The Difference Between the Ancient and Modern Understanding of History; Or How Faith Can Invent A Science

Minotaure dans une barque sauvant une femme (1937), Pablo Picasso. Private collection Photo: Eric Baudouin; Courtesy Gagosian; © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Polybius was concerned with Rome’s history, i.e., with past events progressing toward the present power of Rome. Modern historians who rank with him are concerned with Europe’s future, when looking backward and searching into her history. The classic historian asks: How did it come about? The modern historian: How shall we go ahead ? The reason for this modern concern with the future is that the Hebrew and Christian faith has perverted the classic meaning of historein and, at the same time, invalidated the classical view of the future as something which can be investigated and known like a fact.

Karl Löwith

I am half through the really informative book by German philosopher Karl Löwith called The Meaning in History (1953).

In the introductory chapter, Löwith explains how Jewish and Christian tradition of thought actually invented the idea that there is such thing as meaning in history.

And what we have today disguised as history – the story of when the humanity will get even better, and how we will achieve that, for Löwith is nothing more than secular version of theological principles.

According to Löwith, what inspires the search for meaning in the history is the experience of evil and suffering and man’s quest for happiness.

The natural fear of man, and his hope for the better, inspired him to find meaning in events, and from that to try to conclude where are the things going – after we saw what already happened.

It is the privilege of theology and philosophy, as contrasted with the sciences, to ask questions that cannot be answered on the basis of empirical knowledge. All the ultimate questions concerning first and last things are of this character; they remain significant because no answer can silence them. They signify a fundamental quest; for there would be no search for the meaning of history if its meaning were manifest in historical events. It is the very absence of meaning in the events themselves that motivates the quest. Conversely, it is only within a pre-established horizon of ultimate meaning, however hidden it may be, that actual history seems to be meaningless. This horizon has been established by history, for it is Hebrew and Christian thinking that brought this colossal question into existence. To ask earnestly the question of the ultimate meaning of history takes one’s breath away; it transports us into a vacuum which only hope and faith can fill.

The ancients were more moderate in their speculations. They did not presume to make sense of the world or to discover its ultimate meaning. They were impressed by the visible order and beauty of the cosmos, and the cosmic law of growth and decay was also the pattern for their understanding of history. According to the Greek view of life and the world, everything moves in recurrences, like the eternal recurrence of sunrise and sunset, of summer and winter, of generation and corruption. This view was satisfactory to them because it is a rational and natural understanding of the universe, combining a recognition of temporal changes with periodic regularity, constancy, and immutability. The immutable, as visible in the fixed order of the heavenly bodies, had a higher interest and value to them than any progressive and radical change.

In this intellectual climate, dominated by the rationality of the natural cosmos, there was no room for the universal significance of a unique, incomparable historic event. As for the destiny of man in history, the Greeks believed that man has resourcefulness to meet every situation with magnanimity-they did not go further than that. They were primarily concerned with the logos of the cosmos, not with the Lord and the meaning of history. Even the tutor of Alexander the Great depreciated history over against poetry, and Plato might have said that the sphere of change and contingency is the province of historiography but not of philosophy. To the Greek thinkers a philosophy of history would have been a contradiction in terms. To them history was political history and, as such, the proper study of statesmen and historians.

But since the Middle Ages, the science of history, of understanding the past, started to be heavily influenced by answers to the fundamental questions of the “purpose”. The humanity started believing that there is a Divine Will that determines the outcomes of events, and that everything, even bad things, “happen for a reason”. There is a higher meaning in what is happening to use; even if we might not be able to understand it, it is there and it governs things around us. Everything that happens has an aim. The only thing a man should do is to have faith. And in faith, there is a salvation.

To the Jews and Christians, however, history was primarily a history of salvation and, as such, the proper concern of prophets, preachers, and teachers. The very existence of a philosophy of history and its quest for a meaning is due to the history of salvation; it emerged from the faith in an ultimate purpose. In the Christian era political history, too, was under the influence and in the predicament of this theological background. In some way the destinies of nations became related to a divine or pseudodivine vocation.

