A world in words

Historian John Lukacs has spent his life cultivating a historical philosophy to better understand the world and our place in it

— There is a binocularity about the historian John Lukacs’ thought and life that is often found in great minds. Born in 1924 to a Hungarian Roman Catholic father and an Anglophilic Jewish mother who insisted he be educated in England, Lukacs found himself trapped in Hungary by the Second World War. Sentenced to slave labor as a Jew, he survived as a Catholic by gaining admission to the Hungarian army, then deserted after the German occupation of Budapest in 1944. He fled to the United States in 1946 to escape Stalin after outlasting Hitler. Lukacs obtained employment as a professor of history at Chestnut Hill Collegein Philadelphia, where he lectured and wrote until his retirement in 1974. Along the way, he has published more than 30 books and lectured at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Budapest. His most recent book is The Legacy of the Second World War.

Dr. Lukacs, in his eighties, also recently published Last Rites,which integrates his conception of history and human knowledge with private memories and personal philosophy. Obviously, it should be read last, but it cannot be fully appreciated without some idea of what has gone before. Last Rites is a kind of coda, a richly written glance backwards in which Lukacs integrates the personal with the political and philosophical.

Happily, Lukacs, unlike some professional historians nurtured in academia, has the virtue of being readable. Since he has a wonderful sense of economy that combines nicely with a lucid and entertaining style, his writing is very approachable for the general reader. There is, of course, a great thematic overlap, but essentially his books are histories-a canon about the transformation of the “Modern Age” into the “postmodern,” which, he worries, will be but a way station to something far worse. What he tells us about thepast is fascinating, but its real significance lies in what it portends. In a word, Lukacs is profoundly and disturbingly prophetic.

Lukacs’ specialty is World War II, and all of his works on the subject are a must for anyone seriously interested in Europe’s second Great War but the analysis of Hitler and Churchill is one of Lukacs’ most compelling and original contributions. Arrestingly, he observes that it was his hero, Churchill, who was a reactionary and not Hitler. Churchill was the chivalric knight personifying the best of old Europe, whereas Hitler was the evil new knight of the emerging modern one. In fact, Hitler, as the inventor of National Socialism,was in Lukacs’ words, “the greatest revolutionary of our time.”

According to Lukacs, as aristocratic elites of the West have gradually given way to democratic ones, populist demagogues have discovered the expediency of manipulating their populations in a way that Hitler, influenced by Mussolini and aided by his sinister minion genius,Josef Goebbels, perfected. Hitler’s National Socialism, in borrowing the former from the Right and the latter from the Left, through a kind of diabolic alchemy, melded together an explosive compound that now dominates our world like a collective WMD. Hitler had found the winning formula-the political equivalent to nuclear energy.

Alas, such horrors are uncontainable, and it was not long before National Socialism proliferated. Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Tito, Juan Peron, Ho Chi Minh, Francisco Franco, Fidel Castro, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Hugo Chavez, Kim Il-sung, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are all, in various degrees and ways, National Socialists, and Hitler’s children.

Lukacs is a historian with the heart of a philosopher. He points out that the important thing is not a “philosophy of history”but a “historical philosophy.” History then is memory that manifests an ever expanding and intrusive collective consciousness outside of which there is only nothing and nothingness. “Man did not create the universe but he did invent it,” says Lukacs. Or as the poet Greg Brownderville said in his marvelous poem, “Mystery:” A scientist says to me, I thrive

on knowing. For twenty years

he’s researched one scant slice of

brain. I get it. Granddaddy’s been

hoeing one garden plot for even

longer. It’s nice to know a passage

of the world by heart. From Aum

to Amen, sacred books agree, the

world is words. One myth says

destiny is cosmic mail, epistolary

art. Science, then, is grammar.

Yes, “the world is words,” and history is remembrance expressed in dialogue. The task of history, then, is a kind of perpetual resurrection. Reality is not purely ideal, certainly, but remains a material, factual world, and so it is only by interweaving the factual story of the past through history, amplified by the arts and faith, that we come to self-understanding. In this respect, Thucydides, Tacitus and de Tocqueville are all great philosophers, while Plato, Hume and Kant are great historians.

According to Lukacs, this increasing historical-philosophical self-awareness is one of the greatest achievements of the Modern Age. In his masterpiece, Historical Consciousness; or, The Remembered Past, he explains: I believe that the most impor

tant developments in our civiliza

tion during the last three or four

centuries include not only the ap

plications of the scientific method

but also the growth of a historical

consciousness; and that while we

may have exaggerated the impor

tance of the former we have not

yet understood sufficiently the

implications of the latter.

Science (numbers) cannot explain history (words) but history can explain science. In fact history contemplates everything-nothingis outside it. Lukacs admits he is a “reactionary,” but only in the very best sense, reactionary in the way that Churchill reacted against National Socialism, which, other than a nostalgia for a sentimentalized mythology, has no genuine interest in the past but instead arises as an abrupt, even violent, severance from it, while plunging us ever forward into a new amnesiac postmodern, perhaps posthuman, future-a synthetic surreality, dominated by mass computerization, mass consumption, mass entertainment and mass communication. In this way, humanity is gradually marooned in a sea of forgetfulness like a stupefied and very lost texting and twittering lobotomite.

That is, we’re being seduced, not so much by technology, but by “the spirit of technology”-the Faustian bargain of exchanging our humanity for the enslaving power of the Ubermensch. Accordingly, today’s conservative-liberal political dichotomy is increasingly less useful. Like Lukacs, Wendell Berry understands: “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”

Is Last Rites a final sacrament as much for us as Lukcas? At the end of the book, Lukacs suggests an answer: Ambition and greed invoke,

they reach out to a future. Envy

and pleasure insist on the pres

ent. But gratitude: it comes always

from the past. . . . Contrary to ac

cepted ideas: the fear of “progress”

of the future will grow, and so will

respect for the past. My readers:

please turn toward the past, and

dip into its records and remnants,

for inspiration. By doing that you

may turn melancholy: but youwill not lose your appetite for life. Quite the contrary. Such is yet another proof of the mystery of the human mind, indeed, of our earthly existence.

Phillip H. McMath is a writer and lawyer with the McMath Woods firm in Little Rock.

Perspective, Pages 83 on 04/18/2010

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