book cover imageAt the End of an Age
by John Lukacs.
Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut), 240pp., $22.95
cloth, 2002.

In his new book, At the End of an Age, historian John
Lukacsargues that the Modern Era, which began about five hundred
years ago, is rapidly coming to its terminus, or might indeed
already have given way to a new era, the outlines of which do
not yet fully disclose themselves. The fact that this thesis
is not, considered as the instance of a genre, anything surprising
is itself a sign of the change that Lukacs detects: “Telling
people that we seem to be living near or at the end of an age
is no longer something to which they necessarily react with incomprehension
or even unexpectedness.” At the End of an Age is,
of course, no mere generic argument, but an attempt to fine-tune
our comprehension “of a very particular age” in its
passing moment.

Lukacs offers, in support of his claim, a subtle and unexpected
argument with many approving references to an eclectic range
of authorities, some of whom—Giambatist Vico, Simone Weil,
Owen Barfield, and Werner Heisenberg—are hardly orthodox.
The eccentric status of a Vico or a Barfield takes its context,
of course, in the order that Lukacs sees as now dwindling away
to its vanishing point. He invokes these sources quite deliberately
against a lingering Cartesian Weltanschauung. More than
by implication, Lukacs finds himself not altogether chagrined
by the passing of modernity, whose latter ideological ossification
undid much of the promise of its enlightened beginnings. It is
in his epistemology that Lukacs turns subtle, for he refuses
to grant to the natural sciences the primacy accorded them by
seminal modern figures such as René Descartes or Isaac
Newton. The natural sciences, as constituted by the Enlightenment,
insist on an absolute separation, as in Descartes, of the knower
from the known. In its dogmatic manifestation, this doctrine
casts man as the monad, sovereign over himself yet without a
real link to the world that he inhabits. Lukacs sees this reification
not only as false but also as deforming; he does not, therefore,
unduly lament its dissolution. On the contrary, he alleges that
the real model of knowing, and thus of being in the
world in an integrated and living way, is historical investigation,
the careful contemplation in detail of the past at all levels;
this is so, he urges, because historical thinking, so far from
separating the knower from the known, requires their convergence
and interpenetration—hence his fondness for Vico and Barfield,
who grant to the symbolic the first priority in investigation.
Man knows best what he himself has created, and he knows himself
best in those creations.

These assertions might seem to assimilate Lukacs to the prevailing
relativistic and subjective doctrine about knowledge and morality,
the brand of thinking that is sometimes pretentiously styled “postmodern”;
he would seem to approach the notorious position, codified by
Jacques Derrida thirty-five years ago, that “il n’y
a pas de hors-texte.”
(“There is nothing outside
of our constructions,” or, more literally, “there
is nothing external to the text.” Derrida’s statement
has been a fetish in the humanities since it appeared, in English
translation, twenty years ago.) On the contrary, Lukacs assesses
this soi-disant postmodernism (for example: deconstruction’s
annihilation of meaning; multiculturalism’s denial of an
ethical hierarchy among communities; the rampant academic claim
that we are all deterministically the products of environment
and that our perceptions, not to mention our judgments, are inalterably
prejudicial if not invidious) as itself a late and enfeebled
expression of premises dubious when first formulated three or
four hundred years ago. A peculiarity of the modern world, right
from its inception, lay in its preference for the a-historical,
which it sometimes called the rational, and, indeed, in a determined
rejection of history and of the past. The tripartite construction “ancient
/ medieval / modern,” with its culminant motif, indicates
the modern conceit: the à la mode is superior
to the passé, which labored under prejudice and
superstition at last dispelled in the dawning of a new and final age.
Yet Lukacs believes that postmodernism, struggling desperately
to be à la mode, only barely conceals a lack
of faith in its own pretensions. As he writes:

Behind the employment of the “post-modern” category
we can detect the uneasy and long overdue recognition that
such fixed categories as
Objectivism, Scientism, Realism, Naturalism are passé—they
belonged to a bourgeois world and its era. So often the apostles
and acolytes of post-modernism are but another, updated twentieth-century
version of “post-,” indeed, of anti-bourgeois:
they are confused excrescences of “modernism.” . . .
Besides, most academics and “post-modernist” intellectuals
still shy away from abandoning their faith in the Enlightenment,
in the Age of
Reason—even though the Age of Reason was inseparable
from the rise of the bourgeoisie, and even though most of its
spokesmen were bourgeois.

