Jacques Maritain Center : Philosophy of History

Chapter 5


Philosophy and History

1. The main intention of this book was to stress the possibility, and the validity, of certain philosophical laws -- either functional or vectorial -- which enlighten human history and make it more intelligible to us, but which neither explain it nor subject the course of historical events to necessity; these events are necessary with respect only to general features and patterns within which it is up to human freedom to determine the particular orientation which gives them typically human significance. It was on purpose, moreover, that I limited myself to a number of more or less disconnected instances and of partial (though, in my opinion, basic) insights in the field of the philosophy of history. I wanted to emphasize the modesty of the task, and the necessity of avoiding any hasty systematization.

I was, thus, very much concerned with the critical or gnoseological aspects of the problem. In order to make my positions clearer on that score, I should like to pick up, for a brief discussion, Professor John U. Nef's book, War and Human Progress.

Werner Sombart had insisted that war, and the tensions engendered by war, are historical factors which foster human progress. Such a statement, the Hegelian background of which was clear enough, dealt with a problem typically pertaining to the philosophy of history, and offered us a particular law (functional law) in this domain. Now John Nef undertook to verify this so-called law against the background of historical facts. And on the basis of an extremely large and detailed body of information, and a most careful analysis dealing with our post-mediaeval centuries, he came to the conclusion that Sombart's assumption was wrong. The law stated by him is belied by the facts. Here, thus, we have a case in which history disproves an erroneous philosophy of history. Yet, by the same stroke, the historical work in question proves to concern itself with notions -- such as human progress and the scale of values involved -- which pertain to the realm of the philosophy of history. Let us say that in a book like Professor Nef's what we are dealing with is "history philosophically oriented" or "history integrally taken." In order to have philosophy of history properly speaking, the philosophical notions to which I just alluded should be explicitly brought out, and discussed for their own sake. We would have to look for a philosophical definition of human progress, and for a philosophical definition of war, and for the reasons, drawn from the nature of things, which enlighten and steady the inductive inference that war is not by itself a factor of human progress; we would have to extend our analysis to other civilizations, and also to primitive societies, to the anthropological distinction and relationship between hunting and warlike activities, etc.

To have a complete picture of the mutual connections between philosophy and history, let us point out, then, that moral philosophy is at the most abstract and universal level, and merely factual history at the most concrete level in the picture.

diagram number 4 (page 167)

The intermediary level is that at which philosophy and history meet, all the while remaining distinct in nature from one another. Here a distinction must be made. On the one hand, we have history integrally taken, in which the historian moves up, so to speak, from the level of merely factual history toward philosophy -- without, for all that, reaching the level of philosophy proper. And, on the other hand, we have the philosophy of history, in which the philosopher moves down from the level of moral philosophy toward history, without, for all that, reaching the level of history proper.

At this point, if we remember what was said in our first chapter about historical knowledge, we shall perceive that history integrally taken is real, full-fledged, or grown-up history -- that very history whose truth depends on the trustworthiness or multifarious truth-value of the whole intellectual fabric of the historian, and of his philosophy of man and of life.{1} Let me note, in this connection, and this is quite significant, that the revival of the classical, humanistic idea of history which we are contemplating today brings real history to the fore anew.

Merely factual history is of the utmost necessity. But it is not a "science," as the naive positivism of the nineteenth century fancied. It is an integral part of history, as an indispensable technique and discipline (critique of documents, critique of testimonies, paleography, etc.) aiming to "observe" past occurrences and to prepare an accurately sifted body of material which the historian will have to weigh, evaluate, and articulate for a correct understanding of the sequence of events in their individual or singular interdependence.

