This is PART TWO of the lecture I gave on “What Was History (with a Capital H)?” at the ISI Honors Symposium.


The Christians rejected the Greek view of what a human being is—the natural being who makes history. For the Christians, the human being is not merely a part of nature or his political community, but a whole free being with a unique and irreplaceable personal destiny. Even the LOGOS that governs the world is personal. LOGOS must be animated by the eros or love that’s only present in persons and is, in fact, most deeply personal. Persons are both the most strange and the most wonderful beings in the cosmos; the stars and even the flowers and the dolphins are boring by comparison. The being who wonders can’t help but wander or see himself as an exception to what might otherwise be an impersonal cosmic order.


For the Greeks, each of us and God is a “what”—a being that can be described according to the impersonal principles of natural necessity. Aristotle’s God isn’t a person but a sort of giant magnet. For the Christians, each of us and God Himself is a “who”—a being free from merely natural or political determination. Each person is a social or relational being—but one who maintains his personal identity even or especially in his relationship with a personal God. For the Christian, the person, in truth, is always to some extent an alien or pilgrim in his or her political community, and even the personal love between man and woman—between husband and wife—points beyond itself to a more secure and transparent “relational” foundation of personal identity.


For the Christians, the point of human life is not to understand what is eternal or to learn how to die or to free oneself from concern for personal being. It’s reasonable to despair at the prospect of not being, and there’s no higher concern than personal love. The philosopher who claims to transcend personal concerns and so to live entirely beyond hope and fear and love is finally sustained through proud self-deception, by an illusory self-sufficiency that really depends on willful self-forgetfulness.


For the Christian, the destiny of each of us is personal, not historical. And history doesn’t, because of our sinfulness, point to any kind of perfection in this world. The Christians, in their way, agree with the classical philosophers that the glory that was Rome is nothing in light of eternity—although by eternity they mean the life beyond death that the personal God makes possible for each particular person. For the Greeks only a philosopher wins a compensation for his mortality better than that gained by the noblest Roman hero. For the Christians, every person is more than a Roman, and everyone who looks to Rome for security and happiness is looking in the wrong place.


But the Christians disagree with the Greeks by claiming that there are fundamentally unprecedented historical events: The creation the world by God, the special creation of human persons—both the creation of the first person and the creation of each person, and God becoming man—the word becoming flesh and so becoming a historical being—and dying for each of us.


To be a person is to be rational and loving and creative, and so human work—human creativity—is dignified for the Christians as it never was for the Greek and Roman philosophers. That’s not to say that the creativity of sinful human persons could ever free them from dependence on the Creator to whom they owe their very being. And the unique and irreplaceable character of every human creature doesn’t need to be secured by human work.


The Christian criticisms of the classical philosophy on behalf of the free, rational, loving, social, and creative person—the being who’s not merely part of some larger whole—paved the way for modern thought and for the emergence of History with a capital H. Certainly the modern thinkers thought that the Christians understood who we are in certain key ways better than, say, Plato and Aristotle. They take the side of creativity over eternity in describing who—as opposed to what—we are. They think that each person is justified in regarding himself or herself as unique and irreplaceable and in employing his creativity or inventiveness to fend off nonbeing or death as long as possible. Each person or individual exists for himself or as not merely a part; the modern thinkers agree with the Christians that individuals are necessarily alienated or emotionally detached from the claims of any political community and even the family. They disagree, of course, on the real existence of the personal, relational God, and so they disagree that personal identity is, most deeply, relational or social.


MORE TO COME


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Articles by Peter Lawler

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