The power of the great books

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been around small children that humans naturally crave the security of a familiar and nonthreatening environment. While this innate human tendency is most pronounced in small children, it follows all of us into adulthood and throughout our lives. In the same way that a child might bring a beloved toy or blanket along with him to act as a source of comfort in an unfamiliar environment, so most adults choose to partake of books and television which reinforce the views they already hold. The Pew Research Center, for example, discovered in a recent study that most political liberals in the United States listen to, watch, and read their news from media outlets that skew to the left while American political conservatives tend to consume media with a distinctively conservative bent.

It is a unique strength of an educational program based in the great books that the student is required by the very nature of the great books themselves to broaden his mind by reading literature that, often even when he agrees with the author, presents a challenge to his presuppositions and preconceived notions, and sometimes even his most certain convictions. While the students’ beliefs will not necessarily be changed, as beliefs are terribly difficult things to change in a person, there is no doubt that they will be clarified and that the students will walk away with a greater sense of the complexity of a topic and the diversity of positions available on that topic. In addition, he will have developed an appreciation for even those positions to which he is opposed, recognizing in them some aspect of or commentary upon the universal human condition.

This is an accurate summary of my own experience over the past semester as I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in those great books which take up the topic of history. Having read widely in the history of thought on history over these four months, I have been able to hear from some of the greatest minds of the Western tradition their thoughts on this uniquely Western idea that is history, allowing them to speak for themselves and to elucidate upon their own experience of and meditations upon the subject.

The range and diversity of possible positions has been one rather jarring feature of this reading. Given the great differences between, for example, St. Augustine, on the one hand, and Karl Marx on the other, it has occasionally been difficult to understand how each of them could be talking about the same thing. While Augustine sees the guiding hand of providence behind each movement in history, Marx sees instead the interplay of economic, and therefore solely material, forces, a wholly different moving force in history. Yet again, there is Niccolo Machiavelli, a thinker of equal eminence and erudition when compared to either Augustine or Marx, who raises his hand to object to both and assert rather that Fate of any sort can indeed be resisted by any man whose “valour has … been prepared to resist her” and whose “defences have … been raised to constrain her.” Still more thinkers, of no less excellence and import, might chime in with any number of other positions on the matter, running across a great array from freedom to fatalism, each arguing in favor of his position with great gusto and compelling evidence.

As Leo Strauss noted in his 1959 essay “What is Liberal Education?,” it comes as a surprise to some, upon approaching the great books, to realize that “the greatest minds do not all tell us the same things regarding the most important themes; the community of the greatest minds is rent by discord and even by various kinds of discord.” It might, at this point, be tempting to fall into the sleepy indifference of relativism or, for those with a personality more caffeinated than that of the relativist, to abandon the great books altogether as hopelessly confused and irreconcilable. Hopelessly confused and irreconcilable they may be, but the answer is certainly not the slumber of relativism nor the despair of intellectual defeat.

On the contrary, in encountering this great diversity of well-reasoned opinions on the topic of history I have been afforded a tremendous opportunity to refine my own viewpoint by taking into consideration the various challenges and alternatives to it. In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that “it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” While it may be going too far to claim, as Nietzsche does, that all philosophy is really biography, there is a certain element of truth in this claim. Stated with less polemic and more fairness, it might be said that all philosophy is the result of a particular individual’s attempt to extrapolate from his unique subjective experience of human life in the world to the universal, general, and objective nature of human life in the world. This is true also of one’s philosophy of history.

Over the past 16 weeks, I have taken up and considered the philosophy of history espoused by a significant number of admirable thinkers, including ancient Greeks like Plato, Herodotus, and Aristotle, Romans like Marcus Aurelius, Christians of the Middle Ages such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and finally early modern and modern thinkers of great diversity, including Marx, Sir James George Frazer, Johan Huizinga, Pascal, and Karl Barth. It would be difficult to enumerate and elucidate the effect each has individually had upon my thought on history. Collectively, however, even without my thought on history having dramatically changed during this period of study, their effect has been tremendous. They have allowed me to recognize the limitations of my own worldview while opening my mind to the appreciation of others, and therefore of the human experience as a whole, and this is perhaps the most important thing any book, no matter how great, can do for a person.

