Is History Now Our Judge?Roundup
tags: historiography, philosophy, Enlightenment
L.D. Burnett is an American intellectual and cultural historian.
Americans appalled by the cascading catastrophes springing from the criminally negligent if not consciously malevolent actions of the Trump administration — regarding COVID-19, or barbarous immigration policies, or foreign interference in American elections, just to name a few — appeal in our exasperation to “the judgment of history.”
This rhetoric is so familiar, and so somberly uttered, that it sounds as grave and as eternal as we hope it to be when we say it. We may hardly stop to think about what it means when we invoke “history” as the final arbiter of justice, or when we remind the morally depraved politicos of our time, whose grip on power makes them fearless, that “history” will not overlook their crimes.
Why do we say this? Whence comes this idea that history — by which we mean some final, future perspective taking in the entire sweep of all that has gone before, from the dawn of time to the day before yesterday — will render the Last Judgment?
Over several centuries, the idea of History not simply as an intellectual discipline but as a hypostasized vision of judgment — Clio on the Great White Throne — has come to stand in for earlier cultural conceptions of the apocalyptic judgment of God. In his delightful, brief book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, Carl Becker put it well:
Theology, or something that goes under that name, is still kept alive by the faithful, but only by artificial respiration. Its functions, the services it rendered in the time of St. Thomas, have been taken over, not as is often supposed by philosophy, but by history — the study of man and his world in the time sequence.
This study — a rational inquiry built upon empirical observation of texts and sources dating from the time period in question — developed as one of the tools by which the Enlightenment philosophers took the measure of, and told the truth about, Man. And what was Divine Judgment but a verdict of truth?
The notion of “the judgment of history” is a grandchild of the Enlightenment, descended from this fundamental shift in how some thinkers re-envisioned the relationship between God and the world. This new conception was of a clockmaker God standing at a distance from the daily workings of the observable world — naturally, it made anticipations of the final verdict on the Last Day less appealing than examinations of the First Principles of the observable world, a world that included the interior life of man.
But there is no straight line leading from the Enlightenment vision of history as the dispassionate study of the past and the final verdict of the future to our current habit of appealing to “the judgment of history.” To get to this place, where “History” is the moral arbiter to which we must appeal, we must travel through the Romantic era, when the German historians Hegel and Herder, functioning in the role of secular theologians, imbued history with “spirit” and nations with “souls.”
The very idea of “the soul of America,” the national spirit, the indelible traits of a nation, derives from the historical philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder. That notion in turn rests upon G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy that turned the Enlightenment on its head, doing away with the transcendent and distant Clockmaker God — indeed, doing away with any personal God entirely — and re-inventing the rationality of history as the outworking of an immanent, irrepressible Spirit of freedom. Hegel detached geist from God and swapped in freedom for salvation; Herder infused geist into the nascent notion of the nation-state and gave countries a collective soul.
These two intellectual currents, Enlightenment empiricism and Romantic spiritualism, clashed and joined in mid-19th-century American thought, and out of this long grappling emerged a new sense of history: objective and “scientific,” dedicated to the search for truth, focused intently on the past, but working in the service of the nation’s need for redemption or revival.