Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past

ISBN: 156000732X
ISBN 13: 9781560007326
By: John Lukacs

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One of the most important developments of Western civilization has been the growth of historical consciousness. Consciously or not, history has become a form of thought applied to every facet of human experience; every field of human action can be studied, described, or understood through its history. In this extraordinary analysis of the meaning of the remembered past, John Lukacs discusses the evolution of historical consciousness since its first emergence about three centuries ago.

Reader's Thoughts

Jeff Polaski

Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, by John A. Lukacs Professor Lukacs writes using his historical philosophy, rather than the usual and overworked philosophy of history. This is one of his seminal works.He puts history into the human mind and discusses history as it is influenced by the human mind. I sometimes read a writer's work and start, obsessively, to seek out additional works by that writer. Professor Lukacs is one such writer.As an opinionated man, you will either love or hate his work. You won't be bored by it.

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History Consciousness: or the remembered pastJohn LukacsHarper & Row: New York, 1968Huizinga, in his article, came up with a definition: "History is the spiritual form in which a culture is taking account of its past." (8)The "inquiry" or "research" meaning of historia reflects, as Canon Alan Richardson put it, the existence of "the kind of intellectual exercise which the Greeks practised and the Hebrews did not"--or, in other words, it reflects a striving for truth even more than for justice. (11)The distinctions ancient and modern, the innovations retrograde/i> and progressive, appear around 1600; Francis Bacon seems to have lent the modern meaning to progress in time (as distinct from its earlier meaning in space, "a royal progress"). (13)Eighteenth century: History as literature; the narrated past.Nineteenth century: History as science; the recorded past.Twentieth century: a dual development: on the surface, history as a social science; the ascertained past. But, in a deeper and wider sense: history as a form of thought; the remembered past. (22)Let me repeat that all human existence is historical existence, that historical thinking is potentially inherent in all human nature, and that some kind of a historical sense may be found among all human societies, including the most primitive ones: but the development of these capacities depends on their recognition: the actual consciousness of these qualities differ. (23)Even now a person in the West may disregard most of Oriental history with little consequent loss to his proper understanding of the processes of history, while the converse is not so: no intelligent Oriental can afford to remain ignorant of Western, and specifically of European, history. And this is true not because the West has ruled the East longer than the East ruled the West; it is true because historical thinking has been a Western, though relatively recent, achievement; and because the history of the West has been exceptionally "paradigmatic"--that is, full of potentially instructive examples. History in the West has been less repetitious than elsewhere; exceptions have broken through the surface of routine more often. The historical pattern of other civilizations is more repetitive and more uniform, corresponding to some extent with the frequent element of religious fatalism which, in turn, is involved with the insufficient maturity of their historical thinking. It is thus that, by and large, similar conditions have repeatedly tended toward similar results in the "mythic and mysterious" East rather than in the "systematic and rational" West. (Still, uniformity and repetitievness do not necessarily mean predictability. In the East history may haev "repeated" itself more often than in the West: but this does not mean that what was happening in the East was more predictable, except perhaps in a negative sense: for in history, unlike in science, it is more reasonable to predict what is not going to happen than what is going to happen.) (24)Even the writings of Tolstoy and of Dostoevsky reveal at times, in a flash the very divergent tendencies of Western and Eastern Christian traditions. "History," said Tolstoy to Gusev, "would be an excellent thing if it only were true." "If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, Dostoevsky wrote in one of his letters, "and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth." This is exactly what a Western Christian cannot do: he cannot separate Christ from the truth; and in this very Dostoevskian statement there gleams a fideistic, a near-Buddhist tendency which, notwithstanding its Christian fervor, departs from the entire Western tradition--it is a renunciation of our aspirations, and of our concept of historical truth. (27)Many (though surely not all) of those American professors buzzing about nowadays in India or Japan on Ford or Fulbright grants do nto erally have much of a deep