History’s (Non) Meaning
The Origins of Historicism
One of the most pernicious of Man’s near infinite catalogue of delusions is the pernicious notion that “History” has a meaning. That this idea is nonsense that should be allowed to float away on its own vacuous emptiness is rather obvious but the notion has had and will continue to have a truly pernicious effect on human beings, given its effects on how human’s behave.
So just what is exactly the idea that “History” has a meaning. Well it is the idea that “History”, i.e., the unfolding of events in the past is a thing which in and of itself has a meaning and purpose. The idea is that “History” is a disembodied thing that is moving towards a “goal” and has a driving force in and of itself. This idea was called by Karl Popper Historicism.1 This was the notion that “History” in and of itself was an active agent moving towards a goal / purpose. This was the idea that “History” was moving towards a particular end.
The origins of this notion in the western tradition go back to the Judeo-Christian idea of God working through history. The notion that the movement of historical forces is in fact movement in the unfolding of God’s plan for mankind.
Thus the Hebrew Prophets believed that God would alternatively reward or punish Israel in accordance to his will and for his purposes. That the acts of Israel’s enemies were the rods of God’s chastisement of Israel for departing from Godly virtue.2
The prophets expressed the hope that in the end after a “day of wrath”, God would raise up Israel into plenty and prosperity, and peace. That a millennial age of “Lions lying down with lambs” would ensue. A sort of “End to History”. And in that end God would dwell with mankind in love and peace forever.
Thus “History” was conceived has the steady unfolding of the will of God and the manifestation of God’s purpose for man. This idea was hardly unique to the ancient Hebrews other people had notions like it.
In Zoroastrianism, founded by the Persian Prophet Zarathustra, c. 700-500 B.C.E., similar ideas took root. In Zarathustra’s vision Ahura Mazda the force of good and Ahriman the force of evil had been locked in a conflict for countless eons. They were pretty well balanced in terms of power. Out of their conflict had arisen the earth. But Ahriman had corrupted creation and it was the duty of each person to wage war against Ahriman, by right conduct and right ritual. For life and history was where this conflict would be and is being waged. In this struggle against the forces of evil eventually Ahura-Mazda would triumph in a day of judgment in which Ahriman would be crushed the world recreated without the corrupting evil of Ahriman. Those who fought Ahriman on behalf of Ahura Mazda would be saved those who followed Ahriman would be damned and lost / punished forever. History was the unfolding of the struggle between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.3
Among the ancient Greeks there appeared to be among some the idea of history having an intrinsic meaning, or the fulfillment in history of a particular purpose. Although there are indications in certain Greek thinkers of the idea of “History” as a cycle of creation, destruction, creation, destruction in an endless oscillating cycle. Plato for example seems to have conceived of history as a great year in which one half was generation and the other half degeneration. In Plato’s case he seems to have conceived that he was living in a time of decay and degeneration.3
Thus history went through cycles of growth and decay endlessly according to many Greek thinkers.
Among the Romans they generally conceived of their own history has the working of a divine purpose for the establishment of the Roman Empire. They saw themselves as chosen for the task of conquering and ruling and the unfolding of their history has the fulfillment of that task.
As indicated in the histories of Livy the Romans saw themselves has selected because of their virtues for the task of conquering, ruling and enlightening the world. This was their mission set forth by divine command to subjugate the world and rule it.4
This was the idea that the Romans were to be the final monarchy that would in some sense establish permanent peace in the world. After all one of the slogans of Rome was “Eternal Rome” and Rome being the “Eternal City”. The idea was that in some sense Rome was the final city and would usher in the end to history and that all history was building up to this point.
That history did not come to an end was rather obvious. So when Christianity emerged it fused with Jewish doctrines and the result was Christian millennial thinking.
