skip to Main Content
Niccolò Machiavelli
John Bruce Leonard

The Sense of History – Part 4

Series: The Sense of History

History is the prison of modern times. Can it provide as well our liberation?

Modern historiography begins with Machiavelli; Machiavelli is the father of modern history. The transition that he effected between the older ways of viewing the relationship between man and time and the newer is easily obscured by the fact that we live within the view that he himself established, or on some special ramification thereof. Because we dwell within the castle he erected, we easily forget the world beyond its walls.

In the first parts of this essay we have attempted to gain some perspective on alternative senses of history, alternative ways of viewing this relationship between man and time or man and society. If we have succeeded in doing nothing more than indicating that there are other perspectives on history than the modern, and that modern historiography itself is not near so natural and automatic to man as we take it to be, that will already have been much. Having earned for ourselves such hard-won removal and placed ourselves in a position beyond the borders of the Modern Era, we are entitled to look back upon our own time, as voyagers who have travelled far beyond their city gates, and to see the whole of it from a new vantage, both to understand the particular courses of its development, and to begin to perceive, should we be fortunate, a means of living beyond it. In this final part of the present essay, we will attempt to provide some work toward these aims.

Machiavelli, as has been noted, departs from the idea of history proposed by Titus Livy. In many ways, Machiavelli’s work parallels that of Livy; he, too, claims to be regarding a noble past from a decadent present (‘the exceedingly virtuous works [operazioni] that the histories show us … are sooner admired than imitated, to such an extent that they have in each least thing fled from everyone, so that no trace remains of the ancient virtue: at which I can do naught but both marvel and rue’);1 he too attempts to understand the present (his contemporary Italy) in the light of the past (Ancient Rome); he too uses the light of the past to produce a self-inquiry and an incitement to virtue.2

Machiavelli is the father of modern history.

At least one difference immediately leaps out. Livy regarded the virtues of the Roman Kingdom and Roman Republic from the decadence of the early Roman Empire; Machiavelli regards the virtue of Rome, from Kingdom through decadent Empire, from the even more extreme decadence of fifteenth-century Italy. This might indicate a continual decline in the quality of states; for from the lowest perspective, the middle height appears very tall indeed. Or else, as seems more probable, it is rather arises from a decisive change in valuation which Machiavelli effects: put shortly, Roman virtus is not identical to Renaissance virtù. This difference can be seen clearly in The Prince, where Machiavelli goes very far in his praise of Cesare Borgia, a man who would hardly have been regarded as virtuous by Roman standards. The half-invented Castruccio Castracani reveals this perhaps even more dramatically, being as he is a kind of half-figment of Machiavelli’s ingenuity.

But while Machiavelli clearly admires the Romans and would infuse some portion of their spirit into the men of his day, he is not a blind adulator of the past. He seeks to comprehend the past with the aim of deriving practical knowledge therefrom. There is implicit in his review of Rome the possibility that that very review might make modernity greater than Ancient Rome. The main question in the nostalgic and virtue-centric view of history proposed by Livy is the objectivity of the same; put generally, does monumental history not stand in tension with true knowledge of the past?3 Machiavelli altogether sidesteps this problem by attempting to draw lessons from history. Machiavelli locates the decadence of his time in two sources: first, the harmful influence of Christianity; second, and primarily, the fact that his times or the men of his times ‘do not have true cognition of the histories, so that they do not, in reading them, draw out from them that sense, nor taste in them that savour, that they have within themselves.’4 The influence of Christianity may be reduced to this same cause: for Christianity is a kind of transhistorical belittling of all the pre-Christian past, and especially of all the pre- and non-Christian past; Christianity is a rupture on the face of time effected by the unique and violent act of God in begetting a human son. From the Christian perspective, whatever comes before Christ, with the exception of the special history contained in the Old Testament, must be regarded as deficient in the decisive respect, and permits one to consider ‘the histories’ in a spirit of pure antiquarianism, if one considers them at all. By this view, it is of infinitely greater importance to know the record offered by the Bible than to know the record of the Pelopponesian War. Reconnection to antiquity, to le istorie, ‘the histories’, is identical to an abandonment of, and a simultaneous transcendence of, Christianity. The modern sense of history first reveals itself as a Renaissance means for transcending its mere historical moment.

But Machiavelli does not replace Christianity with the worship of some other god or gods. In a shockingly bold series of chapters, XI to XV, he reduces religion to a function of the state, and, in his expressions of an ostensible piety, demonstrates to the reader the very method he would propose to the statesman. Religion is to be adopted in word by the statesman, and used in deed to order the state. The Roman faith is shown to be propitious toward this end (XI); the Christian faith, at least in its present Catholic dispensation, is shown to be prejudicial to it (XII). The faith of the Romans permitted the rulers to rule, and ministered to their governmental needs; the Catholic faith has enforced and perpetuated the division of Italy. All of this casts a particular light on Chapter X, which introduces this section on religion, and which opens by stating that ‘they are to be lauded most of all who are the heads and orderers of the religions.’5 This opens two fundamental questions, which we cannot consider here, but which are essential to understanding Machiavelli and the enormous effect he wrought on Modernity: first, is a godless (secular) state possible or desirable? Second, did Machiavelli himself propose a new faith, and if so, what is its character?

