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John Bruce Leonard

The Sense of History – Part 1

Series: The Sense of History

What is the meaning of the “historical sense” of modern times?

The history of modernity is almost coeval with the ‘history of history’ itself – the history, that is, of a specific idea or sense of history which has emerged specially in our time, and which governs us like our very second nature. The following essay is an attempt to grasp certain key elements of this modern idea or sense of history.

The distinction between facts and values proves to be not only arbitrary, but actually untenable; this raises grave questions regarding the ‘objective’ study of history as we understand it.

This essay, which will be broken into three parts, will be kept deliberately brief in each of them. Its aim is not so much to provide evidence for the claims that will be forwarded as to attempt to grant, in a carefully delimited space, an overview of the question, capable of being taken in, as it were, ‘at a glance’. It goes without saying that there well may be errors in the particular factual statements made in this essay, and it would be well worth investigating in greater detail and with greater care the degree to which these are justifiable or limited or simply false. Toward that end, each section of this essay could in and of itself easily form the stuff of at least a book-length study, and any such study, supposing it were done in the right spirit, would be eminently worth consideration. But our purposes here preclude any such detailed thoroughness. The readers of this essay are as ever invited to make any errors known to its author, that he will not suffer the misfortune of repeating his mistakes, nor they of having to encounter them more once. But the author’s purpose here has been to consciously move beyond the scholarly temptation of strict textual or ‘historical’ analysis to provide a wider view, which in turn might have implications for the very treatment which is made of that more specialized and rigorous work.

The question of the ‘history of history’ is generally approached from the perspective of a specific idea of history which is in point of fact the offspring of that ‘historical progression’; this view has become unequivocally the popular notion in contemporary times. If summed up in a word, this contemporary popular view might describe history as the ‘study of the way things really happened’, which is to say, the objective investigation of past events through study of concrete evidences, and particularly written documents. This provides on the one hand a more or less neat division between ‘history’ and ‘pre-history’, and on the other establishes what appear to be straightforward and evident criteria for the study and evaluation of the former. Yet this concept of history, at first so clear and simple, becomes enormously complicated upon the narrowest review. We list but several of the many major problems that it confronts; this list, while not being exhaustive, is alone sufficient to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the popular notion of history, and therefore to call the entire study of history, the study of our time, radically into question. To wit:

