Do We Teach Western Civilization?

I have been trying to formulate a satisfactory answer to this question for as long as I have been in education. I have been involved in K-12 classical education for more than six years, including five years as a founding faculty member of a classical K-12 charter school in Savannah. Throughout that time, I have had to navigate the rather peculiar amalgam that is classical education and the perhaps more peculiar intricacies of American public education. And this question is one that has recurred, in various forms, throughout that time. Of course, depending on who puts it and how it is put, the expected answer can differ wildly.

A few examples:

The school at which I taught had some unique demographics when compared to classical schools in the United States. While the classrooms were diverse in effect, the students were more than three-quarters African American and more than three-quarters from low-income households. Most classical schools, whether private or charter, tend to be middle class—typically upper middle class—and overwhelmingly white. As can be imagined, our unique demographics presented us with some interesting challenges.

Before the school even opened its doors, for example, an editorial ran in a local newspaper decrying the Eurocentrism of the typical classical curriculum and demanding that “our children be taught our history.” This criticism was reiterated by the state of Georgia in their critique of our school a few years later, when they stated bluntly that a classical curriculum is “inappropriate for this demographic.” More recently, the members of the DC Public Charter School Board alleged that African American students might find a classical curriculum “alienating” during the public question-and-answer session with a group seeking to start a similar school.

These sorts of criticisms are, of course, not unique to the school that I was a part of. They are questions that are being raised in Classics as an academic field as well. The recent racist incident as a meeting of the Society for Classical Studies provides an example of the sort of debate that is going on in that field, as some classicists seek to hold on to an older theory of the Romans and the Greeks as the founders of Western Civilization while others aim for a broader interpretation of classics, perhaps even an elimination of Classics as a separate field in favor of a Department of Ancient History.

Personally, I have struggled with these questions.

One the one hand, I am aware of the history of classical education and of the academic field of Classics, and the ways in which both have been used to justify and perpetuate racism. There is a deep association between classicism and racism in the early modern era that continues even to the present day. Advocates of classical education often reiterate the racist arguments of their nineteenth-century forebears without even realizing that they are doing so. At the opening of our school, one prominent advocate of classical education spoke about the idea of “becoming fully human,” an idea with roots in classical humanism, but with some very troubling associations in south Georgia.

More than that, most classical schools seem like some sort of bizarre Victorian revivalism, idealizing the “tougher” educational practices of the a century ago. They seek to model themselves on whatever was done in schools before the influence of John Dewey, taking no account of the significantly changed world and changed United States that have been brought about by technology and globalization.

The most troubling aspect of the rhetoric and practice of contemporary K-12 classical education, I think, is the constant talk of the Platonic trinity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful coupled with an emphasis on the Western canon. Each of these things on their own seems to me to be a good thing. I think it is good to want students to know what is virtuous and right, to seek the truth, and to recognize and appreciate beauty. And I tend to agree with the Great Books philosophy that some works are just time better than others. The problem arises, for me, when these two ideas are coupled. When a classical school proclaims that they guide students to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and then provide a reading list which consists entirely of authors from one rather small peninsula (that is, Europe), this is problematic. The not-too-subtle implication is that India, China, Africa—the whole rest of the world—have somehow fallen short of the Absolute, the Best, the Greatest. I agree with the DC Public Charter School Board; such a curriculum is indeed “alienating” for students of color—for any student, to be quite honest.

One the other hand, however, I think that the findings of E. D. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, have not been sufficiently taken into account by the critics of classical education, nor by the educational establishment as a whole. There has been enough discussion of Hirsch’s bestseller since it was published in the mid-1980s, and I don’t want to rehash the debate. But I can say with absolute certainty that my own experience has confirmed Hirsch’s findings for me.

After introductions on the first day of class of our new school, I spent some time trying to get a sense of what my students already knew so that I can build on their prior knowledge. I asked a series of what I thought were rather simple questions that any sixth-grade American student should know: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Can anyone name and point to all seven continent on the map of the world over here? What is this building called (pointing to my poster of the Parthenon)? Does anyone know who the first emperor of the Roman Empire was? After a moment of silence: Has anyone heard of the Roman Empire before? Silence.