The godlessness of modern times cannot be understood in isolation from these questions. But these to some extent exceed our present purview. To return, Machiavelli’s historical studies, his study of ‘the histories’, possess a number of distinguishing characteristics, which differentiate them from pre-modern historiography, and by which they prefigure the entire modern age. These can be noted as follows:

1.) Machiavelli’s is the prototype for universal history, a wide survey of all the past of all peoples to whom one e has documented access. Thucydides and the Roman chroniclers took as their prime concern their individual peoples, and considered others only incidentally to them. (Caesar, for instance, viewed the Gauls ever through the gaze of a noble Roman conquerer – never forgetting the distance between him and them, but ennobling them as all great men enoble their enemies.) As for Herodotus, his consideration of foreign peoples was the consideration of a traveller rather than a historian; he sought to understand those peoples by speaking to them and by observing them. If we insist on using our anachronistic modern terms to speak of the men of the past, Herodotus would better be considered a sociologist or anthropologist than a historian. Machiavelli, however, is the first man of whom I am aware to take advantage of the written records of a variety of peoples; he is the first man to, historian-like, base his research into the past of humankind (as opposed to the Greeks or the Romans) on a wide review of the records that have been handed down to him. While his aim is not to record the events of the past, as a contemporary historian would seek to do, this generality and liberality of view nonetheless prepares the way for this kind of research. While Machiavelli considers the state of men (li uomini) and makes this the object of his research, it is also worth pointing out that in his treatment of the antiquity (l’antiquità), and making the focus of this antiquity Roman and Greek, Machiavelli prepared the way for the emergence of Europe out of Christendom.

2.) Machiavelli seeks to grasp the principle or sense of history. He notes the absurdity in believing antiquity to be irreproducible and inimitable: ‘as if the sky, the sun, the elements, men, had changed in their motion, their order and their power from that which they had been in antiquity.’6 In this he appears to follow Thucydides, in seeking to extract human nature from out of the snags and tangles of human affairs. Yet Thucydides remained high above the rabble of events, and never failed in his halcyon remove. Machiavelli is interested in the lessons that these events provide for the intent ‘to find new ways and orders’, in an action similar to finding ‘unknown waters and lands’; he, like the Roman chroniclers, poses old models with the intent of encouraging their imitation. But while the Roman chroniclers sought to instil in their contemporary compeers a sense of the virtue of the elder Romans, Machiavelli would teach models of governance and rule from past examples. This is the pith of the difference between Roman virtus and Renaissance virtù. It is also the pith of the difference between the historian Machiavelli and the histor Thucydides: Thucydidean historiography aims at understanding, Machiavellian historiography aims at theory and praxis. Thucydidean historiography culminates in that clarion calm of soul so characteristic of the ancients and especially the ancient philosophers; Machiavellian historiography produces a cold wakeful restlessness of soul such as was characteristic of the Renaissance men and especially statesmen. Put in other terms: Thucydides permits us to transcend and stand over time and the passage of human things; Machiavelli lodges us firmly within time, and to that extent agitates and perturbs the spirit. Yet Machiavelli’s own spirit, his aloof still eye, remains itself high above the same, and it is an open question whether Machiavelli’s perspective is any less elevated than that of Thucydides.

3.) The specific difference between Thucydides’ view and Machiavelli’s appears to reduce to a different understanding of man himself. Thucydides sought out the essence of human things, or human nature. This nature is as an interior principle governing the actions of men and the outcomes of all those events which do not depend on the gods or on the intercession of telluric disasters like plagues or earthquakes. That nature does not change with time, and to understand it for what it is reveals at once the limits of possibility so far as the governance of mankind is concerned; history, as Thucydides understands it, is a discipline in divine unconcern. Machiavelli seems to recognize this same stability of human nature or human being; yet he considers it variable in ways that Thucydides would have thought it stable. He puts it into the same category as ‘the sky, the sun, the elements’; Machiavelli speaks of man as being a part and parcel of what would come to be known as the ‘natural world’; his view of ‘human nature’ is essentially modern. All of these things, sky, sun, elements and man, have determinate ‘motion, order and power’; this is to be understood in contradistinction to nature in the ancient sense.7 The terms ‘order and power’ would develop in complicated ways in further modernity, especially in the work of historians like Giambattista Vico and José Ortega y Gasset on the one hand, and Hobbes and Nietzsche on the other. As for the use of the word ‘motion’ here, it is of peculiar interest, insofar as it seems to echo the work of the natural scientists, and to perceive man as a kind of physical being, made up of manipulable ‘elements’, while the ancients viewed man as a being of a speficic nature within the cosmos, the ordered whole. If the former view is taken, then man can be understood in his mechanical laws, just as any other part of the world; he can be reduced to these laws. But understanding these laws and their special workings permits one to manipulate them or to direct them;8 man and human society is more flexible than was hitherto believed. The study of history is therefore effective, insofar as it reveals, not how men are here and now, but how they always have been, thus allowing one to overcome the evident limitations of the human condition. Fortuna can be conquered by comprehension of the laws of nature; that is the modern scientific view. This dialectic, and the tension that it suggests between ‘material laws’ and ‘immaterial understanding’, form a sizeable portion of the later manifestations of modernity.

4.) Machiavelli’s view of time is twofold. On the one hand, he notes the destructive power of time: the better part of Titus Livy’s books have been ‘intercepted’ by the ‘malignity of the times’.9 Yet the plural here indicates that it was not time itself to have done this work, but rather the specific epochs of human history; the agent of destruction is not the ravaging of time, but the folly or ignorance or forgetfulness of man.10 Meanwhile, ‘they say [that time] is the father of every truth.’11 In this same passage, he speaks again of ‘malignity’, but now of the malignity of ‘wicked men’ (uomini rei), who might occult their malignity, but who will be shown out by time. Time, as opposed to ‘the times’, is not malignant; Time is the great educator and benefactor of man. The gifts of time are obscured or misused by the malignancy of ‘the times’, of men. He who comes later in time has access to knowledge which he who came before did not have; each man is privileged with respect to those who came before. Review of history will finally permit one to come to terms with the nature of man and the laws by which he is governed, the overcoming of history thorugh the conquering of Fortuna; modernity is characterized by the historical discovery of history, and the consequent light which it grants to the mind of man. This is the origin of our idea of progress; Machiavelli is the father of Modernity itself.

