While the northern, western, and southern borders of Arkansas are drawn with straight-line geometrical precision, the eastern border is a mess, for it traces the meanderings of the Mississippi River. Such twists and turns are commonplace throughout the valleys of the world as gravity and topography work their power on descending bodies of water. Back and forth, back and forth, as they make their way to the sea.
Hegel’s philosophy of history bears similarities, for it centers on “dialectic,” a sort of conversation between realities and emerging, contrary possibilities, resulting in new realities, which will, in turn be confronted by new, conflicting possibilities – thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis/thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis/thesis . . . and so on. Marching onward, ever forward. It’s grounded in a sort of conceptual ping-pong game between the being of what’s happening now and the non-being of mere- potential, but it also plays out on the world stage in the affairs of men.
Over a hundred years after Hegel laid out his theory of history, Karl Marx and his cohort, drawing heavily on Hegel, hammered out the doctrine of “dialectical materialism,” wherein matter, beginning with some sort of primordial stuff, has a long-running “conversation” with itself, evolving, if you will, into better and better circumstances for the working man. But Hegel’s dialectic was idealistic rather than materialistic, the manifestation of a world spirit, or Weltgeist. (Kant got things started in this direction earlier in the 18th century, declaring the power of mind to shape the world.)
So, much like a section of the river, a particular form of government, religion, art, family, industry, etc. runs its course until it hits higher ground and is turned in another direction. But unlike ping-pong, play continues off the table onto other tables. And its not the same river as it negotiates these reversals, for it may widen, pick up fresh pigmentation from a new sort of soil, or gain speed as it follows a new azimuth.
Unlike the Mississippi, the dialectical flow of history goes uphill rather than down. (Though, I’ve read that the silt buildup in the Mississippi as it reaches New Orleans is so considerable that in places, it’s forced to flow uphill as it punches its way into the Gulf; but by this time, it has so much heft and momentum that it can do this without diversion.) In Hegel’s case, the Gulf of Mexico is called Absolute Spirit.
This notion has charmed a lot of philosophers and, “downstream,” a lot of laymen, whose fancies are tickled by the thought that history is on the side of trashing what they don’t like and delivering what they favor. So they take to the barricades to confront “the man,” confident that he’ll be ground to dust in the march of events. Lenin preached it. So did Mao.
The 20th-century British philosopher Karl Popper was a fierce critic of this mindset, first in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and then with The Poverty of Historicism (1957). Popper was know for his insistence that serious scientific theories needed to be “falsifiable” – that something could possibility count against them, for otherwise, they were gaseously compatible with whatever came down the pike – and that the predictive power of Hegel’s fantasy was zero. But more than this, it tended to trample men, for social planners, who thought they saw the future and marched in that direction, stomped right over folks who wouldn’t get with the program. This included at least fifteen million recalcitrant kulak farmers in Stalin’s Ukraine and seventy million or so victims in Communist China. After all, “You have to break some eggs if you’re going to make an omelet.”
Of course, Christians believe that history is marching toward its proper culmination, but not at the beck of an impersonal spirit, but in the hands of the personal God, one whose Scripture reveals that utopian zeal is both stupid and cruel, for a fallen world will not perfect itself, and those who presume to hasten its perfection are servants and masters of tyranny and brutality.
Back in the 1970s, I read an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about the conceptual root of political conservatism. The writer argued that it all came down to belief in original sin. If you didn’t believe in it, you thought government could bring out the “Great Society,” the “Workers Paradise,” or some other wonderful state of affairs by bashing the status quo and by proliferating and growing social programs. Hegelians resonated with such talk.
Not so the original-sin folks, who took a more skeptical approach to public policy. Yes, pursue justice, but don’t think you can achieve heaven on earth in the process, and don’t think you’re entitled to visit injustices on those who get in the way.