The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History


The stuff of history is not outside us.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Mosaic from Herculaneum showing Neptune and Amphitrite (detail); archimago/Alamy Stock Photo.

The only complete library still with us from antiquity is the one at Herculaneum, near Pompeii, preserved when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried it and its holdings in lava and pumice. One of the more exquisite feats of human patience and perseverance began in the eighteenth century with the first excavations of the library, and efforts to read and preserve its trove of texts continue to this day, and will continue, we can hope, long after we are gone.

Those fortunate enough to have seen the scrolls of the ancient philosophical works say they resemble nothing so much as lumps of coal. After earlier mishaps in which some scrolls, before being recognized as such, were burned or thrown out, lost forever to neglect, others were lost to overattention. Early methods and machines that were devised to unroll the scrolls usually caused their destruction, leaving only snippets that were recorded or salvaged. Thanks to breakthroughs in technology, a process of virtual unrolling promises accurate renderings of the words without destroying the carbonized pages. It is still a daunting task. So apparently is the process of navigating the politics of the papyri—local, international, institutional—which at times are treated with more security than many state secrets.11xJo Marchant, “Buried by the Ash of Vesuvius, These Scrolls Are Being Read for the First Time in Millennia,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2018, It is awe inspiring to think of those who are taking such pains to bring the texts back into view. Theirs is a feat of daring and service. This kind of painstaking work over the course of entire lifetimes allows us to hear voices from the past, the voices of philosophers who have, in turn, put their minds to the painstaking, lifelong task of putting their thoughts into words for posterity. They tried to reach out to us, and in all of our efforts to read what they wrote, we are trying to reach back to them.

In contrast with this heroic labor of recovery and preservation, the destruction in Ukraine taking place before our eyes is all the more horrifying. In one case, we take every care not to destroy even a millimeter of evidence of people who lived long ago, while in the other, bombs, missiles, and artillery take out huge structures like bridges and buildings, and even whole towns. In the former, people hold their breath so as not to sneeze and disperse fragile evidence, while in the latter, humans (though it is tempting not to use the word) demolish heritage sites, burn paintings, and end people’s lives with technologies of mass destruction. If some of us are so determined to hold on to every shred and shard we have of another time and place and people, why are others at the same time heedlessly destroying lives and priceless historical works?

It is only reasonable to make a rigid distinction between the destruction of historical sites and the loss of human life. In one sense, of course we must make that distinction. Who with a heart would not give all of our museums to save the small boy lost to the grief-stricken mother, the middle-aged woman returning home with her bike, the ninety-six-year-old man who survived the Holocaust, or any other person killed in this war, civilian or soldier? Yet in another sense, the stuff of history is not outside us—and cannot be cordoned off from our day-to-day lives. We are surrounded by the creations of people we never knew; we live amid their expressions, their constructions, their communications. And with the loss of each living person comes a loss of history, because each of us is history. We are a walking, living, breathing, unfolding history, inseparable from the history around us. History is not only external but internal.

In a State of Historical Emergency

Fantasies of freeing ourselves of the baggage of the past run aground on the fact that humans are history-bearing animals. Since we are beings in time, history includes lives being lived as well as lives lost, with all of their expressions, their constructions, and their communications. The loss of human beings is a personal and social loss, but it is also a historical loss. The killing and destruction of war is the ultimate abuse of history. Even in war, chances for ultimate survival, if not victory, reside in our sources of meaning and the traditions and practices that embody them. Only from these can new life hope to spring forth. Our traditions and practices alone allow us, if given that chance, to rebuild.

But war is only the most obvious assault on the past. We have seen how so many today desire to live without history, even in times of relative peace. The Cult of the New ravages in manifold ways, reducing hard-won works to rubble. Creative destruction—or disruption, to use the Silicon Valley buzzword—has been the governing mantra for so long that it is hard to retrieve memories of an alternative. To live without traditions of moral grounding is to cut ourselves off not only from the past but from the future. If we proclaim ourselves masters of the universe, abolish the demarcation between the self and other people and the world we live in—everything outside the self—and between what happened before and what is yet to happen, we might liberate ourselves. But we would also obliterate reality in the process.

