Western Civilization Is Destroying Its Historical Heritage,
Enlightenment Consolidation of the Idea of Progress
One of the great philosophers of history of this era would seem to have retrogressed away from this developing idea of progress with his cyclical view of history — that is, Giambattista Vico, author of Scienza Nuova Prima (1725/1744). First, it needs to be recognized that this book offered a very original and profound perspective on history: the idea that we can only understand cultural practices by studying history, which spoke to the improving historical consciousness of Europeans. Vico made a powerful case for the development of a methodology that was unique to the historical sciences against the use of the “Cartesian deductive method.” History deals with non-quantifiable evidence, with the languages, customs, and actions of people, which are particular and individuated, and change over time. A “new science” of history could be constructed because it was a product of human action. History was essentially “the history of the ideas, the customs, and the deeds of mankind,” from which study we can “derive the principles of the history of human nature, which we shall show to be the principles of universal history.” While nations don’t develop at the same pace, they all pass through the same stages: the ages of gods, heroes, and men. Nations “develop in conformity to this division by a constant and uninterrupted order of causes and effects present in every nation.” The age of gods and heroes result from the creative acts of “imagination,” while the age of men stems from the faculty of “reflection.” Nations were “poetic in their beginnings,” and their history can be understood through the study of their fables, myths, the structure of early languages, and the formation of polytheistic religions.
Vico thus saw in history the steady ascendance of reason over imagination, from the bestial state of early society to the rule of law, actualizing the potential of human nature. The transition from one stage to the next and the steady ascendance of reason over imagination represent a gradual progress of civilization, a qualitative improvement from simpler to more complex forms of social organization. This progress in history is the manifestation of Providence in the world. Vico however came up with the original idea that Providence utilizes the vices of men to bring about progress: “Out of ferocity, avarice, and ambition, the three vices which run throughout the human race, legislation creates the military, merchant, and governing classes, and thus the strength, riches, and wisdom of commonwealths. Out of these three great vices, which could certainly destroy all mankind on the face of the earth, it makes civil happiness.” In short, it was “out of the passions of men each bent on his private advantage” that God brought forth his rational design. With this idea—which would find expression in Kant’s concept of the “unsocial sociability” of humans, and in Hegel’s “cunning of reason,” historians would start to integrate the indelible role of human vices in history with the idea of progress, and how this progress was leading towards the gradual improvement of human nature, or the possibility that humans would find peaceful but still transformative ways to express their vices. Yet Vico, at the same time, emphasized the cyclical character of history with the three ages, the divine, the heroic, and the human, repeating themselves—famously writing that “the nature of peoples is first crude, then severe, then benign, then delicate, finally dissolute.” He integrated this cyclical conception within the Christian linear idea. With the end of a cycle, a new cycle begins at a higher level of culture. He wrote of his own time as the “second age of men” characterized by the “true” Christian religion and the monarchical government of 17th century Europe.
It was around the mid-1700s that Europeans began to identify a clear, empirically based, sequence of stages independent from the Biblical narrative, depicting a progressive improvement in actual laws, forms of government, economic systems, and in the manner and morals of humans, in terms of purely natural or man-made causes—thus secularizing, not rejecting, the idea of progress in Augustine, Orosius, and Bossuet. This was originally an achievement of the “Scottish Enlightenment,” with the most notable books including Lord Kames’s Historical Law Tracts (1758) and Sketches on the History of Man (1774), Adam Ferguson’s The History of Civil Society (1767), William Robertson’s The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), John Millar’s Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771), Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), and James Dumbar’s Essays on the History of Mankind in Rude and Cultivated Ages (1780). This “modern” stage theory of history began with the observation that increasing commercialization and advancement of human knowledge (now apparent in the rise of Newtonian science) countered the Hobbesian and Calvinist vision of human nature as innately depraved and inclined to permanent violence unless men subordinated themselves to an absolute authority capable of preventing an inevitable “war of all against all.” The moral philosophers, the British Lord Shaftesbury and the Scot Francis Hutcheson, began to argue, under the influence of Locke’s blank slate argument, that the moral character of humans was not permanently fixed but capable of improvement. They observed an increasing “refinement” and “politeness” in the urbane and enlightened culture of their times, concluding that humans were born with an innate moral sense, which God granted to them in His own image, a benevolent “fellow-feeling” and a “delight in the good of others.” Humans desire happiness, and helping others gratifies them—“approbation of our own action denotes, or is attended with, a pleasure in the contemplation of it.” Humans are thus self-interested in the well-being of others for the satisfaction it brings them. Hutcheson agreed with Locke that humans are born naturally free and equal everywhere regardless of origin or status, while going beyond by attacking slavery and calling for the maximization of the “natural rights” of man to “life, liberty and honestly acquired property.” The pinnacle of social morality would be achieved when each individual was allowed to live his life as he peacefully chooses while respecting the equal rights of others.
