Sunday, November 8, 2015

History and Theodicy

          “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one,” said Voltaire. One cannot help but think of this line out of the French age of lights as one considers the maturation of the scientific discipline of history within the German academy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This is not the place to argue for the general importance of this cultural phenomenon, or its connection (with or without hints of causal importance) to the political unification of Germany, or indeed to see in German historicism the intellectual foundations of kaiserist aggression or—even worse—of the Third Reich.[1] No, here I wish merely to consider the role played by God—or the absence of God—in the philosophy of history of that period. At a time when human knowledge came to be based upon new foundations, certain questions of meaning and man’s place in the cosmos that had previously been answered by Christian knowledge now required other explanations, and drew reflection from some of the dominant thinkers of the era.
In this discussion one must begin with the Enlightenment, for it was the conceit of the philosophes that in their time, at last, humankind was beginning to use reason to free itself from superstition.[2] “Dare to know,” as Kant put it (channeling Horace). And in keeping with the rational skepticism given voice by Voltaire, Hume, et alii, the German-speaking philologists of biblical exegesis applied a hermeneutic of rationalism, slowly beginning to strip away components of the traditional content of Christian faith (the historicity of the Old Testament, then miracles, then even the historicity of the New Testament).[3] Apart from any impact of this kind of exegetical interpretation upon theology itself, the “dropping out” of the Incarnation from history had deep implications for other sciences as well, indeed for the basic relation of human beings to the world and to God.
In this context, the meaning of history could not but change, but the change was to come about almost reluctantly, at least in terms of the ethos of Christian history. One does not need to engage the whole corpus of Christian theological reflections upon time and history to appreciate that the basic fulcrum of Christian history—God entering into a particular point in time—could no longer have the same significance. But even beyond the narrative arc of history, the Christian gospel message told a history that gave a meaning to time and to every human individual. With impressive scholarly theorists such as Augustine and Bonaventure, but also from the very earliest Christian writings of Paul, Christian tradition handed down a comprehensive story about the world which (in tandem with the medieval cosmology, its counterpart in space) provided an explanation for historical events and human affairs as parts within the whole. That is, it provided a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God to men (to borrow Milton’s line).
Theodicy for “Enlightened Christians”: Herder and Kant
            This theodicy persisted into the modern era in German philosophical meditations on history, despite the loss of certainty in the biblical accounts. Two examples of what may be called “Enlightened Christianity”[4] are found in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder and Immanuel Kant, who though they had differing conceptions of the laws of history, nevertheless both took steps in the same theodical direction. Herder’s influence upon the development of so many fields of knowledge demonstrates the enduring draw of his powerful intellect, which subjected so many aspects of human life to its inquiry. Thus when he turned to history, in his Ideas toward a Philosophy of the History of Man, it was as one more subject of humanity to be probed by reason. In accord with the enlightened natural science of his day, Herder looks to natural causes for historical events, and especially to natural circumstances of development. “In natural philosophy,” he writes, “we never reckon upon miracles.”[5] Instead, he uses the metaphor of cultivation to consider the rise and fall of civilizations, in which particular human endeavors are subject to the confining influences of time and place. Then Herder directly considers the theodical component: faced with this apparently meaningless succession of vicissitudes, “man doubts, and redoubts.”[6] But it immediately becomes clear that Herder is no nihilist: the order in nature which he already accepts leads him to accept order in history, and God is saved, because without curtailing free will he has placed laws within human nature that allow humankind in all its variety to pursue its end of “humanity” (though not in a unilinear progress).
Kant’s philosophy of history is different from Herder’s, yet one will see that his theodical instinct is the same. In contrast to Herder’s centerless variety,[7] Kant’s view of history takes shape into a recognizable form. In his essay “Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” he argues that although at the individual level human actions are impossible to predict and appear to obey no natural law, yet at the aggregate level “a regular march” of human history can be discerned.[8] Like Herder, Kant reasons from nature to history, using more-or-less Aristotelian observations of teleology to deduce a directedness in human action. However, from this point the argument unfolds without recourse to a specific historical narrative but by abstract proposition. On his view, human society is directed toward “enlightenment,” and progresses toward this by developing social institutions that tie people together in dependence despite their desire for independence and finally—solving the “greatest practical problem for the human race…the establishment of a civil society, universally administering right according to law”—by “the establishment of a universal cosmopolitan institution” which regulates the peaceable relations among states which intern regulate the individuals.[9]
In terms of theodicy, Kant’s approach to history is in full agreement with his famous definition of Aufklärung. The enlightened thinker no longer needs the tutelage of religious dogmas, but he does not discard all belief. Rather he is able through reason to discern the ethical truths learned by humankind through history, even through the old religious dogmas. Thus one arrives at his astonishingly bold claim that it is possible “to work out the universal history of the world according to the plan of nature.”[10] This claim to knowledge arises not from the basis of divine revelation, but merely from a confidence in the powers of reason to not only understand the world but to provide the ethical foundations for human life—which are, again, deeply tied to meaning. Thus, Kant is able to justify the world to his readers by means of the ethical evolution visible in a world that had progressed from barbarism and despotism to federations of German states or of American states with the potential for laws to begin to be based on foundations of reason and justice.
