Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And — every—single — one—of— them — is — right!
—Rudyard Kipling, “In the Neolithic Age”

When I was a college student in the late 1980’s, the obsession of conservative activists in academia was summed up in the buzzword relativism. By the early 90’s, that term had been paired with nihilism, understood to be relativism’s darker and more foreboding big brother. Come to believe that the expression of truth is affected in any way by time, by place, by civilization, and you would eventually wind up believing that there is no basis for morality. And those influenced by the disciples of Leo Strauss (or those who had simply glanced at a copy of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind) often threw a third term—historicism—into the mix. There is truth and falsehood; philosophy and history; white and black —and anyone who suggests that human life is characterized by shades of gray secretly yearns for Auschwitz and the Gulag.

The “success” of conservatism politically in the 1980’s undoubtedly had much to do with such a simplistic view of reality. While most conservative students and professors still knew the name Edmund Burke and recalled that a prominent conservative thinker named Russell Kirk had declared him the father of modern conservatism (something that cannot be said today), their political hero, Ronald Reagan, cited Burke’s great opponent, Thomas Paine, more often than he did any other political thinker. Paine —a radical rabble-rouser, a moral dissolute, and a rabid supporter of the French Revolution —ultimately ended his life as a man without a country and, thus, is a fitting hero for the neoconservatives who, by 1986, had taken full control of the Reagan administration.

Paine foreshadowed the neocons also in his rejection of history, and his adoption by American “conservatives” shows how incorrectly they lay claim to that term:

Even though the political meaning of “liberal” came in the 1820s, the liberal vision of the world came from the eighteenth century. That vision was the dominant vision of the modern age: the vision that society was perfectible, that there was no such thing as original sin, that it was within the power of man . . . to transform the world: a vision which . . . was essentially anti-historical, or at least ahistorical. Against it arose the recognition of history by a thinker such as Burke, who was not behind but ahead of Paine . .. For Burke was not merely a defender of tradition: he recognized and expressed the inevitability of the historical dimension of human nature, something that not many Americans were willing to accept.

Thus writes John Lukacs in “The Problem of American Conservatism,” a chapter of his important 1984 work, Outgrowing Democracy: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century (recently released in a revised edition by Yale University Press as A New Republic). This chapter is one of 67 articles, reviews, excerpts from books, and, in one case, a whole book included in Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians and Historical Knowledge.

In a delicious bit of irony, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, whose publications Intercollegiate Review and Campus often featured those doomsayers of relativism and nihilism and historicism, published this massive reader, which also includes the most complete bibliography of Professor Lukacs’s writings ever assembled. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that John Lukacs, though a self-described reactionary whose political and philosophical views expose American “conservatives,” by contrast, for the liberals they are, has been repeatedly attacked by such “conservatives” as a “relativist” and an “historicist.” Still, ISI has never joined in those attacks (indeed, Lukacs has long served on the editorial board of ISI’s flagship publication, Modern Age), and the publication of this volume makes it clear that the politically oriented articles in Campus and Intercollegiate Review did not express the whole range of thinking at ISI.

Editors Jeffrey O. Nelson and Mark G. Malvasi have, on the whole, shown very good judgment in their selection of pieces for inclusion in this reader, which they have divided into six sections: “The Problem of Historical Knowledge,” “Historians Reviewed,” “Dissenting Opinions (Or: A Few Other Prosaists),” “Places and Times,” “Some Twentieth-Century Questions,” and “Reading, Writing, and Teaching History.” Still, the 67 selections, while making for a volume of 950-plus pages, barely begin to scratch the surface of Professor Lukacs’s body of work, which now extends over 60 years. And thus the highlight of this volume, both for admirers of Professor Lukacs’s work and for those who are being exposed to it for the first time, should be the 48-page bibliography of his published writings, compiled by his granddaughter Helen. Based on his own collection of clippings, even this bibliography, she warns, is only about 95 to 98 percent complete, and it does not contain publications from before his emigration from Hungary or after December 31, 2003. Even so, it is the most complete account available of the phenomenal output of one of the most important, and yet consistently underrated or ignored, historians of the 20th century.