human interest in the East: they have, rather, chosen the Orient as a Field because of their inadequate interest in the historical traditions of the West. Yet our greatest historical thinkers were not universalists: they were convinced fo the uniqueness of the Western heritage, including that of Christianity. . . . Tolerance and generosity, like indifference and high-mindedness, are quite different things: it is easier to profess abstract virtues than to practice real ones; it is easier to be humanitarian than human; it is easier to propagate a superficial appreciation of faraway peoples than to be racked with pain and concern in attempting to understand one's own. (30)Death and the past are not the same. Death is irrevocable; the past is not. And, if death and the past are not the same, life and the present are not the same either. The present is an abstract illusion, the elusive and slightly sickening sensation of past and future meeting in our minds; but life, unlike the present, is not an illusion at all: it is a reality. Thus, in a sense, it is life and the past that belong together; and, in another sense, it is death and the present: for death is not the freezing of the past, it is the freezing of the present. (35)The principal intellectual element in this uneasiness has been the new recognition that even the materialist certitudes were crumbling. It is only natural that people should be confused when their accepted institutions and truths, their categories of thought and concepts of life, show cracks in their foundations. ("Sea-sickness," Samuel Butler wrote, "is the moral pain at seeing our converts escape us.") There is an immense fragmentation fo knowledge; the power of concentration weakens, sometimes fatally; there is feverish activity but without purpose, efficiency becoming fret and fuss, running in circles; private anarchy and public over-organization abound. Once large and inspiring words--Liberty, Freedom, Democracy, Justice--are losing their meanings; the meanings of other terms change, it appears that about more and more thing sthe Opposite of Everything may be true, that the existing state of affairs might be best expressed through paradoxes, that satire even illuminates less and less, since serious Facts are often mroe absurd and ridiculous than their exaggerated Fiction could be. These are the marks of an interregnum. (43)Consider the antecedent political events of the Civil War, wrapped as they were within layers and layers of legal arguments (for the law is often a peculiarly American substitute for philosophy); there is a lofty trickiness in the Lincoln-Douglass debates which is very American; and the fundamental problems were, of course, much deeper than the legal, constitutional, political arguments. (65). . . and in 1836 William Henry Harrison was the first presidential candidate who decided to "stump" the country in order to make himself popular; he was perhaps the first American who "ran" instead of having "stood" for such an election. This marked a turning-point in the history of AMerican democracy, the turn in the concept of high elective office from delegation to representation. perhaps it was in 1836 that the transformation of the united States from a constitutional to a democratic republic was completed. Another turning-point may have been 1917, the American entry in World War I, and Wilson's creation of the deplorable Creel Committee on Public Information, the first official American government agency dedicated to large-scale opinion-making; or, perhaps, the 1950's, with the emergence of the pollsters and of the televised electoral campaign, when the measurement and the manufacture of popularity became synchronized and combineed operations. (84)"In a modern society," W.H. Auden wrote in 1948, "whatever its political form, the great majority prefer opinion to knowledge, and passively allow the former to be imposed on them by a centralized few--I need only mention as an example the influence of the Sunday book supplements of the newspapers upon our public libraries." Auden grasped what may be the essence of the contemporary historical problem of public opinion: the propagation of preferences through the procedures of publicity, procedures which involve new and subtle falsifications of reality peculiar to our age. (88)"What is truth?" I cannot answer Pilate's question; but I shall not wash my hands under the laboratory faucet of the specialist; if I cannot answer what truth is, I can at least say what it is not. Apart from all metaphysics, I can but say that the purpose of historical truth (like every fact, every truth is to some extent historical) is understanding even moer than accuracy, involving the reduction of untruth; and I can say that the nature of truth is inseparable from personal knowledge; that it cannot be proven by definitions but that it can be suggested through words. (108)Consider what Maupassant wrot ein his only essay (disguised as his preface to Pierre et Jean). The aim of the realistic novelist "is nto to tell a story, to amuse us or to appeal to our feelings, but to compel us to reflect, and to understand the darker and deeper meaning of events. . . ." A historian could