Monday, October 27, 2003
So I got the latest volume of The Cartoon History of the Universe for my birthday last week. (How old am I? Hint: my age is not the sum of distinct triangular numbers - and that should be enough, in context, to tell you how old I am.) It was enjoyable, but not as good as the last two volumes. Too much fact, and not enough of a narrative thread. The last volume gave us the rise and fall of Rome and the unification of China and its subsequent collapse. (Plus side-visits to India and a couple of other interesting places.) Lots of big-picture, strong narrative structure. This volume starts with the rise of Islam in Arabia, but the history of the Islamic era just doesn't have much structure. After the great conquests, it's just one thing after another. The European middle-ages has the same problem, but there we blame it on squalor and lack of documented history. Not so in the house of Islam. Anyhow, it makes reading - and retaining - the history more of a struggle.
Then I check out the latest City Journal, and lo! Victor Davis Hanson takes a belated swipe at Francis Fukuyama and his "end of history" comment upon the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is kind of a cheap shot; the hubris of the remark is obvious. (Fukuyama should have remembered what his lodestar, Hegel, said about the owl of Minerva and the setting of the sun.)
But what's more interesting to me is: does Hanson believe, with Hegel (and Fukuyama) that History has a discernable - even if not predictable - structure. In other words: does he think that our current moment in history *means* something, or is it just more stuff happening?
He doesn't directly answer that question, but I'm going to try to peg him as best I can. To do so, I'll need a typology of theories of history.
1. History has no structure. This is a very respectable position, even if I think it makes for boring history books, held by such worthies as the author of Ecclesiastes, Samuel Johnson and Stephen J. Gould. There's nothing new under the sun, and all kinds of stuff happens, some good, some bad. What matters is how individuals deal with the stuff that happens, whether they make moral decisions and whether they make sensible ones, and whether their gambles pay off. The study of history, for these folks, is the study of models of heroism and infamy, along with the sheer accumulation of interesting detail. But you can't learn to make decisions based on where history is going because it isn't going anywhere.
2. Structures of internal decline. Ovid and Homer both seem to have thought that there was a Golden Age in the past from which their own eras were a decline. Chinese history is often described in terms of dynastic founding, flourishing, and decay. Indian history is understood to be religiously cyclical, and Nietzsche spoke of the myth of eternal recurrence, and I think these kinds of hermetic cyclical histories are close kin to this kind of "life-cycle" history. Giambattista Vico probably inaugurated the greatest of these theories, hypothesizing that societies go through recognizable historical phases in sequence: a Theocratic Age, followed by an Aristocratic Age, followed by a Democratic Age, and then a period of collapse followed by a new turn of the cycle. What these theories have in common is the assumption that these dynamics are largely internal to the societies in question.
3. Structures of external decline. These are related to but more sophisticated than the foregoing. Ibn Khaldun, the medieval Arab historian, married a pretty classic concept of internal decline (successive generations get more and more decadent as they get used to the comforts of civilization) to foreign affairs (the world is always full of barbarians ready to conquer decadent civilizations), and came up with a new cyclical theory. Yes, civilizations decay internally. But they are overthrown by half-civilized barbarians but who have learned to use the civilized world's technology but still have the vitality that the civilized peoples have lost. The historian Paul Kennedy articulated an a rather different history based on external decline. Rather than declining due to decadence and decay, in Kennedy's view great powers decline because of imperial overreach: the costs of maintaining their power grows faster than their power does. (Why this should be is left somewhat unclear.) This is his explanation for the declines of Spain, Britain, and (he predicted) America: their military commitments grew faster than their ability to finance them. Some version of this historic theory floats in the air behind a lot of left-wing critics of America today. Yet another "external decline" theory is rooted in the notion that imperial expansion changes the internal character of a state, and thereby undermines the dynamic basis of its power. This is the case against Sparta, and the case that Gibbon makes against Rome; it's also the case that the paleo-libertarian right makes against America today. I'm lumping a lot of different theories together under this rubric. What they share is a lack of any notion that history has a direction. They are not progressive theories. And this is something they share with the simpler, life-cycle theories and with the anti-theory of "stuff happens."
But there are also theories that are progressive in character. And here, too, there are three that I am aware of.
