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Models of Historical Interpretation

Models of Historical Interpretation

[Originally serving as two introductory lectures to my history courses, the following article was published at request of the editor in Contra Mundum 11 (Spring 1994): 12-20 under the same title. Long out of print, I hope these observations will prove to be of some value to another generation of readers.]


If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Col. Charles Yancey, 1816


Every text has a context. Every vista has a viewpoint. As C. Gregg Singer contends: “It is impossible to understand completely the history of a nation apart from the philosophies and ideologies which lie at the heart of its intellectual life.”[1] What this means, as Richard Weaver has aptly expressed it in the title of a book, is that “ideas have consequences.”[2]

Various definitions of history reflect the role of ideas and presuppositions. Napoleon, a product of French Enlightenment rationalism, once described history as “a pack of lies agreed upon.” James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus voiced even darker sentiments by remarking that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Both views start with the observer himself, reflecting the idea of man’s autonomy.[3]

For the Christian and the Jew, by contrast, history cannot be understood apart from God’s self‑disclosure as its author. It is a record of God’s dealings with man and the rest of creation. Thus, having an author, history also has a direction and purpose. The Christian calls this God’s Providence, reflecting the idea of telos, or purposefulness. The recognition that history is meaningful has a liberating effect on the mind.

Seen from a temporal or day-to-day perspective, history has a dual aspect.

First, there is an objective side to history. In seeking the facts of history, a historian most often encounters two problems. They revolve around questions of reliability, such as accuracy and veracity or truthfulness, and questions of selectivity, such as personal or cultural bias, value judgments, and presuppositions. Concerning the objective factors that help shape history, D. W. Bebbington writes that “the historian has no direct access to the past. He stands beyond a barrier of time. . . . Facts take place once for all and cannot be recovered afterwards in their full integrity.”[4]

Second, history also has a subjective side. Since interpretation and fact interpenetrate, the same questions about reliability, selectivity, and evidence must be raised in the process of interpreting the significance or meaning of events. Here we must consider what Bebbington calls the problem of the historian himself: “Our concepts determine which ‘facts’ we single out for attention. . . . Our concepts even determine the language in which we state the facts. . . . To write a value‑free account of the past is beyond the historian’s power.”[5]

During the brief war between Great Britain and Argentina in the early 1980s, for example, the American press reflected a typical English‑speaking bias by calling the disputed islands the Falklands rather than the Malvinas. The typical American might reply: “What’s in a name?”[6] Just ask the residents of a former Yugoslav republic who are quarreling with Greece over title to the name of Macedonia. Ask anyone who has lost a lawsuit over copyright infringement, like the former producers of IC Cola.[7]


Inescapable concepts

Bias may be unavoidable, but it is still useful to put our assumptions to the test. Here we will test the assumption that “ideas have consequences” by examining and evaluating some general models of historical interpretation,[8] some of which have given rise to fully developed philosophies of history. Historians rarely state their assumptions, but these may be discerned by examining the methods they use, the facts they cite, and the conclusions they draw.

But it is useful, first, to begin at an even more basic level with a model drawn from the work of R. J. Rushdoony, who seeks to show that even the great variety of our presuppositions must be formulated within and consequently must conform in some way to a larger, God-given intellectual framework. Rushdoony maintains that human nature is such that man cannot escape understanding some basic concepts built into Creation. Although they may be distorted or disregarded, these inescapable concepts, as he calls them, raise questions that must be answered in any society or culture.[9]

1. Sovereignty. First comes the question of sovereignty: What is the ultimate governing authority? More simply stated: Who is in charge? If they deny the sovereignty of God, they are apt to find their answer in the state, the individual self, historical necessity, or impersonal natural forces. The question of sovereignty is a foundational issue that embraces all the others. It is prior to the others because it is a question about the nature of reality itself. Once the locus of sovereignty has been established, we may address the other questions, which deal with the relationship of means and ends, truth and consequences, causes and effects. As a reality question, it raises ethical as well as practical issues: Who or what creates that reality or controls the circumstances, establishes the rules or standards, initiates the action or sets the agenda, devises the appropriate procedures, determines the outcome, and judges success or failure? Although sovereignty is a question about ultimate things, it is usefully applied to mundane concerns. This may be illustrated by using some examples from constitutional politics.

