The Future of History
by John Lukacs
Yale University Press, 192 pages, $24
Historian John Lukacs has never shied from asking the big questions. Over his long and prolific career, the idiosyncratic scholar has wrestled with such weighty themes as the rise of historical consciousness, the legacy of the Second World War, and the end of the Modern Age. In The Future of History, Lukacs revisits another major preoccupation of his career: the nature and state of historical scholarship.
The Future of History is a slim volume, yet in it Lukacs manages to cover a remarkable amount of ground. He offers reflections, for example, on the nature of historical consciousness, the professionalization of history, the future of teaching, the relationship between history and literature, the participatory nature of historical knowledge, and the future of reading—maintaining all the while his characteristically sharp and engaging prose. In these discussions, Lukacs refers to a wide range of Western civilization’s most influential thinkers—from Bloch and Braudel to Febvre and Freud, from Macaulay and Mencken to Tolstoy and Tocqueville.
Anyone familiar with Lukacs’ work will realize that these subjects are hardly new for the self-described reactionary. Most of them have been covered at greater length and in greater detail elsewhere. The Future of History, however, distills many of Lukacs’ most important insights and focuses them in a new direction: the future. Despite insisting that his book is “not a tale of woe” and that “still much excellent history is being written by professional historians,” Lukacs nevertheless wonders how the study of history will fare “when the chaos of culture, indeed, of civilization goes on and on.” While some might find Lukacs’ descriptions of the contemporary intellectual world excessively bleak, all would do well to heed his recommendations for the future of historical scholarship: If professional historians are to produce meaningful work in the future, they must never forget that “what matters is what and how and when people think.”
Ryan Sayre Patrico is a doctoral student in history at Yale University.