Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Last fall I stopped by the Chapel Hill Public Library booksale and ended up with a paper grocery bag full of books for $3. As I took them home I wondered to myself if I had just picked these up because they were cheap or if they would actually be useful and stimulating. The bulk of what I got were sci-fi anthologies and novels from the early 70's. I've read a few of these and found them interesting more often than not.

Among the non-fiction I picked up, though, I have found some real treasures. I mentioned a few weeks ago Will Campbell's book, Race and the Renewal of the Church, which was excellent. This week I read a collection entitled The Philosophy of History in Our Time, ed Hans Meyerhoff. The essays in it are from the most thoughtful historians and philosophers who wrote about history from roughly 1880 to 1950. These would be Dilthey, Croce, Ortega y Gassett, Collingwood, Pirenne, Toynbee, Becker, Beard, Lovejoy, Aron, Dewey, (Morton) White, Nagel, W H Walsh, Butterfield, Berlin, Burckhardt, Bullock, Popper, (Reinhold) Niebuhr, and Jaspers. Nearly all of the essay were intriguing to me, exploring the questions of whether history has meaning (of its own), what one studies when one studies history, etc.

One section I found particularly striking was this by Karl Popper (somewhat edited to save space):

How do most people come to use the term "history"? . . . They learn about it in school and at the university. They read books about it. They see what is treated in the books under the name "history of the world" or "the history of mankind," and they get used to looking upon it as a more of less definite series of facts. And these facts constitute, they believe, the history of mankind.

But we have already seen that the realm of facts is infinitely rich, and that there must be selection. According to our interests, we could, for instance, write about the history of art; or of feeding habits; or of typhus fever . . .Certainly none of these is the history of mankind (nor all of them taken together). What people have in mind when they speak of the history of mankind is, rather, the history of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman empires, and so on, down to our own day. In other words: They speak about the history of mankind, but what they mean, and what they have learned about in school, is the history of political power.

There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life. And one of these is the history of political power. This is elevated into the history of the world. But this, I hold, is an offence against every decent conception of mankind. It is hardly better than to treat the history of embezzlement or of robbery or of poisoning as the history of mankind. For the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder (including, it is true, some of the attempts to suppress them). This history is taught in schools, and some of the greatest criminals are extolled as its heroes.

. . .But why has just the history of power been selected, and not, for example, that of religion, or of poetry? There are several reasons. One is that power affects us all, and poetry only a few. Another is that men are inclined to worship power. But there can be no doubt that the worship of power is one of the worst kinds of human idolatries, . . . A third reason why power politics has been made the core of "history" is that those in power wanted to be worshipped and could enforce their wishes. Many historians wrote under the supervision of the emperors, the generals, and the dictators.

I know these views will meet with the strongest opposition from many sides, including some apologists for Christianity; for although there is hardly anything in the New Testament to support this doctrine, it is often considered a part of Christian dogma that God reveals Himself in history; that history has meaning; and that its meaning is the purpose of God. Historicism* is thus held to be a necessary element of religion. But I do not admit this. I contend that this view is pure idolatry and superstition, not only from the point of view of a rationalist or humanist but from the Christian point of view itself.

He goes on to explain that last phrase for about 3 pages, so I won't burden you with it now. The jist of it is that identifying God with "history", as the term is normally used, puts God into an unholy alliance with power and evil. He points to the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus as the opposite of what we mean by history.

* Popper uses this term to mean the idea of a unified meaning of history according to a theological or rational law or set of laws, which is more or less the complete opposite of the way the term has come to be used by others.

No comments: