So I wrote up a talk at the ISI Honors Program on “What Was History (with a Capital H)?” Even the part I actually gave was way too long. And here’s part of the introduction that I had to cut. I will get around to posting some of the other parts soon.

Are human beings fundamentally NATURAL or HISTORICAL beings? This seems to be the question of Strauss’s NATURAL RIGHT AND HISTORY. Common sense suggests this is a false dichotomy. Of course we’re both! We have natures—we’re given capabilities and limits we didn’t make for ourselves. Birds do it, bees do, and we do it. We’re impelled by nature to have sex and babies, and we’re stuck with dying, as are all the animals. Biologists can explain a lot—if not everything—about what we do.

We, unlike the other animals, also have and make history. We can’t help but know about—and live in reference to—past and future. We can’t help but think in terms of time—which is the stuff of history. We can think up projects to accomplish the unprecedented, and we can’t help—or maybe almost can’t help—but remember and be very judgmental about the dead—not only about Hitler and Churchill but about your selfless mother and your alcoholic, abusive, racist great uncle who abandoned his kids and blew the family fortune.

Everyone knows, it would seem, that we’re like the other animals in having natures and different from the other animals in having history. We’re hardwired by nature—unlike the chimps and dolphins—to make history, especially political history. There is no dolphin political life, no dolphin presidents or prime ministers or princes, no dolphins poets or priests or philosophers to find meaning in history.

Because we can think historically—or think in time, each of us knows his or her own existence is temporary. Each of us knows he or she was born to die. And so each of us—experiencing life or one’s particular being as good—can’t help but be moved by an intense aversion to the prospect of not being. That’s partly a reasonable fear of change away from what’s good to what’s unknown. And it’s partly an anxiety about how contingent or utterly unsupported any particular being’s life is. Being a natural in the sense of being a biological being isn’t enough for the being with time in him. There’s no biological support for personal significance.

History is, in part, a limited overcoming of the limits of biological being. Human beings can produce all sorts of accomplishments that stand the test of time. They can live on in the memories of others, as they can live on, in a way, in their children. They can win a sort of immortal glory with genuinely extraordinary deeds, especially those that inspire gratitude in those who are living after them. Much about who you are—beginning with your name—can be much more durable than anyone’s merely biological existence. History is both caused by our self-conscious mortality and is to some extent a compensation for it. There are no dolphins cemeteries, no dolphin equivalent of the Lincoln Memorial, no dolphin tributes to saints and heroes, and no dolphin “historical districts.”

But of course history—or even the fame won through the noblest deeds—is an inadequate compensation. Fame, as the song says, is all about wanting to live forever. It comes up short in two ways: Fame eventually fades, even if it takes centuries or milennia to do so. And Lincoln, of course, has never really been to the Lincoln Memorial. Immortal glory is—of course—not a REAL indefinite perpetuation of your being.

So people have always hoped for or longed for real immortality—the perpetuation of my real being or identity after death. From the earliest times they have neglected their own real self-preservation in favor of serving gods that could guarantee their personal significance or preserve their being against natural indifference. They’ve always known the difference between historical memories and real immortality.

The Greek philosophers—such as Plato and Aristotle—acknowledged the reality of the human desire not to not be, and so the existence of longings for immortality. They even thought that most men and women had to believe in immortality in some sense to live well with death. But they also thought that the hope for personal immortality was supported by no real or natural evidence at all. As far as we can tell, one’s real personal identity—one’s real experiences of conscious existence—disappears with death, although, Socrates added reasonably, that’s not something we know with absolute certainty. Whether death is better than life is known only by someone who’s experienced both, and dead men just aren’t talking. But we do know life is good—both just being alive and what we can know and who we can love. Nothing we can see about death—or lifeless nonbeing—is good for the dead guy, at least.

The therapy offered by the Greek philosophers was that our desire for immortality—or to avoid personal nonbeing—is really the desire to know what’s eternal, what is always, what is natural in the precise sense. They offered us the drama of the person with the name Socrates in search of the impersonal or anonymous, eternal truth about the “whole”—of which each of us is a part. The being on that quest can have the experience of not living “in time” and being a lot less concerned about his temporary existence.

The only beings open to the eternal are beings who aren’t really eternal, and so they know that death is a price that must be paid for the satisfaction of what is really our deepest longing. That doesn’t mean death is good—it’s not good that any particular person’s enjoyment of eternity is finally only temporary. But it does mean death need not be that big a deal. This therapy, finally, isn’t really some airtight argument, but an appeal to the experience of Socrates and other philosophers. Most men, they say, may be miserable without God and even live rather desperate lives, but not us.

The natural world may not be experienced as the secure home of most human beings, but it is the home of the mind. And so those who live most rationally or most according to the longing of the mind can be most at home in the cosmos. That’s why we’re mostly deeply not historical but natural beings. History—being a temporal or ephemeral record of contingent events—is not an altogether serious concern. History or historical action doesn’t really win freedom for any of us from natural necessity, and it can’t change eternity or what really is.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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