  1. The written documents which form the primary source material for historical studies were composed by fallible human beings with limited perspectives, personal biases and explicit or hidden agendas which skewed or curtailed their free view. Thus, there is conflict between them regarding the evaluation, and even regarding the factual description, of the times they would describe. Recognition of this fact is becoming more salient than ever in the growing political divisions of our time, which appear to have formed various ‘historical camps’ that insist on viewing history in sometimes diametrically opposed ways.1 These differences of perspective seem to rely, not at all on any ‘objective’ reading of past documents, so much as an evaluative disagreement standing within the very presuppositional frameworks or worldviews of the historians in question – a disagreement therefore which requires recourse to philosophy, and which cannot be resolved through ‘historical studies’ alone. History thus seems to have entered into a ‘postmodern’ phase in which the kaleidoscopic variety of opinions on any given past event make impossible its impartial assessment; and it would seem that there is and can be no transhistorical criterion for adjudicating this chaotic variety of visions or standpoints.
  2. Even when generalized consilience can be found in the documents that make up a given period, the historian is obliged to doubt the validity or comprehensiveness of this view in accord with the simple but powerful observation that ‘history is written by the victors’. This holds the truer, the farther into past one proceeds; for the rarity of literacy in early times, the limited media upon which the written word could be preserved and the degradability of many of these same media made it difficult on the one hand for losing parties to secure their ‘side of the story’ in lasting narratives, and on the other made it relatively easy for the victors to suppress these alternative accounts and to obliterate compromising ‘counterfactual’ documentation.
  3. At the same time, even when the ‘loser’s history’ has been spared the furies of time and willful obfuscations, it cannot itself be taken as valid a priori, for it might be influenced by resentment, hatred, envy, the desire for revenge or any other number of distorting passions. The historian must therefore weigh the variety of interpretations given to historical moments in the past and derive therefrom a transcendent opinion on them – but this evidently presses him well past the boundaries of ‘objective’ reading of documents and cataloging of brute ‘facts’.
  4. Similarly, many historians had or have excellent reasons to conceal their true views regarding this or that event, personage, institution, religion, custom, idea, etc., given that frank expression of certain opinions could easily result in persecutions, corporal or pecuniary punishments, imprisonment, in extreme cases even exile or execution.2 One therefore cannot take past historians purely at their word, but one must read them ‘between the lines’ or judge their words based on secondary evidences (e.g., anecdotal stories regarding their lives or private utterances; conflicting statements they themselves make under diverse rulers; evidences they have provided in their texts indicating their true opinions, etc.). This can hardly be regarded as ‘factual investigation’, and would appear to transcend the limited notion of history which we presently embrace, confounding altogether the notion of ‘historians as fact collectors’ which has become the vulgar view of our time.
  5. No historian who records the doings of his day can have been everywhere and seen everything; therefore he must rely on hearsay and the report that is made to him of distant events. This will be the truer, the wider is his theme. But the work that he himself pens is taken by modern historians as a ‘primary source’, when in fact it is often enough a secondary or even tertiary source, the original fount of which has often enough been lost to time and so cannot be identified much less adjudicated. Even when the original source is identifiable, one’s judgement of it relies inevitably on secondary accounts. The notion of ‘primary history’ is therefore much narrower than is commonly believed, and even where it exists is not as simple and straightforward as one may hope.
  6. History is supposedly composed of ‘facts’. But even if this curious modernism is taken uncritically – and there is much to critique in it – it is evident that the ‘facts’ which compose any moment of human existence are myriad if not infinite. The overwhelming majority of ‘facts’ surrounding us in each moment are not even noticed by us, not to speak of recorded: no man living now will ever know whether Caesar had shaved the morning he crossed the Rubicon. Anyone who sets down the ‘facts’ of a historical moment is therefore necessarily selecting, not every single fact he comes across without scruple or discrimination, but the salient facts, the important facts, the essential facts, the characteristic facts, and is thereby exerting evaluative criteria which do not depend in any way on ‘factual objectivity’, but rather on a hierarchy of ‘values’ which the historian or record-keeper in question almost certainly has not openly recorded in his work, and which he might very well simply be taking for granted.3 The distinction between facts and values, in any case one pleases, proves to be not only arbitrary, but actually untenable; and this raises grave questions regarding the ‘objective’ study of history as we understand it.
  7. The records that have come down to us are not immune to the ravages of time; most of them have been lost altogether; many of those that remain are fragmentary; and even with those that have been to some extent wholly preserved, in most cases the original form has been lost and we are confronted with a number of duplicates written after the fact and disagreeing with one another on any number of particulars. Historians are thus compelled to attempt to reassemble a crumbled fresco, whose final image they cannot intuit beforehand, and which has lost more pieces than they know how to count, or had some pieces replaced with others, produced second-hand, that might be inaccurate or skewed. Nay, worse yet than that: historians are compelled to reassemble a crumbled copy of a crumbled fresco, prior to ever having seen the copy or the original, and without knowing whether or not the pieces of the copy they are using are in fact original to the copy, or are indeed copies of copies. The historian is thus lost in a castle of simulacra, battling these phantoms in search of the flesh and blood, and never sure if he has accidentally slain it, or if it has not long ago died.
  8. History, particularly but not exclusively older history, appears to be an often free mixture of ‘historical’ events and ‘mythologic’ record. The historian is confronted in the first place with the necessity of attempting to understand the limits of the latter, which is taken uncritically to be ‘unobjective’ or even simply false. At most, he will interpret mythology as reflecting some kind of prior ‘historical fact’ (e.g. the myths of the gods are simply inflated stories of past heroes; the myths of tribal peoples contain knowledge or rules for living, extracted from the long experience of our ancestors, regarding sanitation, useful practices, experience-produced taboos, etc.). But to come to right terms with these mythological stories in a way consonant with his tacit secularism, the modern historian must interpret them in a manner which is utterly foreign to many if not all the men who originally wrote them down, thus importing alien canons to the study of past thought and imposing his preconceptions of possibility and the limits of reality on worldviews that understood reality in a totally different way. The justifiable limits of this approach are in no way immediately evident and will rely on any number of ‘subjective’ or ‘individual’ – not to say historical – elements within the historian himself: his ‘personal equation’ as Julius Evola calls it. ‘History’ is often granted an exaggerated importance because it permits one to view the world from a variety of perspectives; but it would seem that the historian is compelled to presuppose the fitness or inadequacy of these perspectives before he has ever adopted them as his own, even ‘experimentally’; how then can he hope that his conclusions will be sound or objective?