Historical causation

In his discussion of the factors in historical causation, Christopher Dawson identified four primary factors, “(1) race, i.e., the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e., the geographic factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e., the economic factor,” and, finally, (4) “thought, or the psychological factor.” Each of these factors has received some special emphasis at some epoch in the history of thought on historical causation. It is Dawson’s unique contribution to the field of thought on historical causation, however, to highlight the psychological factor as the decisive factor in the movements of history, as the human factor which unites and, in a sense, governs and directs the others.

Race, or the genetic factor, is the factor of historical causation which has received the greatest emphasis in the modern era, though it is by no means unique to the modern era. Aristotle, for example, says of “the poets” that “they thought that the barbarian and the slave were by nature one.” It was in the modern era, however, that race came to be identified by certain thinkers as the most central aspect of historical causation. The most extreme forms of the position which places race as the central determinative factor in historical causation have largely collapsed under the weight of the atrocities these theories have led to. For example, Alexander H. Stephen’s theory of the natural servility of those of African descent became an ex post facto justification for the existence of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. The most infamous example is the theory, generally associated with the Nazis but adopted more widely by eugenicists of various political stripes near the turn of the 20th century, of a malignancy transmitted via the blood of particular ethnic groups, an idea which counts the Holocaust among its consequences. Although undue focus upon the genetic factor in historical causation has largely been discredited through its own horrendous consequences, this theory has returned with renewed vigor in unexpected places, as among those who argue that an innate predisposition toward certain sexual behaviors implies the necessity of social acceptance of said behaviors.

A panicked reaction against the consequences of the racialist theory of historical causation has led to a renewed emphasis upon the two other material factors, the geographic and the economic. The geographic factor undoubtedly has the longest pedigree of the two. In his History, for example, Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, linked the origins of Egyptian culture, including their language and religion, to the geography of the land they inhabited and its environment. One of the most popular of the modern reiterations of this ancient idea of geographic determinism is that of Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel. In his 1997 book and eponymous 2005 television documentary series, Diamond sets out to answer a question put to him by a native of New Guinea, though perhaps more succinctly articulated nearly a century prior by W. E. B. Du Bois in his The Souls of Black Folk, “Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa?” In the wake of the racialist ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Diamond merely frantically replaces one set of material factors (genes) with another (geography), arguing eloquently but not persuasively for an exclusion of the human factor from the central position.

The economic factor of historical causation is of a decidedly modern origin. Its origins are contemporaneous with the rise of race to prominence as the central factor in historical causation. Unlike race, however, the economic factor has maintained its popularity as a material explanation for historical causation to the present day. Its most well-known and vociferous exponent, Karl Marx, argued that “the life-process of society … is based on the process of material production.” Having fixed economics as the final definitive factor in historical causation, Marx proceeded to dismiss all other aspects of a society, including its religious and political systems, insisting that far from possessing any causative or explanatory power they themselves were merely the derivative products of the economic factor. Marx’s explanation of all history through economic factors proved convincing enough to win over a great many of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, who, fairly late in his life, attempted to answer his question through applying the Marxist theory of material dialectic to race relations in the modern world.

Like the racial and geographic theories, however, Marx’s theory of economic causation in history reduces history to the merely material. Positing race, geography, or economy as the central causative factor in history displaces human life and its unique features, rational thought and spiritual insight, from their due place of centrality. This reduction to the merely material is largely a modern phenomenon. Even among those ancient thinkers who identified material factors of causation, there was rarely an outright exclusion of the human factor. Plato, for example, in his Laws, placed what is perhaps an undue emphasis on the geographic factor in his contention that a city near a “sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather than a producing country” requires “some mighty saviour … and lawgivers more than mortal, if … [it] were ever to have a chance of preserving … [itself] from degeneracy and discordance of manners.” Yet even in this statement of the great effect of the geographic factor upon a state, Plato evinces a belief in the human factor of a “mighty saviour” and “lawgivers more than mortal” as the most decisive factor in the shaping of a people’s history.

