John Lukacs: Biblical Historical Thinking
Like Pontius Pilate, “whom,” John Lukacs says, “I could never contemplate without a modicum of sympathy,” this Hungarian historian is curious to know the character of truth, its personality. He regards it as a “misconception” that historians can “nail” down a perfect and “perennial” “reconstruction of past events and their actors.” The historian’s task is more modest, that of minimizing the quantity of untruth. Unlike law, history allows us to “engage in multiple jeopardy.” It requires us to reconsider, in the pursuit of truth. For Lukacs, truth is not only a quantity, an amount of correspondence with events, but also and more significantly, a quality of personal statements. The same statement issued in diverse existential circumstances can evince “a higher quality of truth.” Lukacs’s books suggest an historical way of thinking, an historian’s philosophy. In this democratic age, differing in how much they know, we are all historians.
Lukacs spent thirteen years writing Historical Consciousness. It is about the acknowledgement, since the nineteenth century, that persons, societies, nations, literature, and even physics, biology and medicine are best understood through their history. For the “history of a problem, of an idea, of a concept, of a theory may reveal its evolving diagnosis.” Historical Consciousness describes an historical philosophy as one which, rather than prescinding from the historical existence of its objects, envisages persons and ideas from the perspective of their organic development. We are the ones who pose the problems, and we pose them at a given “where” and “when.” We cannot take our—historical—selves out of the picture.
That sounds like historicism. We are judiciously warned against judging truth by the calendar, as if an idea becomes less true as its pronouncement recedes in time, or gains in truth as its hour arrives. Teilhard de Chardin was judging truth by the calendar when he wrote, in June 1940, “Peace cannot mean anything but a higher process of conquest . . . The world is bound to belong to its most active elements . . . Just now, the Germans deserve to win because, however bad or mixed is their spirit, they have more spirit than the rest of the world.” Historicism is a species of historical spiritualism, commonly called historical idealism. In 1940, according to Lukacs, Hitler believed that “his National Socialists were bound to win, because their ideas were stronger than those of their opponents.” With its faith in the power of ideas, that is, its idealism, historicism sits lightly to the historical relatedness of events. In Spring 1940, “There was some truth in this but not enough.” Whereas Hitler “had a philosophy of history” his “duellist,” “Churchill possessed something different, a historical philosophy. A philosophy of history is categorical and systematic; a historical philosophy . . . is not.”
Historicism is a surrogate for a philosophy rooted in history. Both historicism and historical philosophy are, in a sense, “idealisms,” but there is a moral chasm between Hitler’s idealist nationalism and Churchill’s principled patriotism.
Many books tell us more about the Second World War and its antecedents than Lukacs’s books do. His special genius has been to use the events of the Modern Age as a vehicle for reflecting upon historical truth. On the one hand, God is truth, and “God is eternal. But we are not Gods but historical beings, and the fallible descendants of Adam.” Yet on the other, “truths exist. Their existence . . . is not a matter of our choice. But we are responsible for how, and where, and why, and when we try to express them.” The historicity of truth points to its personal, and thus moral character.
History cannot be a predictive science, because historical truth is personal: “on 22 June 1941, everything depended on two men, Hitler and Stalin. This in itself refutes the social-scientific . . . opinion according to which history . . . is ruled by vast economic and material forces and not by individual persons. The Second World War was . . . decided by personalities, by the inclinations and decisions of men such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt.” In the example Lukacs often gives (like Aristotle and Aquinas, he never uses an example once), science can predict when a man’s finger will break, but not when or whether he will defy his interrogators. The unpredictable quality is not simply the person’s “moral code” but that “Different people who experience the same things may think about them differently; and this thinking influences not only the consequences but the experience of the event itself.” What happens is not what moves us, but how we interpret what happens. These interpretations are the key historical causes: “History may be characterized by the absence of laws and by the multiplicity of causes.”