All of the themes that Professor Lukacs has developed over the years are found in this reader: the difference between an historical philosophy and a philosophy of history; the important distinction between motives and purposes (“Motives come from the past; purposes involve the pull of the future”); how what people think is often very different from what they think they think; why “facts” are not the same as truths:

Their statements or expressions can come close to truths—which is the best we can expect. A “fact” is never absolute. Nor is it given to us to fix, to nail down, to state unalterably an absolute truth. We may think that our concept (or idea) of truth is absolute; yet that, too, only hearkens toward tire absolute. (Our very language reflects this: “This is true” is not quite the same as: “This is the truth.”)

All of this reflects Lukacs’s understanding of the creative role of imagination (a faculty of which memory is part and parcel) and his recognition of the false dichotomy between subject and object (a point on which he was strongly influenced by the English linguist Owen Barfield, whose book Saving the Appearances rivals Lukacs’s Historical Consciousness in its exposition of an historical philosophy). As Lukacs writes, “Historical thinking accords with the recognition that huriian knowledge is neither objective nor subjective but personal and participant.” And again:

The recognition of the objectivist illusion does not reduce, it rather enhances, the general validity of personal knowledge. . . .If. . . by historical “relativity” we mean not only the historicity of every form of human cognition but also of every form of human expression, it should be obvious that this idea of relativity is neither a feeble nor a senseless one; for this “relativity” of truths means not the absence but the potential richness, not the nullity but the multiplicity of truth.

It is for passages such as this that Lukacs has been attacked as a relativist in the sense that I have discussed above —even by recent reviewers of this volume, which provides ample evidence to the contrary. Acknowledging the multiplicity of truth is not the same as claiming that truth is a merely human creation; after all. Christians believe (or at least used to believe) that the ultimate Truth Himself is a multiplicity in unity. It is only to those who have lost that belief (or perhaps never had it) that Lukacs’s assertion can appear a denial of truth.

In case any doubt remains, however, here is Lukacs in “The Presence of Historical Thinking” (a chapter reprinted here from his 2002 book At the End of an Age and the very first selection in this volume):

But the historicity of our seeing and speaking does not amount to the relativity of truth. What history gives a mind, at best, is not a dose of relativism; it gives us certain standards, the power to contrast, and the right to estimate. The belief that truth is relative is no longer the assertion merely of cynics or skeptics but of postmodern philosophers, according to whom there were and are no truths, only modes of discourse, structures of thought and of text. Their relativization of truth is absolute. And yet: truths exist. Their existence, unlike the existence of ideas, is not a matter of our choice. But we are responsible for how, and where, and why, and when we try to express them.

Here, we see a manifestation of Lukacs’s persistent (and Catholic) belief in free will. Throughout his work, he attacks the subjectivist determinist idea that men’s actions are somehow the result of their history or circumstances, rather than their own moral choices. To the ideologues and systematizers, he constantly repeats the refrain that “What matters is not what ideas do to men but what men do to their ideas; how and when they choose them, and how and why they accommodate them to their own wishes, interests, lives, circumstances.” The same questions can be asked of the crass materialists of left and right, the Marxists and the free-market economists who argue that human behavior is bound by economic “laws” that represent a monolithic “truth” that, rather than setting man free, binds his will.

Perhaps nowhere is Lukacs’s disdain for simplistic idealism more evident than in his withering review of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, reprinted here from the December 1992 issue of Chronicles. One paragraph alone is worth the ridiculously low price of this book:

Owing to lack of space, but also because history (and human nature) do not follow the laws of physics—meaning that while it is easier to wrestle with a weak body than with a strong one, it is more difficult to wrestle with a weak mind than with a strong one—in this review I must let Fukuyama speak for himself Fukuyama has given his chapters such titles as “The Weakness of Strong States II, or, Eating Pineapples on the Moon,” and “The Victory of the VCR.” In his introduction, he writes, “In lieu of conventional thanks to a typist for helping to prepare the manuscript, I should perhaps acknowledge the work of the designers of the Intel 80386 microprocessor.” He should. It shows.

