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Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Terror of History


In the final chapter of The Myth of the Eternal Return Eliade contrasts what he terms "traditional man" (the man of archaic culture) with "historical man (modern man)." Eliade maintains that traditional man had a negative attitude toward history and sought to "abolish" history through various means, primarily through the philosophy or ontology of archetypes by which historical events were assimilated to constantly repeated or unchanging patterns. Thus, for traditional man, historical events have no value in themselves--their value is dependent upon the possibility of assimilating historical events to divine or heavenly archetypes. Historical man, on the other hand, says Eliade, "consciously and voluntarily creates history," giving historical events value in themselves. This "modern" view Eliade terms "historicism." But how much of a difference is involved in this distinction?

As a preliminary, let us observe that in point of fact historical man and traditional man both seek to endow history with meaning and value. It may well be, however, that traditional man is more clear sighted in this regard, for implicit in his view is the conviction that finite existence can have no meaning or value absent an explanation for its existence. Thus, for traditional man the explanation for existence is found in a cause: God. Historical, or historicist, man seeks to posit a meaning absent such a cause--his demand or declaration is that finite existence should have a meaning and value in and of itself, a meaning and value that is assigned by man as the primary actor in history. It can be said, then, that "historical man" simply wills the value or meaning of historical events--it is a declaration of meaning rather than a discovery of meaning.

Eliade terms traditional man's outlook a "defense" against the terror generated by meaningless history, but in our view the kernel of truth in traditional man's outlook is precisely the acceptance of finite existence as dependent on a reality that transcends finite bounds. Such an acceptance is not defensive in and of itself. Rather, it is a reasonable recognition of the essential structure of reality, of finite existence. Historicist man's rejection of such dependence, then, must be seen as a type of hubris which denies and refuses to accept the essential structure of reality and asserts the primacy of man's will over reason. This is not to deny that there is a measure of defensiveness in traditional man's thought, nor that traditional ontology may be derailed and led to seek, by essentially "magical" means, to control or influence history, but we do insist on this fundamental distinction. That both seek meaning is undeniable; the core difference lies in the different motivation: humility versus hubris.

Viewed from this standpoint, it becomes clear that, despite superficial differences, there is a fundamental underlying similarity between the view of history as based on archetypes (or embodying a cyclical repetition) and the modern view of history as linear progression, (whether dialectical or not). The common element is that both claim that history has an essence, that history is a knowable substance or whole whose meaning can be known. (Cf. Eric Voegelin's The New Science of Politics for a discussion of this point.)

Now Eliade is well aware of the "Difficulties of Historicism." In this second section he asks: "How could Hegel know what was necessary in history...? Hegel believed that he knew what the Universal Spirit wanted." Clearly, Hegel's belief in his privileged personal insight is no more based in reason than any theory of reincarnation or of cyclical repetition. Indeed, Eric Voegelin accurately pinpoints the hubristic essence of the Hegelian stance--as well as its essential similarity to traditional man's thought--in his article Hegel: A Study in Sorcery. Eliade himself (writing before Voegelin's article) also clearly recognizes the Hegelian hubris; interestingly, he observes: "it is possible to discern a parallel between Hegel's philosophy and the theology of history of the Hebrew prophets: for the latter, as for Hegel, an event is irreversible and valid in itself inasmuch as it is a new manifestation of the will of God ..." Yet Eliade fails to see the contradiction inherent in this statement: for if historical events have validity and meaning only inasmuch as they are new manifestations of the will of God, that means precisely that absent God they have no meaning or validity. In this light, what Eliade has actually done is to point out the ideological core of Deuteronomic (as well as of Hegelian historicist) thought. The Deuteronomic claim to be able to discern God's intentions in historical events is not so very different from Hegel's claim to know the mind of God or, if we are to accept the assessment of Eliade and Voegelin, the claim of Hegel to think the thoughts of God--to be himself the Logos. In neither case is the claim to privileged insight validated in any verifiable way.

The hubris of ideology becomes clear in Eliade's consideration of Marx. For Marx, says Eliade, "events are not a series of arbitrary accidents; they exhibit a coherent structure and, above all, they lead to a definite end--final elimination of the terror of history, 'salvation.'" Which is to say, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet we must note: 1) the coherent structure that Marx claims to see is only a connectedness among events that are known to him--the essence of history that Marx claims to see is based necessarily on incomplete data, since history continues indefinitely into the unknowable future; how, then, can he claim to know the essence of a history that has not yet even occurred? 2) Eliade himself notes that Marx's views are drawn from archaic eschatology, not rational philosophic analysis in the sense that Marx wishes us to accept them--his thought is a product of the will to master reality, not of a love for the divine source of being and wisdom that can be approached only through reason submitting itself to reality; 3) Marx, as Eric Voegelin notes (Science, Politics and Gnosticism), constructs his purely world immanent meaning of history by arbitrarily suppressing questions about the origin of this finite world. Marx's "theory," as Eliade remarks, is a sheer act of will: it represents "historical man's resistance to nature, the will of 'historical man' to affirm his autonomy."

Thus, against historicist man, there are serious objections that traditional man could bring. 1) Historicism has proven to be only destructive--it has shown itself to be incapable of presenting a rational theory that has any firmer basis than sheer will or demonic conviction. 2) Far from being merely unsuccessful in a theoretical sense, historicist ideologies have led to actual human tragedy on a vast scale. 3) As we have seen, for all their vaunted novelty, historicist ideologies amount to little more than a recycling of myth. 4) Historicism rejects Christianity's humility. Belief in historicist ideologies becomes in the last analysis a blind leap of faith based on sheer human will, in stark contrast to Christian faith, which is humble acquiescence to reasonable belief based on insight into intelligible reality.

And so, Eliade concludes, historicism leads to despair. Historicism, for all its surface rationalism, rests on will and requires man to forsake the intellect that is the core of his distinctive nature as human. Having forsaken his own nature, despair is inevitable. Only humble acceptance of God can deliver human nature from such despair. But also note: even for traditional man history is an ultimately insoluble mystery, since his myths are (in Platonic terms) at best only “likely” explanations which, while respecting the structure of reality, can offer no verifiable account of man's destiny. The only solution for history is that offered by Christian faith. Only by God's factual intervention in history in Jesus can man be assured, by faith (reasonable belief), of a meaning that transcends the uncertain speculation of traditional man. Yet as both Eliade and Voegelin recognize, faith is not easy in day to day life. For many it is preferable to seek emotional certainty in the comforting rhythms of archaic man's life or power through the demonic, hubristic certitude of ideology.

It is important to bear in mind that Eliade's (and our) distinction between traditional and historicist man is more sharply drawn than is often warranted. As we have seen, ideology draws on archaic thought while transforming it through his will to power. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that what passes for archaic/traditional thought in fact easily takes on the attributes of ideology--an area we will need to explore further.

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