This same half-guilty split consciousness by no means belongs
exclusively to the intellectual classes, but rather typifies
the current transitional period. Lukacs provides a four-page
list of contemporary “dualities.” Among his examples
are these: while the law extends the privilege of privacy everywhere
(even to pornographers, “fewer and fewer people appreciate
or are able to cultivate privacy”; while something called
home-ownership has become an almost universal desideratum,
lifelong neighborly residence in one’s own house, “which
is one basis of civilization,” is almost unknown; the promotion
of formal equality among races is accompanied by increasing “fear
and hostility” between peoples who differ in color, language,
or religion; “liberals,” who formerly strove to limit
government, now cry for its expansion while “conservatives,” who
used to defend tradition, now ally themselves to the crudest
forms of “progress”; finally, a glut of “information” has
made knowledge ever less accessible. Tied to the confusion
about knowledge is the dilution of education: as more people
go to school for longer stints they appear finally to know less
and less. On the other hand, some accomplishments of the modern
period have lavished real benefits on large numbers of people
and qualify as solid betterments of the human condition. Here
Lukacs cites the widespread alleviation of disease and the prolongation
of life, the improvements in housing and sanitation, the abolition
of slavery, and the impressive, non-combatant achievements of
science and technology such as the landing of men on the moon.
(There were, however, five moon landings, not two, as Lukacs
asserts.) There is also the European literary and artistic achievement,
right through the nineteenth century, from Dante Alighieri to
Gustave Flaubert. As “nothing vanishes entirely,” we
should expect much of the peculiarly modern ethos to
persist. Infrastructure and positive customs and institutions
interest Lukacs less, however, than something else: “conscious
thinking.” The end of modernity signifies the end of a
particular way of apprehending the world and the emergence of
an altogether new way of seeing it. The change of consciousness
might, moreover, be a real increase of consciousness.

If modernity were a-historical, then that which even now steals
upon modernity to replace it would be, in Lukacs’s view,
profoundly historical. Edward Gibbon made the fall of Rome his
theme at the zenith of the Modern Age, but only to demonstrate
that the present dispensation, by contrast, laid claim to a likely
permanence; having climbed out of the benighted Dark Age, European
civilization, guided now by reason, was immune to the ills that
had done in the ancient empire. Despite the scale of Gibbon’s
study, its lesson remained minimal: keep superstition and all
other idols of the mind at bay and the future is guaranteed.
That was all the history that one needed to know and the consequence
of its practical application was a kind of end of history. One
might note the determinism of Gibbon’s case. The insertion
of “X” at this point results in “Y” at
another point somewhere down the chronological line, as reason
abolishes history and inaugurates an eternal order. The lesson
that Lukacs takes from his own lifelong study of history is that
the human chronicle does not unfold in the shape of a deterministic
reflex but that consciousness invariably alters that on which
it is brought to bear. In a formulation that owes something to
Eric Voegelin, Lukacs insists that “the history of anything
amounts to that thing itself.” (As Voegelin liked to say, “the
order of history emerges from the history of order.”) He
cites Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, who together declared that, “the
history of quantum theory is quantum theory.” Lukacs
urges us not to fall into the contemporary trap of regarding
history as backward looking sociology, for “history is
not social science but an unavoidable form of thought.” While
the name of Augustine does not appear in the chapter from which
these quotations come, the Augustinian spirit nevertheless haunts
it. History is memory and memory is history. To
cultivate the historical sense is to nourish memory as the highest
of all disciplines, as a calling; it is to participate in the
past and so also to influence (but never, of course, to predispose)
the future. One can see why Barfield appeals to Lukacs. As the
being called Meggid says to the initially bewildered Mr. Burgeon
in Barfield’s Unancestral Voice, “Interior
is anterior.” Barfield, too, is an Augustinian who sees
that mentalité sans memoir leaves only animal
existence—something tyrannized by the immediacy of the
environment—while in rich recall an individual’s
conscious being graduates into its own redoubled richness. “Human
understanding is a matter of quality,” Lukacs writes, and
it thus “differs from the scientific purpose of certainty
and accuracy.”

