The Meaning of History

When a philosopher or a scientist seeks to uncover “the meaning of history,” he or she is essentially asking the question of why human beings and the universe have come into existence. Thus, the pursuit for meaning is essentially a pursuit of first causes and an explanation for “everything.” However, in order to explain everything, one must develop a theory in either an inductive or deductive manner, which requires both a hypothesis and corresponding data and evidence that is based on a certain truth. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena.”

Thus, the why question reigns supreme. As E.H. Carr wrote: “The study of history is a study of causes. The historian…continuously asks the question: Why? And, so long as he hopes for an answer, he cannot rest.” Moreover, the human ability to ask “why” is the sole difference between humans and any other creature. However, given the multiplicity of individuals, there is also a multiplicity of answers to this particular question. For one, the French existentialists such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that there was no inherent meaning to existence, and thus an individual is left free to choose their own particular meaning. Camus’ “Absurdism” which stems from the supposed meaninglessness of the universe is an appendage to the movement in Western philosophy known as “Nihilism” which was ushered in during the late 19th century by Nietzsche, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition. “Nihilism” will be touched upon with greater depth later.

Henry Kissinger is another Western thinker who has pondered upon “the meaning of history” to a significant degree. Kissinger wrote: “Long ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on “The Meaning of History.” I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared.” Based on the dichotomy within the Western philosophical tradition between the realist and idealist schools of thought, there are also three distinct views of history as identified by the great historian Arnold Toynbee. For one, there is the “cyclical” view of history which suggests that the universe is governed by an “impersonal law” which God has established but God himself is largely removed from the affairs of the universe. Second, there is the “voluntary” view of history which contends that God is an active participant in the affairs of the world and is not removed from the course of human history. Also, there is the Modern European view which contends that humans are the primary agents of history and that human history is anthropomorphic rather than theocentric. It is worth noting that the Chinese, in their view of history, have synthesized the cyclical and voluntary view.

Also, the historian Fernand Braudel has suggested that history operates on three different planes. For one, there is the connection between particular historical events. Second, there are “episodes” of history such as the “Industrial Revolution” and the “Cold War.” Finally, there are “phenomena” which span the length of an entire civilization and thus history has to be seen as something slow-moving and lengthy. It is the final plane, namely, the phenomenal plane, that seeks out a summation of history based on a certain theme or truth. There is also the question of whether there is a finite beginning and end to world history. Based on the historical materialist view that was propounded earlier by Epicurus and later by Marx, there is no beginning or end to the universe. According to the historical materialist view, the universe has always existed, and humans are merely an amalgamation resulting from the random movements of atoms and particles.

Furthermore, according to the historical materialist view, there was nothing to bring the universe into existence, not even a God. This view stands in large contrast to the Aristotelian view and later the Ghazalian view of an “unmoved mover” who brought everything into existence. As an appendage to the historical materialist view of history, Marx reduced the evolution of human history to a mere class struggle based on economic inequities that could only be resolved through the “victory” of the proletariat. But there are also philosophers and scientists from both the East and the West who believe there is both a beginning and an end to world history. For one, Li Hongzhi’s “Falun Gong” movement espouses a historical narrative of the universe which consists of a beginning, middle, and end stage by which there is increasing disorder in the world as each epoch passes.

In the West, Stephen Hawking also posed deep questions as to the meaning and origins of the universe. Hawking wrote: “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory (the mathematical formula to describe the universe) so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?” Hawking adds that answering the question of why humans and the universe exist would be “the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”

Earlier on in the Western tradition, Spinoza argued that the laws of nature and the laws of God are one and the same. Spinoza wrote: “Whether we say that all things happen according to the laws of nature, or whether we say that they are ordered according to the decree and guidance of God, we say the same thing.” Thus, Spinoza espoused the “voluntary” view of history whereby God is an active participant in worldly affairs. Spinoza also added that the goal for every individual, regardless of race or religion, is the same, which is to understand first causes, to control passions and live a virtuous life, and to live in a state of security and good health.

As to the question of whether there is any directionality in the course of history and time, Hawking argued that there were three “arrows of time” which had a direct impact on the manifestation of the universe. For one, there is the “thermodynamic arrow” resulting from human activity. Second is the “psychological arrow” which confounds Man’s thoughts to the past rather than the future. Finally, there is the “cosmological arrow” which leads to an ever-expanding universe in correspondence with the other two arrows of time. Hawking combined these three “arrows of time” to suggest that as a result of human activity and thought, the universe was in a constant state of expansion. But what correlates the expansion of the universe is a continuous state of universal disorder, which in turn could only be reversed by the ultimate collapse and folding of the universe. Thus, one of Hawking’s key arguments was that the universe will eventually come to an end.

Isaiah Berlin also spoke of the philosopher’s obsession with the “march of history” as a process that needs to be identified and which one should conform to in order to avoid perishing. But there are more questions than answers when it comes to identifying a resolute historical process if left to philosophy alone, and as a result history is not necessarily a science. Rather, history is more of an art that is subject to one interpretation after another. As a result, history – with its lack of a resolute methodology – is a part of the humanities, not the social sciences. Human volition and interpretation in turn lead to a wide gulf of speculations and theories as to the purpose of human history. As Kant said: “Since the philosopher must assume that men have a flexible purpose of their own, it is left to him to attempt to discover an end of nature in this senseless march of human events.”

