Monday, November 15, 2004

The Philosophy of History

About everything that could be called "the philosophy of history" I am a desperate sceptic. I know nothing of the future, not even whether there will be any future. I don't know whether past history has been necessary or contingent. I don't know whether the human tragicomedy is now in Act I or Act V; whether our present disorders are those of infancy or old age. I am merely considering how we should arrange or schematise those facts - ludicrously few in comparison with the totality - which survive to us (often by accident) from the past. I am less like a botanist in a forest than a woman arranging a few flowers for the drawing-room. We can't get into the real forest of the past; that is part of what the word "past" means.
~C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, "De Descriptione Temporum" (1955)


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3 Comment(s):

At Mon Nov 15, 10:23:00 AM EST, Blogger Sandicomm said...

Whoah, weird! I was just thinking about this quotation today, but I've never read this essay. Um. Hmmm. Perhaps he says something like in in That Hiddeous Strength or The Abolition of Man? Again, weird...

When I first read this passage (or a similar one), it really changed my view of history. It is true: we don't know whether mankind is in its infancy or old age. We can't say if our present state is the peak of man's evolution (if you believe that); I'm sure our porgeny will be a lot smarter than us.

By the way, do any of you guys know what Lewis means by the philosophy of history? Since Lewis grew up in the early 20th century, and ideas from the 19th century would still be around, I'm going to assume several options:

1) One of the German Idealists (forget which one) said each age of history had its own specific spirit (borrowed from the romantic movement. I'm sick of that movement... Stupid essay...) and this spirit produced the heroes of the age. There were also specific ideas of the age, the thesis and the antithesis. There would be a revolution of sorts, and this combined idea would start the next age.

2) The Enlightenment: Each age in history progresses for a certain purpose (in their case so that all of man's troubles will be abolished by applying reason and science to all of our problems).

3) The romantics: Each age is unique but as we progress, each age gets worse. Small wonder since the romantics came about during the Industrial Revolution. They revered the Middle Ages because, as they thought, there was social harmony, everyone was unified under one God, but a communion with nature was in place (unlike in the IR, with all the factories, etc.). Creativity abounded in the Middle Ages, they thought, esp. with chivalric tales, folktales, etc.

Whooh! I'm tired. What do y'all think about any "philosophy of history"?

At Mon Nov 15, 12:39:00 PM EST, Blogger Arevanye said...

"I'm sure our progeny will be a lot smarter than us."

I don't know Sandi--they say history repeats itself. Perhaps our progeny will just go on repeating the same dumb mistakes we've made.

As for a "philosophy of history" I really don't have an opinion, other than I think I'm not in agreement with the romantic view of history as you have explained it. The Middle Ages, while giving birth to chivalry and wonderful legends, was also a time of scarcity of books, dreadful disease, and the oppression of serfs by the ruling landowners.

But then again, I was the kind of person who always fell asleep in history class!

At Mon Nov 15, 08:05:00 PM EST, Blogger Sandicomm said...

You're not wrong in thinking that the Romantics were wrong; they were. I think they kind of ignored the fact that the majority of Medieval Europe's population was crawling around in the muck and people were dying of diseases often.

And as Mark Twain said: "History rhymes but it never repeats." And there's a quotation about that in Perelandra, too...


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