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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Perspectives from the Past

For the last month or so, in the midst of a short vacation and a long research trip, I have been making my way through a book that has fallen out of fashion, Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought. Hofstadter, probably the greatest historian of the GI generation, is familiar to millions of Boomers who read his books in high school or college, but he died tragically in his early 50s in 1970. That death probably accelerated the movement away from political history in the academic profession, and deprived the United States of a highly perceptive, enormously well-read and generally skeptical voice that we have desperately needed for the last thirty years. Social Darwinism in American Thought was originally his doctoral dissertation. It described the emergence, the brief hegemony, and the gradual eclipse of a particular view of human history and political and economic life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--the view, propagated originally in Britain by Herbert Spencer and championed in the United States by William Graham Sumner of Yale--that the present state of society at any moment is the outcome of a competition between more and less worthy human beings, and that any attempt by public authorities to alter the outcome of the struggle is both useless and immoral. That view, as W. E. B. Dubois mentioned in his autobiography, was almost completely in the ascendant by the late 1880s, but a series of socialist, Christian and other thinkers vigorously challenged it on a number of fronts in subsequent decades, and laid the intellectual foundation for the New Deal.

Hofstadter's book has suggested to me a great many reflections about the present day, because it seems to me that the Bush Administration is in effect pushing a new form of Social Darwinism, even though its rhetoric is of a different kind. That subject, however, will have to wait. Today I want to share another equally important insight that comes up in the book: that of the ebb and flow of the influence of religion in the life of the West since the dawn of recorded history.

Social Darwinism in its pure form was clearly profoundly anti-religious, and some of its first critics used religion as ammunition against it. Academics in the late nineteenth century had less professional training then they are today, but they wrote things of more lasting value than most of our contemporaries because they believed in thinking big. And thus, Hofstadter quotes one critic of Social Darwinism named Godwin Smith, who argued in the Atlantic that its proponents were taking a temporary phenomenon for a permanent one, based upon a long-term view of history. During the last two millennia, he argued, religion had periodically collapsed before an assault by rationalism, creating a "moral interregnum," only to re-emerge a couple of centuries later. "There had been such an interregnum," Hofstadter paraphrases, "in the Hellenic world after the collapse of its religion brought about the scientific speculation; there had been another in the Roman world before the coming of Christianity gave it a new moral basis; a third collapse in western Europe following the Renaissance had produced the age of the Borgias and Machiavelli, the Guises and the Tudors; finally, Puritanism in England and the Counter Reformation in the Catholic Church had reintroduced moral stability." And he might have added that a century and a half of increasing rationalism in the late 17th and 18th centuries had led to the American and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars, producing yet another reaction which had made the first half of the nineteenth century, in Europe at least, far more religious that the eighteenth.

It immediately occurred to me, of course, that the world is undergoing a similar reaction today. Even though Roosevelt, Churchill and even Stalin used some vague religious rhetoric during the Second World War, the victors in that conflict, who dominated the political and intellectual climate of the world for the next 45 years, all professed devotion to rationalism and science. The emerging nations of the Third World followed their lead. The educated elite of the west, now almost completely irreligious, assumed that this trend would persist--and in Europe it has not yet been challenged. Yet on every other continent, and most notably in the Middle East, South Asia, and the United States, religion has not only revived, it is asserting a growing influence upon politics, directly challenging science, and threatening to re-establish theocracies that value revealed truth more than the results of human enquiry, and attempt to restrain some of humankind's most basic instincts once again.

