The Meaning of History

I may have graduated already, but I started writing this post pre-graduation, so I think that’s a valid excuse for continuing to post on  Not to mention the fact that, otherwise, my last post ever would have been about goat sex. Needless to say, it wouldn’t look good when potential employers Google-searched my name and the first thing that popped up was so, well… unpleasant.

Eric Voegelin

A much better subject for discourse would be the great and fundamental question “What is the meaning of history?” It may not beat goat-sex for shock value, but it is certainly more significant, viz.:

Where did we come from? What can that tell us about where we are going? To answer these questions is the job of the historian-philosopher.

There are, generally speaking, four ways of looking at history, as pointed out by Russell Kirk in his essay “Eric Voegelin’s Normative Labor.” These different views reflect our ideas on the meaning of life and our place in the world and, thus, can influence the trajectory of our lives.

The first of these four holds that nothing ever really happened in history. There has simply been a  progression through time of largely unconnected events with no particular purpose or significance. This position has been the unspoken assumption of many of my biology professors: “everything has been ‘evolutionary development’ or mere flux.” History, in this framework, is reduced to no more than “the buzzing of the flies of a summer.” Indeed, “all the endeavors of famous men, and all the aspirations of great nations” have had and can have no real significance. The best one can hope for, in terms of achieving significance, is passing on your genes to the next generation (which would explain my biology professors’ obsession with reproduction), and even that, in the end, is little more than hollow vanity.

The second view, held by the Communists with their inside track to history, says that we are, in fact, going somewhere: specifically, we are progressing toward ultimate earthly perfection– utopia, if you will. The French Jacobins, Comte, and Marx had different visions for what this perfection would look like, but they are all agreed on the prospect and ultimate triumph of a terrestrial paradise. This view has generally been on the wane since the catastrophic events of the last century.

Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor

The cyclical view of history is held by the third school, which has included such prominent historians as Arnold J. Toynbee, author of Study of History, and Oswald Spengler, author of Decline of the West. According to this school, civilizations progress through stages of growth, maturity, and decadence, predictably and perhaps even inevitably.

The fourth school, revived of late thanks to the astuteness and scholarship of Eric Voegelin and others, has been seen in higher civilizations worldwide, though most highly cultivated in Christian society.  It is the idea that “history is the record of human existence under God, meaningful only so far as it reflects and explains and illustrates the order in the soul and in society which emanates from the divine purpose.”

Basically, according to this school, history has a point, and not some terrestrial utopia conceived in human arrogance and predicated on human perfectibility. Rather, “the aim of history … is to reveal to existing men and societies the true nature of being.”  This view cannot provide a basis for describing the “wave of the future,” nor can it provide “foreknowledge absolute,” but it does reveal

“a mankind striving for its order of existence within the world while attuning itself with the truth of being beyond the world, and gaining in the process not a substantially better order within the world but an increased understanding of the gulf that lies beyond immanent existence and the transcendent truth of being.”

These four schools of thought are competing for the minds of students here at UNC, often subtly, sometimes explicitly.  Are we merely a cosmological accident, as my biology professors seem to think, coming from nowhere and heading nowhere? Are we marching inevitably toward the uprising of the proletariat? Are we at the tail end of a great historical cycle, bound to share the fate of ancient Rome, driven under by the barbarian hordes and our own decadence? Are our lives guided and influenced by (and ultimately answerable to) divine Providence?

If we are to make any sense of history, these questions must be answered and a point of view must be taken. But be warned, dear reader: choose wisely. The fate of the world– at least in your own mind– depends upon it.

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