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Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)

History and the Moral Imagination

book cover imageHistorical Consciousness: The Remembered Past
by John Lukacs
Reprinted by Transaction Publishers (Library of Conservative Thought), 1994.

Review reprinted from The Sewanee Review,
Spring 1969, Volume LXXVII, Number 2.

Russell Kirk

Applying a philosophical intellect to the study of history, Dr. Lukacs believes that historical studies may become the principal literary form and way to wisdom in the dawning age. This does not mean that he endeavors to present a “philosophy of history”—on the contrary, he agrees with Burckhardt that the notion of a philosophy of history is “a centaur, a contradiction in terms; for history coordinates, and hence is unphilosophical, while philosophy subordinates, and hence is unhistorical. . . .”

“It may be that the future of Western thought will be historical,” Lukacs writes; “but, I repeat, this does not mean a philosophy of history but a chastened historical philosophy, concentrating on the historicity of problems and of events, assuming the uniqueness of human nature anew, presenting no new definitions, no freshly jigsawed categories, emphasizing the existential—and not merely philosophical—primacy of truth: a more mature achievement of the human mind than even the mastering of certain forces of nature through the scientific method, and certainly more mature than the simplistic conception of causalities.”

Though lucid enough, this book [Historical Consciousness] is complex, and never doctrinaire or ideological—which will diminish attention to it in the mass media. One might review it from a number of points of vantage. It would be possible to comment at length on Professor Lukacs’s distinction between “the public” and “the people” (like Plato, Lukacs is a lover of distinctions); upon his mordant criticisms of positivistic historians; upon his remarks about national character; of his discussion of objectivity and subjectivity; or his doubts about Darwin, or his appreciation of Heisenberg’s discoveries. This historiographer casts his net wide.

This reviewer chooses to examine Lukacs’s remarkable book with an eye principally to Lukacs’s argument that history may be the new humanism, and especially his chapter “Facts and Fictions”, which has to do with history as a principal form of humane literature. These concerns lead Lukacs and his readers to some consideration on historical learning and religious faith.

Edmund Burke contrasted the “idyllic imagination” of Rousseau with the “moral imagination” of Christian and European civilization: that is, he contrasted the ideology of futurism with the moral understanding that we draw from the deep well of the past—the resources of historical studies and of poetic insights. In our time, John Lukacs is doing something quite similar. We escape from the clutch of ideology and from the boredom of positivism, he reasons, by repairing to historical knowledge and to our literary patrimony. “We are outgrowing some of our standard intellectual ‘problems,’ at least in the West, where the conflict between science and religion has become outdated; and it is at least possible that history and religion, and history and science, may be brought together, but on a higher level.” We live today in an intellectual interregnum. “It is, for example, historical thinking that provides us with the best explanation of the chaotic development of scientific thinking during its last phase,” Lukacs continues; “and it is not impossible that as we struggle through a tremendous jungle of dying concepts and half-truths, many convergent paths in science, history, religion may emerge before us; there are certain discernible symptoms that point in these directions.”

Historical studies conceivably may lead us out of the jungle, but this is not certain; excessive specialization, positivistic prejudices, shallow scientism, and the thinness of culture in the mass age afflict the historical discipline, as they afflict every other field of study today. Historical Consciousness is intended to help in effecting a grand reform of historical writing and teaching.

A reformed history may be imaginative and humane; like poetry, like the great novel, it must be personal rather than abstract, ethical rather than ideological. Like the poet, the historian must understand that devotion to truth is not identical with the cult of facts.

We have known, in the modern age, no Thucydides, no Polybius, no Livy, no Plutarch. Obsessed by the Fact, a nineteenth-century idol, most modern historians have forgotten that facts, too, are constructions—and meaningful only in association. It is the event, rather than the isolated fact, which is the proper concern of historians. In a sense, the genuine historian must be at home with fiction.

Of course, the historian is no fabulist. The historian’s task is more difficult than the novelist’s, because of its restrictions. The historian may not invent imaginary characters; he may describe possibilities only upon the foundation of real evidence; he may not invent motives for his characters. Nevertheless, he is engaged in a labor of moral imagination. And, as the novel declines, history may divide with poetry the realm which the novel has dominated for little more than two centuries. Such a narrative history as Stephen Runciman’s The Crusades (my example, not Lukacs’s) may suggest the way in which a reinvigorated historical consciousness might reoccupy the ground that has been the novelist’s.

It was with Walter Scott that the novel first acquired immense popularity and influence; from the hour of its triumph, then, prose fiction of the modern age has been intimately associated with the historical consciousness. Scott promulgated through historical romances the principles of Burke—a development to which Lukacs might have paid more attention, for, in Acton’s phrase, “History begins with Burke.” Through the novel, rather than through systematic histories, the nineteenth-century public acquired a lively historical consciousness—the achievement of Macaulay and a few others notwithstanding. For the novelist possessed of true historical understanding rose superior to the cult of “objective facts.” If, as Lukacs remarks, “historical thinking affected the novelists more profoundly than the novel affected historianship,” still the novelist often roused the public historical consciousness long before the sobersided historian set himself to the task: Dickens’s analytical description, in Barnaby Rudge, of the Gordon Riots preceded by a century the first monograph on those disturbances by a systematic historian.