This is disturbing. This should be disturbing to anyone reading this. Not one of my 50 sixth-graders could identify Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; could name and point to North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica on a map; had ever seen the Parthenon before; could identify Augustus Caesar as the first Roman emperor; or had even heard of the Roman Empire. Not one. This isn’t their fault, of course. The Georgia social studies curriculum for grades K-8 includes absolutely no history from before Christopher Columbus; that means no Mesopotamia, no Greece, no Rome, no Middle Ages. And what it does include seems more often than not to be a hodge-podge of this and that from modern history rather than any real narrative that would provide a sense of the scope of historical development in the world.

An all-European “Western canon” curriculum is alienating. However, an education that doesn’t provide a child with even a basic understanding of the world they live in and how it got to be this way is undoubtedly more alienating.

And so I find myself navigating these two extremes.

In my next post, I will continue this discussion by proposing my own solution to the problem.

Confederate Monuments: Idols or Icons?

The movement to remove and replace the many statues honoring Confederate leaders that speckle city centers through the South is one that has existed for some time, but has picked up a great deal of steam in the last several years, culminating in the recent rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Baltimore, New Orleans, and other major American cities have moved quickly to get rid of the monuments. Other cities, like Savannah, Georgia, have publicly announced pending changes in the placement and form of their monuments.

Americans of various backgrounds are, of course, deeply divided on the issue and both sides have leveraged arguments worth considering. There are those, for example, who see these memorials as endorsements of slavery, segregation, and racism and as lingering symbols that seem to celebrate or belie the darker aspects of American history. Others see these monuments as reflections of their heritage and their removal as an attempt to erase their place in the history of the United States.

A Christian, however, must consider this—and anything else—from the perspective of Christian faith, thought, and history. The first thousand years of Christianity witnessed two major movements for the destruction of certain pictorial representations. The first was the removal or destruction of the images of pagan gods in the Roman Empire in fourth and fifth centuries. The second was the iconoclastic movement of the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century. The latter of these movements resulted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Nicaea) in 787 and its restoration of Christian iconography to the churches, homes, and public places of the Empire. It also provided Christians with a theology of iconography, still especially strong in the churches that derive from the Byzantine tradition, that can be applied to current debates about Confederate monuments.

The distinction adopted by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and first fully formulated by St. John of Damascus, the tireless defender of icons, is one that separates images into two categories: the iconographic and the idolatrous. What both sorts of images hold in common is that they serve to make the person or thing depicted present, in a sense, to the viewer. As anyone who has observed Eastern Christian veneration of icons knows—involving, as it does, repetitions of bows, crossing oneself, and kissing—this making-present exceeds mere signification and passes into a temporary and partial identification of that which is signified with the signifier. The key difference between the icon and the idol, however, is whether what is made present by the image is true or false.

This distinction is the basis upon which the destruction of the idols of Mithras and Serapis in Alexandria or the removal of the statue of Victory in the Roman Senate in the fourth century can be seen as justified. And it is the basis upon which the destruction of the icons of Constantinople in the eighth century is condemned. As false gods, the making-present of Mithras, Serapis, and Nike/Victory through their statues was a dangerous deception. Representations of the Incarnate Son of God, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels, however, make present that which is good and true and so serve for the edification of the believer and become worthy conduits of the piety of the worshiper through acts of veneration bestowed upon the images.

Distinguishing between the icon and the idol can, however, sometimes become complicated. A depiction of Aphrodite—clearly an idol to man’s sinful lust in the fourth century—may take on some of the attributes of an icon when created by the hands and paintbrush of a Christian artist in the fifteenth century. The figure depicted has been purged of the temptation to worship a false god and Christian-Platonically baptized anew as a symbol of the eternal beauty of the Godhead. A Christian tourist or art pilgrim today can happily walk among the many statues of the gods of Greece and Rome in any museum in Europe without the slightest temptation to sacrifice an ox to Jupiter; he or she can, in fact, see in these statues the wonders of man’s possibilities—the human artist in the image of the divine artist—and so be led to the worship of the true God even through what were once worshiped as images of false gods.

