’importance. Both these postures are to be rejected, as they have nothing to do with evidence but are merely insecure self-flattery. It is, rather, the understanding of history as cyclical that is liberal, in the classical sense, because one can at the very least strive for improvement within the cycle. The cyclical pattern excludes any eschatological notion of history. The slow implosion of the free and open society in our current cycle makes us constantly have to fight for a better world.
On the other hand, this rejection of eschatology leads someone like Karl Popper, in The Poverty of Historicism, to the other extreme, of desiring to disregard completely the predictions of history, to dismiss even the very philosophy of history as a whole, because he fears that it is the totalitarians who will be doing the predicting and the historical and social philosophizing. Perhaps because of the time in which he lived (the rise of fascism and communism), he appears to think that the recognition of historical forces renders utopian social planning inevitable. But his objection should only be leveled against false prediction, and prediction for totalitarian purposes, not against prediction in general. It is the predictors who should be criticized, not prediction itself. Nietzsche, as opposed to Marx, his older contemporary, was anything but totalitarian, but was far more right than Marx and any of his other contemporaries about what would happen in the twentieth century. So whereas I do find Popper congenial in many ways, he is sometimes a bit too Manichean: the rejection of totalitarianism and utopian planning does not mean that the future is a blank slate. He rightly views the totalitarians as the enemies of the open society, but forgets in the process that the open society is also its own enemy (see the last paragraph below).
Some would say that this is tantamount to an embrace of that speculative philosophy of history that, through a dialectic process, attempts to reach for more than it can grasp and believes it can understand historical processes even though these involve a myriad of factors, far too great for any individual human mind to comprehend. Such philosophy of history has been dismissed by most scholars who are still reeling from the murderous calamities of the twentieth century, when hundreds of millions died in Europe, Russia, China, and elsewhere due to dictators who thought they had understood history. But to dismiss historical speculation entirely would be – to use an expression I hate – to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Hegel, the dialectic philosopher par excellence, and in some ways practically the founder of the speculative philosophy of history, offers many very perceptive conjectures, even if he renders them a disservice by fusing his description of certain historical processes with an unhealthy dose of eschatological pathos. Both Thucydides and Plato also very accurately describe a series of socio-psychological forces that guide history.
So while rejecting a historical end, we preserve historical tendencies and forces. There is, for example, some truth to Marx’s “economic determinism”, only that he drew all the wrong conclusions from it. By recognizing trends we come to recognize cycles, and the recognition of cycles – the sober acknowledgment that history repeats itself – is anti-utopian, which is a very healthy outcome, since it is always the utopians, whether socialist, communist, fascist, Nazi, secularist, or religious, that cause the most harm to the world. If a utopia can be established – in spite of the literal meaning of the word, which is “nowhere” – then history ends. And those who want history to end have always been the madmen, because of course the end of history should be on their own particular terms. Alexander the so-called Great was in fact the very first such madman with any real power, a man – in foreboding the very worst totalitarians of the twentieth century – who proclaimed that his massacring of literally millions of human beings was necessary to establish a brotherhood between East and West under one ruler. His attitude is very typical of social justice warriors nowadays: claim personal moral superiority by advocating universal brotherhood and the erasure of cultural distinction, while brutally crushing anyone who objects (and thereby of course de facto negating the idea of universal brotherhood). Whenever we view history eschatologically – again, regardless of whether it is religious, social, or economic eschatology – tyranny inevitably follows. This is how theory becomes a narcissistic fetish, because by engaging in theory, the progressive eschatologists and social justice warriors place themselves above those who simply exist in a more instinctive – though not at all necessarily harmful – way. This higher self-placement becomes so commonplace and taken for granted that ultimately it is the theoretic attitude that becomes the less self-reflective one.
In his introduction to Popper’s The Open Society, Václav Havel emphasizes the question of why it was so difficult for an open society to prevail against wave after wave of tribalism. One answer that I offer to this question is that the long-term survival of a society requires a certain tribe-like cohesion. The open society, by replacing the tribe with reason, by substituting – as Aeschylus does in the Oresteia trilogy – the blood feud with law courts, already sows the seed of its own destruction. Overcoming the tribal state is civilizational progress and leads to a temporary strengthening of the culture, but it also leads to the loss of the unity that the blood of the clan offers and it thus contributes, in the long term, to the fragmentation of the society and its fall to the onslaught of the next tribe. Nomadic and other early-stage peoples tend to be obsessed with genealogy, which reinforces tribalism, one of nomadism’s distinct features. The invention of politics and the establishment of the state are the overcoming of tribalism, but they mean that the nomadic and genealogical sense of union and community in a civilization’s early stages become increasingly fragmented, since in an ever growing and ever stronger state a greater number of diverging attitudes develop than is possible in a smaller community where familial relationships, which often extend through the whole group, outweigh individual agendas, and so there is in turn a forward fall into a new tribalism of sorts, because people become more “tribal” in defending their particular interest group and in viewing other domestic groups as their enemies. One may thus speak of a return to tribalism in the later stages of a civilization, just as the early advancement of the civilization had been the overcoming of tribalism. Recognizing this conundrum and acknowledging that there is no permanent solution to it – no eschatological exit of relief – is key to understanding the cyclical nature of history, possessing negative capability, and to rejecting the eschatology of the lazy and of the madmen, who just want everything to end.