Quite commonly, the romancer who sets himself to write an historical epic fails both as novelist and historian; while fiction reflecting historical circumstances may be superior to more pretentious endeavors to join the historical discipline with the humane imagination. “In spite (or, perhaps, because) of Tolstoy’s penchant for writing a ‘scientific’ history, War and Peace reflects a kind of ideological, rather than historical thinking. Flaubert, without knowing it, was the more profoundly historical writer of the two. . . .” César Birotteau, Martin Chuzzlewit, Lucien Leuwen, and Sentimental Education contribute as much to the historical consciousness as do Old Mortality, Les Chouans, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Charterhouse of Parma.

Much though the novel has accomplished in rousing the public’s historical understanding and the public’s moral imagination, it now appears that prose fiction may be near the end of its tether. The novel descends toward Avernus from several causes. For one thing, “what people still call ‘Fact’ has become often stranger than what they call ‘Fiction’”—take the realities of the concentration camps for one instance. For another, the novelist’s imagination is discouraged by “the deadening accumulation of nonsense in this age of universal literacy when we encounter such banalities in conversation, such mistakes in rhetoric, such bloopers in the paper of a student that their accurate record would result in an unreal impression of exaggeration.” Moreover, in the Bourgeois Era (against which Lukacs entertains no prejudices) the novel’s principal themes were related to the connections between “the inner lives of persons” and “the external order of society”; as the old framework of society succumbs to democratic formlessness, a certain archaism oppresses the “classical” novel.

In this last, Lukacs’s argument resembles that of Lionel Trilling. But Trilling suggests that the novel of ideological conflict may supplant the novel of movement and contact between classes; while the notion of ideological fiction, like ideological politics and ideological history, is anathema to Lukacs. Instead, the “growing meaninglessness of social bonds,” as Lukacs puts it, “forces the novelist of the twentieth century to contemplate increasingly the individual’s relationship with himself.”

Now if the historian, together with the poet, is to supplant the novelist as the guardian and enlivener of the moral imagination, he must learn to write more nobly and more philosophically than he does today. “In the beginning was the Word, not the Fact; history is thought and spoken and written with words; and the historian must be master of his words as much as of his ‘facts,’ whatever those might mean.”

Lukacs is appealing here not to linguistic analysis nor to semantics, but to rhetoric in its original signification.

For words are not mere tools, neither are they mere symbols. They are representative realities; they remind us of the inevitable connection between imagination and reality. . . . The corruption of speech involves the corruption of truth, and the corruption of words means the debasement of speech which is the debasement of our most human and historic gifts.

While the public’s relish for “flamboyant ‘historical’ novels” diminishes, popular interest in good history increases. Yet this may work mischief if the writing of history is dominated by “professional intellectuals”—positivists, ideologues, Benda’s treasonous clerks. Meritocracy among historians would be as dismal as meritocracy in the state, “a poisonous development.” Increasingly, guardianship of traditional common sense and of the languages has been abandoned by most intellectuals for “more advantageous occupations. . . . Yet these melancholy developments have not weakened my belief that among all kinds of people, in these very times, and even in the United States, appetite for all kinds of historical knowledge, and their historical consciousness in many different ways, is growing.” Lukacs fled from Hungary, where ideology and force of arms had triumphed over the historical consciousness and the moral imagination, because in America the illusions of Progressivism are not yet altogether triumphant.

The most important implication for the historian is the power of religious understanding, lacking which there can exist no order in the soul and no order in the state—indeed, no history that can be recorded without a shudder. Here Lukacs stands with Johan Huizinga, Christopher Dawson, and Herbert Butterfield, who he quotes frequently. Cartesian objectivity is a limited thing, and dying: our situation is post-scientific, rather than post-Christian; the new physics undoes the smug pseudo-certainties of the mechanists. Human nature is central once more, and it may fall to the historian to renew our apprehension of that nature.

There is no man but historic man. Forgetting this truth, we justify Hegel’s observation that we learn from the study of history how mankind has learned nothing from the study of history. The Darwinians “fantastically elongated the history of man on this earth,” mistaking the Java or Peking or Rhodesian anthropoids for humanity at one end of the scale, and projecting man into an unprovable progressive future—“Ye unborn ages, crowd not on my soul.” But abruptly we have become aware that it now lies in our power, through the “progress” of technology, to terminate human history some two thousand years after the birth of Christ: man working upon himself, as he so often has in the past, retributive providential judgments. The Last Judgment once more can be reasonably postulated as the terminal event in history.

If all history is a drama, this time cries for a new Thucydides. More and more, the people of our age become conscious that, as Santayana expressed it, those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it; and to repeat it, one may add, without pleasure or hope. When the moral imagination is starved, when generation cannot link with generation, Kipling’s fable of the Hive is realized; and the fire awaits. Like his mentor Tocqueville, John Lukacs seeks historical understanding that we may prophesy.

Russell Kirk was founder of the University Bookman.

Posted: March 18, 2007 in From Russell Kirk.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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