Centralization and Decentralization. During the formative years of the United States, rival assumptions about or claims to sovereignty by the central government and the states threatened to shatter the constitutional union. This argument over who made the ultimate decisions was finally settled by war in favor of the national government. International organizations like the European Economic Community and the United Nations make similar claims to ultimacy. At the other end, our tradition of local self-government remains important. Here and there local governments show considerable initiative. Totalitarian dictatorships such as the former Soviet Union are giving way and permitting new accommodations between competing interests. Russia is now struggling with the problem of decentralization, as is the now fragmented Yugoslavia.

The One and the Many. Besides the tension between central and local governments, the tug of war between the One and the Many takes many forms: individuals versus groups, unity versus diversity, private goods versus the public interest.

Law is a reflection of the religion, morals, and culture of the community. The formative principles of the original American political, moral, and religious culture include the value of individuality, self-government, integrity of character, the claims of conscience, limited government under the rule of law, local initiative, and a voluntary unity or consensus based on common values.[10]

2. Ends. Second, what is the goal or object of this exercise of power? What are the benefits? In business, politics, and law, what ends are being sought? What purposes and whose purposes are being sought? At bottom, these are questions of value. Here Rushdoony uses the term salvation or religion. But more generally it is the question of ends: our vision of the good life, health, wealth, or salvation. Once again, the way we answer the question reflects our view of reality and, as we shall see, truth. Is history moving inevitably toward some final resolution, as Christians believe and, in a different way, Marxists? Is life simply a struggle for survival (Herbert Spencer) or a will to power (Friedrich Nietzsche)? Is its great object to eat and not be eaten? Is it “the war of all against all,” as depicted by Thomas Hobbes?

3. Means. If there is a goal, third, how do we get there? If there are ends, what are the appropriate means? These are practical matters. Human beings act according to some kind of game plan, set of blueprints, or rational method. If ends represent our vision of “the good life,” means refer to the whole ensemble of our ways of doing things. But even “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley [go often awry],” as Robert Burns wrote. The reason in part is that our plans are never entirely our own. By the using the term predestination, Rushdoony asserts the priority of God’s plans. Thomas Sowell has spoken in a similar way of the “constrained vision,” which emphasizes the imperfection of human institutions.[11]

4. Truth. Fourth, there is the truth question: How we know what we think we know and how we respond to the claims that consciousness makes upon us? Being aware, we should beware. This is a matter of judgment. Here we must consider the rules of evidence. What standard or measure do we have for determining truth, justice, or morality? In philosophy, this question is dealt with in epistemology, the theory of knowledge. It raises the issue of infallibility, understanding, or discernment because again and again we must entrust our lives to people and circumstances that are beyond our control. After all, what do we really know? Errors in judgment often prove fatal, and yet we must act. It is a question of whom we trust, to whom we may turn as a court of last resort. Indeed, the concept of truth also raises moral questions about personal character and conscience: both of those who exercise authority and of those who acknowledge it. It points straight to the question of consequences and raises the issue of responsibility.

5. Consequences. Finally, whether we heed the truth, or violate it, there are consequences. Once we have weighed the evidence, or been weighed ourselves, what is the verdict? What are the costs or the benefits of the actions we take or neglect to take? In the case of costs, who bears or suffers them? In other words, who pays the bill and, just as importantly, who should pay it? Here we are dealing with applied ethics as it relates to the means and ends we choose. We are always faced with the necessity of making judgments and the demand that we do justice. In law, we talk about liability. In business administration, we talk about accountability.