But the question remained: if the desire for happiness and freedom is universal, and humans have an innate moral sense, why have these attributes come to fruition only in modern times rather than across societies throughout history? The implied answer appeared to be that the nature of man had been gradually refined in the course of history. Lord Kames was the first to provide a schematic four stage theory of history—hunting and gathering savagery, pastoral nomadism, agriculture, and commerce—showing how the way people think, act, and govern their lives changes depending on their stage of economic development. Before the rise of commercial society, the natural inclination that humans have to the appropriation of the fruits of their labor as their private property, and to the augmentation of their “opulence,” could not find free expression as long as property was controlled by clans and tribes, or the fields were cultivated communally, as was the case before the consolidation of commercial society, the legal protection of private property rights, and the enforcement of contracts by the government to ensure the peaceful exchange of goods, which had the effect of softening and polishing the manners of men. As Robertson put it, “Commerce tends to wear off those prejudices which maintain distinction and animosity between nations. It softens and polishes the manners of men. It unites them, by one of the strongest of all ties, the desire of supplying their mutual wants.” Traditional societies cannot withstand the attractions of commerce because they run counter to “love of independence and property, the most steady and industrious of human appetites.”
We find, then, in Kames the idea that history has been progressively moving towards a commercial society, where the innate disposition of humans to liberty is actualized. In this society, the nature of man is properly nurtured. We may say now that Kames was a “racist” in his designation of primitive societies as “savage” and his designation of his commercial society as “civilized.” But his idea that all men, regardless of race and regardless of their past traditions, will prefer a commercial society, given the choice, cuts “across issues of race” (as Arthur Herman correctly judges), and points to the current Anglo-American idea of spreading commerce and liberty around the world.
The idea of progress, however, does not require the idea that human nature is innately good. David Hume, known in his time primarily as the author of the six-volume History of England (1754-62), rejected the Shaftesbury-Hutcheson idea that man had an innate “moral sense.” Reason is a “slave of the passions,” of anger, lust, fear, envy, and love of fame. Humans employ their reason as an instrument to advance their self-interests, avoid pain and increase their pleasure. Yet, while Hume emphasized the “uniformity of human nature,” he also agreed with his Scottish friends that history showed progress, growth of industry, personal liberty and peaceful cooperation. Increasing commerce, increasing liberty, increasing creativity in the arts and sciences, and increasing refinement in human manners, were all interrelated. The progress witnessed in history consisted in the re-channeling of human passions in constructive directions through the creation of rules and conventions, internalized by humans into habitual behaviors. The lust for sex, for example, was made socially useful within the confines of marriage. While greed on its own, without limits, destroys peaceful coexistence, increasing commercialization entailed the rechanneling of this passion in a constructive direction by encouraging everyone to pursue their self-interest within the framework of a civil society that protected the property rights of individuals.
Adam Smith, without denying that humans have “an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren,” agreed with Hume that self-interest is an essential attribute of man, coupled with the “natural effort of every individual to better his condition” as long as they are given the opportunity to do so in a free market. His Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), seen as a summation of the Scottish exploration of progress, of the stages of economic and cultural development through which humanity has passed, explained at length how it is that the hidden hand of the market, a competitive setting in which everyone is obligated to supply the goods preferred by consumers, channels the pursuit of private gain into the general welfare of society. The way to maximize general wealth is to allow men to pursue their self interest by buying and selling without government monopolies and curtailments on the accumulation of wealth. Free markets have an inbuilt tendency for progress: increasing participation in the market increases the division of labor and thus productivity, and the greater the pressures of competitiveness, the more businesses invest in new technologies, which ensures continuous progress.