Put in brief, we might say that to the Livian sense of history, Machiavelli added science, though this (scienza) is not a word he himself uses, preferring to speak instead of cognition or knowledge (cognizione). His study of the past is aimed at deriving knowledge therefrom which can be used for the future. Put otherwise, while Livy looks into the past in order to encourage the Romans of his time to return to nobler past models, for Machiavelli it is not enough to return; one must go beyond as well. This is the expression of the agonistic spirit of the Renaissance itself, which did not set out merely to reproduce Antiquity, but to better it – which set itself into direct contest with Antiquity, and sought to improve upon Antiquity in terms of knowledge and art. In politics, in art, in literature, in philosophy, Renaissance man desired preeminence; who knows but that he was attempting at the same time to overcome Fortuna, and maybe even the gods.

1. Critical History

Machiavelli’s position implied a superior perspective of the past, a higher vantage which had been gained owing to nothing but the passage of time. The whole of Modernity adopted in full this sense of a higher vantage point as a special gift of ‘history’. It has been common, since the earliest dawning of Modernity, to regard Antiquity with a strange combination of reverence and contempt: reverence for its evident greatness, contempt for that which seems to us childlike and naïve in it. This higher vantage would later be referred to as the occurrence of a ‘privileged moment’, that moment which permitted the ‘end of history’ in the decisive, which is to say, philosophical sense.

Before the emergence of this idea particularly in Hegel, however, there was a nascent sense of ‘historical development’ or progress. We can summarize this view as follows. The past is past: its denizens, who lack the benefit of hindsight and of long ages of recorded human experience, are necessarily more ignorant than those late-comers who inherit this record. Modern man therefore knows what past man could not know. Modern man can view the past with the benefit of science.12

As Machiavelli perceived, scientific or historical knowledge hinges on the basic trans-historical similarity not to say unchanging substrata of the human condition in any age one pleases. Man, like sky, sun, and elements, does not change; the laws which govern his life remain the same. History gives us access to those laws; it does not alter them, but it can use its knowledge of them to alter the physical world. The scientific view of history depends on this supposition; science presupposes the equality of man throughout time.

In consequence of this, it is possible, according to modern critical historiography, to know more about the past than the past knew about itself. This feeling or theorum or hypothesis forms the first wave of ‘historicism’ in our times. It is the pith, for instance, of Spinoza’s Biblical criticism and of the Renaissance-humanist literary analysis, both of which attempted to guage the authenticity or spuriousness of past documents which had been traditionally taken to be genuine, as for instance the canonical Gospels as against the non-canonical, the dialogues of Plato, the fragments of Antiquity, the Donation of Constantine, etc. Similarly, certain ‘anthropological’ or ‘sociological’ investigations were inaugurated which proceeded from the supposition (later seemingly confirmed by Darwinianism) of the gradual progression of humanity from a state of animalistic barbarism to a state of increasingly complex, varied and sophisticated civilization. All of this provided the framework for our present view of these sciences or pseudo-sciences.

The modern conception of history is finally and secretly self-destructive, and that has formed the drama of history in our time, which has culminated at last in nihilism.

By this view, the seeds of contempt for the past were sown, the secret undoing of the Renaissance attempt recover of a noble Antiquity. The past by this scientistic view is lowly; what sense then is there in attempting to recover it? Sooner should one attempt to ‘objectify’ it, to understand it from our superior position. And simultaneously, this movement sowed the seeds of its own undoing; it established an attitude of superciliousness with regard to everything that had come before, seemingly unaware of the fact that it, too, would one day become merely that which had come before. By abandoning the eternal and the transhistorical, the modern conception of history consigns itself to the ravenous waves of Time the Destroyer; by enthroning the spirit of criticism, it dooms itself to be dismantled by the same. It is finally and secretly self-destructive, and that has formed the drama of history in our time, which has culminated at last in nihilism.

The critical view of history produced the conditions for the trifurcation of knowledge in the Modern Era. Prior to Modernity, knowledge was considered one, whole, indivisible, unified; in Modernity, one sees for the first time the emergence, not only of branches of knowledge (these had always existed), but three major trunks of knowledge springing up from seemingly disparate points of ground. These can broadly be called art, science, and what is presently called ‘philosophy’.13 We will consider these in turn, following ever our chosen polestar of ‘history’.

2. Art

The Renaissance, it could be said, discovered art. This is not to say that something akin to art (e.g., painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, etc.) had not existed prior to it; this is neither to say that prior ages and other civilizations had not produced art of a calibre equal to or surpassing that of the Renaissance – though it is at least arguable that so far as the so-called visual arts are concerned, the Italian Renaissance truly is the unsurpassed age. Be this as it may, the Renaissance was the first age to discover in the artist a way of life, an expression or consummation of human nature, a kind of being which might rival that of the philosopher, the priest, or the statesman. Nowhere in prior epochs or in other civilizations does one encounter this view; the closest one comes to it is in the rivalry between philosophy and poetry in Classical Greece, classically expressed in the divine contest between Plato and Homer. The differences or similarities between these two expressions cannot be considered here; for the moment, we can only note that the Classical view certainly relegated all handicrafts, including painting and sculpture, to a secondary if not tertiary rank, and held the viable contestants to be at most philosophers and poets. Insofar as the Renaissance was a repetition of the Classical view, it generally fell firmly in favour of the poets; but it also extended the same prerogatives, the same divine qualities, to all ‘artists’ as such. We owe the word ‘art’ itself in its contemporary acceptation to the Renaissance; it is a characteristically Italian transformation of the Latin ars into the Renaissance arte.

