Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Learning from History- Part I*

Santayana's Rule, which I will not insult my readers by here repeating, has never succeeded in putting the fear of a vicious cycle into me. There stands behind this stern charge the not so well disguised belief that nobody has ever done right by its admonition, and presumably never will. It goes far in damning mankind's common span of attention. This is its only virtue. Otherwise, to adopt a cyclical view of history is to solicit the applause of defeatists at the price of little exercise of one's own imagination. Certainly if history makes no steady, if not uninterrupted motion forward, its own inertia testifies against it. For who wants to take part as a character in a tale whose author (or authors) has no thought as to arc and climax? Presuming our own free will to do so, I believe the most humane course of action we could take in such an instance would be to refuse to participate; to become the audience of history rather than its actors; critics, rather than co-creators.
If this strikes some as unmanly, they have my sincerest apologies, but the charm of playing out a saga of three hundred and sixty degrees is hopelessly lost on me. As a Theist, I find myself hard pressed to say that I would not join the other camp if I felt that God's construction of the Great Tale had the shape of the self-devouring serpent. I say this simply as a matter of aesthetic principle. I enjoy the notion, however naive, that history improves upon itself, and is driven to do so from time to time by the jolts and goadings of the Numinous.
This said, I cannot go further to describe what form our final triumph will take, or even if the appearance will be of a kind as would now touch us as particularly becoming a triumph. There may be no laurels. I cannot say whether the consummation, when it comes, will have been driven more by the operations of politics or of religion, if its success will lie at the doorsteps of the Church or of the courts and capitol buildings. My only reason for hoping as I do is this, that when the testimony of mankind's failed endeavors to improve itself, either in its nature or its circumstance, stands in contradiction to the testimony of the nature of God, that willed that our first nature be pure, and our first circumstance be a paradise, we give little credit to ourselves to let the reproachments of the first drown out the appeals of the second.
I am a Humanist as well as, or even because, I am a Christian. If the Son of God was willing to become the Son of Man then there is a native dignity in mortal flesh. I also believe personality and its expressions to be blessings as great as grace. That God would endow us with these gifts, and then leave us no applications for them, save those whereby we sank ourselves irrecoverably in the pit, seems to me an odious notion. There are those fellow travellers who persist, often with noble motives, in pointing to the adage "Narrow is the way, and those that find it are few." To them I would say that history partakes of more than the present tense; "Are" is not "Ever shall be." I do not mean here to stage my argument on purely theological grounds, because the world's last triumph must resound with a richer timbre than the feeble cantus Ecclesiae seems capable of producing at the present moment, just as the full scope of its causes, I expect, were they revealed to any historian living today, would still exceed his talents of transcription; the heart of man from age to age remains in large measure the same, but the list of his material motivations and the political vocabulary with which he keeps their record are ever increasing. The list of our cardinal vices and virtues is the same now as it has been for two thousand years. The names political philosophers give them- Capitalism, Marxism, Industrialization, Globalization- appears to be without limit. To describe the interplay of these forces in the future lies beyond the powers of even the most prescient theorist. Its events would be, and must be too large to rise fully formed in his imagination before their day should come. Let them come as they will.
It is of course pompous to assign ourselves a seat at the center of these events I have suggested, and to hope too much after these things invites disappointment. We should know the place that moderation supplies to our expectations as well as our desires. We should feel both our greatness beside all created things and our insignificance next to the Creator. Our own place is a great and glorious one, but it may not be a vantage from which we can view the pinnacle of the human monument. Let that be enough. As Browning says in his "Andrea del Sarto,"

. . .and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying a while the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting place is found,
The C major of this life, so, now I will try to sleep.

*Special thanks to Messrs. J. Moss and E. Wilson for the help I had from them gathering these thoughts in various conversations, though I think the above trifles imply disagreement with both.

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