It is not by chance that we use the words “meaning” and “purpose” interchangeably, for it is mainly purpose which constitutes meaning for us. The meaning of all things that are what they are, not by nature, but because they have been created either by God or by man, depends on purpose. A chair has its meaning of being a “chair,” in the fact that it indicates something beyond its material nature: the purpose of being used as a seat. This purpose, however, exists only for us who manufacture and use such things. And since a chair or a house or a town or a B-29 is a means to the end or purpose of man; the purpose is not inherent in, but transcends, the thing. If we abstract from a chair its transcendent purpose, it becomes a meaningless combination of pieces of wood.

The same is true in regard to the formal structure of the meaning of history. History, too, is meaningful only by indicating some transcendent purpose beyond the actual facts. But, since history is a movement in time, the purpose is a goal. Single events as such are not meaningful, nor is a mere succession of events. To venture a statement about the meaning of historical events is possible only when their telos becomes apparent. When a historical movement has unfolded its consequences, we reflect on its first appearance, in order to determine the meaning of the whole, though particular, event-“whole” by a definite point of departure and a final point of arrival. If we reflect on the whole course of history, imagining its beginning and anticipating its end, we think of its meaning in terms of an ultimate purpose.

The claim that history has an ultimate meaning implies a final purpose or goal transcending the actual events. This identification of meaning and purpose does not exclude the possibility of other systems of meaning. To the Greeks, for example, historical events and destinies were certainly not simply meaningless-they were full of import and sense, but they were not meaningful in the sense of being directed toward an ultimate end in a transcendent purpose that comprehends the whole course of events.

The temporal horizon for a final goal is, however, an eschatological future, and the future exists for us only by expectation and hope. The ultimate meaning of a transcendent purpose is focused in an expected future. Such an expectation was most intensely alive among the Hebrew prophets; it did not exist among the Greek philosophers. When we remember that II Isaiah and Herodotus were almost contemporaries, we realize the unbridgeable gulf that separates Greek wisdom from Jewish faith. The Christian and post-Christian outlook on history is futuristic, perverting the classical meaning of historein, which is related to present and past events. In the Greek and Roman mythologies and genealogies the past is re-presented as an everlasting foundation. In the Hebrew and Christian view of history the past is a promise to the future; consequently, the interpretation of the past becomes a prophecy in reverse, demonstrating the past as a meaningful “preparation” for the future. Greek philosophers and historians were convinced that whatever is to happen will be of the same pattern and character as past and present events; they never indulged in the prospective possibilities of the future.

So the meaning of what is behind us, why it happened, will be obvious – but only in the future. The past only has its meaning when look in regards to where it leads us.

The concept of history is a product of prophetism …. What Greek intellectualism could not produce, prophetism has achieved. In Greek consciousness, historein is equivalent to inquiry, narration, and knowledge. To the Greeks history remains something we can know because it is a matter of “fact” [factum], that is, of the past. The prophet, however, is a seer, not a scholar; his prophetic vision has created our concept of history as being essentially of the future. Time becomes primarily future, and future the primary content of our historical thought. For this new future “the creator of heaven and earth” is not sufficient. He has to create “a new heaven and a new earth.” In this transformation the idea of progress is implied. Instead of a golden age in the mythological past, the true historical existence on earth is constituted by an eschatological future.

The future is the “true” focus of history, provided that the truth abides in the religious foundation of the Christian Occident, whose historical consciousness is, indeed, determined by an eschatological motivation, from Isaiah to Marx, from Augustine to Hegel, and from Joachim to Schelling. The significance of this vision of an ultimate end, as both finis and telos, is that it provides a scheme of progressive order and meaning, a scheme which has been capable of overcoming the ancient fear of fate and fortune. Not only does the eschaton delimit the process of history by an end, it also articulates and fulfills it by a definite goal. The bearing of the eschatological thought on the historical consciousness of the Occident is that it conquers the flux of historical time, which wastes away and devours its own creations unless it is defined by an ultimate goal. Comparable to the compass which gives us orientation in space, and thus enables us to conquer it, the eschatological compass gives orientation in time by pointing to the Kingdom of God as the ultimate end and purpose.

Löwith’s book is a wonderful primer of understanding how faith can invent a science.

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