Very often this brings us back full circle to the first question: “Who is in charge?” In other words: “Where does the buck stop?” As president, Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said “the buck stops here,” which may be an implicit claim of sovereignty. That is claiming too much. But we usually claim too little. When we refuse to take responsibility for our sins of commission and omission we tacitly agree with Cain, who said: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Sovereignty, salvation, predestination, infallibility, liability. Such questions must be answered by every political, legal, philosophical, and ethical system. To repeat Richard Weaver: “Ideas have consequences.” These questions will be raised repeatedly, though usually implicitly, as we examine some of the larger issues of history.



Two early views of history

All the great Cultures plunge their roots deep into some form of religious outlook, and it is in their religious attitude toward history that they differ at the outset from one another.[12]

Amaury de Riencourt

The ancient Hindu mystics rejected the idea of historical time and believed in the essential oneness of all things. The time-bound Chinese, on the other hand, lacked a sense of eternity. Still other attitudes toward time and eternity are evident within the traditions of the West.

Cyclical View. Let us begin with the classical myth of autonomy adopted by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who adopted a cyclical view of history and placed the concerns of humanity at the center of things. According to the cyclical view, civilizations go through stages of growth, maturity, decay, and death in the unconscious flow of history. We may picture it as a spiral or corkscrew.

The popular image is that of a wheel turning. One complete turn of the cycle is what we call a revolution. The cyclical view also seems to imply the political meaning that the word revolution has subsequently acquired. This perception that “history repeats itself” was prevalent among the ancient pagan cultures, notably those which celebrated the changing seasons of the agricultural year through elaborate cult rituals. Indeed, the words cult, culture, and agriculture indicate the close historical relationship between tilling the earth and religion. Pagan worship that is connected with the cycle of life is often called a “fertility cult.” In practice, the religious rite is often a means of appeasing or asserting control over natural forces, as in magic. In other words, what J. M. Roberts calls autonomy is the assertion of sovereignty or mastery over nature and humanity.[13] This very pragmatic, do-it-yourself form of religion achieved its greatest sophistication in the classical Graeco-Roman tradition. But slavery, torture, and human sacrifice were pervasive features of that tradition.

Sacred Calendar. In the pagan as well as the Biblical tradition, sacred history is memorialized – and thus can be memorized – through a festal calendar highlighted by feasts and holidays. Pagan celebrations are designed to invoke a periodic return to the original source of things. Rituals may vary in character from cannibalism to animal or human sacrifice to sexual license and perversion, as with the Roman Saturnalia. The reason, according to R. J. Rushdoony, is that civilization is regarded as an artificial order built upon a seething cauldron of chaos. Chaos precedes and is the wellspring of order and life. Time itself is something that must be renewed, revitalized, energized, or sanctified periodically through making contact with the eternal rhythms of the cosmos – by tapping into the primordial chaos. Humanity must give chaos its due and periodically return to its roots.[14]

By contrast, the Biblical calendar that also marks the seasons of the agricultural year is both a remembrance of providential events and a revelation of the advent of Christ.

Cyclical historians have often looked back to a past Golden Age. Perhaps this is a dim memory of Eden.

In the Bible we may detect a paradise motif running through much of its symbolism. Its repeated references to rivers, mountains, and the New Jerusalem serve to remind the careful reader of God’s Creation and Providence.

Many pagan cultures also preserve an ancient tradition or legend involving a perfect place, a utopia. But because pagan cultures do not acknowledge a Creator, they adopt ideas about religion, law, and morality that are at odds with Biblical teaching.

The cyclical view tends to be polytheistic: that is, to see history as the product of many unrelated causes or forces. The cyclical view also tends to see history in terms of eternal recurrence, as noted by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Civilizations seem to go through the same cycles of change. In other words, history is thought to repeat itself as it follows an original – perhaps divine – pattern or prototype.

But his idea of a divine prototype may be found in Biblical teaching. The tabernacle and temple, for example, are built according to a heavenly prototype. Mircea Eliade, who contends that the belief in eternal recurrence was originally a source of hope, has added that “repetition emptied of its religious content necessarily leads to a pessimistic vision of existence.”