It is not by trying in vain to make itself into a pseudoscience; it is by integrating itself with a true system of human, moral and cultural values, in other words, by orienting itself toward philosophy, or by philosophically maturing, that history reaches its full typical dimensions qua history, and is real history. So it is that nowhere does the moral philosopher profit by a richer supply of diffused, unsystematized human wisdom (in actu exercito) than in the reading of great historians. Furthermore, it is normal for the historian -- the real historian -- to have a yearning for, and a leaning toward, the philosophy of history, as it is normal for the physicist or the biologist to have a yearning for, and a leaning toward, the philosophy of nature. Yet, in both cases the line of demarcation can be safely crossed, and the yearning in question genuinely satisfied, only if one really becomes a philosopher, in other words, if one really becomes equipped with a new intellectual virtue. Let it be added, incidentally, that, taken in itself, and whatever practical lessons may be drawn from it, history, which belongs by nature to the narrative genre, essentially pertains to the speculative or theoretical order; whereas the philosophy of history, which is part of moral philosophy, pertains to the order of practical (speculativo-practical) wisdom.

Philosophy of History and supra-philosophical data

2. In the preceding chapter I spoke a great deal of the Church, the Kingdom of God, and the supernatural order. I had to do so in order to deal with my own specific problem -- the problem of the world. There is a mystery of the world, utterly different from, and closely connected with, the mystery of the Church. And my point is that if a genuine and adequately taken philosophy of history is to develop, both theologians and philosophers will have to establish as a basis for it an articulate notion of that kind of mystery which is designated by this strange and ambiguous word, "the world." A very strange word -- meaning at the same time the cosmos of Greek philosophy and the hic mundus of the Gospel -- and one that must be examined and sifted!

Also, a certain number of the examples I gave throughout the book had to do with that connection between philosophy and theological data which is, in my opinion, a characteristic of moral philosophy adequately taken. In other words, the aspect "Christian philosophy of history" was especially stressed in my notion of the philosophy of history. The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, as I have remarked many times, there is no complete or adequate philosophy of history if it is not connected with some prophetic or theological data. On the other hand (and this is something contingent

and accidental), my own reflections and remarks on the philosophy of history were, in fact, prompted for many years by the practical problem of the plight of Christians in contemporary society -- their temporal difficulties and temporal responsibilities -- and by an effort to discover and elaborate an intellectual equipment that could answer this problem. As a result, I was led to pay special attention to the supra-philosophical data with which philosophy must deal from its own point of view in the philosophy of history. If I had ever undertaken a systematic work in the philosophy of history, I would have had to embark on a larger and more detailed study of the merely natural aspects of the philosophy of history, especially as concerns the comparative study of civilizations.

3. Now if we look for a completely non-theological or a merely rational and natural approach in the philosophy of history, we may think of the work of Toynbee, for instance, though Toynbee, in my opinion, is more a historian passionately fond of philosophical generalizations, than a philosopher. He also seems to be very fond of drawing or squeezing from history a sort of theology of his own: but this in no way means that he is interested in enlightening his philosophy of history with any verity provided by theology. For all that, his A Study of History, essentially concerned with the birth and dissolution of civilizations, pertains by nature to the philosophy of history. And it is a good example of an honest and fair attempt in the philosophy of history, as opposed to the work of Spengler, for instance, who, to my mind, was a rather questionable wisdom-monger.

We find in Toynbee's work examples of what I have called typological formulas or vectorial laws, as when he characterizes a civilization in its typical dynamism, e.g., the civilization of the Osmanlis, or that of the Spartans. And we also find a great number of axiomatic formulas or functional laws, as when he tries to bring out the universal laws to which every civilization is subjected -- say, such a law as what he calls "the challenge of the environment." As he puts it, "the greater the challenge, the greater the stimulus"; "the interaction of challenge and response is subject to a law of diminishing returns"; "there is a mean range of severity at which the stimulus is at its highest, and we will call this degree the optimum, as contrasted with the maximum." And when he speaks of the failure of self-determination, with the three forms of the nemesis of creativity: idolization of an ephemeral self, idolization of an ephemeral institution, or idolization of an ephemeral technique; or with the suicidalness of militarism; or with intoxication with victory -- all that is philosophical generalization stating kinds of axiomatic laws. And all that, I dare say, provides us with rather scanty intellectual food, and teaches us scarcely more than plain common sense could teach us. Strangely enough, Toynbee seems to be much more concerned with these axiomatic or functional laws -- which, given his merely comparative method, cannot help appearing at times as common-sense truisms or somewhat platitudinous generalities -- than with typological or vectorial laws.{2}

