Book Review: Historical Consciousness by John Lukacs

The primary mode of thought for most of mankind throughout man’s history has been symbolic and mythological. This was the predominant way of thinking in nearly all ancient societies and has remained well into the Modern era the primary mode of thinking in the Eastern world. The West, however, has uniquely developed modes of thought which depart from this earlier model. The dominant mode of thought in the West since the 18th century has been the empirical model. So much force did this model exert that it has extended itself well beyond the realm of science, the realm in which it has shown itself to be useful, to nearly every field of human knowledge. In the realm of philosophy, for example, empiricism took on the form of positivism. Most of these non-scientific mutations of empiricism, however, have been far from useful but rather destructive. John Lukacs posits that there is another mode of thinking which must supplant empiricism from its dominant position. According to Lukacs, historical thinking, another uniquely Western development, presents a promising mode of thought for the future.

In his Historical Consciousness, Lukacs maintains the thesis “that the history of everything amounts to the thing itself.” By this, Lukacs means that to study the history of any field of human knowledge is identical with and, indeed, the key to understanding that subject. Lukacs envisions a day in which “chemistry, biology, perhaps even medicine could be taught and learned ‘historically.’” To learn biology, then, the student would not, as he does now, immediately plunge into a series of studies and tasks which presuppose the truth of empiricism. Rather, the student would begin with a study of the earliest biologists, tracing out the history of thought in biology. The student would examine the subsequent developments in the field, the theories that were proved wrong and why they are wrong, the theories confirmed by later biologists and the additional evidence that has been provided for these theories by subsequent generations of biologists.

The strength of this historical mode of thinking is that it avoids the inevitable pitfalls of the mythological and empirical modes of thought. The obvious danger of mythological and symbolic modes of thought is that they, in the end, they are “not so much expressions of ideas as a kind of imagery which may be on occasion beautiful but which is quite divorced from reality.” The uniquely “Greek and European tradition of realism,” on the other hand, protects against error through its consistent concern for the truth of the matter. While the empirical mode of thought features this realism as a central tenet, it turns too sharply in the opposite direction and results in “the increasing impersonalization of reality through … The Laws of Nature.” Historical thinking, however, includes the realistic component while restoring “the human being” to his proper position at “the center … of our universe.” As such, it is possible, as Lukacs points out, to see the historical mode of thinking as the crux of a “new humanism.”

There are, however, two dangers in the contemporary study of history which, if not checked, will sabotage the development of such a historical consciousness. On the one hand are the “specialists [who] … tend to know more and more about less and less” and, on the other, “the existence of great masses of people who tend to know less and less about more and more.” Any even cursory glance at the sort of dissertations that are being produced by students in the history departments of American universities provides ample evidence for Lukacs’s arguments concerning the dangers of specialization. The first result returned by a search of the American Historical Association’s database of dissertations completed in 2014 is titled “Controlling the Deviant Body: A History of Exclusionary Practices and Institutional Penal Confinement in Colonial Southern Nigeria.” Indeed, historical specialization has resulted in an obsession with minutiae, knowledge that is a mile deep but an inch wide.

The trend in historical knowledge among the non-specialist public, however, is the inverse of the trend found among historians. Instead, popular knowledge of history is a mile wide but an inch deep. “The rapid extension of literacy,” says Lukacs, “brought all kinds of historical literature to millions of previously unaffected readers.” This historical literature and education, “despite their often superficial nature, … had, in the long run, a definite impact on the minds of millions” of people. Indeed, it is as a result of this exposure to historical literature and the wide interest in that literature that it was possible for historical thought to be made available to those who are not and do not desire to be professional historians. While the shallowness of popular knowledge of history must be corrected lest it regress once more into the ancient mythological mode of thought, this popular knowledge has spurred popular interest and acted as an impetus toward the development of a historical consciousness.

As a remedy to both of the ailments plaguing the modern study of history, Lukacs proposes a focus in “study of the history of Europeans and Americans of the last three hundred years.” He reasons that it is this history which is the most interesting to the general public as it bears the most obvious effect on contemporary events due to its chronological and geographical proximity. Simultaneously, given that proximity, this history presents itself as the most important area of study for the specialist.

Through a focus upon this recent history of those of our own civilization, history is reoriented as a field of human knowledge which allows us to better understand ourselves. It is no longer a shallow list of facts or a deep pit of unnecessity and abstraction. The development of a historical consciousness which can proceed from this reorientation in turn opens up other fields of man’s knowledge about man, enabling a renewed humanism which seeks the truth about human life not in the impersonal universe of empiricism or the cyclical cosmos of mythology but in the authentic search for the truth of the human experience.

Book Review: Age of Atheists by Peter Watson

Peter Watson here provides a tour of modern intellectual history as it has grappled with questions of meaning since Nietzsche’s famous proclamation of the death of God. In this tour, Watson guides us through the greatest and most influential thought of the past 130 years, such as the insights of William James and Sigmund Freud, as well as through the muck, mire, and depravity, as in Stalin’s Russia and the racial mythology of the Nazis. The guiding force throughout is the drive to discover how man can make sense of the world and of himself in the absence of a belief in a transcendent and eternal deity.