At least two major historians in recent times have accepted a cyclical view. Oswald Spengler, the author of Decline of the West following the First World War and a noted “cultural pessimist,” contrasted what he called the “Faustian” culture of the West (a dualistic fusion of classical and Christian elements) with the “Magian” culture of the East. In his choice of names, Spengler identifies the half-Christian, half-pagan West with the legendary medieval figure of Faust, a physician who sets himself at odds with the world and makes a bargain with the devil. The struggle between heaven and earth, good and evil, that this legend represents is just one of many depictions of the double-minded yearning for truth and power that, for better and for worse, characterizes western civilization. By contrast, Arnold Toynbee, the author of A Study of History, wrote in a more hopeful mood of the progress of civilization through cycles of “challenge and response.”

Linear View. The cyclical view is also evident in mythology. Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth represents an effort to revive mythical thought forms.

For the Jew, Christian, and Muslim, by contrast, history tends move in a linear fashion: either in an uncomplicated straight line from the Creation to the Last Judgment or in some combination with the cyclical view. James Jordan even finds evidence of a set pattern repeated throughout the Bible: creation, fall and decline, judgment, and re-creation.[15]

What distinguishes the linear from the cyclical view is that history manifests a teleology. Everything moves according to a divine plan toward a final goal or purpose (telos). The linear, teleological view of history is uniquely an outgrowth of the biblical tradition. The purpose of history is both the restoration of creation to its original purity before the fall of Adam and the restoration of man to communion – communication and fellowship – with God, our Creator and Provider.

History as a Story. From the biblical view, history tells a story. It is the setting for a great drama of paradise lost and regained, or – in terms of a familiar literary theme – love, rejection, and reconciliation.

Let us examine some of its specific aspects. As the Creator, God has established the flow of time and reveals Himself irreversibly and infallibly in historical time. Consequently, time is not an impersonal, natural process. It is a result of God’s creative act. The idea of a self‑sustaining and self‑regulating Nature is pagan, not Christian.

Instead of autonomy, everything is seen to be totally under God’s government – under God’s Providence – rather than determined or destined by Nature or by man. God intervenes in history personally, as we may see in the numerous examples of theophany [a visible appearance by God] in the Bible. God is the unifying link that gives meaning and direction to history. As the Provider, God sustains His Creation and intervenes in our lives.

The Bible tells what has been called The Greatest Story Ever Told. It begins with God’s creation of the world out of nothing. Man (the word is used generically here) is originally appointed to supervise and protect God’s creation. He is placed into a pure and perfect environment. Here again we may detect the paradise motif. But man’s pride leads him to prefer to be the master of his own destiny. So he rebels, falls from God’s good graces into the unrighteousness of sin, and is banished from God’s presence. Separated from God, man finds himself in bondage to sin. Nevertheless he still hungers for this lost communion or fellowship with God, who is the source of all life, value, and meaning. But only God can heal the breach between them and restore man to his former position. So as an act of mercy God takes upon Himself the likeness of man and is born into a human family – the son of kings born in humble circumstances – in order to live a life of perfect righteousness and thus fulfill the requirements of the law. By dying innocent of all sin, the God-man Jesus Christ thus personally pays the death penalty for sin (called the “vicarious atonement”) and, as an innocent victim, also breaks the cycle of sin and death, cancelling the debt of sin once for all.

Salvation by Grace through Faith. The gospel (or good news) is that God offers – as a free gift – to make man as good as new again if he will faithfully depend upon Christ’s sacrifice so that his life might be transformed by God’s Spirit. Only by repudiating sin and depending upon God can man be saved and restored. History is thus regarded by Christians as the story of God’s victory over sin and death whereby He creates a new people – a “new nation,” the Church – to populate His kingdom.

By the fourth and fifth century A.D., the early Church began to replace the dying paganism of the Roman Empire. A number of important historians, including St. Augustine, who wrote The City of God soon before the fall of Rome, and Herbert Butterfield, who wrote The Whig Interpretation of History, have worked within a specifically Christian framework of understanding.