It is precisely such great men whom Christopher Dawson pointed to as the most important factor in historical causation, reminding the modern world that it is not so much man who is subject to the material factors of race, geography, and economy, as it is man who works within the confines of these factors to reshape them and create new and great cultures. “Behind every civilization there is a vision,” he writes in his Progress and Religion, “a vision which may be the unconscious fruit of ages of common thought and action, or which may have sprung from the sudden illumination of a great prophet or thinker.” Underlying historical causation, says Dawson, creating and giving impulse to material factors is the human factor. Behind every great movement in history one will not find, if followed to its roots, a gene, a mountain, or an exchange of goods. Instead, one will discover the human will.

Freedom of the will

For the Christian, the issue of the freedom of the human will presents a dilemma. If free will is affirmed, the risk is run of denying the sovereignty of God. There is some justice in the assertion of John Calvin, a theologian for whom the sovereignty of God was a central concern, that those who believe in the freedom and effectiveness of the human will can affirm not a true omnipotence for God but rather a “vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence.” On the other hand, however, an assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God to the exclusion of free will, such as the assertion Calvin himself made, plunges the Christian into the world of fatalism, whose guiding credo Machiavelli accurately described as the belief “that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them.” This fatalistic perspectives also casts doubt upon the justice of God’s judgments; if, as, for example, Augustine avers, there is no activity in the world no matter how seemingly insignificant “outside of the laws of His providence,” that is, whose ultimate source of volition is the will of God, eternal rewards for virtue and punishments for vice are of questionable purpose and dubious equity. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, however, Dante offers a solution to the dilemma through the words of Marco, one of the penitent souls in Purgatory.

There, Dante inquires of Marco concerning the source of the evils in the world, “so that I may see it and show it to men, for one places it in the heavens and another here below.” Marcos begins his response to Dante with “a deep sigh” at the question, exclaiming “brother, the world is blind, and truly you come from it!” He explains his annoyance, saying, “You who are living refer every cause upwards to the heavens alone, as if they of necessity moved all things with them.” For Marco, the question itself is demonstrative of a desire to renounce responsibility by positing inevitability.

Marco then goes on to describe the problem with this belief. If “free will” were “destroyed in you,” he says, “there would be no justice in happiness for good or grief for evil.” Without human free will, the entire moral structure of the universe and the cosmic system of reward, punishment, and repentance through which Dante was making his way and in which Marco was currently suffering for the sake of future reward would disintegrate. If the structure of the cosmos is to be sensible and just, human beings must be free moral agents. It must be, then, says Marco, that “if the present world goes astray, in you is the cause.”

Marco’s emphatic declarations concerning human free will, however, do not, for him, undermine the sovereignty of God. On the contrary, human freedom is a credit to the sovereignty of God rather than a debit from it. “You lie subject, in your freedom,” Marco says, “to a greater power and to a better nature, and that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge.” It is, then, a testimony to the power of God that he created man in a manner that allows him to surpass the dictates of fate derived from the stars.

While Marco admits “the heavens initiate your movements,” that is, that there are impulses which arise in man naturally and over whose arising man does not possess control, he says that “a light is given you to know good and evil,” meaning that man has the ability to choose to follow these impulses or, instead, to resist them. Man, then, is uniquely endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil, a freedom which, far from denying the sovereignty of God, rather derives from and testifies to it. Indeed, the power of freedom with which man is endowed is so great that if “free will … endure fatigue in its first battles with the heavens, afterwards, if it is well nurtured, it conquers completely.”

In this short explanation of man’s freedom in the face of fate, Dante, through Marco, has adequately reconciled fate and free will while avoiding the respective pitfalls opened up by too great an emphasis on either. He has, on the one hand, affirmed the freedom of the human will, a necessary component of any worldview with a sense of cosmic justice, of which Christianity is undoubtedly the preeminent example. Simultaneously, he has also affirmed the existence of powerful forces external to man which draw him toward a foreordained destiny, while not allowing that these forces cancel out the free choices of persons. Perhaps most importantly, Dante has reconciled human freedom to the sovereignty of God in describing free will as an essential component of the will and activity of God rather than an external component somehow foreign to or incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

Fate and freedom

The tension between fate and freedom is a tension that runs throughout the history of man’s thought on history. It is, no doubt, a tension that arises from the direct experience of man in the world. When considering his past, he is tempted to see himself as having been inexorably drawn toward his present situation. The choices and circumstances of his life have led him, inevitably it seems, to the point at which he currently stands. When he looks forward to his future, however, he feels as if the choices he makes are made freely and are the decisive factors that will lead him to where he will be. When faced with a fork in the road, a person will typically feel as if the direction he embarks is one that he chooses for himself. The tension between fate and free will is particularly evident and acute in the study of history.