The men of the Renaissance were enormously proud of their achievements in the arts. It was in large part the obvious reproductive power of the visual arts with respect to the entirety of the post-classical period which led many Renaissance people to claim that their age rivalled the greatest ages of the past; and indeed, this extraordinarily high estimation of the arts was connected both to the growth of science on the one hand (science does not shrink from applications of its knowledge), and the growing dismissal and even contempt of the so-called ‘Dark’ or ‘Middle Ages’ on the other. The Renaissance heart was filled with wonder at the evident divinity of its own material creations; it felt itself for this reason to be living in a new age, to be in the throws of a rebirth, a renaissance. To this feeling, this sense, and also to these achievements, we owe many wonders without which the world should be painfully the poorer; but we also owe to it the birth of the dangerous idea of progress in our times.

But the Renaissance notion of progress was far from our present notion. To the men of the Renaissance, progress meant the perfection of the arts and technical knowledge in accord with a universal and transhistorical canon. They were not attempting to replace the great works of antiquity, but to surpass them; this depends necessarily on a shared standard of measurement, a shared valuation of excellence, common to both antiquity and to ‘modernity’, to the Renaissance. The standards were indelible; it was their manifestation, their execution which was improved, both from the technical standpoint (new techniques for producing more magnificent or longer-lasting or more vibrant works) and from the aesthetic (greater perfection of execution). That is why the classical is called classical, and why Renaissance art can rightly be regarded as an instance of the classical spirit. It is also why the Middle Ages were felt to be ‘Middle’, i.e. an intercession in an otherwise unbroken tradition.

But the spirit which was so infused into the hearts of men was of easy corruption, and fast it did indeed corrupt: it is all too easy, particularly for artists of the second-rank (I will probably not be forgiven if I include Bernini in this category) or for men of overweaning ambition (I provide the example of Caravaggio, despite my love for him), to mistake this desire to surpass for a desire to supplant – to suppose that the goal is not to perfect, but to break asunder; not to excel, but to produce novelty for novelty’s sake. The natural temptation is to overthrow the standards themselves and to replace the canon with a new canon. This degenerate and destructive inclination was aided by a basic ambiguity in the Renaissance; the Renaissance represented at once the reverence of the deep past in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, and the rejection of the more recent past in the Age of Christendom; while the one stance encouraged respect and submission for past standards and a love for tradition, the other strongly incited the rampant abandonment of past standards and of tradition. The movement from older and traditional standards to newer and ‘improved’ standards is necessarily erosive of standards as such; progress, so understood (as indeed most of Modernity has understood it) is a corrosive ideal.

Yet this is precisely what is mean when one speaks of ‘novelty in art’ or of the ‘genius of the artist’; still more when one speaks of the ‘genius’ as such. The ‘genius’ is not merely the man who, through a combination of native talent with fine education and training produces the highest manifestations of his particular trade or craft of art; the genius is rather that person who ‘shifts the paradigm’ – to use a phrase taken directly from our contemporary paradigm – or who upsets the entire world by ‘revaluating values’. The artist as genius was implicit in the Renaissance, for it was by the artists that the spell and spirit of the age were basically cast; the ‘genius’ became almost a cult in the Romantic period, during which, despite all its excitement and its often overwhelming and beautiful vibrancy of colors and emotions, one had almost even forgotten the true meaning of such ‘revaluation’; one was quite content to jump upon the latest bandwagon, no matter how road-worthy it might prove to be. The utter dissolution of the arts today is but the final and necessary expression of this tendency’s inevitable conclusion.

The artist so understood differed from the poet of antiquity. In the first place, the poet tended to be conservative (consider Aeschylus, Sophocles, even Aristophanes; Euripides was so controversial and so frowned upon precisely because he was not conservative). The poet was indeed more conservative than the philosopher, which was one of the points of contention between the two. The artist meanwhile is revolutionary, and appears to be even moreso than the philosopher; to some extent, this is due merely to an error of perspective (the philosophers like to hide beneath modest garb), but there is surely truth to it at least insofar as one compares modern artists with ancient philosophers. Even those artists who appear to be conservative betray themselves in their art: even Turgenev, that instinctually conventional man, produced the nihilist Bazarov; even Thomas Mann, that self-avowed friend of the bourgeoisie, produced an Adrian Leverkühn. Furthermore, classical poetry was always or almost always pious; the comic poets were able to express marvellous irreverencies, to be sure, but only because these were considered to be stated in jest, without earnestness. The contemporary artist, meanwhile, revels in blasphemy where he does not wallow in it; it is understood that he will be an atheist or a sceptic or worse still, so that one is surprised to find exceptions to this rule. Often enough he seeks out the impious, the horrible, the godless; his instinct carries him to do so even when he is, like Dostoevsky, a deeply pious man himself.

On this point, however, there appears to be an underlying unity between the modern artist and the classical poet: they are both infused with some kind of enthusiasm; they are both inspired by mysterious forces. There is something numinous or enigmatic in the work of the true contemporary artist, even if he himself is a thoroughgoing atheist; he owes his work, as much as Homer or Hesiod, to some Muse, if not to some devil.

The nature of modern art concerns us here only insofar as it was the agent of a certain historical development: it was largely through the idea of art and the artist that a significant portion of the modern world erupted, namely, that portion which moves restlessly and ceaselessly toward the abolition of the old and the establishment of the perennially new. That same force which tears down aging buildings to produce concrete monstrosities, which relegates ‘old art’ to museums so that it can set up blank canvasses (when one is lucky) in their place, and which sleeplessly dreams new ways of undoing the work even of yesterday to produce something ‘original’, was carried in ovo in the Renaissance. From this, indeed, there arose a new idea of history itself: history as constant development, history as becoming, history as ceaseless movement, history as – ‘life’ itself. It is no wonder that the ideas of ‘history’ and of ‘vitalism’ should have found their fullest expression in a philosopher who proclaimed himself to be a greater friend of the artists than any philosopher yet had been.

