Monday, October 22, 2012

The Unintended Abdication

In his engaging review of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, Mark Lilla says we should grow up and accept the Hebrew Bible's view of history.  We should not satisfy ourselves with "stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons why life is so hard...."  The kind of history that Lilla prefers are chronicles, which forgo "the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape," and instead "place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders...  Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them."

Intrigued by Lilla's perspective, I picked up the Hebrew Bible, and - following his advice as closely as possible - caught up on some chronicles (I and II Chronicles to be precise).  What I found was exactly what Lilla said I would not: A brazen claim to understand "the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape":  Davidic ascent, idolatrous decline, the punishment of exile, and the chronicler's claim to know God's workings through it all.

Lilla also tells us that Augustine's view of history (which Lilla commends) was ambiguous and agnostic.  Augustine presumably counseled Christians to "let the past bury itself and concentrate on spreading the Gospel." Again intrigued, I picked up City of God, and there also encountered what Lilla said I would not.  Here was another sweeping historical narrative (a.k.a. the Gospel), the very thing that Lilla limits to his historiographical scapegoat, Eusebius.  "God decided that a Western empire should arise" (5:16), relates Augustine, countering pagan fatalism not with indeterminacy, but with discernible design.  To be sure, Augustine displays shrewd ambivalence about current events. "Who knows what is God's will in this matter [the sack of Rome]?" (4:8).  This Lilla emphasizes.  But elsewhere, rather than burying the past, Augustine chastises pagans for attempting to "bury in universal oblivion" a recent act of providential provision in the defeat of a particular barbarian king (5:23). Lilla admits as much, conceding that Augustine sometimes, against his better judgment, got carried away with meaning.

Lilla's placing The Unintended Reformation in the "fated decline" genre that alleviates human responsibility is also, it turns out, off the mark.  "This book argues that the historical intelligibility of the past in no sense implies the inevitability of the present," writes Gregory.  "The method employed here is geneological... in no sense is it teleological...  things did not have to turn out this way...  human decisions were made."  Gregory's conclusion, "Against Nostalgia," is also in perfect contrast to Lilla's characterization of the book as hopelessly nostalgic. 

"Most of us today do not believe that we live is such catastrophic times," writes Lilla, countering Brad Gregory's pessimism.  Here, of course, Lilla is perfectly correct.  We satisfy ourselves with tidy narratives which are just as deserving of nuance-checks as Gregory's: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern  or Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (not to mention Mad Men)I wonder, therefore, if one cause for the allergic reactions to Gregory's book is our eagerness to believe we occupy history's moral high ground.  So, after admitting he admires Étienne Gilson's declinism, and that Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac were declinists as well (albeit not "simple" ones), Lilla throws his progressive audience some red meat.  After alluding to theocons (Boo!), he somehow bundles Brad Gregory, Charles Taylor, John Milbank and Alisdair MacIntyre into a tidy category - "inverted Whiggism for depressives" - which The New Republic's Whig readership need not seriously engage. 

Lilla, to be fair, cautions against progressivist fantasies as well.  Indeed, to really "grow up" in one's view of history is to forego Whiggism of either kind, and to answer "Is history progressing or regressing?" with the word Yes.  "History cannot move forward towards increasing cosmos without developing possibilities of chaos," wrote Reinhold Niebuhr.  "The dynamic of progress in history, while genuine," writes Wilfred McClay, "is also by its very nature full of moral peril for us, because of the kind of beings we are."

Examples of this dual dynamic would include George Dyson's statement (culled from Alan Jacobs' review) that "the most destructive [the military industrial complex] and the most constructive [the computer] of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time."  Or Erik Larsen's narrative strategy in The Devil in the White City, which contrasts the American architectural genius of Daniel Burnham with his contemporary H.H. Holmes, an equally astute architect, who became America's first serial killer.  As ever, G.K. Chesteron efficiently encapsulates:  "Barbarism and civilisation were not successive states in the progress of the world.  They were conditions that existed side by side, as they still exist side by side" (62). 

One of the most sustained articulation of this viewpoint on history, which embraces a nearly postmillenial optimism and Oswald Spengler's declinism at once, comes from Paul Ricouer.  History and Truth offers "neither an active pessimism nor to a tragic optimism - which in the last analysis is the same thing - but rather to an epical sense of our personal existence situated... within the perspective a a vaster epic of [hu]mankind and creation."  Consequently the Christian - argues Ricouer - has faith in broader meaning, but is simultaneously distrustful of accounts that claim to strike that meaning too soon.
One has to choose between system or mystery. The mystery of history puts me on guard against the theoretical, practical, intellectual, and political fanaticisms...   From the methodological point of view this sense of mystery encourages the desire to multiply our outlooks on history, to correct one interpretation with another in order to defend ourselves from pronouncing the last word....  [the Christian is thus] situated between the rational schema of progress and the superrational schema of hope.
The Christian meaning of history is therefore the hope that secular history is also a part of that meaning which sacred history sets forth, that in the end there is only one history, that all history is ultimately sacred...  The meaning of history, however, remains an object of faith...   [The Christian historian] hopes that the oneness of meaning will become clear on the "last day," that he will understand how everything is "in Christ," how the histories of empires, of wars and revolutions, of inventions, of the arts, of moralities and philosophies - through greatness and guilt - are "recapitulated in Christ."  [Which is to say] meaning, but a hidden meaning.
One anticipates here an impending chastisement of those who (like Gregory?) jump to hidden meaning too quickly.  Instead though, Ricouer offers a concluding contrast between the once fashionable existentialist view of history and the Christian one.  It is difficult not to see in this contrast a reflection of Lilla (who admits to being a lapsed Catholic) and Gregory (a fervent one).
Ambiguity is the last word for existentialism; for Christianity it is real, it is lived, but is the next to last word. This is why the Christian, in the very name of this confidence in a hidden meaning, is encouraged by his faith to attempt to construct comprehensive schemata, to embrace the terms of a philosophy of history at least as an hypothesis.  In this respect, the Christian is closer to the Marxist than to the existentialist temper, at least if Marxism manages to remain a method of investigation without falling into dogmatism. 
All this is to say, history is not so simple as Mark Lilla telling Brad Gregory in The New Republic that it's not so simple. It involves advance and regress at once, which gives declinist narratives their place (especially for an era attracted to progress).  The details of Gregory's narrative are, of course, up for debate, and with some of them I disagree.  But Lilla, as I read him, is not merely disputing those details.  Instead, he's disputing the possibility of history itself.  That's a big claim for a scholar of Lilla's stature, but read that last paragraph.  His concluding advice to Christians is that the "detritus" of history reveals little more than our fallenness, that we "must let the past bury itself," and that "the only road that ever matters" is the one in front of us.  And to take issue with the attempt to tell, however imperfectly, a "single complex story" (387), to refuse Ricouer's "attempt to construct comprehensive schemata," is lots of things - but Augustinian is not one of them.