Here’s another segment of my “What Was History (with a Capital H)?” For now, I skipped over the part that both connected and distanced “Historical” thinking from Christian thought. I’m still working on key details of that.


Modern thinkers aren’t quite atheists because they can’t account for the mysterious emergence of human persons from an impersonal nature. But if there is a God, he’s not living or giving or loving; he made us free and then took a permanent vacation. So some modern thinkers may really be Deists. But the more radical ones—such as Rousseau—believe that human freedom is a kind of cosmic accident, and we accidents make our existences more accidental or contingent over time.


Human beings act freely to negate nature. By doing so, they become more self-conscious, or conscious of being free. They become aware of their contingency and their mortality as particular beings. They become more aware that their existence is temporary, and so their lives become more and more defined by time.


The more people move away from nature, the more they live in their self-created or invented world. The proper name for that self-created world is HISTORY—the world defined by past and future or time, the world that only could have been created by beings who become more and more aware that their existence is merely historical or temporary.


So the key modern distinction is between impersonal nature and personal history. And that distinction, it seems, is quite judgmental. Nature is bad, history is good. History is our success in satisfying the desires we’ve been given as free beings that have no natural satisfaction. History is the same as technology in the broadest sense, our use of what we can know and do to make our lives more comfortable, free, and secure. The other animals aren’t free; they don’t make history; they’re not in technological rebellion against their worthless natural existence. Even the supersmart Dolphins seem okay with their natural gifts; their lives are not defined by time, and they aren’t obsessed with fending off nonbeing.


As people become more historical, they become smarter. The only thing they can know for sure is what they’ve made, and so the more they’ve made—the more history they’ve created—the more they know. So modern philosophers think they’re sure they know more than classical philosophers. Classical philosophy was uncertain speculation about nature or the eternity beyond our grasp. Modern philosophy is certain knowledge about history or the record of human self-invention, about the effectual truth or the real truth about our success overcoming of nature. So modern philosophers, like Marx, speak of rural idiocy, and Rousseau says that to be perfectly natural is to be perfectly stupid or unconscious. History, from the modern view, is the record of enlightenment.


But the modern philosophers were also stuck, from the beginning, with the thought that historical development makes us smarter but not necessarily more happy. John Locke explained that what distinguishes free persons is not happiness or contentment but the pursuit of happiness. The fundamental human experience is uneasiness, which spurs us to historical or technological action. Every time we satisfy a desire, we create one that’s more difficult to satisfy. And so the result of our work is misery that produces harder work.


Really historical people invent air conditioning, which makes them more sensitive than ever to the heat and miserable in a really historical way when it breaks. They have to work or sweat harder than ever to secure their historical right never to sweat. And then to fend off the historically created heart disease that comes from sitting around too much in climate controlled comfort, they have to go to the gym to sweat most scientifically or historically or artificially. Living with natural sweat was certainly easier.


According to Rousseau and Marx, history also makes people miserable by depriving them of the illusions that there’s more to human existence than money or power or productivity. It rips off the veils that hid the vanity of virtue, of charm and chivalry, and it makes work itself—in the name of efficiency—more monotonous and repetitive. For Marx, most lives get reduced to meaningless subsistence and nothing more. For more empirical thinkers, such as Tocqueville or even the early or psychological Marx of “On the Jewish Question,” lives get more miserably restless in the midst of prosperity. Most persons, as the Christians say, can’t live with secure personal love and God. People are more isolated and self-obsessed, and they work harder than ever to divert themselves from their emptiness. As political life gets perfected in the direction of the equality of free citizens, private life comes to resemble—in an nonviolent or businesslike way—the Hobbesian war of all against all for money and status.


The truth is that people become more free and prosperous, but at the cost of happiness. At least they’re not as happy as people seemingly should be living in the most fortunate environment ever. There’s also a cost in human excellence, insofar as people have to believe that they’re more than historical or productive beings to produce accomplishments that stand the test of time. They also have to believe that they really are naturally or supernaturally social and loving beings to produce accomplishments meant to move others deeply to experiences and thoughts they can share in common.