3. Modern Science and Philosophy

When pre-modern generations used the word ‘science’, it was ever in the Aristotelian sense of the science, the science of the whole, philosophy. These two ‘disciplines’ parted ways in early and middle modernity, for reasons we cannot consider here. In their division, the scientific view of man, and hence of history, was born.

This view arose in the first place as an attempt to work out the laws of history. This followed immediately upon the Machiavellian tradition, and it is probably no wonder that its great protagonist, Giambattista Vico, was himself an Italian. He attempted to grasp the cyclical nature of history in a precise and scientific way, through the notion of corso e ricorso, course and recourse, or turn and return, which mirrors the ancient philosophical view of the downward swinging cycle of human regimes. Yet his theories are stated most famously in a book which bears the title La Scienza Nuova, ‘The New Science’; Vico is not reproposing that which has been proposed, but is speaking in that new vein which is of the essence of modern things. The novelty of his view is contained, in part, in the fact that he is the first man to propose a universal history, a history which comprehends the whole of the past and attempts to derive therefrom the principles of human life. While the ancient philosophers were precisely philosophers, men who turned from the sky and the earth to consider human things and to the human soul, Vico is a historian, a man who attempts to understand human things through the understanding of ‘human history’ itself.

‘Objective history’ – this rodent-like ‘fact collection’ which is somehow supposed to issue in ‘scientific theory’ – is utterly ineffectual.

To perform this work, one must grasp the true, inner state of a vast variety of epochs, to understand them thoroughly, from front to back as it were. This art or science can no longer limit itself to scrutiny of the ways of one’s own people, as Thucydides, the Roman chroniclers, or even Machiavelli (who looked at the history of his own heritage as a man born in the lap of European Christendom); nor can it, with Herodotus, limit itself to that which one has seen with one’s own eyes or the rumour one has heard with one’s own ears. It must transcend these limitations in favour of three sources: first, the broad array of human documents of the past from all civilizations, even those most foreign (stranieri); second, the broad array of human documents of world travellers, as for instance Marco Polo and Herodotus himself, and the word they have brought back of what they have witnessed; and third, the evidences left by ancient civilizations in the ruins and artefacts of their once great cities. All of this depends on having attained a certain degree of ‘history’, of having a certain quantity of recorded past and exploration at one’s disposal; it is to that degree historically contingent, just as all human things, even the most transcendent of them (like philosophy), are today thought to be contingent. But this in itself does not suffice. One must also have reached a certain ‘historical sense’, an idea of the existence of history, of one’s having a certain privileged position in the historical flow which permits one to see what all past men could not see, to sit upon this vantage and to review the long arc of human events with an imperturbed and steady eye. The modern sense of history arises when man begins to replace philosophy with history. The emergence of this ‘historical sense’, which can be seen first in men like Vico, marks the birth of history as we understand it, which would later be systematized in Hegel and Marx.

This ‘historical sense’, in its scientific as opposed to philosophical half, was originally considered the product of our mere lateness, of the fact that we come after so long a past, so great a heritage; but the implication here is that there will be other and ‘later’ men who will see with yet greater clarity, for we ourselves and our achievements will form an accretion to their heritage. Then the ‘truth’ cannot be accessed by us simply on account of our historical position, for our perspective, while wide with respect to the past, is narrow with respect to the future. The man of tomorrow will see, not only the past that we can see, but also the ‘past’ that we ourselves are living; they will to that extent see more than we see. They will understand us as we cannot understand ourselves. The necessary consequence of this view is scepticism in the possibility of any transhistorical truth; it would appear that all men are bound by their time, for the great fount of human knowledge, the past, grows wider and deeper with time, as more and more tributaries empty into it; and all of us are bound to this swelling passage of time, unto the undoing of the human world itself in the great sea of nothingness or being. This scepticism would appear to abolish truth, and in its emergence, which followed fast on the discovery of history, Modernity glimpsed for the first time the abyss of nihilism that it had unwittingly opened beneath its feet.

The scientific view of history attempts to overcome this scepticism, to stave off the abyss, by replacing the ‘historical sense’ with ‘historical studies’, thus transforming history from a ‘subjective’ study, dependent on one’s personal position in the flow of time, to an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ study, which subjects historical material to the standards and criteria of modern science. In order to accomplish this, the study of history had to be rendered valueless.14 This movement can be seen most clearly in the work of men like Max Weber and his science of sociology, and it marks to this day the sense of ‘history’ in the text-book sense, which attempts to nowhere draw ‘value judgements’ about the past. It would review history, not only sine ira et studio, but even sine juditio.

In the first part of this essay, we have subjected this view to strong critique. It is worth pausing here a moment on at least one of the most serious flaws in such a perspective, which proves it to be utterly fanciful when one has taken the least time to scrutinize the matter.

The commitments of the scientific historian, which are largely unexamined by this historian himself and which undergird his viewpoint or worldview, force him to take critical stances on past events, despite his best efforts at ‘neutrality’; these critical stances cannot be regarded as merely ‘analytical’, but they are necessarily evaluative. Moreover, these stances do not arise from the historian’s study of the past, but rather inform it; they therefore render non-evaluative or objective or scientific historiography impossible.