This in turn led me to the musings of my favorite 19th-century thinker, Henry Adams, whose professional and personal live actually shows a number of remarkable parallels with my own. Specifically, I re-opened the Presidential address which he mailed to the American Historical Association in 1894 from the South Seas, entitled "The Tendency of History." (Although Adams and myself were both undergraduates and assistant professors of history at Harvard, although both of our lives were dominated by a polarity between New England and Washington, although both our fathers were Ministers to the Court of St. James during a war in which Britain took no part, and although both of us wrote books about how two Democratic Administrations led the United States into one of its lesser wars, the presidency of the AHA is obviously one honor that we are not destined to share.) Adams referred also to Darwin's influence, and suggested that history in the last 35 years or so had been trying to turn itself into a science. Within fifty years, he speculated, historians would probably attain this goal, and lay out the immutable laws which history was destined to follow--and he could imagine only three conclusions that the new science might reach.
First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude "that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years," but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove "that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion," but in that case, the science would commit suicide.
Adams's formulation of the problem showed the clear influence of Social Darwinism, since he assumed that one of these three possible conclusions must triumph. That, we can see now, was a mistake. In fact, these three world views--which might be described as the utopian, the stoic, and the religious--have been at war for the whole of western recorded history. What is emerging now is that the struggle is not over, and the outcomes which we believed to be final can easily be overturned. And unfortunately, the stoic view--which I personally believe to be the most useful and accurate, since it alone recognizes limitations on our power to control people and events--while it has nearly always produced the best history, seems, especially during periods of crisis like our own, to suffer from a fatal disadvantage in a contest with either of the other two--its inability to satisfy the eternal human fantasy of living happily ever after.
Rationalism, in the sixty years since the Second World War, has become complacent. It has also bred its own usurpers from within--my own generation of academics, who became bored with their parents' thought patterns and decided, in many cases, that truth is an illusion. Meanwhile, fundamentalist religion has become more and more militant and more and more insistent upon imposing its view of morality and reality upon society. Shame, sex, and human nature are playing an enormous role in this process as well. "The sixties," as they are known, involved a recognition of the true role of sex in human life and an enormously greater tolerance of different forms of sexual expression. That has provoked a violent reaction among those who would not permit themselves such liberty, and they now exert a huge influence over the government of the world's leading power, and the first nation based explicitly upon rationalist principles, the United States.
Had Adams been able to step back even further he might have realized that the three world views he identified would remain locked in eternal combat, and that although scientific truth might actually be established in history, it would never win general acceptance, if only because of the inherently competitive nature of human beings. Stoicism will in the long run always be proven correct, but it can never become a prevailing political philosophy. Those of us who embrace it will always find themselves outside the great ideological movements that shape eras, and even within the historical profession, which should know better, their place has shrunk. The brain is only one influence upon human behavior, and as David Hume recognized, it is not the most powerful. Being right, alas, will remain its own reward. Hofstadter's book, as I have indicated, also provokes some reflections about the new combination of social Darwinism and religion that has taken over the American political process--but that is a topic for another post.


Anonymous said...

Wow. I am going to print that out and file it with my other "cliology" articles. Thanks.

Late Wave Silent

Anonymous said...

Imagine, as a thought experiment, that the rapid increase in productivity associated with harnessing the energy sources of coal and oil led world leaders in the mid-20th century to favor rationalism and science. However, as the century progressed, it became apparent that productivity increases alone would not necessarily improve society, and that there were costs that had not been fully understood associated with the projects of productivity.

In other words, initial great results led to great enthusiasm, which cooled as the fabulous returns subsided to normal levels.

The question being, are there clear parallels in the social histories presented as illustrations of regular swing from secular to religious, and, presumably, back again?

For example, the Romans appear to have enjoyed a vigorous growth economy c. 0-300 AD, and then to ebb back towards Rome. Alternately, some depict the Christians as the vigorous commercial element in Rome, so I guess you could have some good debate about when and how the Romans were most influenced by gains in productivity.

Or, alternately, simply view 'wave' or 'cyclical' history theories as bunk.

Anonymous said...

Social Darwinism serves a couple of valuable purposes in preserving stability of economic and social levels in society. Both, however seem to me to be religious in foundation.

First, accepting the idea that some are born inherently superior either physically or intellectually works to convince the lowly that "resistance is futile". They are as they are and should merely accept it for what it is: the will of divine providence. Thus, if your father was a minister to the court of St. James, you have some rights by birth to the same rewards, but if you are the son of a serf your horizon is much nearer.

Second, again accepting the idea that some are born inherently superior either physically or intellectually, those with the "gifts of God" may try to absolve themselves of any moral obligation to do good works for the less fortunate. Their argument being that they are the elect of God and should therefore hold dominion over all others who were put here by God for them to dominate and exploit.

Social Darwinism at any level seems to have severe limitations as a successful planning device for policy decisions.