have written that. The functions of historians and novelists overlap; their dependence is mutual; their approach is much the same--description, in prose, always the description of some kind of past (for even the utopian noevl projects the reader in time beyond the "events" narrated by the author in "retrospect"). In the broad sense every novel is a historical novel. The novel was a typical product of the Bourgeois Age. Literaturein almost all of it sknown forms was either created or first perfected by the Greeks: the novel is the only exception. If this is one of the reasons of its possible demise, this was one of the principal reasons of its emergence two hundred years ago. Not only was the novel a "transitory response to certain conditions"; more than that, the novel may have been a manifestation of the development of historical consciousness. For the once customary view of equating the novel with narrative, seeing in it a prosaic form of the epic, is mistaken. "The novel and the epic," wrote Ortega y Gasset in 1914,are precisely poles apart. The theme of the epic is the past as such: it speaks to us about a world which was and which is no longer, of a mythical age whose antiquity is not a past in the same sense as any remote historical time. It is true that local piety kept gradually linking Homeric men and gods to the citizens of the present by means of slender threads, but this net of genealogical traditions does not succeed in bridging the absolute gap which exists between the mythical yesterday and the real today. No matter how many real yesterdays we interpolate, the sphere inhabited by the Achilleses and the Agamemnons has no relatinoship with our existence,a nd we cannot reach it, step by step, by retracing the path opened up by the march of time. The epic past is not our past. Our past (118) is thinkable as having been the present once, but the epic past eludes identification with any possible present, and when we try to get back to it by means of recollection it gallops away from us like Diomedes' horses, forever at the same distance frmo us. No, it is not a remembered past but an ideal past. (119)"The poet and the historian," he said in Poetics (IX, 1), "differ not by writing in verse or prose. The work of Herodotus might be put in verse and it still would be a species of history with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philoosphic and higher thing than history; for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular." (125)The desire for change is a fundamental human characteristic (curiosity rather than carnal desire may be a source of passion). (136)And the most meaningful reflections of these distinct tendencies of national character are to be found, of course, in the different national languages, the habits of which are veritable mirrors of national characteristics. I have mentioned the subtle differences of the "same" words in different languages earlier. Let em repeat here that expression does have a nationality, even while thought may not always have one. I say "always" because expression has a way of forming consciousness; it is therefore legitimate to speak of national mentalities, and of tendencies of national consciousness which are discernible on occasion. (205)We may say of persons that the main motive factor of their actions is self-interest; but this is a truism. Take such different modern thinkers as Machiavelli, La Rochefoucauld, Bentham, Stendhal, Spencer, Tocqueville, Marx, Freud--yes, of course, this is what all of them say. But the better thinkers among them (Stendhal rather than Bentham, Tocqueville rather than Marx) do not leave it at that; they see deeper motives: fear and greed, guilt and ambition, all entangled; the best of them see vanity (a forgotten word nowadays) as th ebasic human motive. FOr what is self-interest, after all? Its formation comes from the concept of the self: an entangled thing, a complex thing, a tendency rather than a category, an aspiration rather than a constant. (207)The decisive element is often not so much what a person "is" but what he wants to be. (Ortega y Gasset: "Life is a gerundive, not a participle: a faciendum, not a factum. Life is a task. . . ." Tocqueville: "a serious spiritual business.") And this is true of entire nations, too, whose character traits are formed but not caused: formed by their histories, and by their conscoiusness of their histories. (210)Thus, while a person is responsible for his a,ctions, a nation is responsible only in part; for a nation has but a halfway sort of claim to immortality. Men die and disappear from this earth while nations do not die for a long, long time; but while the soul of a man is liable to divine judgment and is immortal, the soul of a nation is not. (211)Let me, thus, round out the reverse Cartesian phrase too. Sum ergo cogito ergo sum. Again, the logic in this seemingly--but only seemingly--circular statement is not mathematical but historical. I was born a human being. I exist. I think. And my recognition of the historicity of my thinking lends another dimension to my existence: the two sums, the two "I am's," reflect two levels: and the causality implied by the two connecting