Let us take a classic case: the case of Jesus Christ. Believers will interpret the life of Christ in the light of their belief, nonbelievers in the light of their nonbelief. The ‘historical record’ cannot determine this issue, for every fact of that record, every detail, every scrap or shred of information which remains to us of the life of a ‘historical figure’ bearing the name or moniker of Jesus Christ, will inevitably be thrown into special relief or will be given its particular weight and position in the overarching narrative of history by nothing other than one’s prior, one’s prehistorical ideas regarding that man and his life. But briefly, the Christian will interpret this life in a radically different way than the non-Christian, though both of them are working from ‘primary sources’. ‘Facts’ here are neutral in the true sense; they are given their valence, their ‘magnetic charge’ by one’s inherent manner of looking at the world. No man ever changed his mind about Christianity by reviewing the ‘facts’ of the matter, save as he had already been persuaded in his heart or his deeper reason by the worldview which determines Christianity on the one hand, and secular historiography on the other.15

‘Objective history’ – this rodent-like ‘fact collection’ which is somehow supposed to issue in ‘scientific theory’ – is therefore utterly ineffectual. The specific choice of facts, the special presentation of facts which characterizes every historian’s work, depends on an unstated determination of what facts are important, and what facts are not – what facts salient, what facts relevant, what records or narratives true and what false or mistaken or mendacious. None of this comes from history itself.

This has compelled some historians to attempt to look at past epochs from the perspective of those epochs, to attempt to see them as it were from within; this returns us to the ‘historical sense’ as, for instance, Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt understood it. But one runs into immediate difficulties even here, because the historian, to earn this ‘inner view’, must have recourse to the writings of the men of the epoch in question as his primary means of entering into the ‘spirit of the times’. But the men of one and the same epoch will disagree about the ‘spirit of the times’, and indeed in many cases even one and the same man of a given historical epoch will change his mind regarding it. One is thus flung into a whirlwind of first-person ‘subjective evaluations’, the very same that scientific historiography was supposed to save us from; and one’s determination of which of these to adopt and which to reject will ultimately depend on one’s own stance and standpoint here, in modern times.

Scientific history then appears to be unable to teach us anything about ourselves, for we bear ourselves on our backs as we march through the long terrain of the past, and seem to be driven on like donkeys by this rider we have never adequately understood, and about whom we can learn nothing by merely looking at the lands surrounding us. ‘History’ is thus essentially meaningless, the mere echo and babble of a million voices which dispute and argue points that we ourselves must adjudicate insofar as we are men, and which we ourselves cannot adjudicate insofar as we are ‘historians’. This enormous burden is either shucked off altogether, or else it is, as is only right, thrown back on philosophy; for in truth, one must be a good student of philosophy before one can be a good student of history.

‘Non-evaluative’ or scientific method is the very opposite of philosophy. It attempts to grasp the silver fish of the past with its bare hands, but they always slip away; and so it fashions a hook and a bait, and kills the past so soon as it has finally got its grip on it. This kind of history therefore transforms inevitably into academic or scholarly history – history which studies the past from a specific point of view which is tacitly understood to be superior: that of democratic, liberal, scientific modernity. This, however, so far from being ‘objective’ historiography, is in fact a historiography mired in its own delusion of objectivity; it is thus not objective even by half. In its most honourable form, it becomes ‘pragmatic historiography’, whose watchword is embodied in the prosaic expression that ‘whoever does not understand the past is doomed to repeat it’: it seeks to avoid past mistakes by drawing from history a set of analogies for understanding present situations. And while there is some evident value in such pursuits, it is dubious to what extent it is meaningful as a sense of history, a view and comprehension of the past or of the men of the past or of man as such.

Moreover, even this kind of pragmatic historiography is rarely enough attained in any brilliant way by contemporary history, which rather tends to devolve into an absolutely superfluous, banal, dry-as-bone and unconsciously arrogant review of the ‘infantile’ or ‘naïve’ or ‘unmodern’ past, or else an equally boring and totally inexplicable, almost frantic excitement at finding in the past analogues to modernity – ‘protoliberal thinkers’ or ‘prototypical forms of democracy’, etc. – as if the past were totally worthless save as it echoes the droning low of our own sacred cows.

This much is certain: by this view, there are no ‘lessons of history’, save those that we are taught all-too-often already: namely, that we are superior with respect to the past, that we embody progress, that we are the culmination of so many false starts and inadequate attempts and fragmentary knowledge on the part of past men. This ‘history’ is not history at all: it is but Narcissus gazing into a pool which is filled, perchance, with shimmering jewels and fish of the most brilliant and fascinating array, and seeing therein only – his own reflection.

And indeed, this has been the very pith and pivot of a good deal of modern philosophy, which has been actuated profoundly by the modern sense of history. This most modern portion of modern philosophy has essentially seconded the perspective we have just critiqued, by asserting that we have arrived at an unprecedented point in history, which has granted us a new consciousness, and absolutely privileged position or a situation of objective superiority. This is the view taken by men like Marx, Hegel, Kojéve and Fukuyama, and it is known as the ‘end of history’. By this view, philosophy, and with it the social or political order of mankind, has been completed in the decisive sense thanks to the ‘historical development’ of human thought. All that remains is the unravelling of the implications and practical establishments of this special and final historical insight: the past has been finally overcome, the future, finally abolished.

Yet it is immediately evident, as is sufficiently demonstrated merely by consideration of the ‘history of philosophy’ since the figures aforementioned, that this view is somewhat suspiciously inconclusive. It has not been immune to critiques by newer philosophers. We are then forced to ask if the bringers of these critiques were fools or madmen; for if they were not, if they were men in full possession of their faculties and of an intelligence not inferior to the producers of the theory of the ‘end of history’ itself, then it is clear that history has not ended. Yet no one who considers, for instance, Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, Julius Evola, etc. can easily make the claim that he is dealing with men inadequate to the task of philosophy.