Two modern views of history

Progressive View. The idea of progress, which we may picture as a line or plane inclined upward, reflects the influence of Christianity but suggests a movement away from biblical Christianity toward religious skepticism or theological liberalism. Those who claim the name “progressive” tend to question those basic (fundamental) Christian doctrines that cannot be understood independently from God’s revelation. James Malin has observed that the “Illusion of Progress,” a faith in “the unlimited perfectibility of man, . . . was in direct contradiction of the Christian plan of salvation possible only through divine intervention.”[16]

Double-Mindedness. Our prevailing notions of history today are full of contradictions. As Michael Lienesch notes about the founding era (1776-1787): “It is true that certain evangelicals [Christians who emphasize personal conversion] would remain loyal to providential history [examples of which may be found in the readings], and that some secular thinkers would adhere to an almost exclusively rationalistic interpretation. But an even larger group, combining religion and rationality, would create a conception of American history in which piety and pragmatism were inextricably bound together. The result would be a paradoxical interpretation of the past, comprehensive but contradictory, inspiring feelings of enormous self-confidence and enormous self-doubt.”[17] So let us examine the specifically progressive or rationalist component of this hybrid.

Reason as the Standard of Truth. Generally speaking, the progressive view of history is a variety of secular humanism that rejects divine revelation and makes man’s reason the standard of truth.[18]

Although the idea of progress took the place of a belief in divine intervention, or Providence, it continued to mimic Christianity by holding onto some of its chief tenets: its ultimate optimism, its sense of inevitable victory, and its linearity. In place of the God of the Bible, an impersonal cause of all things was substituted. Christianity was rejected by many thinkers in favor of a rationalist religion called Deism, which substituted the mechanical image of the world as an elaborate clockwork for the idea of Creation. According to this new program, man must scientifically mold Nature like clay to give it unity and direction. So men in effect become like gods and write their own script: “I am the master of my destiny, I am the captain of my soul,” as William Ernest Henley expresses it in his poem, “Invictus.”

Under the influence of Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species was published in 1859, later progressives came to see history as the story of man’s evolution from brute existence to civilization. Science, in this view, permits man to discover and command natural laws that enable him to lift himself up by his bootstraps. Like early paganism, progressive rationalism takes a very pragmatic attitude toward life. If there is direction to history, it is only because human reason recognizes and builds upon the lawful natural order.

The idea of rational progress was popularized by the philosophes of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment and further developed by nineteenth century social science as a means of revolutionizing or reforming society. Contrary to St. Augustine’s “City of God,” its object was to create the universal “City of Man” or “Cosmopolis.”[19] But the prevailing skepticism of the twentieth century has weakened the idea of inevitable progress and, with it, the belief in a natural law that gives structure and meaning to history.

Borrowed Capital. To summarize: the progressive view reflects the Christian view in a distorted fashion. First, it substitutes the sovereignty of man, or Nature, or the State for the sovereignty of God. Second, it substitutes scientific planning for God’s providential control over history. Finally, it substitutes salvation by a new political order for salvation by grace through faith. The progressive view borrows its basic assumptions from Christianity but generally lacks an intellectual basis for doing so. Indeed, secular progressivism parasitically lives off the accumulated capital of a Christian civilization that it has long since forgotten.

Even so, some progressive historians of the nineteenth century professed Christianity, like Thomas Lord Macaulay and John Lord Acton, two major exponents of what Herbert Butterfield called “the Whig interpretation of history.” A more clearly secular example of the progressive view may be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the triumph of republican values and in John Dewey’s use of public education to promote a religion of democracy.

Historicism. Progressivism’s emphasis on the natural oneness of humanity is counterbalanced by the emphasis in historicism on the uniqueness of times and cultures. Unity gives way to diversity. History from this vantage point may be pictured as a mixed forest in which each tree follows its own distinct pattern of growth.