The sheer multiplicity of answers to that question is nearly overwhelming. Watson turns to a new thinker with a new idea in each chapter, and sometimes even several times within a chapter. Each of them proposes some radical alternative to the antiquated mythologies of early ages and each of them departs from his own forbears and contemporaries in his own way. What the modern age, in all of these, may demonstrate more than any other that came before it is the great range and diversity of the human experience. Whereas earlier generations often emphasized the commonality of the human condition, the modern age has demonstrated that the experience of this condition is personal and therefore multivalent.

One question that continued to draw my attention throughout the book, as I examined and evaluated each of these attempts to live in a world where God was no longer a dominant force in human consciousness and society, is the question of the relationship between the humanities and the sciences. One might even phrase this as a question of the relationship between knowledge and humanity itself. The human experience as documented in the humanities is quite different from that reported in the sciences. There seems here to be a disconnect between the objective facts of reality, if such a thing can be attained at all (and even its very existence is a matter only taken on faith), and the subjectivity of lived experience. As scientific knowledge has increased, this gap has only widened.

The common reaction to this growing gap among the modern scientific materialists, which is the currently prevalent mode of living without God, is to reject the dichotomy altogether. Dawkins, for example, as Watson points out, holds that a thing of nature can be appreciated both scientifically and poetically, each in their own way. This is, however, an unsatisfactory answer, to me. It seems to require that we cultivate a split personality, that we live in two worlds simultaneously.

In addition, I find it problematic that each advocate of a new truth about how to best live without God (for that matter, those who advocate a return to living with God generally fall into the same category) insist that their route is the path to happiness. There is no good reason why truth and happiness should be coterminous, however. And here lies the crux of the problem: the humanities have long said — since Aristotle, and longer — and man seeks after happiness. And they have presented a path that does indeed seem to make man authentically happy, in some sense of that word. Yet, the scientist must seek after truth, no matter how unsettling or terrible that truth may be. And the truth, as science states it today, is indeed unsettling and terrible. A vast empty cosmos, a meaningless existence, a randomly assigned consciousness, an ethics evolved for the purpose of survival, and a final end in a great apocalyptic heat death, all without any redemption or resurrection: this is the world that science presents to us. How can a human being, as human beings exist, be “happy” with this? We can, perhaps, be resigned, but not happy. Yet the same who insist on meaningless, valuelessness, and the slow permanent death of the cosmos also insist that this is a model in which humans can still find fulfillment, that they can, in fact, derive fulfillment from this very model. It seems more honest to admit that truth and happiness have parted ways and we must face the consequences of our own compulsions toward these two mutually exclusive goals.

This book is not an easy read. Those who like simple answers to complex questions will not enjoy this book. It will be painful and frustrating for them to read. Those who are willing to live in a world that is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend, however, and who are willing to sit in awe before the tremendous thing that is human existence, will find this book one of the most enthralling, insightful books of this year.

Western Civilization (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.5)

Now that you have become acquainted with the way a historian thinks and does his job, it is time to get down to the work of learning history. Before we begin, however, I would like to take a moment to discuss the specific part of the world whose history we will be studying this year. Although China, India, Japan, and many other nations of the world all have rich and fascinating histories, we will not be learning much about them this year. Instead, our focus will be on one specific civilization, which we call Western Civilization. Western Civilization is our civilization. As interesting as other civilizations might be, there are some good reasons why we want to focus on Western Civilization only this year.

First of all, because Western Civilization is our civilization it is very important that we learn about it. Before we can learn about and appreciate other civilizations, we have to know about our own. One very famous saying in ancient Greece, a place you will learn about this year, was “know yourself.” What this means is that the first and most important thing a person can do is get to know who they are. We can get to know who we are by learning about our civilization. We can learn about all of the things that make up our heritage and that still influence us today. We will learn, for instance, why we speak the language we speak and why we have the science and technology we have. This will help us to understand ourselves and the world around us.

Secondly, Western Civilization has, over the last several hundred years, become the most important civilization in the world. The ideas that started in Western Civilization, ideas that you will learn about this year, have spread all over the world and are being used by people everywhere today. In a sense, Western Civilization has become the whole world’s civilization. The idea of democracy, for example, started in ancient Greece and is now being used by people on every continent to decide what kind of government they want to have. Another example is communism, an idea that started in Germany a little more than 150 years ago. Communism is now the economic system of China, a very large and very ancient country in Asia. Capitalism, another Western idea, which started in Great Britain, has had an equally large effect on Japan, another ancient Asian nation. Everywhere around the world today, people are adopting Western science, religion, technology, philosophy, and politics and making them their own. In order to understand why these ideas are so popular and so influential, we have to start here at home, where they started, in Western Civilization.