Is the ‘end of history’ really meant in this peculiar sense, that Modernity has culminated in this end, has destroyed its own underpinnings, including the modern sense of history itself?

More: the end of history seems necessarily to bring the final social order. But there has surely been no stop to politics. Even the most recent (and most superficial) of the thinkers or philosophers listed above, Fukuyama, was forced to backtrack and qualify his somewhat premature announcement of the end of history; evidently he had cut the ribbon too soon, for history has stubbornly persisted despite his confident pronouncement of its conclusion. To preserve the sense of the end of history in the face of the pertinacious ceaselessness of events, one must then claim that it the end of history is merely philosophical, that it is not necessarily reflected in the social or political life of man – that that life is somehow immune to or ignorant of or disconnected from the end of history. Wisdom has arrived – to the philosopher; but this wisdom has no necessary ramifications for non-philosophical men, who make up the vast majority of any human society. And this could certainly be maintained. The evident problem, of course, is that all of the major proponents of the end of history have argued that the end of history would be as much a matter of polities as of philosophies, and would result finally in a universal or global world state which reflected this final human wisdom. One must then admit that these men were wrong in their estimation: and this means necessarily that their philosophies or systems of thought were incomplete, that philosophy continues beyond them – that even in the realm of ‘human wisdom’ there has been no ‘end of history’.

Finally: the end of history suggests the finalization of human knowledge in the decisive respect or the final unification of human knowledge in essentials or first principles, so that all that will remain is the ‘detail work’; but the ‘trifurcation of Modernity’ which we are discussing here persists, and even in the three branches of Modern knowledge, there are deep and abiding incompletenesses. Art has become a lowly mishmash, at war even with itself in the production of the most abhorrent and scandalous products imaginable. Modern science has yet to arrive at the ‘grand unified theory’ by which it can reconcile the evident discrepancies in its own fundamental hypotheses. Modern philosophy, meanwhile, remains eternally divorced from this modern science, and all attempts to reconcile the two – as for instance Husserlian phenomenology and ‘linguistic philosophy’ à la Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein – have been utterly in vain, and have if anything culminated in a more generalized and thoroughgoing scepticism, which teeters often enough into nihilism through the vortex of complacent relativism, as exemplified in those ultra-modern dogmatists Derrida, Rorty and Foucault.

‘History’ has no plateau. The greatest moderns, perceiving this fact, have proposed a sense of History as a mysterious containing horizon, a rigid boundary around human things which cannot be escaped by its children. Such often appears to be the stance of Nietzsche; such was certainly the position of Heidegger. But the attempts to lend philosophical justification to this view seem ever to presuppose a definite and definable ‘end of history’ to which one can make decisive reference. It has been averred, for instance, that the philosophers are not those men who transcend history in their thought, but only who, on account of their sensitivity of intellect and indeed being, are the first to see the new historical paradigms as they arrive. Yet precisely if this is the true view of the philosophers and their relation to history, it itself forms a transhistorical perspective which was evidently inaccessible up until our day: this view itself is a ‘gift of History’, the same History which has mysteriously determined to grant us some small truth which it has denied to all its other children.

This same objection can be brought against all philosophical ideas about the ‘nature of history’ which wish to avoid the privileged historical moment; they all of them exclude themselves from their judgement of the relativity of history, they all of them presuppose the privileged historical moment whether they would or no. Nor is it enough to say simply that the view of historical relativism is the most probable view; for what worlds hide in that sliver of possibility on the other side of mere probability!

Nonetheless, accepting this view for a moment, we become aware of an interesting feature of it. The claim is that all men are most likely bound by their birth and the conditions of their birth to hold to certain errors produced for them by the limitations of the city; the philosopher will then be he who is modest enough to acknowledge the boundaries set around his supposed knowledge. This is not a ‘modern relativism’ at all: this is practically identical to Socratic ignorance, to Socrates’ ‘I know that I know nothing’; this view is coeval with the birth of philosophy itself. And it opens the enormous question of whether the limitations of the city or of one’s time are really inscribed in adamant around the human life. But to ask that question is already in a certain sense to have transcended those limits.

Let us rephrase all of this in the context of our times. Modernity appears to culminate everywhere in the proposition that history has been brought to an end by Modernity itself. The ‘end of history’ seems at first glance to be an incredible liberation from the flow, the laws, the consequences of the ‘senseless course of events’; but upon review it proves itself as rather the contrary. This ‘end of history’ is produced by the laws of history itself, it is the inevitable and inescapable outcome of the ‘march of history’, whose destination is inscribed inscrutibly on a mountain face we can neither see nor summit. We care compelled to fall in step, until we have been ordered to stop at a point we can neither choose nor understand; we are the bondsmen of history.

According to modern dogma, every specific epoch has its own specific form of slavery to history. These forms of slavery are accessible to hindsight; looking back on prior ages, we, with our much touted ‘historical sense’, can perceive the special limitations of previous epochs and the specific limits of their sight. But supposing this as true for a moment, the question necessarily opens of what our own slavery consists in. One of the greatest modern innovations in all of human thought, however, is nothing other than the idea of history itself. This idea is our special prison. Awareness of this fact permits us at least a qualified escape from the same; for it already means much indeed if the prisoner is able to perceive the external boundaries of his prison; that already suggests a degree of liberty uncommon to prisoners.

