In my last post, I introduced the concept of “second hand mythology” in order to describe how, in virtually all cultures – even the outwardly secular ones – the core myths of the culture’s dominant religion are endlessly recycled as a lens in which to view worldly events.
I briefly described Marxism as such a belief system: look closely, and you can see the invention of private property as a sort of ‘fall’ from which the teachings of Karl Marx will redeem mankind; once enough people accept his teachings, the whole world will be transformed into a workers’ paradise of classless harmony, universal brotherhood, and splendiferous wealth shared by everybody. All of these things – the fall, the redeeming doctrine, and the promised future paradise for true believers – derive from Christian sacred history.
But most of my previous post was dedicated to sketching out, in detail, the Myth of the Chosen People – the idea that a certain nation has somehow been selected to play a unique role in history and to ultimately redeem the world. While the chosen ones may sometimes fall short of their true nature, suffer for their sins, and experience the ebb and flow of worldly fortune, they’ll never stop being the chosen people. In other words, nothing they can possibly do will change their status as destiny’s darlings, or reduce them to playing a role in world history no bigger than that of their neighbors.
I described this myth’s origins in the story of biblical Israel; then, I described its reappearance, with all the essential points intact, in one of the classics of twentieth-century literature, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Pieces of the Chosen People narrative can be found in most of our society’s epic storytelling, though it seldom shows up in so complete a form – there are things that an author can do with seven or eight millennia of elf genealogies that he cannot do when all the events of his tale happen in the same century).
Now a myth, once implanted firmly in the subconscious mind, is not going to stay confined to either religious or recreational storytelling. It will inevitably determine how a society sees its own history and politics as well. But before I talk about how the American Right’s perception of American history has been distorted by the Chosen People myth, I will need to take another detour, this time to describe the Myth of the End of History.
Shortly after I posted the Chosen People essay, one of my more thoughtful readers criticized the idea that Marx and Engels’ notions about progress toward a paradisiacal future were repackaged Christian eschatology. He said:
“Here is what is undeniable: over time, and unevenly in both temporal and geographical aspects, the human animal has enormously increased his understanding of how the world really works. And with the triumph of capitalism, that understanding has been turned to systematically increasing ‘the forces of production.’ So there is room for optimism. If we can align our economic, social, and political systems with this marvelous freeing of the human mind... what can't we accomplish?
“So... why hasn't this happened? Why has history not come to an end, in Fukayama's sense, where we all recognize the superiority of liberal democracy and a market economy? And what can we do to help this uneven, and now challenged, process along?”
This commentator made a point that’s worth addressing. Technological progress is a real thing, and over the last three centuries or so, a handful of societies have relied upon the combination of applied science, free market capitalism, and democratic governing institutions to achieve a never-before-seen degree of personal freedom and material prosperity.
The resulting mood of optimism was certainly strong with Francis Fukuyama when, in 1989, he wrote an essay entitled “The End of History.” Fukuyama’s thesis was that the Marxist concept of history, as a series of stages in which each form of political economy is replaced with a better one, until an end-state is reached which can’t be improved upon, was mostly correct… but that it was actually liberal democratic capitalism, rather than communism, that would be left standing after the final bell.
Like myself, my commentator sees pretty clear evidence, in recent happenings in the United States, that our society is not on track toward a future of perpetual improvement, or even of holding onto the gains of the past. In other words, Fukuyama’s talk about the End of History was premature. But before digging into the question of whether our society can be put back onto the track that Fukuyama, and myriad likeminded thinkers, say it ought to be following, it’s worth asking whether the underpinnings of his theory hold up to basic scrutiny.
For example, if history will ‘end’ once all major countries have become liberal democracies, that necessarily implies that, once a country has become a liberal democracy, it cannot later become something else. A quick glance at history doesn’t support this assertion: there was, for instance, that time in 1933 when the Austrian corporal at the head of the Nazi party got himself made Chancellor of Germany, and there was also the near-simultaneous transformation of Spain from a liberal democracy into a military dictatorship with Francisco Franco as Caudillo.