In the Old Testament, in the book of Daniel there was a series of visions concerning the “last days”, in a suitably vague vision that could be interpreted in all sorts of ways. This was the prophecies of the horned beast and the 5 monarchies that would exist before God intervened and inaugurated the end of days and put an end to history and restore the saints and punish the wicked. This was combined with the various prophecies of the “end times” and the “Day of the Lord”, in the Old Testament prophets to produce in the Book of Revelations the ultimate prophecy of the end of days.5
In it we have Jesus, being the fulcrum of history and returning to punish the wicked and to save and exalt the saints, all 144,000 of them. In it we have the Antichrist, the beast, the kings of the earth, Magog, the whore of Babylon all going through their roles in the climax of human history as God makes manifest his wrath and justice and brings an end to history and inaugurates the never ending rule of God and the saints.6
A detailed analysis of the Book of Revelations is not needed except to note that it was written in the late first century – early second century C.E., and the last state ruled by the Antichrist is apparently the Roman Empire; which will be swept away by the returning Jesus and the persecuting forces of the devil punished and thrown into hell forever along with Satan. That this belief is one in which “History” is meaningful because it is the unfolding of God’s divine plan is clear.
When later the Christian faith captured the Roman Empire; the empire ceased to be an instrument of evil and instead became God’s instrument for the spread of Christianity and the last state from which the rule of the saints / Christians would emerge to govern the world forever. This had as its most influential Christian proponent St. Augustine, who in his City of God had the Roman Empire exist for the purpose of creating a seed bed for the spread of Christianity.7
Of course the fall of the Roman Empire sort of but the kibosh on that idea. But still the notion that “History” was moving towards an end and that it was the gradual unfolding of God’s purpose was firmly established. That “History” would eventually come to an end and that the whole purpose of “History” so to speak was in fact that end was the central focus in the Christian understanding of history.
That this notion of purposeful history is in effect the source of notions of historicism is clear. The idea that “History” as meaning in and of itself; that is moving inexorably towards a fixed, unalterable end, is in the end a religious notion and is not based on any “rational” idea.
Thus the notion that “History” having meaning in secular terms is nothing more than the dressing up of a religious notion is secular garb. It does not disguise the fact that the notion is religious in origin.
Thus when European thinkers moved towards a more secular way of thinking about “History” they took with them the notion of “History” having a meaning in and of itself and having a predetermined end.
Does “History” have a meaning? Well if you mean does “History” in and of itself have a meaning? Well it does not. “History” has we know it is generally the history of politics and war. One might as well ask if the history of bathtubs has an intrinsic meaning in and of itself. The question is of course absurd but then so is the idea that “History”, i.e., politics and war has “meaning” in and of itself. “History” can no more have “meaning” in and of itself than can any other process that has a history, like evolution or geology. Those processes simply have a history that would probably not repeat exactly if the wheel was run back to the beginning neither do they have any “intrinsic” “inner” meaning in and of themselves.7
It is not the process of “History” that has meaning it is human beings that give it meaning. We attach a “meaning” to a directionless process like history and we hope against hope that it has an end in view. But of course there is no end in view there is merely the expectant hope that it will all end well.
I would have thought that the last century would have taught human beings that there is no inevitable happy ending to “History” especially the history we call “History” or as Popper refers to it:
…the history of power politics is nothing but the history of international crime and mass murder.8
That the above is “real History”, as opposed to other histories is just a conceit not an obvious fact. And that that sort of history must have a happy ending is the triumph of hope over sense. After all if the Cold War taught us nothing it was that “History” could have had an end all right. In Human extinction and why that end is less likely than one of eternal human happiness is beyond me.
Instead what is likely is that human history will continue to exist and go on as long as human beings exist. When we cease it will cease.
Sometime in the future I will look at some doctrines of historicism.
1. See the Popper, Karl, The Poverty of Historicism, The Beacon Press, Boston, 1957 and The Open Society and its Enemies, v. 1, 2, George Routledge & Sons, London, 1957.
2. Gottwald, Norman K., The Hebrew Bible, Fortress Press, Philadelphia PENN, 1987, pp. 337-404, Campion, Nicholas, The Great Year, Penguin Books, London, 1994, pp. 104-160.
3. Kaufmann, Walter, Religions in Four Dimensions, Reader’s Digest Press, New york, 1976, pp. 54-70.
4. See especially the poetry of Virgil and the writings of Livy. Livy can be located at Perseus Here, Virgil can be found at Perseus Here. See also Campion, pp. 181-182, 282-283.
5. See Book of Daniel and Revelations at Gutenberg Here, Campion, pp. 111, 151-154, 284-288.
7. For the City of God by Augustine see University of Virginia Text Center, Here.
8. Popper, v. 2, p. 257.