Western Civilization has had a very long history with a lot of interesting events, people, and ideas. Our civilization started more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, an area in the middle of what is now the country of Iraq. There, the ideas started that would later be developed by the Greeks and the Jews. These two groups of people were very different from one another but their ideas would combine into one in the Roman Empire, especially after that Empire converted to Christianity in the 4th century. Throughout the Middle Ages, which lasted from about 400-1400, Christian thinkers, including philosophers, scientists, theologians, poets, and others attempted to sort out the heritage they had received from Greece, Rome, and Judaism. They wanted to combine it into one in Christianity. The eventual result of this combination would be the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Baroque, three time periods that happened one after the other from about 1350-1650. During these periods, there was a huge burst in creativity and in thought. Many of the greatest artists, musicians, authors, scientists, and philosophers in the history of the world lived during this time. This time was then followed by a period of major turmoil and tumult, beginning with the Scientific Revolution, which began in about 1650, and the Enlightenment, a period that lasted about 1700-1800. During this time, many of the ideas that people considered very important were questioned. The way people thought and lived changed completely. This change continued throughout the 1800s, with massive transitions in society as people moved away from the country to live in cities and away from farming to work in factories. This leads us to our own time, during which we are still seeing the effects of both the most ancient ideas of Western Civilization, such as the ideas of the city-state and of monotheism, and are still experiencing the changes that have been taking place since the Enlightenment.

You may remember what you read earlier about history being the memory of a large group of people. In order to know where you going, you have to know how you got where you are. It is only then that you can decide where you want to go. As the young people who will eventually be in charge in our nation, it is up to you to learn about our heritage and to guide the future of Western Civilization.


Review Questions

 Use your own words to answer both questions in a paragraph:

1. What is Western Civilization?

2. Why is it important for us to learn about Western Civilization?

Book Review: An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Roland N. Stromberg

Intellectual History of Modern Europe

Stromberg’s treatment of modern European intellectual history is one of the best books I have yet read on the subject. He is thorough while not overwhelming in his treatment of each of the philosophical movements he discusses. He writes in a manner that keeps the interesting, provides relevant detail, directs to additional reading for those especially interested, and yet remains approachable to the non-expert. His assessments are also quite fair, even when it is clear he disagrees with the particular philosophical school being discussed.

I especially appreciate the wide range of his knowledge. Because he is so widely and deeply read in the ideas of Europeans in the last several centuries, he is able to draw together movements, individuals, and ways of thinking among which it might otherwise be difficult to discern an association. This ability to see and explain the relationships in modern intellectual history is a great help in discovering the origins and developments of the various modes of thinking and the particular ideas which they produced.

Stromberg’s assessment of the current state of affairs in thought provides some fascinating insight and some rather heartening prognoses. While it is clear that Western Civilization has entered a period of decline, Stromberg points out the other periods in its history at which it seemed Western Civilization was in serious trouble and points ahead to the hopeful possibilities for the future.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy, in modern history, in the state of the world and how it got where it is now, and, of course, anyone interested in modern European (or American) intellectual history. I can think of no worthier introduction to the subject.

Review: The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard

Tillyard presents the Elizabethan period in England as a continuation of and perhaps even the zenith of Medieval European culture. In particular, Tillyard pays a great deal of attention to the continuation of the Medieval ideal of an orderly cosmos. This idea, says Tillyard, is the idea which underlies and informs the bulk of Elizabethan culture. To the Elizabethan mind, the universe is one Great Chain of Being which reaches from the greatest life forms to the lowest, binding them together into an inseparable unity. Man is that created thing which stands at the touching point between the spiritual and the material in this chain, as he brings both of these together in himself. Through his sin, man has done damage to himself and to the world, but, through aligning himself with God’s will for the created order, man can work to undo the damage he has done.

This book provides great insight into a world not far from our own and yet, in a sense, very distant. Through gaining insight into this time, arguably the zenith of Western Civilization, we gain insight not only into history, but into the world, into truth, and into ourselves.


Review: The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization
The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Herman traces the history of the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and the rivalry between the two camps of thought, throughout the entire history of Western Civilization, beginning with the men themselves and following through to the Post-9/11 world. This is the spectacular story of perhaps the two finest expressions of the two respective contingents of our dichotomous human nature as they continually merged and competed in a syncopated dialectic throughout the history of Western Civilization. As great of a task as this is, Herman takes it on with apparent ease, ever the source of calm in even the most difficult phases, providing wisdom and insight throughout.

Herman shows to us the glories of ancient Greece and Rome, and the tension between the Platonic and Aristotelian which permeated them, and the swing of the pendulum from Plato in the early Middle Ages to Aristotle in the late Middle Ages, to Plato again in the Renaissance and to Aristotle once more in the Enlightenment, and back again to Plato with the Romantics and Aristotle in Utilitarianism, Positivism, and Pragmatism, Plato with the Marxists and rise of 20th century totalitarianism. Along the way, Herman acts as the tour guide, connecting each of the dots, showing the influence of one thinker upon another, the Platonic or Aristotelian undertones of this and that thinker. In short, this book is a spectacular intellectual history of the Western world.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy, history, or understanding the world around them and the forces that have shaped it.

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