These are but a few deep complications on our modern notion of history, complications of such gravity and such inescapability that they seem to blur if not rupture the fragile line stretching between the historian – he who attempts to ‘study things as they happened’ – and the artist – he who, through seemingly divine plastic powers, reformulates and remoulds everything that was into a novel form. This latter seems to be a maker or a molder or even a creator of the past, a kind of trans-historical spider weaving his elegant patterned webs across the very face of time and binding the otherwise unbindable shards of a shattered yesterday, with little or no regard for how they might have originally hung together. But if this distinction between historian and artist proves untenable, as the above considerations would seem to suggest, this marks the ‘end of history’ as an independent intellectual pursuit, and certainly explodes any hope men might still put in a ‘scientific history’, in any sense one might intend the phrase.

Modern historians too often assassinate ‘history as teacher’ and render all of human memory sapid and monotonous by reducing it to a mixture of dry trivialities and dull truisms.

Most historians, confronted with these enormities, merely turn their glance away and complacently embrace the least interesting rump of the grand historical feast: they tacitly accept the superiority of our present-day views regarding politics and society, and complacently judge all of history in that feeble light; or else they focus their attention exclusively on that portion of the past which can be ‘objectively’, and even ‘mathematically’ analysed (e.g. so-called ‘economic history’ or ‘business history’, or that part of history which is subjectable to scientific method through the study of anthropology, archeology etc.). In consequence, they assassinate ‘history as teacher’ and render all of human memory sapid and monotonous by reducing it to a mixture of dry trivialities and dull truisms.

History was not always so viewed, however. The simple proof of this is contained in the ‘fact’, evident to any school boy – or at least, any school boy who has not had his education pillaged by the contemporary methods, which, it is easy to suspect, are aimed at rendering the grounds for true education arid, rather than fertilizing them – that the very ‘Father of History’ himself, the Greek Herodotus, was a startlingly irresponsible historian, insofar as he seems to catalogue all sorts of stories, no matter the source, without any reliable criterion to discriminate the false from the true, hearsay from verified or verifiable fact. The ‘Father of History’ appears to be, far from a Father, a mere hapless child. Were we not blinkered by our dogmatic confidence in our own superior ‘historical sense’, this would open a great question to our eyes: the question of the meaning of the very idea of history.

This matter, which might appear at first glance to be merely an academic question of tertiary interest to us philoccidentals so far as our great war, our great struggle for the soul of the West, is concerned, must take on an immediacy and urgency when a number of facts are duly recognized. These might broadly be summarized in the statement that history forms the fundament of Modernity. The consequences of this simple observation are manifold, but again restricting ourselves to the essential, we can indicate a few of the most momentous.

First, the modern view of history, from its origins up through a major strand of modern thought which continues in raging full force in the present moment, presupposes a sense of historical progress, the possible or in many cases inevitable development of the ‘present’ (the original sense of ‘modern’) with respect to the past. The modern view of history therefore infuses its holders with an at least implicit sense of their material, philosophical or moral superiority with regard to the past. This is the sense whereby it is permitted to modernity to scorn, vilify, uproot and outrage all traditions and all memory – the consequences of which attitude are surely in no need of review by we men of the Right. This sense is therefore absolutely indivisible from the modern spirit as such; the degree to which one succumbs to this ‘progressivism’ is almost a measure of one’s inner degree of ‘modernity’.

Second, the modern view of history implies a ‘historical sense’, a historically privileged ability to intuit or experience or comprehend the variety of past worldviews and historically contingent ways of being. This ‘historical sense’ is clearly lacking to all past epochs, insofar as the very idea of ‘history’ emerges as a generalized view within the past five hundred years. While rare past individuals might have previously held to a roughly similar attitude, this sense characterizes modern times in a way that it never characterized past epochs as such. This ‘historical sense’ is thus a great siren, luring the understanding to shipwreck and misfortune, for by posing as the critical sense itself, it is in fact a soporific on our critical faculties. It condemns us to the worst kind of complacency, for we confuse our most superficial feelings for the past with the past itself, and hold ourselves to have pierced to the heart of epochs no sooner than we have glanced upon their skin and costumes. Our implicit faith in our ‘historical sense’ renders us historically obtuse.