Does Theodicy Need God?: Ranke and Hegel
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, German scholarship progressed in its specialization and rigorous methodology—the new University of Berlin was a site for experimental ideas and methods—all with important implications for the theodical “witness” of history. Leopold von Ranke held the chair of history at Berlin, where he laid important groundwork for an apparently scientific practice of history, distinguishing it from the philosophy of history and explicitly rejecting attributions of causal power (whether of divine Providence or a Weltgeist) working behind the scenes to guide history in one direction or another. This historicism, somewhat like Herder’s view, interpreted changes in history by attending to growth that is organic (e.g., of a state within a particular culture), but with less cosmopolitan results. Regardless of whether Ranke deserves the reputation he has,[11] his theory and methodology were in accord with the mythos of modern science that has had tremendous staying power even to the present. It is a natural counterpart to advances in astronomy, physics, etc.
Now, Ranke may have dispensed with theories of active guidance from above, but he actually mentioned God a fair amount in his scattered theoretical writings and lectures. Paradoxically, it was commitment as a historian “merely to stick to the facts” which required him to maintain the eternal presence of God.[12] Unlike the philosopher, the historian “recognizes something infinite in every existence…something eternal, coming from God.”[13] For Ranke, every epoch and event had intrinsic interest (rather than instrumental value as a stage on the path toward some historical singularity) because “every epoch is immediate to God.”[14] This is a generous theodicy, recognizing historical developments but not bound to explain them as divine rewards, punishments, or pedagogical tools. Ranke thus offers a history whose internal changes have internal causes, but which still includes God as a guarantee of universal importance (of every event) and objectivity.[15]
Another towering figure at Berlin who built upon the ideas of Herder and Kant was of course G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel specifically chose the approach of a philosophy of history, which for him meant the application of “the thought that Reason rules the world” to the world’s history. Reminiscent of Kant’s emerging pattern above the interplay of free will, Hegel’s famous theory holds that there is a Weltgeist operating in world history which proceeds toward its end by means of “world-historical individuals,” whose passions serve the Geist even as they frustrate the goals of those very individuals: The “cunning of Reason…allows the passions to work for it, while what it brings into existence suffers loss and injury.”[16] The Weltgeist is certainly no Supreme Being of the Enlightenment, yet it still functions to render a form of theodicy: the “slaughter-bench” of historical evils is not justified, but they are given a place in a larger whole. The tumult and suffering caused by world-historical heroes pursuing their wills (before they are discarded) are sacrifices made by Reason moving toward self-consciousness and toward freedom.[17]
Beyond the Gulf: Marx and Nietzsche
            With Hegel, theodicy stood upon the brink of a chasm, and perhaps even stepped out in faith over the abyss. Quite distinct from even Kant’s “enlightened Christianity,” Hegel’s metaphysical system showed human history being pushed forward by a Weltgeist in a “forward” that only really has meaning for the Weltgeist (unlike Kant’s progress, which could be measured against universal ethical norms). For the individual and even for a historical nation, there is less “justification” going on, and it is unclear whose ways are being justified in any case.[18] Here then the departure was complete; it would be for other thinkers to look at a history that was post-theodical, that is, for whom no justification is available. Marx and Nietzsche provide excellent examples of how to face history beyond theodicy, the condition of the German academy in the mid-nineteenth century.
            Marx offers the path of confident atheism—or, to be more accurate, of doing scholarship when God no longer poses a question. Yet history is still important; the current economic conditions of humanity are developed historically, and so the science of political economy requires a historical context. It was not for rhetorical effect alone that Marx opened his most famous book with the words “The history of all hitherto existing society…”[19] Moreover, in an almost Aristotelean fashion, the present can only be defined by the future development, its final form. Thus a historical story gives the present a meaning by its place within the story. Perhaps most importantly, Marx retains from Hegel a view of a single story within history: “world-historical existence” is defined in reference to what is ultimately the one story of history.[20] Thus, even now one is provided with a need to give a comprehensive accounting of human history; there is no justification of God’s ways, but the individual can at least find his place in the progress of successive levels class conflict. Nietzsche offers no such comforts.
