In theory, it seems like a good idea.  The corpus of historian John Lukacs’s work is so rich and has grown so large that those who have just discovered it may be uncertain where to start.  His magnum opus, Historical Consciousness, alone has gone through three editions, all of which are worth reading as separate works.  Combine that with the regrettable condition that some of his more accessible works—Outgrowing Democracy and The Passing of the Modern Age, for instance—are out of print (and used copies are very hard to find), and the need for a compact introduction to Lukacs’s thought seems obvious.  Unfortunately, for all of its virtues, At the End of an Age is not that book.

Lukacs would be the first to admit—or, rather, insist—that theory and reality do not always mesh.  Ideas develop in an historical context, but they are also shaped by the actions of men as much as (indeed, perhaps more so than) they shape those actions.  As Lukacs is fond of saying, writing of the half-truths of historian E.H. Carr’s analysis, “the important question is ‘What is Carr driving at?’ and not ‘What is the make of this Carr?’”  But that is precisely why, in order to understand an historian’s work, it is essential to have some knowledge of the historian.  Lukacs is correct when he writes that

The recognition that different persons see the past (and also the present) differently, and that thus every historian is different, does not mean that because he is the product of his past he cannot do otherwise.

To claim that would be to deny free will.  But to understand the choices that an historian makes—and, more importantly, his purposes (not his motives, which are deterministic) in making them—we cannot view his work as something separate from—abstracted from—his life.

A case in point: The Passing of the Modern Age, a thin, prophetic volume that is still among my favorite of Lukacs’s works, is, as Lukacs describes it in Confessions of an Original Sinner, “a summation of the devolution of institutions and standards at the end of our age.”  I read it first in 1990, before reading Confessions, and it profoundly influenced the choices I made as I began my graduate studies that year.  Still, I approached The Passing of the Modern Age somewhat differently when I reread it a year or two later, having read Confessions in the meantime.  Knowing that The Passing of the Modern Age was published on November 15, 1970, the day that Lukacs’s first wife died, and recognizing the extent to which her passing was bound up in his thought with “the devolution of institutions and standards at the end of our age,” helps reveal additional nuances and complexities in the work and, of course, in the underlying thoughts that the text expresses.  Similarly, knowing that the structure of the volume is shaped by a hierarchy of historical factors, “applicable, by and large, to the history of modern nations,” that Lukacs had sketched out in Historical Consciousness, and being familiar with that hierarchy from reading the latter work, is bound to influence the reader’s appreciation of The Passing of the Modern Age.  None of that distracts from the reader’s free will or his ability to apply (and develop, and distort) Lukacs’s ideas as he sees fit.  However, just as our appreciation of a novel changes as we grow older (and, indeed, the novel’s meaning for us changes as well), so, too, our understanding of an historian’s work changes as, broadly, we change and, particularly, as our understanding of the historian’s purposes change.

Which brings us back to At the End of an Age.  This really is two books, roughly divided into the first two chapters (“At the End of an Age” and “The Presence of Historical Thinking”) and the last two chapters (“An Illustration” and “At the Center of the Universe”), with the middle chapter (“The Question of Scientific Knowledge”) acting as a bridge.  In the first “book,” Lukacs provides a sketch of the evolution of his own thought and presents a condensation of themes developed in Historical Consciousness and elsewhere.  The reader familiar with Lukacs’s work is likely to find these chapters somewhat repetitive.  Lukacs revisits many examples from previous works (such as the remarks about E.H. Carr quoted above), often even employing very similar phrasing.  All of that would be understandable (and longtime readers could skip ahead) if these chapters provided a quick introduction for those unfamiliar with Lukacs’s thought.  For that purpose, however, these chapters are somewhat too distilled.  The new reader is likely to be left (incorrectly) with a sense of superficiality.  At best, he may be hungry for a more detailed treatment, but then he is quickly thrust into the second “book,” which (it seems to me) can be read most profitably only after having digested Historical Consciousness, because the illustration provided in Chapter Four, and the final philosophical ruminations about man’s position at the center of the universe in Chapter Five, are really an extension of the final chapter, “History and Physics,” of that earlier work.

Here, longtime readers of Lukacs will find what they have been thirsting for, as Lukacs’s continued investigations over the last 30 years have broken new ground.  He has taken the scientific theories of theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and woven them together with his own expansion of linguist Owen Barfield’s insights into the increasing intrusion of man’s consciousness into the material world.  The result is an advance in how we think about thinking itself.  And that advance is not merely historical or philosophical but religious.  While Lukacs is not exactly one to wear his Christianity on his sleeve, the Christian implications of his work (and Barfield’s before him, particularly the latter’s Saving the Appearances) are obvious.  As I have argued elsewhere, the development of historical consciousness itself is inextricably bound up with the Incarnation of Christ, the meeting of Divine and human, the point at which the Timeless intersects His timebound Creation.  “And now—especially, but perhaps not exclusively for Christians—I must argue,” Lukacs writes,

for the recognition of our central situation not only in space but also in time.  In sum, that the coming of Christ to this earth may have been? no, that it was, the central event of the universe; that the greatest, the most consequential event in the entire universe has occurred here, on this earth.

That God became a man and walked this earth demonstrates the centrality of history to man’s nature—and it should give pause to post-Christian “Christians” (whether evangelical, fundamentalist, mainline Protestant, or even neo-Thomist) whose vision of Christ has degenerated into an ahistorical set of platitudes and “universal” principles.  As Lukacs writes,

All of us have known many non-Christians who have acted in Christian ways, thus being animae naturaliter cristianae; and we also know many sincerely believing Christians whose expressions may show alarmingly non-Christian thoughts in their minds. . . . [W]hat we think we believe is not always what we really believe.  Our thinking—our ideas—will necessarily have their consequences.  Some of our beliefs ought to.

By becoming a man, Christ redeemed history; in our post-Christian age, perhaps history—for some, at least—can redeem man, by leading him back to Christ.  That may not have John Lukacs’s purpose in writing At the End of an Age; it might, however, be one result.


[At the End of an Age, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 230 pp., $22.95]