Third, a major part of the urgent work of the Right, as expressed explicitly in the moniker ‘Deep Right’, is an unearthing of the origins, the traditions, the fathers and forefathers, in an act of wonder or reverence. This work can be undertaken only insofar as ‘history’ is conceived of as everliving and eternally accessible, rather than as entombed and uninterable. If the past is but deceased, we have naught to learn of it; the lessons carried by corpses are at best incidental. Only as man can make himself someway immortal does the study of history become in any way vital and imperative. The idea of History as it has emerged in the modern epoch presupposes precisely the ‘mortality’ of the past, either its having simply perished, or its having become someway unreal or unrepeatable in its unspannable distance in time, or its having been supplanted by subsequent and superior forms. The modern idea of the past is linked, not to the renaissance of prior greatness, but to the apotheosis of an imminent mediocrity. It is severed from all reverence, all living love for what has been. At its very best, it is expressed in conservation merely; at its worst it stands rather for the wanton destruction and ravaging of everything that was, and thus everything that is – a future-inebriation and a monomaniacal obsession with the ‘cutting edge’, the ‘up and coming’, the the ghostly next step – an enthroning of ‘all-consuming Time’ as the king of all things. The view that past man took of their own past impelled them to build cathedrals to worship the gods and palaces to glorify the long-lived arts of which they were the heirs, to perfect their hand-crafted techne and to till the fields of human culture ever and anew, to raise statues to the glory of their progenitors and to look in all sincere seriousness to what these men had uttered and taught; the view that present men take of the past leads them to build museums and mausoleums, to raze or discard or mummify everything of yesterday and to affront every ‘was’ with a ceaseless furor for the ‘will be’, which leads necessarily to an erosion of memory and the power of memory, a deadening of the spirit and a numbing of the senses, rank superficiality and frenetic impatience, and the effacement of all sensibility and all subtlety, the great taedium vitae, and a debilitating habituation to the shocking, the garish, the outrageous, the offensive, the vile, brutal, and horrible.

This is the state of our modern soul. We who would rectify this and cure ourselves of these ills, we who would, as crippled and inverted Orpheuses, return to the land of the living from this antemortem death within which we all blindly drift and wander, have a great ascent before us. Perceiving the pervasiveness of the idea of history within every single act and each individual theory proposed by modernity, we turn our gaze hence a moment, to attempt to grasp the ‘history of history’ and to see if it might not grant us some ray of light from the upperworlds.

The following parts of this essay are aimed at offering orienting reflections on this matter, limited according to the principle already alluded to. The first of the following parts will be dedicated to unearthing the premodern ‘sense of history’, as well as we are able, which emerged from several of those peoples that most immediately fathered us; and the second part will be dedicated to attempting to comprehend the bewildering tenebrous forest into which ‘modern history’, in every sense of the term, has stumbled and strayed.

References

1A most strikingly clear example of this in recent times is so-called ‘Whig historiography’, which sees in history a continual ascent or progress, as against Evolian or Traditionalist historiography, which tends to see in history a continual decline or regress. But one does not need go so far as that; suffice it to consider the much more modest, but no more bridgable, dispute between ‘conservative’ historians like Paul Johnson and Niall Ferguson and ‘liberal’ historians like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.

2Anywhere there exist laws prohibiting the free inquiry into this or that historical event – as for instance our present laws regarding ‘Holocaust denial’ or laws proscribing ‘racism’ or the like – there necessarily arises the suspicion that at least some of the historians who treat of these events or questions might treat of them in an artificially cautious or secretive way so as to avoid the consequences of openly stating legally censurable views. Some men, of course, are willing to express their views openly, and the consequences be damned; there will always be a Giordano Bruno who willingly goes to his stake, not so much for the truth, as for the right to speak his truth. But admirable or rash as this attitude may be, one can hardly expect that every human being will hold to it.

3The question of his own unconsciousness with respect to his presuppositions is identical to the question of his rank as a historian, and more, as a man. While a Chomsky is swaddled in the safe blankets of his age and its attitude, a Xenophon lives high above these things.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Archaeology provides insights, such as the decline of construction and craft standards, like the building bricks of Indus, or the collapse of apartments blocks in Rome.

  2. “We should learn to laugh at people who call us ‘on the wrong side of history’ and ‘reactionaries’. There is no such thing as History, this mysterious entity with a capital H. Men make and unmake history, provided they are really men.” -Julius Evola, Orientations

    1. And as usual, Evola cuts to the quick of things like a rapier.

      It would be interesting to explore the degree to which these sentiments – which he expresses elsewhere in his oeuvre as well – stand in tension with his idea of a ‘historiography of the Right’ – as discussed, for instance, in the last chapters of Recognitions. That is something I hope to be able to investigate in a future essay, because I think it is, beyond being of great interest itself, also of somewhat pressing interest for the Right today.

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