At this point in the history of Europeans, the idea of progress had risen above the speculative; it was based, and supported by the reality that Europe had been progressing at an accelerating rate in the sciences, in liberty, and the making of new technologies. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was seen as a largely consensual (polite) and bloodless success of tempered liberty and limited monarchy. Inventions and innovations were appearing successively through the 1700s, such as Jethro Tull’s seed drill, Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine, John Kay’s flying shuttle, Benjamin Franklin’s lightening rod, John Harrison’s chronometer for measuring longitude, Hargreaves’s spinning jenny—culminating in an Industrial Revolution that would see a whole new epoch in European history. Without these changes—the Renaissance, Discovery of the World, Rise of Galilean/Newtonian science, the Glorious Revolution, which firmly established the principles of frequent parliaments, free elections and freedom of speech within Parliament, followed by the Industrial Revolution—the historical consciousness of Europeans would have stalled and stagnated back into a purely cyclical conception, or never risen above a Christian millennial anticipation of a Golden Age beyond the earthly realities of the City of Man. The Scottish stage theory of history was a major historiographical accomplishment advancing knowledge about the main patterns of history. The greatest historical narrative of this age was Edward Gibbon’s six-volume work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), which incorporated the ancient cyclic idea that decline is a product of the luxury, effeminacy, and corruption that conquest and success bring, while agreeing with the insightful observation made by Hume (and Montesquieu) that the luxury obtained by commerce and industry would not have the same enervating effect as the luxury obtained by conquest, for it required frugality, energy and discipline, writing: “We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased , and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue of the human race.”
By the mid-1700s, the idea that we can witness cumulative advancement in history came to dominate the minds of historians. However, whereas the “moderate” Scottish perspective held that the fellow-feeling of humans could be nurtured and their greed could be rechanneled into productive tasks within a market setting, without altering the self-interested nature of humans, among members of the French Enlightenment the central message was that history was leading towards the perfection of human nature itself. This movement “towards greater perfection” was anchored in the belief that history was fundamentally a process involving the emancipation of reason from the blind passions of humans, which had been responsible for their superstition and vices, rather than being anchored, as it was for the Scots, in the mere acquisition of commercial comfort and polite behavior. Voltaire, in his Essay on the Manners, Customs, and the Spirit of Nations (1754), praised the achievements of the Chinese, Indian, Persian, and Islamic civilizations, while arguing that the superiority of the West consisted in the greater progress of their rationality. While the majority of people may never become fully rational, among Western elites there was a noticeable increase on the reliance of reason rather than religious dogma. Voltaire would go beyond Hume’s argument favoring skeptical and naturalistic principles over the revealed truth-claims of Christianity in openly stating that the priestly class was the greatest purveyor of bigotry and oppression.
And Condorcet would take to its logical conclusion this progressive idea in his essay “Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind” (1795), which identified ten distinctive stages in humanity’s advancement, from the beginning when men were “united into hordes,” through “the agricultural state” and “the invention of alphabetical writing,” to the “Invention of the Art of Printing,” right to his own time, the ninth stage, when modern Cartesian and Newtonian science were consolidated, and the French Republic declared the “true rights of man.” In the tenth stage, he anticipated the education of the human race with the creation of public schools, the spread of mathematics and the social sciences, guaranteeing the infinite perfection of the human condition, bringing universal happiness. This would be a time “when the sun will behold henceforth on earth free men only, recognizing no master but their own reason.” In the tenth stage, he anticipated the education of the human race with the creation of public schools, the spread of mathematics and the social sciences, and “real improvement” in the “moral, intellectual and physical” faculties of men across the world, bringing about, in the words of Keith M. Baker, “a more decent world for universal human rights, individual autonomy, and a measure of equality between individuals and nations.”
The Enlightenment age saw an increasing awareness among Europeans about the broad patterns of human history, fueled by their realization that their own time was indeed a new era in the rational understanding of reality. The Enlightenment was completely different from any previous epoch, a “modern” era, characterized by its scepticism towards all religious beliefs hitherto accepted as true, by its questioning of the notion of “divine right” and rule by a nobility based on privilege of birth. It called for a government based on the will of the educated commercial and professional classes, which had acquired their positions on merit, by peaceful means. Kant, in an essay entitled, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim,” published in 1784, offered a synthesis of the Scottish and French idea of progress. The “motto of enlightenment” was “have courage to use your own reason.” History showed a constant propensity towards “progress” and liberty: “it has revealed a tendency and a faculty in human nature for improvement.” Drawing on the Hume’s conception of human nature, and Adam Smith’s explanation about how markets redirect human self interest into benevolent ends, Kant anchored the dynamic of history in the “unsocial sociability” of humans. While humans are social by nature, in need of cooperating with others, they also have a “thoroughgoing resistance” to this tendency due to their vanity, greed, and self-interest. It was this “unsocial sociability,” and the antagonisms it generated, that brought about historical change. “Without those qualities of an unsocial kind, out of which antagonism arises… men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony, contentment and mutual love, but in that case their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ.” It was as if Providence had implanted this trait on humans as part of a “hidden plan of nature” to bring about the Enlightenment out of which the rational capacities of men would be fully developed. In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” Kant proposed a federation of republics, a “universal civic society which administers law among men,” uniting nations into one great supreme body, that puts in place constitutions and treaties capable of ensuring liberty, peace, security, and rights within and between nation-states.