The earliest works of history and literature evince a precarious indecisiveness in their treatment of fate and freedom. Homer’s Iliad, for example, opens with an invocation to “sing, o goddess, the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, which hurled many mighty souls to Hades.” Shortly after, however, Homer attributes the events he records to “the will of Zeus.” There is a contrast here, within the first few lines of one of the earliest great works of historical literature, between the effectiveness of the decisions and actions of Achilles and the fate decreed by the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. It is a tension that Homer does little to resolve throughout the Iliad. While the gods incite and direct the Trojan war, in this revealing to us the otherwise hidden hand of fate, Homer takes great pains to list the names of each of the “mighty souls” who fought, implying a significance to their choices and actions as particular persons.

Later historians in the Greco-Roman tradition do little to resolve this tension first seen in Homer’s works. While adopting an approach to history that usually concentrates upon the decisions of great men, their personalities and their activities, Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Plutarch, as well as later poets like Virgil, simultaneously give credit to fate as the determinative factor in the lives of persons, nations, and civilizations. Plutarch, for instance, demonstrates his belief in the significance of great men in the shaping of the Roman past in his approach to history through biography. Plutarch begins his Life of Alexander with a plain statement of his purposes; there, he conveys his desire to examine the influence of a person’s virtues and vices upon his life. In his Life of Romulus, however, Plutarch appeals to fortune as the primary determinative factor in the rise of the Roman Empire, asking his reader to “consider that the Roman power would hardly have reached so high a pitch without a divinely ordered origin.”

The Christian historians of the Middle Ages and later approach history with quite different conceptions of human significance and the nature of fate than their pagan precursors; the tension between fate and free will, however, is not entirely resolved by these authors. Augustine, for example, in his attempts to formulate a Christian understanding of history in his City of God, argues vociferously against any role for the celestial bodies in determining human events. He does not, however, take issue with the idea of fate, but, rather, with the terminology in that the notion attributes the flow of history to the impersonal forces of fortune rather than to the guidance of a personal God. “In a word,” he says, “human kingdoms are established by divine providence. And if anyone attributes their existence to fate, because he calls the will or the power of God itself by the name of fate, let him keep his opinion, but correct his language.” Augustine goes on only shortly after this, however, to ask, “What judgment … is left to God concerning the deeds of men … when to these deeds a celestial necessity is attributed?” There seems good reason to wonder similarly, however, about the justice of God’s judgment when the deeds of men are attributed to a divine necessity which is merely fortune under another name.

In the modern historians, the deterministic force of history is once again depersonalized and at last de-divinized. Rather than positing a metaphysical fortune as in the ancient pagan authors or the providence of a personal God as in the medieval Christians, the modern authors instead espouse a theory of history determined by purely material factors. Karl Marx is perhaps the ultimate example of this modern belief in the supreme power of impersonal material forces in his belief that all societies are governed by “natural laws of … movement.” For Marx, economic forces are the determinant, indeed the only truly effective, forces in history. While later modern thinkers have occasionally replaced the economic with the geographic, the technological, or the genetic, the attribution of preeminence in the movement of history to material factors remains the predominant mode of thought to the present day.

A survey of the history of historical thought reveals a dichotomy in emphasis upon and attribution to the forces of fate and human will in shaping the history of mankind, a dichotomy that often exists, and creates a tension within the thought of, a single author. While the trajectory of historical thinking has been toward a minimization of the role of the choices and actions of particular persons in the unfolding of history, there remains the problem most succinctly stated by John Lukacs: “no free will, no history — no history in our sense of history.” Hence, while Homer and Plutarch attributed the great events they recorded to the decrees of fortune, they also found it necessary to provide extensive lists of great men and their great deeds. While Augustine attributes the upbuilding of great kingdoms to the providence of God, fate by any other name, he also defends at length the particularity of persons and the possibility of choice in vice and virtue. And Marx, most ironically, decreed the supreme decisiveness of the material and impersonal, yet himself became one of the greatest forces in the shaping of twentieth century history.