The same is true of many of the Confederate statues whose presence is currently under debate. As is well known, many of these statues were built in the early 20th century, more than a generation after the Civil War and coinciding—though the contemporaneity is hardly a coincidence—with increasingly oppressive Jim Crow laws in the South; anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic sentiment; a resurgent Ku Klux Klan able to muster 25,000 robed members for a 1926 march in Washington, D.C.; and a rise in lynchings and other crimes and intimidation against people of color, Jews, and Catholics. They are, in short, more monuments to the racism of the day they were built than to the heroes of bygone days. Other monuments, however, reflect a different spirit. The monument “to the Confederate war dead” in Savannah, Georgia’s Forsyth Park is one example. Erected in the 1870s by the women of Savannah—many of whom, no doubt, had lost brothers, sons, and husbands in the Civil War—on the place where their male family members once trained, it seems to be more of a monument to grief over lost loved ones than an insidious symbol of enduring racism.

What is the Christian, then, to do? What does the iconographic perspective prescribe for the future of Confederate monuments? In short, a level head and the ability to carefully consider and distinguish between icons to grief, loss, and personal heroism and idols to racism, white supremacy, slavery, and other heresies and false gods. We must be willing to call evil by its name, but also willing, as our Fathers in the Faith once did, to save what is worth saving and to baptize what can be baptized.

History and Race Vindication in The Gift of Black Folk (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 5 of 6)

Twenty years after the initial publication of The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois set out to expand upon his use of history for race vindication with his 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk. There, Du Bois built significantly upon his previous lists of African American contributions in yet another attempt. Published by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, as part of a series of three volumes exploring the contributions of persecuted ethnic groups to the United States, The Gift of Black Folk, along with the other two volumes in the series—one on Jewish people and the other on Germans—was part of an attempt to combat rising prejudice in the interwar United States by highlighting the achievements of members of ethnic minority groups.

        The book takes its title, argument, and structure from an assertion Du Bois originally made in The Souls of Black Folk:

Here we have brought three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit.[54]

The chapters of The Gift of Black Folk begin with a discussion of “the gift of sweat and brawn.” Starting with the earliest explorers of the Americas and stretching through the history of the United States, Du Bois describes the numerous ways in which African American manual labor has contributed to the development of America. “Hard manual labor, and much of it of a disagreeable sort, must for a long time lie at the basis of civilized life,” Du Bois writes in response to those who would devalue this sort of work.[55] “In an ideal society it would be highly-paid work because of its unpleasantness and necessity.” Following this discussion of the contributions of black labor to the building of the United States, Du Bois transitions, via a discussion of the participation of African Americans in all of the United States’ wars, to a discussion of the cultural and intellectual contributions of African Americans to American society.

        Expanding on his claims in The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois once again highlights the role that African Americans played as active agents in securing their own freedom. In so doing, claims Du Bois, African Americans accomplished a great victory for democracy and thereby expanded and secured the liberties of all peoples. Du Bois links African Americans’ struggle for and achievement of emancipation to the history of the United States as a whole: “There have been four great steps toward democracy taken in America: The refusal to be taxed by the English Parliament; the escape from European imperialism; the discarding of New England aristocracy; and the enfranchisement of the Negro slave.”[56] By gaining their own freedom, then, African Americans became participants in the expansion of freedom that has marked American history more generally. It is an “inescapable fact,” explains Du Bois, “that as long as there was a slave in America, America could not be a free republic.”[57] The self-emancipation of African Americans, then, is a victory for all Americans.

        Du Bois also extends this discussion to encompass the overturning of social hierarchies more generally, attributing to the emancipation of the African American slaves of the South and the subsequent period of Reconstruction in that region the advent of “democratic government . . . free public schools . . . [and] new social legislation” which ended the Southern slaveholding oligarchy and thereby made the South more democratic, granting access to education and representation to whites of the non-slaveholding classes as well.[58] Du Bois would significantly expand upon these thesis in 1934 with his publication of Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. There, taking a more clearly Marxist turn in his historiography, Du Bois countered the claims of the scientific and historical racists that African American leadership failed during Reconstruction and that the good that came out of the period was to be attributed to whites with, as was typical of his style, another thoroughly researched and well-documented historical discussion.[59]

        The last half of the book Du Bois dedicates to the gifts of song and spirit, the contributions by African Americans to American culture which he had highlighted as the most significant in The Souls of Black Folk. Writing as he did in 1924 during the Harlem Renaissance Du Bois is now able to expand upon his previous discussions of these contributions by pointing to the rising importance of African American music as well as the numerous contemporary African American poets. As Du Bois writes, these musicians and poets “form a fairly continuous tradition and a most valuable group expression” that rose out of the spirituals and became the definitively American musical and poetic forms.[60] Just as American culture was shaped by the musical and poetic traditions of African Americans, writes Du Bois, American religion—that great center of all culture—bears the “imprint of Africa on Europe in America.”[61] In the final chapter, Du Bois discusses the numerous contributions of Africans and African Americans to American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, including leadership, hymns, and styles of worship. As Du Bois had shown, then, African Americans had contributed to the United States in body, mind, and soul.

