The History of History 4: The Ambition of Philosophers

Reading Edward Gibbon in conversation with The Mahabharata, the Bible, ancient Chinese historians, and Gregory of Tours is an exercise in stomaching apocalyptic visions. Each of these works describes the collapse of civilizations, if not the whole world. Gibbon shows how political chaos and strategic blunders brought down Rome, and hints that the Europe of the eighteenth century is making the same mistakes as the Romans. Gregory of Tours lives amid Rome’s ruins, as local kingdoms squabble for power. Sima Qian and his peers in the Han dynasty seek to legitimize their dynasty and stave off another dynastic collapse (the wrath of the Mandate of Heaven). In the Bible, the coming of the Son of Man, who is often interpreted as Jesus, will bring victory to the chosen people, but the Book of Revelation situates the Second Coming during a global bloodbath. Manu’s discourse in The Mahabharata offers the calmest vision of the end, as Brahman the universal spirit goes to sleep, pausing the world before the next cycle begins. Then again, devout Hindus believe that we are living in the last phase of the current cycle, and everything will be chaotic until Brahman rests. Perhaps the author of Ecclesiastes, with his rants about human vanity, best distills the spirit of apocalypticism: Humans consistently believe that all will crumble.

But that’s not a very jolly sentiment, is it? Fatalism about the species doesn’t inspire people to work, pay their taxes, etc. For this reason, I’m not surprised that each of these classics offers an escape from the gloom. In class, Prof. Lenoe talked about “noble lies,” or useful fictions that help society. Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire views Roman paganism as a past “noble lie” that gave society cohesion. When Gibbon argues that human history will keep advancing, even if present empires collapse, he is offering a new useful fiction to his readers, who all too likely are applying Rome’s mistakes to their own place and time. The Hindu sage Manu provides the assurance of reincarnation and future lives when the universe wakes. The Bible speaks of a new Heaven and a new Earth, where the righteous will live forever; Bishop Gregory believes in this Biblical vision wholeheartedly. Sima Qian and the editors of the Shu Jing provide moral tales in the hope that future emperors will heed the example of past rulers, providing stable leadership and fulfilling the Mandate of Heaven. The authors of these texts vary in the levels of certainty and religious fervor they use to discuss the end times, but each author offers some catharsis for the reader.

I have encountered little modern historiography that makes such bold claims about the end of the world. (When I say “modern,” I mean works from the last fifty years or so.) These days, predicting the end of the world falls to pundits or survivalists. Academic historians have largely retired the notion that history has a predetermined end. Karl Marx promised proletarian revolution and communist utopia in the mid-1800s, but his standards of history differed from those of the academy today, and although people have attempted to achieve Marx’s vision, no utopia has emerged. In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama claimed that we’d reached the end of history — the future being a center-right consumer paradise — but the rise of radical Islamism, the resurgent U.S.-Russian cold war, and global warming have shown that Fukuyama’s teleological vision is inaccurate. As far as I know, Julian Go’s Patterns of Empire is the one academic history in the last few years to propose a vision of total social collapse. Go outlines the rise and fall of the British Empire, then argues that America is following the same curve and is poised to decline. In their certainty and their belief that history will end in a predetermined way, Fukuyama and Go’s books resemble classical works of history.

The classics by Thucydides, Sima Qian, the Biblical authors, et. al. tend to reflect religious ideas more than modern histories do. Thucydides lives amid the worship of the Greek gods; Sima has his abstract heaven that balances civilization; the Biblical authors have their God; and the author of The Mahabharata believes in cyclical time. When operating in a religious tradition, it is easier to envision a clear narrative for the world, for the religion supplies the contours for interpreting the world. Even Edward Gibbon, the father of modern historiography, writes with a kind of philosopher’s certainty. Gibbon is sure that a racial hierarchy exists, that Rome’s mistakes could easily befall Europe, and that the human spirit always progresses (or, at least, that it’s best to pretend that humanity always progresses). By and large, historians today don’t see themselves as prophets or philosophers. They study small stories, debate current literature, and do not suggest in their books’ epilogues visions for the end of time.

Should historians avoid the apocalyptic ambitions of their predecessors? Or should we theorize possible calamities for civilization and suggest how to avoid those possibilities? Too much certainty when predicting the end times would promote misguided, old-fashioned beliefs like a predetermined future or the notion that social science can be totally objective and predictable (these notions often plague political science, plus Go and Fukuyama’s books). Although we historians know the past, we shouldn’t claim to know the future. Still, when I read Gibbon, I am impressed by the scope of his vision. He traces Rome’s whole life cycle, connects the past to his present, and ponders the human condition. Gibbon even gives his reader a smidgeon of hope. That philosopher’s ambition — to trace the history of our species, and to offer suggestions for improvement — could still inspire some powerful history books. Let’s think big.

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