Concerning the special “quality” of historical thinking,
as Lukacs convincingly asserts, it “is neither objective
nor subjective but personal and participant.” In this way
it abrogates the dogmatic bifurcation into subject and object
proclaimed by the long dominant Cartesian epistemology and helps
repair what has been, in a real sense, a delusion. Indeed, in
environmentalism, or “Green” politics, we see how
an epistemological premise—the knower stands strictly apart
from the known—becomes a moral-ideological imperative.
Thus the “Greens” would ban the human presence from
large wilderness tracts, thereby making sure that no knower ever
comes into contact with the potentially knowable. But the whole
meaning of landscape, Lukacs reminds us, springs from
the notion of a balance between man and nature: the poets and
painters show us humanity in nature. Of what value might
an antiseptic nature, held in inviolable preserve, be to those
who remained locked out from it? Its value would be theoretic
in the most desiccated sense, for one most values that in which
one somehow participates. So, too, in the study of history: because
the main material of history is words, and because words are
always imbued by some small ambiguity, objectifying historians
declared that history was nothing but ambiguity, words without
recoverable referents. As Lukacs says, this claim rendered history
inaccessible, like the Kantian Ding an Sich, and denied
the participatory element in historical investigation. Such a
view offends against basic human experience, which is suffused
by memory. Common sense is right when it reminds the dogmatist
that words do indeed refer to events and things, and that these
events and things were bound up with human struggles and aspirations
the effects of which not only reach down to the present but constitute
it
. History must be “participatory.” (So must
life!) The historian must enter into the dialectic of the actual
and the potential contained in every critical moment of the past.
Memory is the real psyche or life force and nothing
is genuinely more alive than the historian’s disciplined
rejoining of the past; apprehended in the right way, history
becomes palpable. Oswald Spengler, whom Lukacs mentions once
or twice, called this grappling with past events “physiognomic
tact” and nominated it as essential to all spiritual investigation.
We see the method at work, for example, in Weil’s essays
on classical literature, which must have moved Lukacs when he
read them, and in Lukacs’s other work—most recently
in his gripping Five Days in London.

I return to Lukacs’s gallery of proleptic thinkers, the
ones who forecast the new view of the human reality that has
something in common with several older, pre-modern views. To
defend Heisenberg against Albert Einstein is to argue for an
organic view of the world against a mechanistic one. To side
with Barfield against R. G. Collingwood is to argue for a vital
and supple view of the past as against a purely intellectual
and deterministic one. To validate Vico over Descartes is to
argue that the “civic world” is more real for human
beings, because more immediate to them, than the world described
by Newton’s laws. Lukacs spends a whole chapter recording
the recent critique of scientism: the questioning of Darwin’s
theory as an adequate explanation of the range and quality of
living beings, the qualms aroused by a physics that requires
acre-sized cyclotrons to investigate subatomic particles whose
existence seems to be confined in the descriptions of the investigators,
the nagging itch that tells some physicists that the
attempt to formulate a “unified field theory” is
a vanity. Here again, what inspires suspicion is dissatisfaction
(a) with a longstanding and formidably institutionalized preference
for determinism and, (b) a tendency to make far-reaching claims
on insufficient evidence. The renewed sense of history thus combines
with the new willingness to question dogmatic science to form
the altered consciousness that Lukacs believes will characterize
the truly postmodern type of thinking even while it takes on,
as it must, different guises.

To illustrate his contention that human events do not occur
under the rule of some rigid Ananke, Lukacs devotes
a chapter to the question of whether Hitler was inevitable: his
conclusion is that Hitler was by no means inevitable; that simple
events, which might easily have happened other than as they did,
could have deflected Hitler into some other role than that of Führer, in
which case the shape of the mid twentieth century would have
been different. Lukacs ends this quite personal book with an
affirmation of the religious view of history. He declares his
intuition that the supreme historical moment and fulcrum
of the human chronicle is the incarnation of Christ. Again, there
is an underlying affinity with Barfield and Weil. Lukacs’s
language remains in this concluding section modest and non-dogmatic.

At the End of an Age should be read along with another
book, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, first
published in 1956. Instead of the a-historical character of modernity,
Guardini refers to “a culture self-created out of norms intrinsic
to its own essence”; but they are the same phenomenon. Like
Lukacs, Guardini says, “The modern world is coming to an
end.” At the End of an Age is in some part a response,
fifty years later, to Guardini’s keen-eyed diagnosis of an
order in dissolution.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches
Literature at the State University of New York, Oswego.

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