Are the stakes of history really so high? After all, the exploration of the past, especially in its academic and professional forms, might seem like a leisurely pursuit. Students learn to select a topic that has not been done—lacuna is a favorite term—as though idly just trying to finalize the details of a corner of the canvas. It seems as though we have all the time in the world to fill in the parts of the past whose vivid details are not already engraved on our minds. A quick look at the world of higher education would lead one to believe that at least many university administrators think that history is, at best, an optional pursuit. Schools shrink history faculties and offerings, along with those of adjacent fields that hold the very record of our humanity, and the past is sidelined for present political or financial pursuits.

But we would be better off seeing history as a matter of urgent need. We should recognize the cultivation of a historical disposition that combines stewardship and moral inquiry as one of our most pressing endeavors, after feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves, precisely because it is a necessity if we are to succeed in all of the endeavors of this life. In the best of times, history is a mad race to grasp what we can before the evidence crumbles. In the worst, it is a matter of cultural survival. In more ways than one, we find ourselves today in a historical emergency.

History as a Science of the Future

We can only begin to understand the sources of our predicament by appreciating how our historical emergency is also a philosophical one. Our philosophies of history—the large frameworks we create with narratives and theories to explain what happened and why—reverberate not only in how we recreate the past as we look backward but in how we conduct ourselves in the present with an eye on the future. A philosophy of history is, quite simply, the lens through which we see the past. It can be hidden or obvious, conscious or unconscious, systematic or eclectic. Two well-known such philosophies are Marxism and positivism, which are often presented as opposing frameworks between which individuals, and even whole countries at times, must choose. Today, they are drawing renewed attention as part of the cultural landscape we have inherited in our bid to understand how we got here and where to go next. After the briefest recap of some of their central tenets we can consider a line of criticism of their more reductionist forms that speaks eloquently to our current crisis.

Responding to the Hegelian view of history that put ideas or the self-conscious spirit in the driver’s seat, Karl Marx made the material conditions of life the agent of change. In The German Ideology, written in 1845 and 1846, Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels put society’s work arrangements and relations, its “mode of production,” at the center of their vision of history. The economic “base” determined social relations and yielded a “superstructure” of ideology created by those in control to make the means of production and resulting inequalities seem legitimate. In this historical philosophy of historical materialism, everything from religious faith to art, philosophy, and government is imbued with messages that make the economic and social status quo seem natural and justified, seducing workers into a “false consciousness.” As Marx and Engels put it,

Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.22xKarl Marx (with Friedrich Engels), The German Ideology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998), 42. First published 1845–46 as Die deutsche Ideologie.

In Marx’s teleological view, history had progressed step by step through stages of production from primitive to advanced and would, he predicted, reach a crisis point in advanced capitalism that would cause workers to develop class consciousness and bring about revolution. The final result would be the demise of the remnants of capitalism, the state, and other institutions oppressing the individual and the establishment of egalitarian communism.

Positivism emerged around the same time, principally in the works of the philosopher Auguste Comte, published in the 1830s and ’40s. Comte and others sought to apply the scientific method, with its basis in theory and empirical observation, not only to science (as in the “exact sciences”) but to the study of society. “Positivity” merely meant the degree of exactitude one could bring to a particular problem or field through verification. Comte saw history as evolving from a theological stage of belief in God and obeisance to church authority through a metaphysical stage of Enlightenment rationalism and respect for humanity to the ultimate positive or scientific stage, marked by the application of scientific empiricism to the elevation of the rights and will of the self-determining individual, and thus to the betterment of humanity. His approach contributed to the antimetaphysical “scientific spirit” that became increasingly widespread by the twentieth century.33xGertrud Lenzer, foreword and introduction to Auguste Comte and Positivitism: The Essential Writings (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1998). Few disciplines escaped the influence of positivism: sociology, through Émile Durkheim; history, through Leopold von Ranke; and philosophy, through the Vienna Circle, among others. And the confidence that applying science to social problems would bring about progress more generally found expression in social movements like progressivism.

Champions of scientific enlightenment and progress have pitted this positivist vision against Marxism as its archantagonist. Some critics have warned, though, that positivism and Marxism share more than they disagree on, both arguably blinding us to the very moral, ethical, and even spiritual resources we need in order to survive. History here becomes a science of the future, with both of these sweeping views claiming objective and quantifiable measures of advancement and announcing that anything standing in the way is an impediment to progress. Their shared belief in human mastery, control, and certainty calls into question not only particular wisdom traditions but tradition itself, setting the course for later philosophies that questioned truth and reality altogether.