So it is that Toynbee's remarkable, immensely erudite and thoroughly conscientious work is finally disappointing. It misses the mark because it is too ambitious (it claims to explain history) and insufficiently equipped (it is not integrated in a general philosophy); and, above all, because it resides in a sphere entirely extraneous to moral philosophy adequately taken. Toynbee discards the possibility of having his rational inquiry assisted and complemented by any theological light and prophetic data. Hence the shallowness to which I alluded. When it comes to Christianity, for instance, its development is historically explicable, in Toynbee's opinion, in the same way as that of "Mithraism and its other rivals in the Hellenic world," and nearly all the "higher religions," that is, as an effect of the reactions of an internal proletariat which feels itself in but not of the society, and which receives its inspiration from a spring that gushed forth in some alien civilization. Such analogies have, no doubt, an interest in the field of material causality, but by way of an "explanation" they are strictly nothing.

Christopher Dawson has given us an excellent criticism of Toynbee in an article in The Commonweal.{5} Apropos of the final four volumes of A Study of History, he observes that "Toynbee introduces the new principle which marks a fundamental modification of his earlier views and involves the transformation of his Study of History from a relativist phenomenology of equivalent cultures, after the fashion of Spengler, to a unitary philosophy of history comparable to that of the idealist philosophers of the nineteenth century. This change, which was already foreshadowed in the fifth volume, means the abandonment of Toynbee's original theory of the philosophical equivalence of the civilzations and the introduction of a qualitative principle embodied in the Higher Religions, regarded as representatives of a higher species of society, which stand in the same relation to the civilizations as the latter to the primitive societies." Toynbee ceases to admit the philosophical equivalence of the civilizations, but it is in order to admit now the theological equivalence of what he calls the "Higher Religions," i.e., Mahayana Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

Moreover, in Toynbee's perspective, civilization is oriented toward religion and quickened by it, but at the same time the final aim and raison d'être of religion is to provide for the spiritual unity of mankind. And for him "the real problem of the future," to quote Dawson again, "is whether the four Religions will realize their mission by uniting mankind in a four-part spiritual symphony or whether their mutual antagonisms and intolerance will lead to the loss of their mandate and their supercession by a new world religion of the Secondary type," i.e., by one of the approximately dozen modern, or not so modern, religious movements, such as Sikhism, Bedreddinism, etc. A rather silly prophecy from an author who has never looked for genuine prophetic data there where they can be found.

The only light that Toynbee gives us about the final direction of human history is the necessity, which I just mentioned, for spiritual unification. Well, how does he know that it is imperative for mankind to achieve spiritual unity on earth? This can be considered a questionable assumption, founded on considerations as gratuitous and a priori as those which prevailed in the mind of Auguste Comte. The fact that mankind naturally tends toward more and more complete unity is not a proof that it will, and must, attain complete unity within history. Furthermore, though Toynbee sees civilization, at least in its higher forms, as receiving its meaning from religion and as oriented toward religion, still he finally conceives religion as itself subservient to civilization, because for him the mission of religion is not defined with respect to God and divine truth, but rather with respect to mankind and to the highest level, the spiritual level, of civilization itself. If mankind's unity -- to be achieved in this world -- were the essential and primary aim of religion (in other words, if Man himself were the supreme end of Religion), God should be considered, as Comte put it, "irreligious," for His Word has brought the sword on earth.{4} It has been said that the Gospel will be preached everywhere; it has not been said that it will be everywhere accepted. We hope, of course, that it will at last be -- I mean, within history -- but this can only occur through a miracle of grace, not a necessity of nature.

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