Historicism in the eighteenth century began as a reaction against the perceived atheism of the French Enlightenment by German pietists, evangelical Christians who emphasized intuition over reason. Blaise Pascal made a similar point earlier when he wrote: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”

But historicism moved away from orthodox Christianity into Romanticism and Transcendentalism. It rejected the linear concept of history in favor of a cultural relativism or multiculturalism has that made each era and each nation responsible for its own standards. The individualism and internationalism that characterize the progressive view have led toward a different set of values, another myth of autonomy, which seeks to celebrate ethnic and racial identity – as well as class and gender identity. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This view treats a culture – with its own language, history, and customs – as a distinct entity that defines its own highest authority. All cultures are seen as products of their history and must be understood in relation to their past. Different languages and cultures inevitably develop different sets of values. Since they lack a natural basis for unity, each becomes its own source of authority and authenticity.

Taken to an extreme, this view leads to existentialism, in which everything is reduced to meaninglessness because there are no constants, no absolute standards. It leads to a moral relativism that gives no ground for preferring one custom or ethical code to another. This was the battle cry of the counterculture of the 1960s: “Do your own thing.” In practical terms, the stronger power or the loudest voices soon hold sway, and what often begins as a movement to break the chains of oppression becomes a new orthodoxy imposing its will and identity on all.[20] In the process, individual uniqueness comes to be regarded as dangerous or counterrevolutionary and the great dissenter is denounced as “an enemy of the people.” The great ideologies of this century – socialist as well as nationalist – hate independent-mindedness.

Nationalism. During the last two centuries, historicism has been adopted by various nationalist movements, including National Socialism, that reflect both the progressive and the historicist view. The unifying factor is usually provided by a visionary charismatic leader, who personifies the cause and becomes an integral part of a national mythology, even while alive. National orthodoxies change with the times. Changing national priorities can be charted fairly accurately by noting changes in festivals and holidays. Rather than marking the seasons or sacred events, the modern calendar celebrates its pantheon of heroes and national events.

Representative historicists include Leopold von Ranke and Wilhelm Dilthey, two nineteenth century German historians. But historicism has also left its mark on American historiography, including the “progressive historians.” One hundred years ago, Frederick Jackson Turner’s lecture, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” maintained that the American character had been shaped by an open frontier. Soon the geographical determinism of Turner found a counterpart in the economic determinism of the Charles Beard, whose Economic Interpretation of the Constitution sought to explain the motives of the founders according to their economic interests.


Two historical syntheses

Hegelianism. The philosophical idealist Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) was the first major philosopher of history to fuse the idea of progress with historicism. Hegel sought to reconcile the progressive emphasis on a rational order with the historicist respect for custom. He sought to rescue what he considered the most positive elements from the French Revolution which came under attack by the major European powers following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.[21]

Dialectic. Hegel believed the dynamic of history is indirect or dialectical. By moving indirectly toward greater freedom, the course of history suggests a jagged rather than a straight line. It moves in ratchet fashion past the conflict of opposites (thesis and antithesis) to a new unity or synthesis.[22] For example, the competing loyalties of the family (thesis) and the commercial individualism (antithesis) of civil society eventually yield to a greater loyalty, the state (synthesis).

Hegel also believed history reflects a definite but evolving scale of values that is more sharply revealed as history advances, as what he called the World Spirit – his expression for collective humanity – becomes more self‑conscious. People are merely the instruments of this divine reason, whether as heroes or, most often, as victims. “History is the slaughter bench at which the happiness and welfare of each individual is sacrificed. The individual constitutes but a moment in the vast general sweep of world history. He remains historically unimportant.”[23] Even so, Hegel was optimistic about the future. As D. W. Bebbington comments, “the supreme value being generated is freedom understood in a thoroughly romantic way as self-realization.”[24] Certain elements of Hegel’s theory of history continue to influence political movements of both the Left and Right.

Francis Fukuyama updated the Hegelian thesis by arguing that we have now reached the “end of history” and what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the last man.” Nietzsche believed that man would eventually be superseded by overman (superman). In Hegelianism, the driving force of history is a “struggle for recognition” which causes competition among states and results in the evolution of liberal democracy. History is characterized by this struggle to give birth to something higher. Fukuyama maintains that this historical process culminates when each citizen gets equal and reciprocal recognition. Then society moves beyond ideology and the inspiring fiction of a historical purpose.