These were “philosophic histories,” not actual historical narratives. The writing of historical events “as they really were” based on extensive research in primary sources, and on a professional university education, still lay in the future. Among the greatest, and most influential, historians of the nineteenth century are those who believed that history was, above all, a story of the gradual realization of liberty, knowledge, and reliance upon reason—a view that culminated, as we shall see soon, in what came to be known in the twentieth century as the “Grand Narrative” of American liberalism in the wake of the defeat of Fascism in WWII, which viewed the synthesis of scientific reason, capitalist prosperity, and individual rights, as the highest in achievement, a result of thousands years of Western evolution, combining the Greek democratic and rationalist legacy, Roman law, Judeo-Christian values, the Enlightenment, and modern bourgeois revolutions.
One of the first narrative histories of this liberal view was Thomas Macaulay’s 5 vol. History of England from the Accession of James II, published in 1846-61. The focus was on England, and its argument was that the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the liberal progressive history of this nation thereafter, demonstrated that the England of Macaulay’s time was not an accidental creation but the result of centuries of development marked by the gradual march of liberty, beginning in its free Germanic institutions, through to the Magna Carta of 1215, and leading to Victorian England as the industrial workshop of the world. Macaulay’s book, one of the most famous and best-selling historical works ever written, celebrated the peculiarly British achievement for progress without totally breaking with the past, reconciling past, present, and future, as witnessed in the relatively peaceful Glorious Revolution, which created a constitutional monarchy, and preserved the House of Lords, followed by the Reform Act of 1832, actively supported by Lord Macaulay, a Whig politician. This Reform Act, he argued, had saved Britain from the radical revolutions experienced on the continent, particularly in France. Herbert Butterfield would later (1931) call it “the Whig interpretation of history.” This was a history in which the agent of progress was the middle class, the urbane commercial classes the Scottish Enlightenment had celebrated the previous century for its “politeness.”
While Macaulay’s “Whig interpretation” would be subsequently developed in a historically “professional” direction (criticized as he was for his unsophisticated use of sources despite general admiration for his “vivid, dramatic, eloquent and exhilarating” narrative style), the Whig interpretation is seen today as a short-lived effort that barely anyone would accept in subsequent decades, discredited by historical events themselves, the WWI disaster, the rise of fascism, and the cultivation of sophisticated historical methodologies. Butterfield’s criticism that Whig narratives were inherently “teleological” in understanding the past in light of present values, rather than on its own terms, was indeed widely accepted. Yet, what was really rejected was an oversimplified version of the liberal progressive narrative. We can start to realize this by simply witnessing the widespread acceptance of liberal values throughout the Western world into our own times, and the continued persistence of progressive historians, who now come in multiple shapes, with diverse methodologies, diverse historical agents, freed from any form of Anglo/European centrism. Butterfield’s own best-known book, The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800, was itself quite Whiggish in tracing a cumulative line of scientific advancement in Europe. Because the West was actually seen increasing scientific knowledge, higher productivity, improving standards of living, greater equality of rights, this progressive liberal view could not be easily defeated.
Macaulay was one among many. Francois Guizot, France’s greatest 19th century constitutional historian, wrote a History of Civilization in Europe (1828), arguing that Europe’s dynamism, as contrasted to the theocratic and despotic civilizations of the East, derived from its Germanic love of aristocratic independence, its Roman civic republicanism, and its Christian idea of separation of spiritual and secular powers. William Stubbs, relying mainly on primary sources, a true antiquarian editor of 19 volumes of medieval chronicles, known for his dense scholarly rigor, authored The Constitutional History of England in its Origins and Development (1873, 3 vol.), arguing that England had a history of liberty beginning with the Teutonic free holding of land and self-government of village communities, through medieval local representative bodies, to the fully developed national parliamentary constitution of the modern era. The triumph of the liberal idea of progress cut across ideological, national, and religious differences, notwithstanding the emerging tensions between those who adopted the Scottish/Anglo commercial version of progress (which tended to hold a realistic view of human nature as unchangeable even if capable of “improvement in manners”), and those who believed that progress entailed the “perfection of human nature” itself. The former liberal version would become identified with “conservatives,” whereas the latter would be identified with “radical liberals.” The most utopian liberal may have been William Godwin. He was convinced that a time would be reached when “there will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice…and no government…neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardor, the good of all.” Both two sides, however, belonged to the same European/Christian root, and, despite their many quarrels, would eventually, with the defeat of Fascism in the 1940s, and Communism in the 199s, coalesce as two sides of the same triumphant “end of history” Liberalism.