And if you’re willing to go way back in time, and define “liberal democracy” a bit loosely, then you have to include the time that the Caesars took over the Roman Republic.
Another crucial, and even more overlooked, rotten pillar in Fukuyama’s theory was the assumption that his own nation – the United States – was a healthy liberal democracy in the first place. But the real America of 1989 was a society in which the ruling class used judicial decrees like Roe v. Wade, plus unlimited executive power in warmaking and foreign policy, to exclude voters and elected representatives from the bulk of government policymaking. To insist that this isn’t a problem because the things the technocrats imposed on the country were good is to miss the point; the measure of a democracy is not whether the laws are good, but whether the common man has a say in their making.
But enough talk about Fukuyama. He is only one specimen of a class that includes many, many thinkers: these were the Hegelians. The crux of Hegelian theory, whether presented by George Hegel himself, Marx, Fukuyama, or anyone else, is the claim that the historical dialectic – the process by which a culture repeatedly revises its form of political economy through the intellectual dance of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – will come to a halt once everybody recognizes the superiority of whatever system the Hegelian thinker in question happens to like best. (For Hegel, who got the whole thing started, the end-state was a Prussian-style “enlightened monarchy.”)
Even outside the Hegelian school, there are plenty of other versions of the myth on offer; Charles Fourier, a contemporary of Hegel and the grandfather of most socialist movements, had one that is far too colorful for any summary to do it justice, though you can read some of the details here. But ultimately, all of these End of History myths – all of these claims that, once everybody believes the things that the myth-maker believes and starts living the way the myth-maker says he ought to live, human conflict and history as we know it will cease – are all variations on the same theme.
Here, by the way, is the original, written in the eighth century BC, in the Kingdom of Judah, by the prophet Isaiah:
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.’
“For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Most people who believe in this prophecy today are Christians who view it as something that will happen after Christ’s second coming, rather than as a part of temporal history. But at the time the prophecy was given, none of that doctrinal framework existed.
To the ordinary, uncritical Jewish listener, this was simply the way that the future was going to be. Eventually, the day would come when Israel’s long persecutions would cease, the surrounding nations would recognize Israel’s God as the true God, their leaders would go to Jerusalem to learn God’s laws, and because of all this, there wouldn’t be any more wars.
The ironic part of this is that the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy actually happened! It took a while, but by the time two millennia had passed since his death, the inhabitants of every country known to Isaiah – plus plenty more he had never heard of like England, Russia, and Malaysia – believed Isaiah’s God to be the only true God, made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and studied various holy books which they believed to contain the words and laws of the God of Israel.
There were only two problems. First, most of the people who were trying to practice Isaiah’s religion were practicing it wrongly – at least, by Isaiah’s standards, and often by each other’s as well. For example, Christians ate pork, Muslims circumcised their sons as teenagers rather than as babies, and so forth.
The second problem was that there were still wars.
One of the benefits of looking at why the partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy didn’t put an end to history is that it shows that there are actually a lot of different things that have to go right in order for the End of History myth to pan out.
First, good ways of organizing a nation’s religious, political, or economic affairs must inevitably attract more converts than bad ones. Second, once a good system is adopted, there must be no backsliding. Third, as a religion or ideology spreads, it must not mutate so seriously that its various offshoots end up locked in irresolvable conflicts with each other. (This last point is the horn on which the ‘swords into plowshares’ part of the vision was so cruelly broken).
If you want to look at the “mutant spawn” problem in terms of political economy, rather than religion per se, just consider that all forms of “capitalism” – a family of economic systems that includes things as different from each other as the slave economy of the antebellum South is from Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics” – are descended, through various lines, from the mercantilist market economies of seventeenth-century England and Holland.
There is no good reason for a prognosticator of future events not to expect equally severe divergences – and resulting conflicts – in whatever ideologies happen to survive into the future.