Marxism. A very influential view today is another fusion of historicism and progressivism known as Dialectical Materialism or Marxism. Unlike Hegel’s philosophical Idealism, Marxism is a form of Positivism. Materialism and the dialectic are about as compatible as oil and water.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), two 19th century German radicals who lived in England, believed that the direction of history is shaped or determined by environmental factors, particularly economics, rather than ideas.

Economic Determinism. Marx claimed that a new society of abundance and freedom would arise if private property and every form of individualism or selfishness were abolished. The state itself would eventually disappear once people shared the wealth voluntarily. He labeled his philosophy “scientific socialism” because of his belief that the advances of science would work the necessary changes in human nature to assure a new order of things envisioned by the international socialist movement.

Like the founder of a new religion, Marx believed he had uncovered the secrets of the universe in the form of “scientific laws.” Among these laws were the following:

Atheism. This denies the existence of God. Marx referred to religion as “the opium of the people.” Its rationale is very simple. The existence of God would make it impossible to scientifically reshape man and nature because final control would then lie outside of man’s reach. According to this view, the material universe came into being by accident. In fact, Marx’s system requires this presupposition. Consequently, there are no absolute standards of value and morality, so men – specifically the ruling classes – are free to determine their own rules. It is no wonder that a prominent existentialist philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre was also a Marxist.

Materialism. From the first premise, it then follows that man cannot have a soul or spirit. Everything is material. Marx believed that “there is nothing in the world apart from matter in motion.” Thus men’s thoughts and emotions, which are byproducts of matter in motion, may properly be scientifically controlled by those who seek to further human progress. Society and human nature may be improved by reforming the environment, including childhood habits and education. John Dewey’s progressive education system fits this model, even though Dewey himself was an outspoken anti-Communist.

The Class Struggle. Progressive new technologies meanwhile create new environments which, in turn, create new economic and social classes. The dialectical struggle between a new working class (the proletariat) and the old capitalist ruling class (the bourgeoisie) results in the creation of a new kind of human being – a new man – and in turn produces the inevitable triumph of the new class, which then establishes its dominion over the whole earth. The victory of the proletariat is supposed to lead to a classless society. This is the Marxist equivalent of salvation. In the absence of absolute values, it becomes an end that justifies almost any means.



History is written and rewritten by every generation. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy noted in Out of Revolution:

“Anyone who looks back on his life knows how completely a new love, a new home, a new conviction, changes every aspect of his past. How, then, can history remain a piecemeal confusion of national developments after a conflagration of the dimensions of the World War? A race that was not impressed by such an experience, that could not rewrite its history after such an earthquake, would not deserve any history.”[25]

What we are witnessing, indeed, is the continuing “creation of humankind.” Rosenstock-Huessy counsels us to “try to read world history as our own autobiography.”

If a man or a generation confess that they have lived and sinned perhaps they can arrive at knowledge. History is perhaps dark and confused only of we stare at it from outside, without solidarity, without having first lived and sympathized.[26]

Too often history is treated as a lifeless relic, as an odd museum piece like the tiny mummy in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood that lay in the display case in the zoo at the center of the city. If the center is dead, no wonder it can no longer hold. The historical models we formulate, like the hypotheses scientists develop, represent just so much intellectual scaffolding. They may be indispensable for the task of investigation, but too often they become indisposable – taking the place of a conclusion. How ironic it would be to find the scaffolding still standing even after the building itself had collapsed.     

We should be casting our intellectual nets ever wider and wider to recollect the crucial experiences – a sense of the real dilemmas – that are so often neglected by historians. We caricature the past by failing to recall the passions that have shaped and reshaped us in God’s crucible.

