As I reach the end of my full-time career as an academic I have been moved to reflect on the discipline of history. It has been steadily disintegrating for the last forty years or so, and while I am still doing what I can to keep the best of it alive, I don't see how any real regeneration is going to come from inside the academy now. But I am more concerned with the impact of the decline of history upon society at large. One of contemporary history's many problems is its inability to take a truly long view about almost anything. Today's historians generally compare the values and behavior of societies in the past with those of contemporary academic departments, and inevitably find them wanting. They assume that their department represent the summit of civilization because of their diversity and opposition to any kind of privilege. In my opinion, however, they have been contributing to our general slide towards anarchy, not least because they help educate the leaders of tomorrow.
For a different view altogether I have turned to the founder of modern history, the German Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who contributed fundamentally to the discipline in several ways. First, he insisted that when possible, historians must rely on primary sources--actual state papers and diplomatic documents, for instance--rather than memoirs. Second, he insisted that the historian's task was to recreate the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen"--German words usually translated as "as it really was," although I once translated them as "in its own right." Thirdly, Ranke, a religious man, made the critical statement at least once that "every epoch is immediate to God," which I would once again adapt to mean that every major epoch and episode of history, from the founding of the United States to Stalin's purges and Hitler's death camps, represent actual elements of human nature. And lastly, writing the bulk of his enormous output about the development of European states from the 16th through the 18th centuries, he focused upon the role of particular states, the individual national characteristics which they embodied, and the ways in which they all drew upon a changing European or even Atlantic spirit of the age. Ranke was born in Saxony and spent his working life in Prussia. By the standards of his time he was a moderate conservative. He never wrote a major study of the transformative event of his childhood, the French Revolution, but he indicated in asides, I have discovered, that he believed the revolutionaries had wrongly abandoned religion and chosen to worship Reason instead. He was himself a devout Lutheran, although his works on early modern Europe, including a multi-volume history of the Papacy, treat Protestantism and Catholicism with extraordinary balance.
What caught my eye some months ago, reading a selection of his early writings, were these remarks from a "Dialogue on Politics" that he published in 1836. How, one of his mythical interlocutors asks, can the interests of different regions and even of individuals be reconciled with the good of the whole?
"Ultimately, undoubtedly, [because] the idea of the state permeates every citizen, that he feels in himself some of its spiritual force, tha th econsiders himself a member of the whole with an affection for it, and that hte feeling of community in him is stronger than the feeling of provincial, local, and personal isolation."
How could a state maintain this goal?
"Nowadays every government must be benevolent. Its powers, as we all agree, are based on the gneeral welfare of the people anyway. But it also must show that it is benevolent int he proper way. It must take care to be recognized. People should nwo what it does. And every single citizen must see that his own affairs, as far as they are connected with the public affairs, are dealt with as efficiently as possible. If their reluctance is finally overcome, this invisible, penetrating, unifying motive will have seized them all. Compulsion will be transformed on a higher level into voluntary individual initiative. Duty will become liberty. . . .I am convinced that the development even of a man's personality depends upon the sincerity of the inner interest which he takes, not necessarily in the forms of a constitution but in the progress of public welfare in the common good."
It is rather interesting to read these words, written in the midst of the Restoration era in Germany by a subject of the absolute Prussian monarchy, by a man who lived to see the advent of something approaching modern democracy in all the major nations of Europe but who to my knowledge did not address its consequences in detail. Clearly he believed that the subject of a monarchy could have the same investment and involvement in his government as a citizen of a republic. But more importantly, it seems to me that Ranke was expressing the fundamental idea behind all the great political achievements of the modern era, the idea of political organization to assure the security of the citizen and promote the common good. That idea grew in power in the half-century or more after his death, and lay behind all the major political developments of the first half of the twentieth century, from the Bolshevik Revolution to National Socialism to the New Deal, the democratic socialist regimes of western Europe, and so on. Those examples illustrate that it was the foundation of enormous efforts, both for good and for ill--although in the end the good predominated, a result which Ranke would probably have interpreted to confirm his religious beliefs. But beginning in the late 1960s--triggered in large part by a disastrous American national effort, the Vietnam War--that idea went into decline, and that decline has not only continued but accelerated both in the United States and in the rest of the world. In fact, those nations which in the Cold War had created the strongest states--the Soviet Union and the US--have experienced the most spectacular declines, it seems to me, in civic spirit. And now this process, I think, is raising the question of whether our society can still cope with the demands of modern life.
The idea that the development a man's (or woman's)personality depends upon his or her commitment to the public welfare is virtually anathema, of course, to almost any Republican today. That party believes in our right and duty to pursue our own self-interest alone, and regards the state as nothing but a swindle that takes from the deserving and gives to the rest. It even believes that our personal security is more properly our own affair than that of the state, and denies the state the power which a younger German, Max Weber, defined as the essence of a modern state, the exercise of a monopoly of legitimate force. That is why the Texas legislature, as I read today, allows members to carry weapons into the capitol. But this problem is not confined to Republicans. The idea of a state serving the public welfare is bound up with the idea of common citizenship, and the left has been undermining that idea since the mid-1960s as well, claiming that traditional ideas of citizenship have excluded everyone but heterosexual white males and that the universal language of our Constitution and laws was nothing but a sham. That is why, it seems to me, the Boom generation has failed to produce a new cadre of truly dedicated public servants comparable to the contemporaries of Franklin Roosevelt or of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Like the Right, the Left is interested above all in personal liberty issues such as the freedom to practice birth control, to enter legally recognized same-sex relationships. They have also focused upon opening up the elite to women and minorities. And that, ironically, has encouraged women and minorities to focus upon their own individual well-being, rather than to commit themselves, as earlier generations did, to the betterment of all. They have also insisted on their right to define their own reality, which inevitably involves a repudiation of the Enlightenment tradition upon which the modern state, and modern ideas of consensus, were based.
The decline of Rankean civic spirit can be seen, I think, even in much of Europe, where governments have mindlessly adopted austerity in defiance of the damage it is doing to their body politic. It seems to be strongest in Germany, which still puts the highest priority on high employment, and to a lesser extent in France, which has returned to the high marginal tax rates of the past. But elections in Greece and Italy have shown the established parties in disarray, just as they were in the last crisis 80 years ago. The idea of a common European destiny is even more threatened by the current crisis.
A great historian, it has always seemed to me, should know better than to argue with history--as Ranke generally declined to do. The steady civic decline of the last half century--which it seems our current national crisis is NOT going to reverse, as Strauss and Howe hoped twenty years ago--is a gigantic historical event, connected to other equally big ones such as the decline of print media and the eclipse of much of the western intellectual tradition in universities. If circumstances are to force us to reverse the trend, they would have to be very bad indeed. History is not however at all likely to die out completely, and the example of the three centuries from the late 17th until the late 20th will remain, and eventually, perhaps, inspire those yet unborn to cultivate the virtues of that increasingly distant era.