            There are many writings of the quotable Nietzsche that could be summoned to tear down any remaining walls of the old edifice of ethics based on the Christian dogmas, but his early essay, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, serves to highlight the place and function of history. Describing one of his later concerns, the “last men,” Nietzsche already strongly criticizes the rational men of his civilization, even the scholars. Nietzsche scorns the products of the advanced, enlightened, rational and scientific German education system, who will have been cut off from life, loaded down by his “inwardness,” and rendered incapable of  living.[21] In Nietzsche’s own narrative of history, there is no triumphant march of human reason, not even of an impersonal Spirit, and past events will offer no consolation that one is safely a part of the cosmic whole. Nevertheless, there is a place for history if only insofar as it stands “in the service of life.”[22] Nietzsche distinguishes three kinds of history (monumental, antiquarian, and critical), each of which can help a person or society to live but can also have stifling, paralytic effects if allowed to draw one away from one’s own present. For the present purposes however, all three types with their uses reflect the stark admission that for humankind after the death of God, theodicy is gone: man must make his own way in this new world.
*   *   *
            The impulse to offer a comprehensive explanation, or theodicy, for history has had a long staying power. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama suggested the world was seeing “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[23] But such a claim was based on certainties too few intellectuals of the Enlightenment/academic tradition seem willing to take hold of. The danger that historians have no sure access to the past, or even worse, that “it doesn’t matter” and that they are, like other humans, only keeping themselves busy is a depressing option and one that historical practice as such is ill-equipped to face. The ‘linguistic turn’ in historiography has reflected this epistemological critique of the methods of history. But for all the attractive edginess of such sweeping criticisms, historians seem able to follow Ranke (and perhaps, in part at least, Herder as well) in rigorous attention to sources, satisfied in answering small questions without feeling the need to provide an all-encompassing theodicy to themselves. Whether this is a viable stance remains an important question; the way in which works are couched in either humanist-utilitarian terms (advancing “our” knowledge) or in the terms of righting wrongs (giving voice to the voiceless, giving agency to the weak, or showing how the weak were unjustly deprived of agency) suggests that most historians understand their writing not only in terms of truth but also as a kind of justification.[24]

[1] See Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1968), for a classic discussion of these questions of the influences of German historicism.
[2] Weber would of course tie the particular rationalization associated with the “spirit of capitalism” to the Protestant Reformation and to Puritan theology in particular.
[3] In this context, Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament, stripped of all miracles, is an example of such Enlightened Christianity.
[4] Even if Kant would be better described as a Deist, Enlightenment Deism received a particularly Christian inheritance.
[5] Herder, “Ideas toward a Philosophy of the History of Man,” in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner, pp. 34-49 (NY, 1959), 39.
[6] Herder, 43.
[7] “[H]istory is a spider’s web…while its melancholy center, the spider by which it was spun, nowhere appears” (Herder, 44).
[8] Kant, “Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner, 21-34 (NY, 1959), 22.
[9] Kant, 26, 32.
[10] Kant, 32.
[11] Cf. Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History, 63 and following.
[12] Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History, 56.
[13] Ibid., 38.
[14] Ibid., 53.
[15] Interestingly, Kathrin Maurer, in Visualizing the Past, associates Ranke’s method with the panorama, saying that both aimed for a God’s-eye-view. But a panorama is the perspective of a human being, rooted to one spot and looking all around. Indeed this can be associated with Ranke; for him the fact that God’s perspective was outside of time and space was the essential condition that man’s limited perspective was still seeing a part of something real.
[16] Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1988), 35.
[17] Contra Rousseau, Hegel sees the state and its limiting laws as prior to human freedom and “the condition from which emancipation proceeds” (Hegel, 44).
[18] The relation of the Weltgeist to theodicy resembles, if anything, the nominalist theories of Medieval Christian and Islamic theology, which denied that humans could know God’s nature, only his will as communicated in revelation, and thus had no assurance of the truth of God’s words or even of his goodness.
[19] Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”, Selected Writings (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1994), 158.
[20] Marx, 121.
[21] Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1980), 26-27.
[22] Nietzsche, 21.
[23] Francis Fukuyama. “The End of History?” The National Interest (1989). Fukuyama’s suggestion offers a theodicy only as a provision of place; no purpose is provided for the whole or for the individual.
[24] This may be taking the analogy too far, but Weber’s insight into the need of Puritans to testify to themselves their own certainty seems to find a measure of correspondence with post-belief philosophers (including historians) and their need to establish grounds for meaning (perhaps most often in the cause of social or economic justice).