Chaucer’s philosophical history

The Monk’s Tale, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, presents an interesting challenge to Aristotle’s famous assertion that “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” The moralizing monk of Chaucer, however, presents a series of short biographies of powerful men and their respective downfalls that his listeners might “be warned by these examples, true and old.” In so doing, Chaucer’s monk calls into question Aristotle’s contention about the limits of history. By transforming history into poetry Chaucer has universalized the otherwise singular historical personage, thereby raising history to the level of the philosophic and gravely important occupied by poetry.

There are, however, some reasons to object to Chaucer’s derivation of morals from historical events. Descartes, for example, asserts in his Discourse on Method that “those who regulate their conduct” by the examples provided in history, “are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance.” Descartes’s objection, though, extends wider than the purview of this essay in his rejection of extracting guidance for present conduct not only from history but from literature and poetry as well. Descartes rejects the moral guidance of narrative in a more general sense. He worries that because a narrative may be fictional or extravagant it may inspire a reader to the impossible. Given his allusion to Don Quixote, who did just the sort of thing about which he expresses his worries, however, it may legitimately be wondered whether a world full of men who imitate the Romances and so live their lives according to a strict code of honor and valor, virtues universally ascribed to Don Quixote by the other characters in his eponymous novel, would be such an undesirable place after all. Descartes’s statement brings him close to rejecting the study of history and literature altogether. If the past were indeed as distant and foreign as Descartes holds it to be, it might be legitimate to do so. Thucydides seems closer to the mark in his assertion in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “there is … no advantage in reflections on the past further than may be of service to the present.”

That the past is of service to the present seems self-evident, though Descartes may find room for disagreement. The means by which the past can be of service to the present, however, is a subject of debate. Dewey repositions the historical as the singular, for example, in his attempt to use the education of the young in history as a means by which to provide them with the impetus and ability to alter current social conditions. In his Education and Experience, Dewey claims that “the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.” Dewey, then, agrees with Chaucer in his belief that the experience of the past is a necessary source from which to learn how to act in the present. Dewey departs from Chaucer, however, in his beliefs about the nature of this knowledge. Whereas Chaucer sees the past as a mine filled with examples to be imitated or avoided, Dewey desires the student of history to study the root causes of the problems of the present in order to change them in the future.

There is at issue here a divergence in understandings of human nature as well as of a man’s place in society. Chaucer’s view relies upon an understanding of the immutability of human nature. Man must be the same sort of creature today as he was long ago for Chaucer’s use of the past as a source of moral guidance to be practicable. As a society consists of just such creatures, while the particulars, such as technology, government, and custom, may differ greatly in various eras, the essential nature of society qua society does not change. While a man or a society may be improved, in Chaucer’s view, the essential nature of man and society, generally, abides. Dewey, on the other hand, adheres to an ideology which seeks the improvement of man and society generally. Within this framework, history can be little more than a record of the follies of unimproved individual men and societies within the wider narrative of gradual improvement of man and society over time.

More than Dewey, Marx submerges the individual within this social and general paradigm in his view of history. For Marx, history is much more the record of the effects of abstract, general, and impersonal forces, what he calls “the natural laws of [a society’s] movement,” than it is of particular persons or peoples. If the great forces behind any given society are indeed abstract and impersonal, however, Chaucer’s extrapolation of moral guidance from history is misguided and unnecessary.

Chaucer’s moralization of history is only legitimate within the framework of the philosophy of history he espouses, one in which history is the record of the chosen activities of particular persons whose nature does not differ substantially from the persons of earlier or later ages. Chaucer’s very ability to draw meaningful guidance for persons in the present from the activities of persons in the past, however, also stands as an argument against the lack of utility in historical study as believed by Descartes, the belief in history as a record of the causes of society’s ills espoused by Dewey, and the impersonalization of history attempted by Marx. It may, in addition, belie Aristotle’s belief in the inferiority of history to poetry. Through his universalization of history, Chaucer, the great English poet, was able to raise history to the dignity and relevance of poetry.