Lukacs disparages the orotund term “historiography,” because, although it literally means “history-writing,” it has actually (historically, since its invention in the nineteenth century) been deployed to connote the practice of history as a science. Neither a science of history nor a philosophy of history is possible, if, as Lukacs argues, the craft of history writing comes down to one chap’s understanding of another. Philosophy of history requires an objective flow of ideas, but, as Lukacs observes, “ideologies and ideas per se do not matter apart from the people who think them, express them, represent them, incarnate them.” Some twentieth century philosophers of history grasped this, such as R. G. Collingwood, a thinker who was recommended to me by my tutors at university; I could never get past the trireme on about page three of his Idea of History. Turning from Objectivism to Subjectivism did not steer Collingwood to land, but rather marooned him into claiming that a subject’s decisions are decided for him by his historical situation. The subjectivists, from Croce to Collingwood, Becker and Beard “went wrong,” Lukacs says, “because, like the objectivists, they were thinking in terms of direct causes, of men as products.” History is neither Objective nor Subjective, but merely personal. And “personal” does not mean the product of autonomous, abstract “individuals”, but rather, people in their constellations, their dramatic relationships. History is not the wake of great men. It is the interplay of diverse persons, in their oppositions and alliances.
This is the historical philosophy which gave birth to The Duel. The book makes a thriller of the decisive eighty days between the tenth of May, 1940 when Churchill became Prime Minister, and 31 July, when Hitler told his generals to plan the invasion of Russia and Roosevelt stepped back from neutrality. It makes the reader see that these days were thrillingly decisive. It turns on the twin recognitions that history (as “the remembered past”) is what we make of it, and that history (as events) is made by men and women. What could have been perceived as a military disaster, the retreat, near loss and flight of the British land force, came rapidly to represent the plucky rescue, by fleets of fishing boats, of our army. Within six weeks of Dunkirk, the tide changed in Europe, as reflected in the “phrase current in those days: L’Angleterre tient.”
An English theologian will disagree with some of Lukacs’s judgements. In line with his conviction that national inclinations motivate historical actors more than ideologies, Lukacs argues that Anglophobia had a greater influence on the builders of Vichy France in 1940 than Maurrasian theory. Theological Gallicanism seems to me the more inclusive influence. It cannot be only because, according to Lukacs, the English are slow witted and indecisive that I find his key notion of the Modern Age opaque and undecided. On the one hand, he laments the death of the Modern Age, with its privacy and comfortable rail travel, but on the other, he insists that the ideas which he celebrates, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and historical consciousness belong to an era beyond the Modern. At least, unlike some theological ideologues, he does not impose the pharisaical pretence of abjuring the Modern Age, with its privacy and comfortable trains.
Lukacs’s writings quietly evoke a philosophy of divine providence, providence as including “secondary causality,” in the shape of the undetermined and indeterminable thoughts and deeds of human persons. This power presiding over history occasionally attains a Majuscule: “Hitler and Stalin were giants. But it seems that Providence will not allow giants to rule the world.” Lukacs is no Christian apologist, and rightly cuts no slack for bishops or even the Bishop of Rome (Pius XII, “fearful of communism . . . remained silent” on 22 June, 1941, after Hitler’s invasion of Russia). Yet Lukacs seems to offer a Christian philosophy of history. Perhaps that’s not the right phrase. Christians have often demanded from such a philosophy a grand theory of human development to rival Spengler or even Hegel. Lukacs’s achievement is more modest and more gripping. He has created a Biblical historical philosophy, local, and turning on the drama of human freedom.
 John Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 2002, Yale University Press, p. 74.
 John Lukacs, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, 2006, Yale University Press, p. 142.
 Lukacs, At the End, p. 73.
 John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: Or, the Remembered Past, first published in 1968, revised edition, 1985, Schocken, p. 6.
 John Lukacs, The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Hitler and Churchill, 1990, Yale:, pp. 192, 49-50.
 Lukacs, At the End, pp. 75-76.
 Lukacs, Hitler and Stalin, p. 3.
 Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, pp. 140 and 153.
 Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, xx.
 Lukacs, At the End, p. 70.
 Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, p. 9.
 Lukacs, The Duel, p. 194.
 Hitler and Stalin, 145.
 Lukacs, Hitler and Stalin, p. 112.
Francesca Aran Murphy (PhD, King's College, London) is professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books, including Christ, the Form of Beauty. She previously taught at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen.
Posted: December 19, 2011 in Symposia.
America’s Fin de Siècle: End of a Century or a Civilization?
Volume 30, Number 4 (Summer 1990)