Few could escape the reality of progress in the West, including the Catholic authoritarian Auguste Comte. In his exhausting six volume treatise, Course in Positive Philosophy (1830-1842), Comte would focus on the intellectual history of Europeans in light of the “peculiar capacity of European countries to serve as the theatre of the preponderant evolution of humanity.” This does not mean that his theory, as Karl Lowith implies, was not universal. The Occident was increasingly coming to be seen as the torchbearer for the future course of human history. This “Eurocentrism” would come to be repudiated after about the 1950s as inappropriate for a progressively improving Western world. Comte explained how the mind had progressed through three stages, the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive or scientific stage, detailing this three stage evolution for each of the major sciences, and how this evolution occurred first in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and, in his time, was occurring in the sciences of man, leading to the development of sociology as the last and most comprehensive positive science, which would work to make society totally rational with scientists as the rulers, bringing about the perfect realization of all the potentialities of human nature, to a future of peace, harmony, and happiness. Comte, who had a preference for the Catholic “system,” reached this conclusion without endorsing the French revolutionary principles of “liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty,” calling individualism and liberalism “the disease of the Western world,” and insisting that only a central authority could provide the order necessary for the full positive reconstruction of society. This Catholic authoritarianism would eventually be discarded by “more” progressive scientific liberals. While Marxism would constitute a formidable illiberal attempt to achieve progress, and become one of the most influential historiographical schools in the West, with the fall of communism in the 1990s, and the prior defeat of Fascism, the West would witness the integration of radical and classical liberalism, combined with a feminist and a multicultural historiography against Eurocentrism.
A few decades after Comte, Herbert Spencer, in the wake of Darwin’s progress in biological knowledge, would argue that the “law of progress” was inscribed in the evolutionary struggle for survival as witnessed in the natural world and in the struggle of individuals and nations for supremacy. To ensure the survival of the fittest, the best thing the state could do was to stay out of education, manufacturing, public health, and sanitation. “All deficiency would disappear,” “unfitness to the conditions of existence,” as societies left individuals to pursue their interests on their own spontaneous efforts, forming voluntary associations if they so wished, to achieve success or failure. In societies with minimal state interference, “imperfection would disappear” and “the ultimate development of the ideal man” would be “logically certain.” Spencer would eventually be caught up within the very logic of progress he endorsed as a new generation of progressives would condemn him as a “racist reactionary” to be discarded from the pantheon of “great sociologists.”
Nisbet contends that up until the 1970s the idea of progress exerted a powerful influence on Western civilization since ancient times. J. B. Bury, in his classic, The Idea of Progress, traces its origins to the 1600s. I believe that it originated with Christianity, notwithstanding its undeveloped character, which awaited the reality of actual progress for this idea to be articulated in a conscious, empirically based, way in the 1700s. Nisbet believes that, by the 1970s, what were once solid sentiments about “the value and promise of Western civilization” came to be “severely challenged by doubt and disillusionment, even outright hostility.” Western history, rather than seen as a gradual process of amelioration in manners, standard of living, and freedoms, was now interpreted as a long travail of follies, colonial wars, despoliation of the world’s ecology, enslavement of peoples and racial inequalities. The idea of progress, Nisbet observes, had been able “to survive a great deal of adversity in its twenty-five hundred years: mass poverty, plagues and famines, devastating wars…religious tyranny.” The difference in the 1970s was that this idea had lost its “crucial premises.” These premises had been “challenged by doubt and disillusionment” from the late 19th century and with “outright hostility” in the 2nd half of the 20th century. The premises which had sustained this idea were: i) belief in the value of the past, ii) conviction in the superiority of Western civilization, iii) acceptance of the worth of economic and technological change, iv) faith in reason and in the intrinsic worth of life on earth.