[54] Ibid., 262–263.

[55] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Gift of Black Folk [1924] (Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2009), 17.

[56] Ibid., 81.

[57] Ibid., 59.

[58] Ibid., 106.

[59] W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (London: Cass, 1966).

[60] Ibid., 144.

[61] Ibid., 151.

Historical Vindication: Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro (Du Bois and Scientific Racism, 3 of 6)

Du Bois’s first foray into what would become a lifetime of writing toward this goal of race vindication came in 1892 with the writing of his meticulously documented doctoral dissertation The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. In this dissertation, Du Bois did not engage in the philosophizing and mythmaking sort of historical research which had long been popular and remained so up to his time. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s five-volume work The History of England from the Accession of James II had been read by Du Bois “with relish as a child and then at Fisk,” but Du Bois found the tendencies of Macaulay and other earlier and contemporary historians to engage in metaphysics, moralizing, and mythologizing insufficient to his task.[22] Du Bois knew the strength and popularity of the ideas that he was working to repudiate and saw that need for a purely and overwhelmingly scientific argument against them—the sort of argument that could not be refuted or rejected as mere speculation or opinion.

        Such was the power and popularity of the “pseudo-science” in history, biology, and other fields of thought which insisted that blacks were inherently unequal to whites that even former ardent supporters of the uplift of African Americans were beginning to be won over by the arguments of the advocates of racial hierarchy. As Shamoon Zamir writes,

Even [Professor Albert Bushnell] Hart [of Harvard University], Du Bois’s dissertation supervisor, proud of his abolitionist heritage and exceptionally active in his support of black advance, conceded in reviewing literature purporting to demonstrate black inferiority that “if provably, it is an argument that not only justifies slavery, but now justifies any degree of political and social dependence.” Hart finally agreed that the argument was indeed provable and that blacks were inferior to even “poor white people, immigrants or natives.”[23]

That even someone like Hart could be won over by the arguments being advanced by the scientific racists at the end of the nineteenth century is demonstrative of the formidable task that Du Bois faced as he set out.

        In Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, Du Bois chose to remain firmly in the realm of the empirical. Relying heavily upon citation of primary source material for every claim put forward, Du Bois thoroughly documented the failure of those who opposed the slave trade and of the United States as a whole to put an end to the slave trade, often in spite of its own self-understandings and promises. In four appendices spanning more than a hundred pages in the original, Du Bois provided lists of dozens of sources for his conclusions drawn from laws passed at the local, state, national, and international levels.[24] In so doing, Du Bois smashed the myths of American exceptionalism and American moral superiority, exposing the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values of freedom and equality. By all accounts, Du Bois’s dissertation was an outstanding success. It became the first published volume in the Harvard Historical Series of books.[25] As Lewis points out, “critical reception of The Suppression of the African Slave Trade had made him one of the most talked-about young scholars in the country.”[26]

        Du Bois’s first academic appointment after graduation from Harvard was as Chair of the Department of Classics at Wilberforce University. There, in nearly a direct refutation of Calhoun’s infamous pronouncement on the inability of people of African descent to understand Greek syntax, Du Bois taught not only Greek but Latin, English, and German, in addition to history.[27] He requested to teach a course in sociology as well, but was turned down by the administration. Du Bois’s tenure at as a member of the Wilberforce University faculty, however, was short-lived.