So at a certain point the modern philosophers were stuck with the fact that all the evidence is that history—or the record of enlightening human freedom—has made people more powerful and free but in some ways, at least, more miserable and less virtuous. History, the philosophers thought, is all there is, but historical results are the disoriented and confused record of restless and alienated beings. So knowing history can hardly be satisfying to the human mind. History seems to have no LOGOS—a fact that would have hardly surprised classical or Christian thinkers.


At a certain point, the philosophers decided to declare victory or talk about THE END OF HISTORY. Hegel claimed to show the LOGOS in history, to show that history was a whole, that history had ended in a perfectly logical way. More compelling, though, was Marx’s thought that the end of history is coming, is just around the corner, can be achieved with just a little more work.


For Marx, the unprecedented misery people had accidentally created for themselves through their hugely successful historical effort was good news. Natural scarcity had been conquered, but the great mass of people weren’t sharing in that abundance. Their misery would turn their stabilizing fear into recklessly destructive hatred. Having nothing left to lose, they would turn to inevitably successful revolution. The many without property would overthrow the few with it, and the revolution would be against the very idea of property in the sense of the means required to exploit the labor of others.


The end of history overcomes the miserable alienation of modern life—of capitalism—not by going back to some earlier stage in history or the division of labor. Once people are enlightened, they stay enlightened. They can’t and don’t want to return to the drudgery or the illusions of a more natural past. The repression that scarcity made necessary but not good was defeated by capitalism, as were the illusions that chained us to love and virtue. The only standard remaining was productivity, and at the end of history the machines we’ve invented work so well on their own we don’t have to be concerned much with that.


So it’s hard to know why Marx calls communism communism. The people who live there are more or less completely free from being obsessed by or even particularly concerned with communal or personal obligation. They’re really on their own to do what they please. They have perfect freedom from natural determination for self-determination, without no alienating external guidance at all about how to determine a self. The true slogan of Marx’s communism is that of the American Sixties, “Do you own thing”—because nothing or nobody can tell you what your thing is. Or, as self-help experts say, “Be your own person.”


At the end of history, every person will be free from nature to be who he or she pleases. And seeing history as a whole will be the really empirical evidence that we’re free. And at the end of history philosophy will be replaced by wisdom. We’ll know all there is for us to know—what we’ve made to secure our freedom. And then we’ll also know that nature means nothing to us. At the end of history we become perfect atheists by knowing that history is all there was, and so there was no divine or natural dimension to genuinely human existence.


Historical thinking in this strong sense has been discredited by a fatal contradiction: The people in the present are miserable and worthless. The people in the future will be happy and completely free. The philosophers today still are confused about what they know; the philosophers of the future will actually be wise men and women. The people and philosophers of today gain significance, it seems, in what they do for a future they will never see. So historical thinkers, such as the various Marxist-Leninists, thought nothing of sacrificing them for the future.


The 20th century saw hundreds of millions of people slaughtered in the name of history. Historical thinking, which began to secure the existence of unique and irreplaceable beings in this world, culminated in turning the great mass of people into “history fodder.” And it turned out, of course, to be far more personally destructive or dehumanizing to think of people as merely part of history than it was to think of them as merely part of nature or merely part of their political communities. History ended up reducing the particular person around today to nothing, at least in thought. And so the idea of History caused people to be treated like nothing.


It’s undeniable progress to say that nobody dies for History any more. And there was nothing stupider to die for than history. It was much stupider to die for the end of history than Rome; Rome, after all, was a real place that could inspire real loyalty. Nobody really thinks the end of history in the strong Marxian sense is coming any more, and nobody think that the sacrifice required to try to make us all unalienated and wise is worth it anymore. We can, in this sense, only speak of History with a capital H in the past sense, and we reject it in the name of the unique and irreplaceable human person.


MORE TO COME


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Articles by Peter Lawler

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