But if the idea of progress was rejected, how come Western elites today (across political lines) are so committed to the “improvement of the human condition” through the maintenance of public goods to “reduce the harmful effects of economic inequality” as well as “institutional racism” while advocating for “environmentally conscious policies,” “gender equality,” “minority rights,” multiculturalism, and political correctness? What Nisbet misses is that this idea presupposes, by its very normative impetus, progression in the way that we think about progress. Conviction in the superiority of Western civilization, coupled with the designation of less developed peoples as “savages” and “barbarians,” is a “Eurocentric prejudice.” The idea of progress could not sustain itself merely by repeating that things have been progressing as they should in a harmonious manner leading to the best of all possible worlds at each point in time. The 19th century socialist and Marxist critique of the classical liberal idea of progress was premised on the progressive conviction that for all the incontestable evidence of progress, the vast majority were still living in misery. Nisbet himself refers to various socialistic arguments, such as Henry George’s argument in his best-selling book, Progress and Poverty (1879), that reduction of inequalities, slavery and hereditary privileges, has been a cardinal component in “the law of progress” throughout history, with one inequality still remaining: “unjust accrual of profits and other income from the land.” Only with the elimination of this “last vestige of barbarism,” socialists came to believe, would a golden age start in the history of humanity. Nisbet was an old conservative who wished to stop the progressive course of history he endorsed before the 1970s. The idea of progress does not require reverence for the past. Nisbet chastises the liberal historian John Harold Plumb (1911-2001) for welcoming “the death of the past,” as Plumb put it in the title of a book published in 1969. After celebrating the progress man accomplished in controlling himself and his environment through his rationality, Plumb happily asserted: “The old past is dying, its force is weakening, and so it should. Indeed, the historian should speed its way, for it was compounded of bigotry, of national vanity, of class domination.” Plumb looked forward to a time when humans would not identify as “Americans or Russians, Chinese or Britons, black or white, but as man.” Nisbet can’t come to terms with the reality, as it is now indubitably clear, that universalism, the true rights of man, together with the Enlightenment reverence of “human reason,” created the conditions for the view that an “irrational and bigoted past” should not be revered. Discarding Western civilization is an inevitable result of progress.
We have seen that a philosophy of history has been an intrinsic component of the Western idea that history is not a chance combination of events but is characterized by purposeful rational pattern leading to, in the words of Kant, “the development of all the capacities implanted in men.” Although the secularization of this idea would generate scepticism towards the Kantian notion that “the history of mankind…can be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature,” liberals to this day tend to accept Voltaire’s argument that we can view history as a movement away from superstition and bigotry towards enlightenment, as well as Condorcet’s anticipation that in future stages we would witness “the abolition of inequality between nations and the progress of equality within each nation.” Because there was barely any development outside the West, with the civilizations of the East becoming ossified and cyclical after their Axial Age (600 BC-200 AD) accomplishments, the East failed to nurture a philosophy of history = reflections on the meaning, trajectories, patterns, and goal of history.
G. W. F. Hegel was the greatest philosopher of history produced by the West. The becoming of man, the actualization of his essence in the course of history, was fundamental to Hegel’s thinking. His Lectures on the Philosophy of World History(1830) contend that “the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” The key term is not “freedom”—as it would be for a classical liberal—but “consciousness” of freedom, and the singular capacity of reason to lift people up above the chance events of nature, above their instinctive inclinations and their unreflective acceptance of customary norms. The beginning of the growth of freedom was made possible by the beginning of the liberation of reason from its prior dependence or submergence within the natural world and its unreflective acceptance of the world as it was given to it. Hegel’s philosophy of history is an account of the stages by which humans become conscious of their consciousness, with the thinking subject gradually ceasing to be imprisoned to something external to it, leading to the beginnings of selfhood and an inward consciousness, a dialectic that starts in ancient Greece. It is this self-relation of the “I” to itself that introduces a developmental dynamic to European history. Africans remained completely absorbed, much like children, in their natural world. China, India, and Persia did develop some abstract ethical concepts about the proper way of life, but their spirit then stagnated after the origins of Confucianism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism during the Axial Age, remaining “rule-followers,” where propriety was identified with the way things were done in a golden past. They thus stood “outside the world’s history,” with India never developing a historical consciousness, and China never going beyond an annalistic form of writing and never coming up with the idea of progress.
