The Derogation of History

The derogation of History from its status as a liberal art into one in which it is a social science comes from the contradictions of materialism in the eighteenth century, and is best illustrated by the French Philosophe Denis Diderot. Diderot had a classical training and early on repudiated it and his Catholic faith. A whole decade of his life is missing, one he spent as a vagabond and bohemian, making do by writing sermons for lazy Parisian priests, and apparently mooching off friends. He eventually married a woman who would turn him in to the local Catholic authorities for his unorthodox views. He spent a brief stint in the royal prison outside of Paris, Vincennes, in 1749. But by the mid 1740s, that is before cooling his heals at the royal discretion, he had been made the editor of the Encylopedie, one of the more revolutionary enterprises in intellectual history. Most of Diderot’s works have been translated into English, and often he is thought of as the third most important of the French Philosophes, behind Voltaire and Rousseau. In a letter to his mistress, Sophie Volland, Diderot spewed imprecations on his philosophy, and how he hated it, for while he admitted his undying and burning love for her, he took this as a repudiation of his thought, which told him that humans had no such thing as choice, no such faculty as the rational intellect that guided the will, and that we were nothing other than automatons who responded to stimulus, and thus his ‘love’ for Sophie was not either his choice, or really even something rational. His views can be read in his D’Alembert’s Dream, and The Letter on the Blind for Those Who can See. His thought is echoed in Voltaire and can be seen in what is his best-known work, Candide. The world for Candide is not a rational place, and the best that one can hope is to have a plot of land unmolested by the Sultan, where he can tend his garden.

As History from its inception among the Greeks possessed several humanistic tendencies, most notably that of narrative, i.e., that it described the past in a way that made sense of human existence, taking into account a situation’s internal logic (cause and effect), and stressing the primacy of human action, it developed as a discipline guided by its own logical idiom. One element that stands out, that distinguished History from mere chronicle, was that rationality necessarily characterized free humans in the description of the past, both rational in laying out the past (the historian’s art), and in imputing motives to the actors (the historian’s subjects). This does not mean that humans weren’t often straightened or constrained by events, or that humans were always rational in their actions, but that even the most irrational of actions had some basis in calculation, and were driven by some form of logic, even if it were a retaliation born of anger: the anger arose from a sense of injustice, a wholly rational concept. But over the last several decades, both the narrative and the rational have been under assault from all sorts who in the name of History attack what the discipline once sought to be: the distillation of the human struggle against the seeming irrational. In this regard the irrational now became the interpretive tool, and the narrative was written out, as well as human rationality and liberty. We could take the Greeks almost as a paradigm, in Herodotus the struggle of the rational, free Greeks against the irrational tyranny of Xerxes.

One of the founders of scientific socialism, Henri comte de Saint-Simon took up Diderot’s romantic dilemma (in more ways than one) in formulating his views of humans and human society. Saint-Simon was a profiteer during the French Revolution, and was one of the first of the nobility to surrender his titles. He also sided with Napoleon in the shutting down of the French liberal academies. The emperor had no use of liberal minds, only the servility of technocrats. Saint-Simon spent a great deal of money on self-promotion, and argued for a reorganization of French society, one which was administered by scientists and mathematicians, etc. For Saint-Simon, the principle animator of society was gravity (and at times who would latch onto other totalizing laws, but gravity generally had pride of place). Humans were nothing but collections of atoms, and all aspects of human life and thought were governed by the same laws as the motion of the planets. Saint-Simon came up the term ‘social physics’ to describe his political philosophy. It should be noted that he did not believe in politics, or parliaments, or congresses. For him these things bespoke the use of reason, discourse, intellectual debate, the seeing of consequences arising from rational action, all illusions. Instead, history and mind (always used in the singular) were born by the impersonal forces: “At no period has the progress of society been regulated by a system conceived by a man of genius and adopted by the masses. This would, from the nature of things, be impossible, for the law of human progress guides and dominates all; men are only its instruments.” Thus human genius and parliaments or elections were actually counterproductive. What was needed was organization and system. In essence, Saint-Simon’s social physics was just another name for technocracy. Societies to prosper needed not liberty and freedom of contract, but organization.

Saint-Simon’s last secretary, it should be noted, was none other than August Comte, who ghosted a number of items for Saint-Simon, and whose work post-Saint-Simon won him the accolade of the founder of the modern social sciences. And this is where we return to History. The great historian of seventeenth century, C.V. Wedgewood has noted that History is an art like all the other sciences (a statement far more at home prior to Comte than after him). History’s decadence has naturally coincided with the demise of the liberal arts, all the liberal arts mapping History’s decay from a liberal to a servile art. History as a liberal art was the stuff of thought, the ground on which one entered into polite and politic society, and into other disciplines. Cicero was not giving some throwaway tag when he proclaimed that those ignorant of the past were doomed forever to remain children (Orator xxxiv 119), for we can have no real knowledge of the world around us if we are ignorant of its causes. In this he was following Aristotle, who noted that to know something was to know both its cause and its purpose.

History has descended to the irrational. The actor in history has been removed, and the place of parliaments and thought has given way to studies of the impersonal, the geographic, the climatic, and the irrational. For Marx of course it was the great materialist movements of history that guided human action, and not ideas; for Freud it was the devil of the subconscious that directed us, and not our rational self. History itself became the dialectic, and dialectic as a tool of the educated mind ceased to exist, for now there are no individual intellects, but instead just the collective mind. Individuals fall from the stage, and biography is no proper field for a historian apart from finding, as Erik Erikson did in Young Man Luther, not the rational causes of Luther’s actions, but the irrational, the psychological, his protracted “identity crisis.”

When applying once for a grant, one of my reviewers thought my project smacked too much of ‘great man’ history (my project was an intellectual study of a Reformation bishop). Ironically, I had no such illusions about my subject, and the product of his years of work was actually to make a virtue of necessity. This disdain for biography of almost any sort, unless it is to explain an individual’s actions apart from properties inherent to a rational individual, is itself an assault on human freedom. If humans are born along only by impersonal forces, whether markets, the inevitable grind of social forces, dialectical materialism (which Marx also called ‘history’), scientism, etc, then to stand athwart what people take to be history’s march and yell “Stop!” is to betray history. During the great Russian show trials, one of the chief charges against the defendants was that they were betraying history (the inevitable march toward the communist paradise of history), and thus betraying history’s agent, the Soviet State. To even question the assumption of the charge (though not to say its validity) was to admit guilt. Ultimately, history as a science means the relegating of the individual to just a fact within a new narrative, and not the maker of the narrative. It also speaks of the irresponsible: that individuals are not responsible for their actions, and are not properly moral agents. Thus History came to Christianity ready-made as a discipline for both instruction in morality, and for the rhetorical urging to the virtuous life. Since both morality and virtue have fallen on hard times to we postmoderns, it is no wonder that History as a discipline has as well.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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One Response to The Derogation of History

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