Does then the sense of history abolish itself? Is the ‘end of history’ really meant in this peculiar sense, that Modernity has culminated in this end, has destroyed its own underpinnings, including the modern sense of history itself? To answer this, one must understand the modern sense of history thoroughly from within, one must review its origins and its quality. We have obviously not performed such an investigation here, which would require a treatise in and of itself. But a necessary step toward that investigation is the comparison of the modern sense of history with other possible senses of history; and it happens that the modern obsession with history opens that possibility to us in a way which was perhaps closed or difficult of passage to pre-modern times. Our famous ‘historical sense’ does indeed permit us to enter into the past, if we be fit for it and ready in mind and soul – to enter this past, not as some visitor to a museum, ready to soak up facts and figures and to look upon all of these matters from the point of view of a detached observer; but rather as a voyager in time who is capable of moving fish-like through the very spirit of prior epochs, which spirit he can access despite the obscurity of the ‘facts’ in which it arose. The sense of history, which seems to mire us in the swamp of history, permits us transcend history through this sense itself, by giving us the means to present ourselves before and within the prior senses of ‘history’.

So we are thrown back on the very question which has occasioned this all-too-brief survey. What is the meaning of history, what is its sense? That question itself contains the secret for overcoming the modern historical dilemma, and points us finally to the necessity of reunifying human knowledge16 – under the auspices of philosophy.

References

1Machiavelli, Discourses, Proem. All translations mine.

2Note indeed that the Discourses, which are much more steeped in history than The Prince, are dedicated to two of Machiavelli’s friends, not ‘men who are princes, but they who for their infinite good traits would merit to be such’. If The Prince is aimed at the training of a man who is to found a principality (Italy), the Discourses are aimed rather at the productiong of virtue in statesmen.

3See once more Nietzsche’s On the Uses and Abuses of History.

4Machiavelli, Discourses, Proem.

5Cf. The Prince, Chapter VI.

6Machiavelli, Discourses, Proem.

7I have no doubt that discourses entire could be written on Machiavelli’s sense of nature. A few observations here. Machiavelli speaks of nature rarely enough; first and centrally, in the ‘envious nature of men’, which is present in the very first line of the entire book; subsequently, he states that ‘the nature of men is ambitious and suspect’ (XXIX). This bad nature of men is surely a far cry from the ‘nature’ of the ancients, which was precisely excellent, noble, high; it was in their deficiency with respect to nature that men were considered bad. In Book I, Chapter XXXVII, Machiavelli says that ‘nature created men in such a way that they can desire everything, and cannot attain everything.’ This use of nature as the ‘composite of the things that are’ or ‘of the laws of all that is’ is strikingly modern, and equally strikingly far from the ancient sense; it is reproduced in other parts of the book (II: Introduction, II.III, II.V, III.XXVII; for the connection between man and the nature of places, see especially III.XLIII, which is the only chapter to contain the word ‘nature’ in its title, in what is also, I believe, the final use made of the word in the book). It represents the modern replacement of the idea of cosmos for ‘nature’. Nature can be altered (I.XLI–I.XLII, III.IX), and individuals and peoples may have their own specific natures (I.XVI, I.LVIII, III.XXII, III.XXXVI), but there is also a limit to how far it can be altered (I: Introduction, III.XXI). Following the Christian tradition, nature is understood in contrast to the supernatural (I.LVI).

8Nature can be changed: see Discourses, I.XLI–I.XLII, III.IX

9Machiavelli, Discourses, Proem.

10Might Machiavelli reduce this to the baleful ‘interception’ of Christianity?

11Ibid., Book I, Chapter III.

12I have considered this question at some length in a previous essay. See ‘Disquisition on the Origins’, Arktos Journal 1 May 2019.

13By ‘science’ we of course mean modern science; prior to the emergence of so-called ‘natural science’ in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, ‘science’ was identical to ‘philosophy’. Traditional philosophy was the king of all sciences, the unified science, that science in which the indivisible and unified truth was approached or revealed or studied. Philosophy as it is presently understood – an academic specialization – is thus fundamentally different from philosophy in the true sense. While the modern philosophers (as opposed to scholars or academicians) are true philosophers, they have struggled with the breech between science and philosophy for four hundred years, and have never yet resolved this modern problem to the satisfaction of those who see it with clarity.

14I have commented elsewhere on the necessary and strict connection between ‘valuelessness’ and modern science; see ‘Science: The Lesser Sphere’, Arktos Journal 5 November 2018.

15The reader who would like to consider this at greater depth is invited to compare the account made of the birth of Christ by Warren H. Carroll in The Founding of Christendom: A History of Christendom (Vol. 1), (Christendom Press, 2004) even with the account made by a ‘candid friend of Christianity’ like Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Penguin Group, 2011). These are both of them modern historians; both of them hold to the highest and most rigorous canon of historical criteria in their work. But one of them looks at these matters through the lens of his religious faith, while the other looks at them through the lens of his secular faith; indeed, the major difference between them consists in this: that while the Christian historian is well aware that he is working from a specific set of presuppositions, a specific point of view, which regulates and determines his history, the secular historian is labouring under the unworthy delusion that he is free of all this.

16See especially the third part of Alexander Illingworth’s recent Arktos Journal essay, The Enlightened Mind: Perspectives and Solutions.

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

The comment section of Arktos Journal will be regulated by standards consonant to the principles of the project itself. Our general rules are as follows:

  • Comments will not be moderated on the basis of the opinions expressed (controversy is welcome), but rather on their quality.
  • Contributors are requested to obey the rules of civility, without which all discourse is null, and to avoid crude personal attacks. Wit is welcome, but argument, and not insult, will be the expected means of refutation.
  • Obscenities, vulgarity and slurs will not be tolerated.
  • Contributors are invited to check their contributions for general grammatical correctness (allowances will obviously be made for second-language speakers) and logical cohesiveness.

As a general guideline, all contributors should imagine that they are speaking their minds aloud in a public space, unhindered by political correctness but bound to the older standards of honour and decency in speech.

All decisions of the moderators are final.

Back To Top