Yet, Hegel’s conception of freedom dissented from the Anglo liberal view, what Isiah Berlin famously called “negative liberty,” in which freedom meant the absence of restrictions and the right of individuals to choose their own lifestyles and happiness, without a state mandating the good life. He advocated a “positive conception of freedom” in which individuals enjoy their private freedoms but within the framework of an organic community ruled by an Enlightened constitutional state in charge of ensuring the “social freedom” of citizens, both the highest good, virtuous activity, and their sense of peoplehood (Volk), by virtue of their belonging, through birth and historical experience, to a particular culture. Individuals give their allegiance to this community insofar as they recognize themselves their own reasoned values rooted in their history. He was not envisioning a community of rootless abstract individuals reaching a contract regardless of nationhood. Hegel did not believe in universal suffrage, but in a government controlled by an educated elite of state officials and professionals, much like Prussia was in his time, along with representative institutions based on property qualifications, rather than responsive to the impulsive or arbitrary choices of the masses.
While Hegel’s “supra-individual” state was seen as totalitarian for some time, a view expressed by Karl Popper, eventually he would be incorporated into the pantheon of “liberal progressive thinkers” as his philosophy was cleansed of its “ignorance” and its “racism,” and as his “positive freedom” was re-interpreted into a welfare conception of “social rights,” with Charles Taylor even using his communitarianism and his theory that all humans seek to be recognized as equal in dignity, into a theory which called for the recognition of the right of immigrant minorities to enjoy multicultural/communitarian rights. Liberalism has a unique capacity for the reabsorption of many ideas within its in-built progressive dynamic.
Karl Marx articulated a radically new progressive ideology, according to which liberal capitalism would be replaced by a new modern communism wherein the exploitation of man by man, which still prevailed within capitalism, would be transcended. Marx admired the progressive impact of capitalism, how “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” But he criticized liberal capitalism for recognizing only the formal equality of workers while keeping them in a state of subjugation within the workplace where capitalists controlled the labor process and extracted surplus value. Humans would develop their full potentialities only when private property in the means of production came to be abolished and a new society created in which workers would own the means of production and everyone would receive wages according to their effort and merit. Communism was a major challenge to Liberalism for some decades, to be eventually defeated by Liberalism. The so-called “Western Marxism,” which emerged in academia after WWII, would also be eventually incorporated into Liberalism as a safe theoretical outlook (supported by career opportunities and huge government grants) acknowledged for its “contribution to our understanding of history.” We shall address this later.
I have not yet reached the “professionalization” of history writing associated with German historiography in the second half of the 19th century. Many great books were written in the 1800s, it is difficult to offer a proper summary. Europeans were the only people who gradually became conscious of the temporality of human experience, how each people and epoch are characterized by their own values, concepts of truth, sense of reality and time. It was around the 17th century that Europeans began to employ the tripartite periodic division: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, as they became historically conscious in lieu of their new, path breaking achievements, printing, discovery of the New World, Copernican/Galilean science, and gunpowder artillery. It was within this historical context that Jacob Burckhardt wrote his celebrated book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), which aimed to capture the spirit of this epoch, its unique style of politics, its manners, its form of Christianity—through the study of its art.
Burckhardt’s argument was that the Renaissance gave birth to modernity because it gave birth to individualism. In the Middle Ages, “man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation…In Italy this veil first melted into air…man became a spirited individual, and recognized himself as such.” Among the humanists, the scholars, the nobles, artists and rulers, he observed “an unbridled subjectivity,” men obsessed with fame, status, appearances. This nurtured an intense self-awareness, unlike their medieval forebears, who were trapped within a collective identity, unaware of themselves as possessing individual subjectivity. This will to self-expression fueled the cultural creativity of the Renaissance. We may point today, in light of recent scholarship, to emerging signs of individualism among the ancients and during the Middle Ages. But this should not detract us from Burkhardt’s immense accomplishment as the author who taught us that modernity is fundamentally about the separation of the self from a collective identity, within which humans cannot but remain unconscious. We will see that liberal progress is about intensifying this separation, the self from all “traditional restraints” including sexuality, racial and national identities, and from human nature itself, in the name of a new and improved humanity.
