This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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The science of history and the historical sense

Since we spend so much time speaking of history, it would be good to offer a few remarks on how best to approach this subject. Or, to put it bluntly, is it even legitimate that we interpret history at all, since we are not professional historians?

First, we should admit that deliberate study is always important, and that it is ignorant to speak about anything unless one has ‘done the reading’. However, we can also say that in order to discern the meaning of events, more than general erudition is required. One must possess an awareness of analogy and correspondence, not to mention a balanced intuition, that allows him to get beyond ‘the facts’ while at the same time stopping short of purely poetic and imaginative interpretations of events based on sentiment and prejudice. Spengler called this ‘physiognomic tact’, but to avoid using his rather obscure terminology, we will refer to it as the ‘historical sense’.

History should not be imagined as a constant. It is not synonymous with ‘the past.’ The past is constant, but in itself is inaccessible to us. What is accessible to us is history, and history is in this sense the relationship between the past and present, and because the present is always changing, so is that relationship.

When it comes to the general view of history accepted by a given civilization, what we have is a history-picture, which is creative production based on the historical sense possessed by that civilization.

To put it another way, we only ‘do history’ within the context of our own vocabulary and conceptual framework, so that no matter how intelligent we are, and no matter how many ancient documents we unearth, we will ‘modernize’ what we find as soon as we begin to interpret it and give it meaning. To propose to write history ‘as it really happened’ is childishness. History is always an expression of the soul, and that remains true whether we are dealing with the work of a particular historian, or the larger, more generalized history-picture used by a civilization to explain itself to itself.

Consensus is meaningful, but it is not everything. If this or that interpretation of an event in the past happens to become the consensus of the ‘experts of history’ in the modern West, this may tell us something about that event, but it tells us just as much, sometimes more, about the spirit of the modern West and its way of interpreting things.

Consensus does not mean objectivity, not in any field, but especially in history. Consensus only imparts rank, which is to say it grants priority to a certain interpretation over others, while the lack of consensus deprives an idea of rank. Ideas of the highest rank in any society are not true in the absolute sense but are always true expressions of the spirit of that time and place.

We need to admit a kind of relativity to truth in history. We must do this because, as was said already, history is not a set of facts but rather a relationship between past and present, and relationships vary by time and place and person. A certain history-picture will therefore be true for the type of person to whom it conveys its meaning, but it will not be true for another type of person who belongs to a different time or place or culture, not because its meaning has changed but because the type of person we are dealing with has changed.

We could also say that history is always objective and subjective at the same time. These are its aspects, and a history-picture is the result of the unique relationship between these two aspects. The relationship is determined by the spirit of the culture, and this is why it will always vary without necessarily becoming false.

An example of the relativity of history and history-pictures: today we look upon the ancients, like Plutarch, who were respected as historians within their own world, and we see naïve storytellers with no sense of scientific inquiry or method. This tells us less about them than it does about ourselves.

Perhaps it would be better to say that there is not a single ‘historical sense’ that the historian must possess in order to produce history, but that the historical sense itself is what varies by time and place. Does this mean that there is no such thing as error in historical interpretation? Of course not. What it does mean is that we need to allow for a multiplicity of human types, each with its own way of understanding meaning, and without denying that some history-pictures are more accurate than others, while some are downright delusional, we should not be so narrow as to assume that there is only one formulation good now and always, and try to retroactively just a different civilization’s interpretation of history and of itself just because it is not identical to our own.

The West is in some way super-conscious of its own historical origins. Due to its situation, it differs from past cultures in that it ‘sees’ its beginnings and has evidence of those beginnings. Whereas cultures of the past could rest in myth, which was a kind of supra-historical narrative and which explained man to himself more totally, and not only ‘materially’, the modern man of the West is tied to one or another version of ‘recorded history’, and while it would seem that this kind of availability of information about ones actual origins would be more comfortable since more tangible, it actually brings him into a very intense relationship with his own history and the facts and figures tied to it. There is a disproportion between the quantity of available facts and the range of meanings he is able to draw from them.

To say it another way, he has more ‘evidence’ available but finds that he is unable to utilize it to answer his most pressing questions. In the past, the reverse was true. The ancients may have had very little in terms of museum-pieces, but they possessed a myth-narrative capable of providing a very thorough anthropology, even when it skimmed over historical fact.

Because Western man can, at least theoretically, grasp his own history in this unprecedentedly concrete way, he feels compelled to do so. He fixates on the material, and in this sense his history-picture becomes materialistic. Moreover, since the facts are plentiful, he begins to assume that the entirety of the history-picture can be produced from this data alone. He has been working feverishly on this project since the birth of the modern world, but is his material up to the task? Does it lend itself to the production of meaning? Or is he, so to speak, trying to ‘sculpt with watercolors’.

It should be clear by now that any attempt to assess the data of history necessitates a creative process. Anyone who thinks they have all of the facts presented to them and that history is self-explanatory is a ‘believer’ and not a knower. This person takes what they are given and does not actively participate in their own understanding of history.

When interpreting historical data, there are physical facts, such as location, names, materials, and so on; secondly, there are events, which are things that happen in the stream of time. While the physical facts are usually straightforward and for the most part accessible to anyone whether or not they possess the historical sense, events are not.

The meaning conveyed by a history-picture is also depending on the type of questions we have in mind before we even look at the evidence. As with any intellectual endeavor, the answers will be determined ahead of time by the questions. The West is characterized by its tendency toward action rather than contemplation. It wants to know what it ought to do, it wants to hold and to manipulate and to accumulate. Based on these impulses it approaches history with a certain set of questions, questions that may not have been shared by previous civilizations. Why should we be shocked, then, when the West finds very different answers, and that its history picture conveys a very different category of meaning.

Since the West, consciously or not, looks to history in order to understand how it should direct its compulsion to act, it derives from history a sense of mission. Included in its history-picture is not simply an interpretation of what came before, but also an intimation of its imagined future destiny, hence the temptation toward world-mission and delusions of utopia. That is why history-narratives are so important for the modern world, and so dangerous. America, for example, draws its entire identity not from what it is and does in the present but from the stories it tells itself about its history, from its history-picture, and from this it determines its destiny. Thus, by understanding itself as the beacon of liberty which overthrew tyranny, it sees itself as an apostle of freedom meant to liberate the world, and so on.

Part of the historical sense is knowing that what is significant in a distant age is not determined by what is significant in this age. A man possessing the historical sense will take it as incredibly significant that the geocentric model was taken for granted in the Classical world, whereas the man who can only see history within the framework of modernity will see in this fact only a ‘stage of development’, an example of ignorance, on the way to the heliocentric model of the solar system, which is another step on the way to space travel, and so on. He is inundated with the notion of Progress, and he is only able to allow historical facts to acquire significance in light of that idea. Hence, they are only significant in light of his concerns, which is to say, their significance for the civilization he is studying has no value.

History is both linear and cyclical. It is cyclical on the whole, and as with any circle, linear if viewed only between two distinct points. This is why small minds and small-minded ages view history as only linear, since from the point on the circle at which they stand, they see a short distance in two directions, and that is all.

The idea of Progress is the product of a narrow, linear view of history which sees the past as a great chain of events leading up to the present. We stand at the apex of history and all that came before is a priori inferior.

The battle of history is usually presented as that between young and old, such as between some new theory and the enthroned error of previous times. This is true only within a certain period, that is to say from the linear point of view, and not true of time on the cyclical level where ‘old’ and ‘new’ make less sense, where other cultures are unfolding simultaneously and according to their own laws, and where there are rebirths of a sort. This is why we can say that certain stages occur and do not recur, but that on the whole, history repeats itself.

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