Del Noce’s Direction of History

One of the more astute critics of skepticism and instrumentalism was the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910–89), whose writings are now being recovered in the Anglophone world. Writing in response to the rise of twentieth-century totalitarian movements openly bent on destroying the past to erect a brave new future, Del Noce argued that nineteenth-century philosophies of history had prepared the way for a more hidden totalitarian tendency that threatened to take hold in the West, a “totalitarianism of disintegration.” Carlo Lancellotti, Del Noce’s translator, points to one of the philosopher’s definitions of totalitarianism as the idea that “politics invades every sphere of life and society.” It is “the absolutization of politics, because when everything is judged politically, there is no question of the truth,” Lancellotti says. “The criterion of evaluation becomes whether something favors the good side—say the Revolution, progress, or whatever—or the bad side, so in a sense ethics is displaced by this idea of the direction of history, as Del Noce calls it. What is moral is what serves the direction of history.”44xAaron Kheriaty, Carl Trueman, and Carlo Lancellotti, “The Problem of Atheism: Del Noce, Marx, and the Roots of Western Irreligion,” Francis X. Maier, moderator, video, 46:20, December 14, 2021, Ethics and Public Policy Center video conference, (Quote begins around 12:27.)

Del Noce’s work resonates with that of other twentieth-century scholars and social critics, such as Philip Rieff and Eric Voegelin. Voegelin saw in totalitarianism itself as well as movements from communism to positivism a kind of new Gnosticism, in its dualistic belief that in a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, the created world was a mere illusion created by an evil God. Only the gnostics possessed a spark of the real divinity, a spiritual force beyond God, by virtue of their special insider gnosis (knowledge), which enabled them to see through the illusion and remake the world.55xI have written about Rieff and Voegelin in light of today’s new Gnosticism in Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020).

Del Noce’s The Problem of Atheism, which appeared in English only this year, offers a succinct summary of his main claim. All modern philosophies, in his view, “are in a bind from which they cannot escape,” the loss of an ethics with a transcendent basis of truth. Although there exist a few “eclectic diversions,” these main philosophies can escape this bind only by “problematizing” the question of atheism, which has come to be seen as the final stage of rationalism.66xAugusto Del Noce, The Problem of Atheism, ed. and trans. Carlo Lancellotti (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021), 1–7. First published 1964 as Il problema dell’ateismo.

Questioning atheism in turn requires problematizing the usual way we see the history of philosophy, in Del Noce’s view, because the way the history of philosophy is presented “conditions” the way we see philosophy itself. If the current history of philosophy tells a story of the development of Marxism and positivism and ensuing philosophies as inexorably invalidating previous thought, it continues to undermine foundations just as those movements did. Previously, agreement existed among even those who did not believe in God. In nineteenth-century philosophy, it was not morality itself that was questioned but, Del Noce wrote, “its foundation, and…the legitimacy or not of the quest for a foundation.” There was moral unity at a certain level, a shared general moral grounding like that tendered by Arthur Schopenhauer, who considered compassion “the great mystery of ethics”: “Neminem laede, immo omnes quantum potest iuva” (Harm no one; on the contrary, help everyone as much as you can).77xDel Noce, The Problem of Atheism, 1–7, 50–70, 83–101, 463–4. Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Basis of Morality, trans. E.F.J. Payne (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1995), 92, quoted in Del Noce, The Problem of Atheism, 5.

In Del Noce’s account, nineteenth-century philosophers arrested their “critique in front of morals,” except for Nietzsche, whose prophecies anticipated the direction of twentieth-century secularist thinkers who would embrace the absence of moral foundations altogether: “The injunction of the new secularism is that we must be tolerant of every form of thought, except one: that which presents itself as the assertion of an absolute and definitive truth.”88xDel Noce, The Problem of Atheism, 6, 140–53, 243. As Del Noce put it in The Crisis of Modernity, “the novelty we face can be explained philosophically in terms of the metaphysics of subjectivity, which by now has reached a state of vertigo in its rejection of all objective standards.” Nihilism used to mean devaluing formerly elevated values in arguing for their replacement with new ones. Now, on the other hand, “we are witnessing the disappearance of the very idea of value.”99xAugusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity, ed. and trans. Carlo Lancellotti (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 27–28. The erasure of intrinsic value leads to the politicization of all aspects of life. The absence of nonsubjective truth makes ethics impossible.