4. Providential histories. The archetype is the theory of history propounded in the Hebrew Bible. God has a plan for humanity, a plan that is worked out in history. He makes promises, and He fulfills them - sometimes dramatically (e.g. the exodus), sometimes in mysterious ways (e.g. the Joseph narrative, or the story of the Book of Esther). These sorts of history are not much in favor with historians nowadays (Gibbon's Decline and Fall dealt providential history a decisive blow), but they endure among real people. They are often dangerously vulgarized into a notion that God will always cause His faithful to prosper in history, and therefore those who prosper must be His chosen. This is manifestly false, and Jeremiah's prophecies should have put an end to the notion, but they didn't. Among the religious, providential history competes with the idea that God is outside of history; that His rewards are granted in another world, or at the end of time, or what-have-you. But even those who hold to this view believe that, at the end of history, history will be reconciled with God's plan, and therefore they impose a structure on the future (and, retrospectively, on the past).
5. Whiggish progressive history. This is the dominant mode of history in the United States among those who have not had their brains colonized by French-inspired anti-American nonsense. History has a structure: the structure of the progress of ordered liberty. Human beings naturally seek greater freedom, and therefore history tends - over the long run and at differential rates - in that direction. The Whiggish account of the British Empire maintains - with a straight face - that the Brits intended the Empire to collapse eventually; the whole point was to drag much of the rest of the world up the liberty curve to the point where they were capable of governing themselves, and when they got to that point Britain was happen to let them go their merry ways. Something of the same notion underlies the neo-conservative confidence in our ability to re-shape the culture of a country like Iraq. Other Whiggish histories are more narrowly technological-determinist. These folks argue that history is the story of technological progress leading to the enhancement of human capabilities and the expansion of the sphere of human freedom. Progress is not a function of some spiritual force driving people to be free, but of the cumulative power of human intelligence over time. Like other overarching theories of history, the Whiggish notion of progress is not really refutable; counter-examples can be discounted and plenty of positive examples can be given as evidence. But the notion of progress, just as the notion of providence, gives history a shape, and makes it possible to get on the "right side" of history.
6. Dialectical progressive history. This was basically invented by Hegel, and then vulgarized by Marx into dialectical materialism. Hegel's perspective was that history was the progress of spirit, and that this progress proceeded dialectically. Essentially, history had the structure of a political argument, an argument about freedom. Unlike the Whiggish progressives, Hegelians understand that freedom is not a simple thing; there are different kinds of liberty, and they trade off against each other. So you can't just draw a line from bottom left to top right on a graph and say, "this is liberty over time." Rather, a particular society will express a certain set of values, and this structure will itself call forth its antithesis, a counter-structure representing a set of counter-values that expose the limitations of the society. These values clash, and bring forth a synthesis that reconciles the competing understandings of liberty, and thereby give birth to a new society and a new structure. Which in turn calls forth a new antithesis, and so forth. His idea is very appealing to those inclined to understand societies as expressive of values, or of ideologies. It's a model of progress that is less polyanna-ish than Whiggish history. And it's a model of history that comprehends the idea of conflict and understands that it can be productive and not just destructive. I find it particularly appealing as a way of understanding American history, because America - unlike most countries - is self-described as having been "conceived in liberty" and so we are, in our own minds, a country constituted around an argument about what that liberty is.
Where does VDH fall in this typology? Nowhere clear. He seems to have classed Fukuyama as a Whig rather than a Hegelian, someone who thinks history is the story of the fitful progress of humanity towards greater liberty, where the end is known in advance. That may be right for Fukuyama, but if so I don't think he understood Hegel. In any event, VDH doesn't buy this. But he does clearly believe that American might stems from our superior values and the social structure that expresses them, and he does not seem to believe that there is a natural cycle of decay of these values, nor that the vigorous assumption of our foreign obligations in any way undermine the prospects of perpetuation of those values and that structure (indeed, he seems to feel the opposite). And when he talks about Europe, he seems to be arguing that America is, in a sense, calling forth an opposite power, constituted around an idea of liberty at variance with our own.
So: is Hanson a closet Hegelian after all? Not really. But anyone who thinks seriously about history owes more to the German than his vulgarizers would lead you to believe.