The discovery of the New World generated numerous historical accounts showing an increasing awareness among Europeans of the multiplicity of customs, manners, and beliefs among the peoples of the world, including the palpable reality that different areas of the planet have followed different historical paths. Let’s mention Francis Parkman (1823-1893), an American historian known for The California and Oregon Trail, Pioneers of France in the New World, The Jesuits in North America, Montcalm and Wolfe, and his multi-volume France and England in North America, published between 1865 and 1892. Theodore Roosevelt dedicated his four-volume history of the frontier, The Winning of the West (1889–1896), to Parkman. I first learned about him about 5 years ago when I saw France and England in North America with the stamped words “discarded” outside a university library. It did not matter that this book was based on archives in England, France, and North America, written from primary sources, letters, memoirs, dispatches, and first-person observations. Parkman, despite being dogged by lifelong ill health, severe eye trouble, undertook extremely physically demanding expeditions in the New World, living among Indians, admiring them for their bravery, dignity, and fortitude, while pointing to their lack of fixity of purpose—saw life as an incessant struggle for existence. John Burrow opines that Parkman was a “sensitive literary artist, a master of evocative, sensuous prose.” Historians like Parkman can’t be found in any university in our times. He came from an early America, in what ancient Roman historians would identify as a relatively early stage in the cycle of this civilization, when life was hard and men were inevitably strong in character, not from the pampered world of our present woke universities.
Science and progressivism are tightly aligned in the West. The scientific establishment and the progressive left were for the Covid lockdowns and vaccine mandates. The magazine Scientific American, which has stated recently that science must never accept studies about IQ differences between races but instead work diversity and racial harmony in the West, announced in August 2021 that “Vaccine Mandates Are Lawful, Effective and Based on Rock-Solid Science.” It agreed with the call by liberal progressives for “mandatory and punitive vaccination certificates for public activities and firing employees who refuse vaccination.” There is, of course, science going on independently of political aims. But on the most crucial issues of our times, such as race differences, vaccinations, environmentalism… science is ideologically progressive—rather than progressive in the pure scientific sense of bringing about new knowledge.
The right does not adequately understand this, believing that science, by its very objective logic, is on their side. If the evidence is laid out in the open, they naively believe, politicians will follow “the data” and choose the right policies. They have failed to realize that Western science has been part of a wider cultural progressivist matrix within which it must find justification and validation. Since progressivism has an inbuilt nature according to which the present and the future are superior to the past, it cannot but judge the progressives of the past as lesser versions of the progressives of the present. In his time Herbert Spencer was seen as a progressive who believed in “the right of free speech,” “the right to ignore the state.” His “social Darwinism,” very influential through the early 1900s, was used by progressives (along with the Mendelian science of heredity) as a justification for eugenics to solve social problems (crime, alcoholism, prostitution), and as a justification for the civilizing influence of Anglo imperialism on the nonwhite races—only to be condemned by a new generation of progressives as a rationalization for the inequality of classes, European colonialism and claims about the cultural and biological superiority of the West.
The impact of science on historiography has followed such a pattern, with political progressivism framing the way a science of history ought to be constructed. Initially it all seemed to be about learning to use the scientific method to understand history better. Henry Thomas Buckle wrote his History of Civilization of England (1857) under the influence of Comte’s argument that the task was to search for regularities in social phenomena based on generalizations through the systematic observation of the facts. He called upon historians to give up the Christian view of progress that “in the affairs of men there is something mysterious and providential.” Historians should focus on “tracing the progress of science…of the fine arts, of useful inventions and…of the manners and comforts of the people.” He concluded that geography, climate, and soil are the primary causes of progress, and that the reason Europe had advanced over non-European civilizations was that in Europe men were less overwhelmed by the forces of nature, which allowed European man alone to subdue nature to his service and to organize society according to laws constructed by the human mind. The progression of Europe consisted in the continually diminishing influence of nature’s impact on social relations, and the continually increasing influence of man-made laws. The New York Times called Buckle one of “the fathers and founders of the Science of History.”
But Buckle — who spent 17 years working ten hours a day to write his book — would soon be forgotten and displaced by a new generation of Americans known as “the Progressive Historians” who believed that the social sciences of economics and sociology were crucial to the understanding of history, and acknowledged their debt to Marx’s “economic interpretation of history.” Charles Beard, a Fabian socialist, became famous with his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) arguing that the financial interests of the Founding Fathers shaped the values of the Constitution. For these historians, progress was a result of rational planning, not a result of a providential plan. Only “activist” research that grasped the “real” laws governing history could teach the masses how to create a truly democratic and harmonious immigrant America pervaded by a spirit of equality and rationalism. Simultaneously, the progressive jurists, Roscoe Pound, Louis Brandeis, and Wendell Holmes proclaimed law to be a means for social reconstruction. Even when Beard rejected the possibility of “scientific objectivity” in history, shaken by WWI and the Great Depression, and by his own view that ideas were products of a specific class, period, or nationality, affirmed that history aimed at fulfilling the American dream of a just and democratic society, planned by socialist rationalists.
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