Del Noce draws on the thought of the nineteenth-century Italian philosopher Antonio Rosmini, among many others, in his discussion of a search for foundations strong enough to counter what he regards as modern Gnosticism. Lancellotti argues that Del Noce seeks to recover moral foundations and the recognition of eternal truth, though not by discarding or minimizing history. He thus engages with “philosophy through history, and history through philosophy.” The notion of eternal truth does not end discussion but rather begins it, as each new generation must rediscover the enduring truths in its own way. Truth is not relative, but neither is it something out there to be discovered in fixed form in the original, authentic ideas of philosophers. It must continually be explored in relation to the times. Truth rests on the grounding of philosophical insight, and the purpose of philosophy, in being.1010xAn indispensable introduction to Del Noce’s thought is provided by Carlo Lancellotti’s deep interpretive engagement in his translator’s introductions to the English editions of Del Noce’s works, as well as Lancellotti’s intriguing lectures and panel presentations, some of which are available on YouTube; see, e.g., Kheriaty et al., “The Problem of Atheism,” and Carlo Lancellotti, “‘The Crisis of Modernity’–An Introduction into the Thought of Augusto Del Noce,” Patrick Deneen, host, video, 1:14:40, March 19, 2019, University of Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government recorded lecture, (For this discussion, see especially 6:10–15:16; quote begins at 15:14.)

What Does “Historical” Really Mean?

Moral coherence is essential to sanity and community. It is willed ignorance to deny that the sources of coherence and community have largely derived historically from religion. It is a truism that you can choose your friends but not your parents. Likewise, an atheist can decide not to believe in God for the present and future but can hardly will away others’ belief in God in the past and the role of that belief in history. Efforts to remake our cultural terrain—from utopian societies such as New York’s Oneida Community (which sought to abolish private property and collectivize marriage by scrutinizing every inner impulse and subjecting it to public criticism) to the Cultural Revolution in China and Stalin’s policing of culture in the Soviet Union—range from the absurd to the terrifying. War by other means, the engineering of culture often goes hand in hand with social engineering, and both threaten our humanity.

Writing in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and during the rise of totalitarianism, Russian dissident philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev criticized the uses of the Marxist philosophy of history, their wholesale “rationalization of the historical mysteries and traditions.” The social and political crises he was witnessing were of such magnitude that they shattered foundational ways of thinking not only about the present and future but also about the past: “Volcanic sources have opened in the historical substrata.” Berdyaev argued that times of crisis caused the very meaning of what is “historical” to become a matter for conscious analysis, and once it comes to that, a state of “spiritual dismemberment” has already arrived.1111xNikolai Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, trans. George Reavey (London, England: Routledge, 2017), 1–2. First published 1923 as Smysl istorii.

In Berdyaev’s conceptualization, societies experience varying degrees of self-consciousness whether in more “organic” times or periods of crisis. When a society is in “some fully crystallized, fully matured and settled epoch, the problems of philosophy, of historical movement and of the meaning of history, do not arise with the same urgency” as in a period of “fateful and menacing schism and disruption.” The deepest sense of what “historical” means comes in the more “organic” stage, a kind of intuiting of the past and the subtle and mysterious ways we are connected to it. For Berdyaev, the “historical” is a sense developed in “the innermost life,” a spiritual apprehension of the past as part of oneself. Periods of disruption cause a new self-consciousness that divides the “historical”—making history into an object of consideration—from the “knowing subject” who is considering the past. This separation of subject and object or self and history lays the groundwork for the notion of a science of history.1212xIbid., 3–8.

