Translated by Greg Johnson
Men have always felt the need to peer into the future. The Greeks asked the Pythia of Delphi. The obscurity of the oracle’s pronouncements lent them to multiple interpretations. Bowing to custom, Alexander consulted her before undertaking the conquest of Asia. As she was slow to return to her tripod, the impatient Macedonian dragged her there by force. She exclaimed: “One cannot resist you . . .” Having heard these words, Alexander let her go, saying: “This prediction is enough for me.” He was a sage.
Every age has its prophets, soothsayers, haruspices, astrologers, palmists, futurologists, and other charlatans. Today we use computers. Then, they used mediums. Catherine de’ Medici consulted Nostradamus. Cromwell listened to William Lily. Stalin questioned Wolf Messing. Hitler questioned Eric Hanussen. Briand and Poincaré shared the talents of Mrs. Fraya . . . The destiny of an individual, however, is one thing; the destiny of a civilization is another.
Preceded by the optimism inherited from the Enlightenment, the 20th century began with promises of a glowing future, in the certitude that science and knowledge led to progress and wisdom. were progress factors and of wisdom. Man would truly become “Master and possessor of nature” and acquire self-mastery too. After the victory over things, peace and harmony between the men would establish themselves.
The pitiless 20th century shattered these illusions. Nobody, or almost nobody, had foreseen the catastrophic consequences of the murder in Sarajevo in the Summer of 1914. All the belligerents expected a short, fresh, happy war. It was interminable, terrible, and deadly as never before. It was the unforeseen gift of industrial progress and mass democracy to mankind—two new factors that had transformed the very nature of war. Beginning as a traditional conflict between States, it finished as an ideological crusade, dragging down the old European order, incarnated by the three great empires of the Center and the East. And the butchery of Europe and the conditions imposed on the vanquished after 1919 carried the germ of another more catastrophic war.
At the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, the illusions of progress have been partly dissipated, so much so that one hears about “fatal progress” or “economic horror.” Marxism and its certitudes foundered in the collapse of the system to which it had given birth. The optimism of yore often yields to a kind of overpowering pessimism, nourished by anxiety over a future we have every reason to fear. One turns to History to ask for answers.
But the interpretation of History escapes neither fashion nor reigning ideas. Thus one always needs strength of mind and character to free oneself from the weight of one’s own time. With a little drive, any curious, free, and cultivated spirit can grasp the unforeseeable character of History, which the last hundred years of facts make unavoidably clear, and see through the deterministic theories resulting from the Hegelian vision.
On January 22nd, 1917, a Lenin who was almost unknown and permanently exiled, spoke before a circle of socialist students: “We old men,” he said of himself, “will perhaps never see the decisive battles of the Revolution . . .” Seven weeks later, Tsarism was overthrown, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks had nothing to do with it. The “decisive battles” in which he no longer believed were commencing, to the misfortune of Russia and the whole world. I know few anecdotes so revealing of the difficulty of historical forecasts. This one is in a class by itself.
During the academic year 1975–1976, Raymond Aron, one of the most perspicacious minds of our time, gave a course at the Collège de France on “The Decline of the West,” which was already a whole curriculum. Here is his conclusion: “the decline of the United States of 1945 to 1975 rose from irresistible forces.” Let us note the word “irresistible.” In his Memories, published the year of his death, in 1983, Aron returned to this reflection and amplified it: “What I have observed since 1975 was the threat of disintegration of the American imperial zone . . .” To those who live under the shadow of the American world imperium, this analysis makes one question the author’s lucidity. And yet, he never doubted himself. Our astonishment is due to the fact that History galloped on unbeknownst to us, showing us a world today that is very different from what it was twenty years earlier, which nobody had foreseen.
By no means do I suggest ignoring the threats looming on our horizon: devouring globalization, demographic explosions, massive immigration, the pollution of nature, genetic engineering, etc. During an age of anxiety, it is healthy to repel happy illusions; it is salubrious to practice the virtues of active pessimism, those of Thucydides or Machiavelli. But it is just as necessary to reject the kind of pessimism that turns into fatalism.
The first error regarding future threats would be to regard them as inescapable. History is not the domain of fate but of the unforeseen. A second error would be to imagine the future as a prolongation of the present. If anything is certain, it is that the future will be different from how one imagines it today. A third error would be to lose hope in intelligence, imagination, will, and finally ourselves.
Source: Le Figaro, January 19th, 2000
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