Now, it’s worth noting that the Isaiah-Hegel-Marx-Fukuyama framework, in which history is the story of everybody adopting worldviews and ways of life that are more and more like that of the author of the story, is far from the only way to interpret world history.
One useful alternative comes to us in the work of Herodotus, the Greek writer whom later generations would know as the “Father of History.”
Herodotus produced his great work, known simply as The Histories, in the late fifth century BC. In one sense, this book is a history of the Persian Wars, since the Greek city states’ epic resistance to the aggressions of Darius and Xerxes provides much of the work’s substance. But in another sense, it’s a history of the world, because in it, Herodotus tries to write down literally everything he knows about the various tribes and kingdoms that exist between India in the east, Sicily in the west, Hyperborea in the north and Ethiopia in the south.
Herodotus tells a tale of the rise and fall of empires. The humiliation of the seemingly omnipotent Persians when they try to take on the Greeks is, of course, the centerpiece, but there are plenty of other empires whose downfalls grace the pages of his work. National greatness, he explains, is fleeting:
“The cities which were formerly great have mostly become insignificant; and such as are at present powerful, were weak in the olden time. I shall therefore discourse equally of both, convinced that human happiness never stays long in the same place.”
There are no Chosen Peoples in the Herodotean worldview, and there is no End of History. Somebody like Croessus or Cyrus may think that his kingdom is fated to impose lasting order on the chaos of human events, but in the end, nations burdened with such an attitude grow soft and decadent, and the Gods punish them for their hubris by allowing smaller, tougher nations to defeat them in battle.
Herodotus was an ethnographer as well as a historian, and he gave detailed accounts of the ways of life of the dozens of cultures that figured into his work. Oftentimes, he praised or criticized a particular custom. To give two examples, he thought the Greek practice of competing in athletic games for no reward other than glory to one’s home city was instrumental in bringing up a race of tough fighting men, and he also believed – in accordance with a widespread legend – that there was something in the diet or habits of the Ethiopians that made them live much longer than other races.
However, Herodotus did not expect that all other nations would respond to the Greek victories over Darius and Cyrus by adopting Greek-style athletics, nor did he anticipate that everybody would soon flock to Ethiopia in a quest to discover and imitate the secret of Ethiopian longevity. In his view, every nation had its own laws and customs, some better, some worse, most just adaptations to the climate and other unique circumstances of its homeland. From time to time a nation adopted an innovation, either spontaneously or by imitating its neighbors, but there was no overall rhyme or reason to this cultural drift.
To many modern thinkers, the Herodotean worldview must seem dreary. A history with no direction, no protagonist, and no goal is alien to the minds of thinkers as diverse as Isaiah, Virgil, Saint Augustine, Oliver Cromwell, George Hegel, and Karl Marx.
But, judging by his style, Herodotus was witty and charming, not dreary at all, and it’s easy to sense the love that he has for his subject matter. As far as Herodotus was concerned, the Gods were at work in human history – it just so happened that their plans didn’t involve a single nation or culture triumphing forevermore.
As Herodotus’ life neared its close, his adoptive home city of Athens, flush with the success of the Persian Wars, was beginning to build an empire of its own. Part of Herodotus’ purpose in writing The Histories was to provide a subtle warning to the Athenians against becoming like the thing they had defeated. The consequences of their failure to head his warning provided the subject matter for the next great historian, Thucydides.
Like the contemporaries of Herodotus, you and I don’t live in a nation that’s been marked out for any special role as history’s protagonist, and acting as if we did is bound to end in grief. Empires will keep rising and falling long after the United States is a distant memory.
And while we do live in a world that is being remade by technological change, the same thing could be said in Herodotus’ time. The Greeks were a clever and innovative people, but their innovations did not make their civilization immortal.
So it will be with America and the “liberal global order” in general. This is not something that can be avoided; it is just something that we will all have to come to terms with, if we are going to make a constructive response to the challenges of our day.