        After only two years at Wilberforce, Du Bois took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania that afforded him the opportunity to continue his scientific investigations into the lives of African Americans and their communities. This time, the product of Du Bois’s work would be his 1899 book The Philadelphia Negro, “the first sociological study of an African American community ever published in the United States.”[28] Du Bois’s groundbreaking work set out to study the social conditions of African Americans living in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. Du Bois’s sponsors at the University of Pennsylvania initially commissioned the work in the hopes that the observations of Du Bois, undoubtedly the world’s leading black scholar already at this point in his life, would confirm what white sociologists had long claimed: that the poverty, crime, and squalid conditions of emerging African American urban communities were to be attributed to innate black inferiority. Du Bois writes in his autobiographical Dusk of Dawn, “The fact was that the city of Philadelphia at that time had a theory; and that theory was that this great, rich, and famous municipality was going to the dogs because of the crime and venality of its Negro citizens, who lived largely in the slums at the lower end of the seventh ward.”[29] Du Bois’s work, however, not only refuted but entirely upended such claims.

        “Though black and committed to social justice,” writes Keith E. Byerman, Du Bois resolved to “function as a disinterested scientist in examining black life,” certain that the facts as accurately documented and reported would bear out his belief that the poor conditions of black life in Philadelphia were not the consequence of black inferiority.[30] Just as he had in his research and writing for his doctoral dissertation, Du Bois was once again as meticulous as possible in both the research for and the presentation of The Philadelphia Negro. As Zamir writes, “Du Bois succeeded in deploying empirical practice against the alliance of pseudo-science, liberal optimism, and racism not only because his marginalized position fostered critical understanding, but also because he enlarged his scientific training to include more historical assessment of the evidence in his work.”[31] Only after carefully tracing the history of the African American community of Philadelphia and explaining the various trials it had faced from the forces of racism, economic and social exclusion, the competition for jobs with newly-arrived immigrants from Europe, and the setbacks caused by the migration of African American former slaves from the South. Following this historical survey, Du Bois launched into a lengthy presentation of the sociological data he gathered by personally visiting every African American household in the seventh ward as well as others elsewhere in the city. For almost a year and a half, Du Bois himself travelled from house to house in the seventh ward with a set of questions inquiring into family life, income, employment, religious affiliation, and other facts about the household and its members.[32] For his presentation of the data he collected in The Philadelphia Negro, writes Byerman, “Du Bois fills his chapters with tables and graphs to demonstrate that his study is in fact wonderfully objective.”[33] The result is an exceedingly well-researched and well-documented study that undermines the insistence of “the city authorities” who claimed “that the city’s problems stemmed from its black population,” writes Zamir.[34] Instead, “Du Bois not only exposed the myth of black criminality, but also laid a large part of the blame for the condition of the Seventh Ward at the doorstep of white prejudice and its enforcement in both overt and hidden ways.”[35] Applying the scientific methodologies he had learned at Harvard alongside his own inclination to specificity and meticulousness, Du Bois presented for the first time a definitive and indubitable argument that historical and social factors—including especially the effects of white racism on housing and employment opportunities for African Americans—were largely to blame for African American poverty rather than black inferiority, as white social scientists and others had insisted.

        In both The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade and The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois had used the tools of historical study and scientific research as a means by which to vindicate his race before a white audience and its prejudices. With The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, he had meticulously documented the failure of the United States to live up to its own proclaimed values, calling into question the popular notion of American exceptionalism and demonstrating the moral shortcomings of the nation. In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois once again called into question the assumptions of white Americans by turning a study of African Americans into a mirror through which white Americans could see their own shortcomings and the ways in which those shortcomings created the conditions that prevented African Americans from social and economic advancement. In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, still his most popular and influential work and widely considered a classic of American letters, Du Bois would set out to do still more than this in his refutation of racism.

[22] Shamoon Zamir, Dark Voices: W. E. B. Du Bois and American Thought, 1888–1903 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 82.

[23] Ibid., 85.

[24] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, in Writings, 199–345.

[25] Yvonne Williams, “Harvard,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia, eds. Gerald Home and Mary Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 99.

[26] Lewis, 141.

[27] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois, Selections: 1877–1934, ed. Herbert Aptheker (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973), 38.

[28]  Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, eds., Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings (Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press, 2010), 338.

[29] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, in Writings, 596.

[30] Keith E. Byerman, Seizing the Word: History, Art, and the Self in the Work of W. E. B. Du Bois (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 51.

[31] Zamir, 89.

[32] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study [1899] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 1–2.

[33] Byerman, 52.

[34] Zamir, 89.

[35] Ibid.

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.

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.