morailty and history

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.3 (Summer 2010)




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The Moralism of Historical Cycle

                Finally, I would advance a conceptual argument for belief which seems somewhat at odds with much in this book, and whose cogency surprised me, to be honest, when I first considered it.  I have explained at several points why I am averse to “scientific proofs” of religious propositions.  I believe that Immanuel Kant (extending the nominalism of Ockham) was fully correct in claiming that the reality we perceive has a certain form imposed upon it by the nature of our intelligence.  Experiences not suited to the structures through which we are “programmed” to see things would either not be seen at all or would appear in partial, mutilated form.  We cannot empirically know the complete truth of the world around us.  The antinomies demonstrate this beyond any doubt.  No one has ever been able to impugn or subvert their demonstration, which is probably why it is so little taught in an age when so few care about pure knowledge (as opposed to power and manipulation).

                Given, then, that the evidence of our senses necessary falls within the ability of empirical concepts to explain (please recall the example of the prophet who levitates to the steeple), history does not seem a very promising source of spiritual footprints.  As a vast collection of experiences, it moves seamlessly from specific to general without opening up any new space for miracles… or so one would presume.  In his unfinished manuscript tentatively entitled Citadel, Saint-Exupéry includes a vignette where one of the desert chieftain’s advisors rises from his sleep at midnight, leaves his tent, walks straight to the edge of a cliff under bright moonlight, and flings himself over in apparent suicide.  In the morning, the appalled tribesmen have only tracks in the sand to study.  The Caïd calls his logicians together to assist him in making sense of the event.  Their verdict is that all makes perfect sense.  The deceased stepped over the cliff because his last step carried him over; his last step is accounted for by his previous step, which followed the same vector; that step was a direct consequence of the one before it… and so on back to the tent.  The cause of the advisor’s death was that he walked a straight line to the cliff.

                Of course, the Caïd seeks a different kind of cause.  The notion that causality comes in several varieties is at least as old as Aristotle, who proposed four.  The historian is in a position to toy with most or all of these varieties: in that regard, he enjoys much more latitude than a scientist.  To say that a certain war took place because this king’s agent assassinated that prince is not just a different cause, but a different kind of cause, from saying that the two peoples fought because the displaced peasantry of one was spilling over into the farmlands of the other.  Yet both causes remain fairly scientific, in that they offer an observable stimulus and response.  If we were to say, however, that People X invaded People Y because both had been at peace for too long and the human animal craves a good fight once in a while, we would be relying upon invisible and indemonstrable propositions about human nature.  The professional historian does not venture into this territory very far: his “method” will be attacked and derided, and his career is certain to suffer, as a result.  (No hidden causality there!)

Yet it may well be that some such psychological explanation has more truth to it than any other.  All “objective” reasons for human behavior are always adequate, because we cannot really see the complete behavior—only its material consequences, not its most secret motives.  Since human action is not really a phenomenon—is only a partial phenomenon, like the iceberg’s proverbial tip—any origin proposed for it in objective circumstances has a possibility of being sufficient.  We do not and cannot fully know what we have before us on the examination table, so numerous suggested measurements of it have a more or less equal chance of being correct.  If an extraterrestrial box the size of a loaf of bread were to prove beyond our power to open, then the speculation that it contained a message would be as plausible, prima facie, as the speculation that held a small bomb.  Both would be more plausible by far than the speculation that it contained an entire race of tiny people… yet both might well be wrong; and if the box were somehow to open upon a new dimension, the race of aliens might actually be awaiting discovery.

In the same way, I do not offer the following interpretation of history as a historian: that is how I ultimately preserve my Kantian distance from material evidence.  No contemporary historian would undertake to argue before his or her peers that basic moral truths are proved over and over again by the fate of nations: to do so would be to move perilously far from material cause.  Yet no historian, by the same token, can prove that such truths do not influence history.  Since the box of the human soul cannot be opened in the laboratory, it may indeed conceal a dimension not measurable to the scientist’s instruments.  In fact, the kind of truth I have in mind has been so generally remarked by moralists that it is often cliché: tyrants do not prosper for long; luxury eventually corrupts those who enjoy it; even the wickedest villains hesitate to persecute innocence openly; nations only honor treaties as long as their interest is served by doing so; the same class of people is always the first to get slaughtered (a delightful French proverb).  Collectively, such wisdom paints a coherent picture of human nature—and it is a moral picture.  By that I do not mean that the picture projects human beings as kind souls: I mean that it recognizes in human communities certain irrepressible tendencies of the will.  Some of these are good, like the abhorrence of tyranny and the respect for genuine honesty; and some are deeply disappointing, like the determination not to be the last fool standing in No Man’s Land after a solemn pledge has been violated by every other party.

Large groups of humans, in other words, may be observed repeatedly throughout history responding to the same set of attractions and repulsions.  Such responses may always be explained more “objectively” by indexing them to specific stimuli found in just this or that historical setting: hence the historian will admit no obligation to take notice of them.  Yet they remain as “spiritual phenomena”, trespassing across the rigid bounds of time and culture which are supposed to make every human society unique.  They confront us with a curiosity, to say the least: how can we be so similar, generation after generation, era after era, when the circumstantial influences credited as the major or sole determinant of our behavior keep shifting?

The mind which aspires to reconcile its conceptions as thoroughly as possible will not be comfortable ignoring such resonance, which seems explicable only if people share an inward source of motives not much affected by circumstances: the kind of thing commonly called a soul.  Logicians are surely correct to say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line segment; but if the endpoint-plus-one carries the traveler straight out of this world, and if there can be no doubt that he saw the chasm before him, then the logic that discounts this stunning evidence of will is folly.   ~  John R. Harris