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.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Misfortune and History

In Chapter 3 of The Myth of the Eternal Return Mircea Eliade takes up the question of suffering, and the ways in which "archaic" cultures seek to "normalize" the suffering in historical existence. Of course suffering is inevitable and man is to a great extent powerless in its face, but suffering can be made bearable by a process of normalization. Briefly, we have seen that in archaic man's ontology what is truly real are the the divine or heavenly archetypes--it is these archetypes that confer reality upon the individual. It is natural, then, that archaic man should seek to find meaning in suffering by assimilating suffering to the divine order of the cosmos. Eliade notes that while pre-Christian humanity did not ordinarily grant value to suffering as an “instrument of purification,” suffering was “regarded as the consequence of a deviation from the 'norm.'” “[S]uffering is perturbing only insofar as its cause remains undiscovered.” Thus, if suffering can be assigned to a fault (a deviation from the 'norm'), “suffering becomes intelligible and hence tolerable.” In other woreds, it is "normalized." Notable in this is the implicit idea of a natural law--an intelligible norm that man can discover and violation of which is a violation of man's meaning in existence.