In Berdyaev’s view, this scientific approach to history effectively diminished the historical. The Enlightenment, an age of revolutions, was such a period of disruption. Despite an outpouring of interest in history, the proliferation of historical works emanated from a particular, limited form of reason and largely represented a departure from the transcendent reason of faith traditions that emphasized deeper sources of wisdom and insight. Yet Enlightenment thought had not succeeded entirely in the “task of discrediting the historical”; this fulfillment of rationalization of all realms of experience was Marxism’s contribution:

Only economic materialism, because it questioned all tradition and all the sacred associations of history, pursued this task to the very end and accomplished an act of rebellion against the “historical.” As interpreted by economic materialism the historical process appears devoid of soul. Everything is stripped of soul, of inner and mysterious life. The impugnment of the divine mysteries elicits the process of materialistic economic production as the only reality of the historical process and the economic forms that are born of the former as the only ontological, primal and real ones. Everything else appears to be secondary, contingent and superficial. Religion, spirituality, culture, art, human life itself, all are presented as the merest accidents of matter in movement and devoid of substantial reality.1313xIbid., 9–10.

Running roughshod over the larger mystery of the human being’s ineffable connections to the past, historical materialism reduced all motives, causes, and destinies to “terms of production and the development of mankind’s productive forces.”1414xIbid., 9–10, 20–23.

Of course, it was positivism and its various twentieth-century offshoots that became the default alternative in the West to Marxian-style economic determinism. During the Cold War, with the omnipresent assertions of positivist modernity in culture and politics, the differences between communism and liberalism took center stage. But Berdyaev’s invocation of spiritual inwardness as both means and ends of a fuller sense of the historical makes clear the limits of much historical philosophy in general, and both the Marxist and positivist frameworks in particular, given the rationalist and materialist assumptions Marxism and positivism share.

Del Noce and Berdyaev movingly evoke our historical inheritance of self-transcending understandings of truth and value. In human hands, even the pursuit of noble ends—when we can glimpse them—can falter when it comes to means, and to forget this is hubris. One of the greatest dangers of forgetting moral traditions is to lose touch with our limits, our humanity. Knowingness prevents the humility we need now more than ever to recognize that we are not gods, and to act accordingly.

In witnessing the tragedy of Russian-inflicted suffering in Ukraine it is all the more vital to resist the temptation to portray Russia—its people and past in their entirety—as all darkness and the West as all light. One need only read the recent New York Times exposé on the civilian deaths caused by US drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to be disabused of this idea.1515xAzmay Khan, “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes,” New York Times, December 18, 2021, As the essayist Paul Grenier argues, “Already in 1969, Del Noce wrote of Western technological society imitating the Marxist method in the sense that it rejected what Marx had rejected—in the first instance Christianity and Plato. On the other hand, technological society turned Marxism on its head by instituting an absolute individualism. Such an inversion would give ‘the technological civilization’ the false appearance of being ‘a democracy’ and the continuation of the spirit of liberalism.”1616xPaul Grenier, “Technology and Truth: Reflections on Russia, America, and Live Not by Lies,” National Interest, August 22, 2021, As Reinhold Niebuhr warned in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, liberals are too often hasty in their exculpatory claims of self-exemption.1717xReinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011). First published 1944.

All atrocities must be held to account. Recalling ourselves to the deeper sense of the “historical” as a humanistic—a humanizing—endeavor, we need to marshal all available resources to stop the destruction. Despite dictatorial leaders and corrupted oligarchies, deeply rooted literary, artistic, and spiritual traditions continue to serve as wellsprings of our collective humanity—just think Tolstoy—and to inspire courageous traditions of dissent. Grenier argues against the simplistic notion of the good West and the evil East, invoking the other kinds of devastation that can arrive via capitalist excess, the cult of change, Western forms of hypermaterialism, the annihilation of tradition, and the abandonment of metaphysics. He cites Simone Weil’s postwar era concern that American hegemony might mean that “humanity as a whole will lose its past.”1818xSimone Weil quoted in Grenier, “Technology and Truth.”

Even when—or if—we do manage to keep the historical in our “innermost life,” we live in the present, and sometimes we are overwhelmed by the present, particularly when we see a cataclysmic event that we cannot stop. Witness Pompeii and Herculaneum engulfed by volcanic eruption and the devastated sites and lives already lost in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But even in moments of crisis when it seems that history itself is being destroyed around us, the mystery and intricacy of a palimpsest we thought we had forgotten can reveal itself in the form of our traditions and inner resources, making the present more historical, in the richest sense, than it might seem. Witness as well our continuing excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and Ukraine’s heroic resistance under the leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky. Wherever humans persist, persevere, and perdure, history cannot ever be completely abolished.