Time-bound human beings that we are, we are also time-binders: active as well as acted upon. It is this dynamic aspect of history that is so hard to capture. Rosenstock-Huessy addresses this difficulty through his imaginative attempt to depict the centrality of the Cross, by arguing that we are pinioned (or pilloried) on “the great space and time axes” – inside and outside, past and future – that define “all men’s life on earth, forming a Cross of Reality. . . . All men are men are men because they face backward and forward at the same time. We are crucified by this fact. Nobody lives in one time.”[27]



[1]C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History, revised ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1981 [1964]), 1.

[2]Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[3]On the “myths” of autonomy and teleology, see J. M. Roberts, The Triumph of the West (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985), 36-37.

[4]D. W. Bebbington, Patterns in History: A Christian View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 11.

[5]Ibid., 12.

[6]The line is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which dramatized a philosophical and political duality. The schism in medieval Scholastic philosophy between the realists, who held that universals [ideas or concepts] have an objective existence, and the nominalists, who held that universals are merely names we give abstractions, is discussed in Weaver, op. cit.

[7]The author himself is aware that under existing trademark regulations he would not be permitted to produce luggage under his family name, even though the name has been used by the family longer than Shwayder Brothers has manufactured Samsonite suitcases.

[8]Each of these is discussed in Bebbington, op. cit. Some of the illustrations that follow are drawn from two works: Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978), and his (author, 1974). The first of these works shows that the dichotomy between realism and nominalism – or the One and the Many – is resolved in the Triunity of the Godhead.

[9]In some cases the original names given to these concepts have been changed, partly in order to show their interdependence. The second reading brings together excerpts from three works which use the original terms.

[10]Rosalie J. Slater, Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1965), passim.

[11]Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (New York: William Morrow, 1987), passim. This “unconstrained vision” is similar to what Francis Lieber called “Rousseauism,” a prejudice against divided power that favors centralization and “democratic absolutism.” See Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd ed. revised, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1877), pp. 150-51, 156.

[12]Amaury de Riencourt, The Coming Caesars (New York: Coward-McCann, 1957), 345.

[13]Speaking of the utopian plans of some of his contemporaries, including the use of contraception to breed a superior race of beings, C. S. Lewis wrote: “From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over some other men with Nature as its instrument. . . . Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.” C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965 [1947]), 68-69, 71.

[14]See chapter three in Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978 [1971]); World History Notes (the author, 1974).

[15]See, for example, James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988). On the other hand, Bebbington rejects any suggestion that the Old Testament philosophy of history is cyclical (op. cit., 46-47).

[16]James C. Malin, The Contriving Brain and the Skillful Hand in the United States: Something About History and Philosophy of History (Lawrence, KS: James C. Malin, 1955), p. 14.

[17]Michael Lienesch, New Order of the Ages: Time, the Constitution, and the Making of Modern American Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 18.

[18]See Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: Free Press, 1990).

[19]These phrases are also the titles of intellectual histories of the Enlightenment program by W. Warren Wagar and Stephen Toulmin respectively. The title of the first volume of Peter Gay’s Enlightenment The Rise of Modern Paganism – is very revealing. But a wholesale rejection of Christianity did not take place at the time.

[20]Jean-Jacques Rousseau began one of his essays with a trumpet blast: “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” Two generations later, Karl Marx wrote: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Later he wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” The myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and then being chained to a rock was a popular Romantic image.

[21]See Paul Edward Gottfried, The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986), 9-10.

[22]Henri Bergson favored the image of a swinging pendulum or a spiral. Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1935), p. 292.

[23]Frank N. Magill, ed. Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form, vol. 2 (New York: Salem Press, 1961), p. 596. See Hegel’s Philosophy of History, introduction to philosophical history.

[24]Op. cit., pp. 119-20 (emphasis added). “Self-realization” is placed high on the scale of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” It is the touchstone or talisman of modern humanism.

[25]Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (New York: William Morrow, 1938), 6.

[26]Ibid., 7-8.

[27]Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future: or the Modern Mind Outrun (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 167. The great semanticist, Alfred Korzybski, regarded man as first and foremost a “time-binder.”



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