ergos are slightly different, too. I am, therefore I think, therefore I am. (226)It indeed seems that Western civilization, during the last one thousand years, may have shifted its intellectual emphasis twice: (232) from theology to humanism, and then to scientism--or, in other words, it seems that while in the Middle Ages the principal business of man's intellect was considered to be man's knowledge of God, thereafter the emphasis may have changed to man's knowledge of man, until lately it became man's knowledge of his environment. (233)The now fashionable kind of environmental subjectivism cannot go beyond a certain level of honesty, sicne it says, at best, something like the following: "I am writing or saying this because, at this time, this is my subjective impression; and since it is a subjective impression, it cannot be absolutely certain." But the purpose of human knowledge is understanding rather than certainty; and, moreover, the issue involves too, as we have seen, the purposes of the expression, which are perhaps even more personal than are the motives of the impression. What the historian should say, instead, is something like this: "I am writing or saying this because this is at the this time my personal way of seeing and saying something that I believe to be true." (236)Being capable of love at almost any time is one of the major capacities in which men differ from animals, one of the reasons for thi sbeing that the development of this capacity is involved with imagination (whence the circumstance that certain men with high intellectual powers have been highly successful lovers.) Ortega y Gasset as well as his bete noire Stendhal recognized, in their different ways how, contrary to modern Freudianism, lust is not, as Ortega put it, "an instinct but a specifically human creation--like literature. In both, the most important factor is imagina- (239) tion. . . . The sexual instinct . . . in man . . . is almost always found to be indissolubly united, at least, with fantasy." To this I should add that sexual perversion may be often not the result of a hormonoal or physical imbalance but of existential and historical conditions, involving a disease of imagination. (240)Imagination does not create images that are completely new. Wha tmemory and imagination together help create are always, to some extent, recognitions, including, of course, new varieties of recognitions. The common sense of the English language intimates this truth, sinc we employ the word "recognition" more often and more broadly than the word "cognition." Perhaps this usage in itself suggests how every cognition is, to a great extent, a recognition, involving some kind of association relative to something that we already know-the reverse of this truth being that remembering is something more than a mental reaction; it is, rather, a kind of construction; as the young Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1914 about the act of seeing: it "consists of applying a previous image which we have to a present sensation." (245)In the first place, as Pascal said, we often understand more than we know, to which I shall add that this happens almost always through some kind of remembering. In the second place, history is a form of thought resting on common sense and on everyday language--something which facilitates (though probably it does not create) the really amazing condition that not only is there no essential difference between present-knowledge and past-knowledge but that there is not very much difference between the nature of our knowledge of those fragments (247) of the past that we personally "witnessed" and of our understanding of those that we had not. (248)But the basic human factor is personal, not environmental, since men may transcend all kinds of tendencies, the influences of environment as well as heridity: as the Austrian neuropsychiatrist Viktor Frankl recently wrote, man is "no 'product' at all, except in the sense that his life is the result of his choices; he himself is formed by his own choices; and his education, really, means th[e education of his capacity to choose." (257)Truth is an existential, a sensual as well as an intellectual experience. It exists within us. The truth is always richer than the lie. "The profoundest of all sensualities," D. H. Lawrence wrote, "is the sense of truth." "Mysteries," said the theologian Jouve, "are not truths which exceed us, but truths that include us." "The true artist," Camus said, "forces himself to understand instead of judging"; and the historian Marc Bloch wrote that "not to understand is to admit defeat." (267)Yet the introduction of the name "wavicle" does preciously little to solve the problem of whether light consists of waves or of particles; and it may be that the continuing nominalistic habit of proposing new terms (sometimes rather silly-sounding ones, such as "neutrino") suggests that illusion of the modern mind which tends to substitute vocabulary (280) for thought, tending to believe that once we name or define something we've "got it." Sometimes things may get darker through definitions, Dr. Johnson said; . . . (281)

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