Thirteen years later, Fukuyama’s end of history lies in the ruins of the cradle of civilization, while nationalism—the defining phenomenon of the history of the 20th century, which Fukuyama did not even acknowledge (much less address) but to which Lukacs has devoted much of his attention throughout his career continues to shock and awe.

Though it limited the amount of out-of-print material that could be included in the volume. Nelson’s and Malvasi’s decision to include chapters of books that are still in print or widely available (such as Historical Consciousness and Outgrowing Democracy) is understandable, since this reader is an attempt to introduce the thought of Professor Lukacs to new audiences as well as to collect important pieces for the convenience of those already familiar with his work. In one case, however, I think that their institutional affiliation has clouded their judgment, and that is their decision to include the entire text of A Student’s Guide to the Study of History, a concise pamphlet that ISI published in 2000 as part of their very successful and generally well-prepared series of student’s guides to different subject areas. I have no complaint about the book; indeed, I think it is one of the best of the series and have recommended it both to college students and, most recently, to an 80-year-old man who was looking for some help in focusing his study of history in his twilight years. It adds little to this volume, however, while using up 19 precious pages that might have been better put to use. Two articles that I would have liked to see in its place (and readers may be forgiven if they assume that, here, I am revealing my own institutional loyalty) are “To Hell With Culture” and its sequel, “To Hell With College,” published in the September 1994 and September 1997 issues of Chronicles. In them. Professor Lukacs makes a very forceful case that both culture (as commonly understood to include literature, art, etc.) and higher education are largely the products of civilization, not the other way around. As he writes in the first of the essays:

Whether in an inner-city school or at Harvard, the young are not taught civilization. . . . I mean a respect for life, for an orderly life that is inseparable not only from a respect for learning but from a respect for one’s provenance, for language, and for the ability to read, write, and listen. Almost half of our young now spend nearly 20 years in schools, with the result that most of them cannot read and write and express themselves adequately.

As we enter the 21st century, it is civilization itself (the end of history notwithstanding) that is in danger of destruction.

Should government promote “culture” at all? That is at least arguable. What is not arguable is that government must protect civilization. When it fails to do so, government, as we know it, dissolves, with first anarchy and then barbaric tyranny succeeding it.

While some might argue that the dissolution of our current government would be preferable to its continuation (and even more of us might wistfully entertain that idea), Lukacs points out their mistake. The corruption on display in high places is only a reflection of the corruption of an increasingly uncivilized people, and an uncivilized people will never be free, no matter what their form of government.

Civilization arose when man became aware of his past and thus became conscious of himself as an historical creature, as more than a mere animal. It progressed as that historical consciousness deepened, particularly in the wake of the Incarnation, when it became clear (to those who have eyes to see) that history and tradition reveal truths—including the Truth of God Himself—that could not be accessed otherwise.

And yet:

Nearly four hundred years ago Descartes argued, in his Discourse on Method, that the study of history was wasteful because we cannot acquire any accurate or certain knowledge of the human past, as we can of mathematics and of the world of nature.

The historical lesson of the modern age that Descartes helped usher in is that civilization—indeed, human life itself—is threatened whenever we begin to separate ourselves from our history, to erase our memory, to believe that there is no such thing as truth or—perhaps even worse—to believe that truth is universal in the Enlightenment sense: abstract, radically monolithic, not of this world of flesh and blood and time.

As another great historical philosopher who emigrated to America once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—and they do so because they have become lesser men. Thankfully, those who still understand that civilization has always depended upon those who do remember the past have Professor Lukacs, and now this splendid volume, as a guide.


[Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge, by John Lukacs Wilmington (Delaware: ISI Books) 922 pp., $18.00]