Also, uncertainty as to the purpose of history cannot be resolved by simply knowing. As John Dewey contended, knowing must be corroborated by action, for it is action that verifies knowledge and meaning. Nevertheless, because of history’s interpretative nature and the importance of action and experience in discovering the “meaning of history,” Oswald Spengler wrote that “the claim of higher thought to possess general and eternal truths falls to the ground.” Spengler added that every civilization possesses a “history-picture” resulting from peculiar historical experiences and thus a particular notion as to how the universe began and how it will end. But upon closer examination, one finds a common thread that weaves together the various “history-pictures” of the different civilizations, which is the universal notion of ever-growing global chaos and disorder until the advent of a “savior” figure who can alter the course of history.

Of the two foremost thinkers in Post-Cold War America, namely, Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, the latter did not stray from this universal notion. Whereas Fukuyama argued that heavy bureaucratization and the mechanistic spread of liberal democracy would render the “end of history” as a boring and anti-climactic superfluity, Huntington examined the “history-picture” of a number of civilizations and perceptively inferred the common notion of increasing chaos and disorder that is pervasive through all civilizations, which could only be tempered by a leader or a “savior” figure who could foster mutual respect and understanding between different civilizations. Toynbee encapsulated this common notion of disorder that also serves as the leitmotif of a Western “history-picture” when he wrote: “Life presents the mirage of a wilderness, not only for Mankind but for the gods.”

According to Toynbee, in this wilderness, salvation comes in the form of communion with God. In “A Study of History,” Toynbee wrote:

“As the Sun, when he ‘rejoiceth as a giant to run his course,’ is the source from which ‘the things are seen’ derive not only their visibility but their genesis and their growth and their sustenance, so God is the source from which Man derives his significance as well as his consciousness and his life, and the purpose of God that is the reason for Man’s existence is that the creature should re-enter into communion with its Creator.”

Whereas philosophy has not been able to keep up with science in describing the universe (let alone explain its existence), in turn science has fallen behind religious discourse in providing a meaning and purpose to human affairs.

            But on a track that is somewhat parallel to religious discourse, the Western philosophical tradition in the modern era brought Nietzsche to the fore along with the advent of a philosophical movement known as “Nihilism.” This term comes from the Latin root word “nihil,” which translates into “nothing” or “nothingness.” Nietzsche elaborated on the meaning of “Nihilism” by stating: “Thorough Nihilism is the conviction that life is absurd, in the light of the highest values already discovered; it also includes the view that we have not the smallest right to assume the existence of transcendental objects or things in themselves, which would be either divine or morality incarnate.” Therefore, from a nihilistic point of view and in a nihilistic environment, there is no intrinsic “meaning” to history. Essentially, nihilism has rendered history as something void of meaning. Societal disorder can then be attributed to a nihilistic weltanschauung and environment, as evinced by the outbreak of two world wars in Europe after the advent of Nietzsche and his prophetic philosophy.

            Nihilism is thus the intellectual precursor to today’s postmodern outlook, by which intellectual and social constructs – along with the discourses that underpin them – are deconstructed down to their core essence. In postmodern thought, all intellectual and social constructs boil down to the basic essence and notion of power. It follows that power is the core essence of all action and thought in a postmodern age. As Epicurus said: “There is no law; there is only power.’ Foucault summed up the postmodern hypothesis best by stating: “The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of language: relations of power, not relations of meaning. History has no ‘meaning,’ though this is not to say that it is absurd or incoherent.” But given that all meaning is lost in a postmodern age and if power is the sole meaning of intellectual and social constructs, it follows that even power is lost. Thus, both the Western and Islamic traditions, as well as Asian civilization, argue that only a divinely-appointed leader or “savior” figure can bring order out of what is otherwise chaos and disorder in a postmodern age.

In the Western tradition, Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is an echo of an Islamic belief that only an Eastern monk can inject spirit and vitality into what is otherwise a global nihilistic civilization. Thus, only a spiritual guru from the East can resolve dilemmas and issues that are otherwise irresolvable. Although certain Islamic scholars believe that this guru comes from the lineage of the final Abrahamic prophet, Muhammad, there are other scholars who believe it could be anyone. There are also scholars who believe this Nietzschean guru is of Afghan origin, which is something Nietzsche also suggests when he describes this guru as hailing from Persian civilization.

            But for world history to culminate in the advent of a single guru or person who can bring order and peace out of what is otherwise disorder and social strife, in addition to making sense out of what are otherwise disjointed, meaningless, and superfluous events through the course of history, is perhaps the main reason why the “meaning of history” is so hard to grasp for philosophers and scientists alike, let alone ordinary people. Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad even claimed that God would go as far as prolonging human history until the advent of such a figure. For one individual to fulfill the role of an entire state could not be fathomed except by a few exceptional minds. As Hegel wrote in an incredibly cryptic manner: “The essence of the state is the universal, self-originated, and self-developed – the reasonable spirit of will; but, as self-knowing and self-actualizing, sheer subjectivity, and – as an actuality – one individual.”

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