C. S. Lewis: Christianity, Historicism and the Enlightenment Narrative

In an essay from October 1950 entitled Historicism, C. S. Lewis critiques the various schools of thought that would confidently proclaim a defined ‘inner meaning’ to history. In the essay, which first appeared in Volume IV of The Month, Lewis begins by distinguishing between actual historians, who may indeed infer a certain meaning related to a series of events based on known facts (and may even go on to infer the correct sense of future or past events in relation to the known data), from the historicist, who claims to be able to infer from the same historical premises conclusions that have a much wider import – conclusions that are metaphysical, existential, theological or (as Lewis makes sure to add) a-theological. The historian speaks in terms of cause and effect or grounds and consequences; the historicist talks in terms of ultimate necessity, based on a prior theory of the way history is going (according to his particular theory of history).

Examples of such would be Hegel, Marx or Novalis, and Lewis also cites Keat’s Hyperion, as an example of historicism (in this instance evolutionism – the idea that things inevitably march or lurch towards a more perfect future) embodied in verse. After noting some of these examples, Lewis also goes on to rescue Christianity from the range of historicist schools – he notes that even though the Old Testament contains some passages which suggest calamities have befallen Israel because of a divine judgement, we have in these cases a guarantee only that judgement was afforded because of sin in these cases; we do not have the authority to attribute the same meaning to all calamities we see in life. Lewis also notes that, although the Old Testament has this feature in common with the contemporary pagan cultures, it is also contains many correctives to it that the pagans do not – the Book of Job and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah for instance.

Furthermore, for the Christian, we have dominical authority that not every disaster is the result of divine judgement in Luke 13:4 and John 9:13, so surely this kind of historicism is not allowed us. It is also often said that Christianity is unique in having a sense of linear history, in contradistinction to the pagans, but whilst this may be true of the Greeks, Lewis points out that both the Norse culture and the Romans had a keen sense of history, expressed vividly in the story of Ragnarok and the Aeneid respectively. When Saint Augustine wrote his De Civitate Dei, he was indeed engaging in historicism, but he was doing it to refute a pagan historicism that attributed the fall of Rome to the anger of the rejected pagan gods. What then should the Christian view of history be; and how legitimate is it for us to indulge in historicism? Lewis answers thus:

What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God. If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. The question is not what could be done under conditions never vouchsafed us in via, nor even (as far as I can remember) promised us in patria, but what can be done now under the real conditions. I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?

taken from Christian Reflections (1981), p.136, Fount Paperbacks.

Thus we see the problem clearly – it is one thing to recognise the fact that all that has ever happened and ever will stems from God (from whom else could it come?) and that therefore the whole historical process must be revelatory; but for us to get the sense of what that whole process is revealing, we would have to not only know it all, but be advised by God Himself as to its proper interpretation. This is a situation that we will never be in – thus historicism, in its truest sense, is off limits for the Christian, precisely because of our prior recognition that God is God and we are not. Having established this, Lewis then goes on to examine how it is that various men of distinction have come to believe that they are able to divine an ‘inner meaning’ to history without having anywhere near the full realm of knowledge that would be required to do so.

He lists six ‘senses’ of history, before concluding that historicists speak of it in what he lists as number six of the senses – ‘that vague, composite picture of the past which floats, rather hazily, in the mind of the ordinary educated man’ (ibid, p.137). To try and give their case as much room to prove itself as possible though, he credits that they may, in theory, and not knowing the future, be working with the second sense of history – the ‘total content of past time as it really was in all its richness’ but goes on to observe that this does not really help the historicist’s case much either:

It would surely be one of the luckiest things in the world if the content of time up to the moment at which the Historicist is writing happened to contain all that he required for reading the significance of total history. We ride with our backs to the engine. We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility? If, indeed, we knew that history was cyclic we might perhaps hazard a guess at its meaning from the fragment we have seen. But then we have been told that the Historicists are just the people who do not think that history is merely cyclic. For them it is a real story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But a story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood till you have heard the whole of it…

…But even if it were possible, which I deny, to see the significance of the whole from a truncated text, it remains to ask whether we have that truncated text. Do we possess even up to the present date the content of time as it really was in all its richness? Clearly not. The past, by definition, is not present. The point I am trying to make is so often slurred over by the unconcerned admission “Of course we don’t know everything” that I have sometimes despaired of bringing it home to other people’s minds. It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.

ibid, pp.138-139.

Lewis expands on this by remarking that in each individual life every second is filled to bursting with data (sensations, emotions, thoughts), and that we cannot possibly grasp all of it; that ‘a single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that has ever lived’ (ibid). Not only is it nigh on impossible to access the preserved history of each and every peoples that have ever lived, but those recorded histories do not contain anything like the full range of experiences that have actually occurred to all human beings – thus only a tiny fraction of lived human experience (i.e.; of history) is available to us. Again, this is not to denigrate the role of the historian, as pattern and meaning can be perceived within that fraction of experience we have available to us; all Lewis is insisting on here is that we cannot possibly uncover some grand narrative or inner meaning to all history – we simply do not have the data.

Lewis then pre-empts a possible reply from the historicist, namely that they know enough – they may not have access to every single piece of lived experience that has ever occurred, but they know the important parts. This, for the historian, would be a perfectly reasonable thing to say – for example, the military historian, specialising in the Napoleonic Wars, could legitimately say that he has access to enough of the relevant facts pertaining to that period to form a consensus about the meaning of certain events within that period, or even the period over all; moreover, the undertaking of a study of that particular period presupposes that such relevant facts exist, otherwise it would never have been studied. The historicist however, is making the claim that he knows the ‘important facts’ which reveal the inner meaning of all history – aside from the issue of the heterogeneity of the data that actually does survive, how would the historicist be able to judge which are the significant facts and which are merely historical detritus?

Clearly, the facts selected as being of significance are chosen based on the prior conviction that they fit in with the historicist’s philosophy of history – it will always result in being a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the historicist will always be making a somewhat prejudiced selection from amongst the data of recorded human experience in order to fit his prior theory. This can be simply an act of self-glorification, but as Lewis goes on to point out, it can also be used for more nefarious means:

On such a small and chance selection from the total past as we have, it seems to me a waste of time to play the Historicist. The philosophy of history is a discipline for which we mortal men lack the necessary data. Nor is the attempt always a mere waste of time: it may be positively mischievous. It encourages a Mussolini to say that “History too him by the throat” when what really took him by the throat was desire. Drivel about superior races or immanent dialectic may be used to strengthen the hand and ease the conscience of cruelty and greed. And what quack or traitor will not now woo adherents or intimidate resistance with the assurance that his scheme is inevitable, “bound to come”, and in the direction which the world is taking?

ibid, p.143.

Herein lies the real danger of historicism – it is not only bad history (in truth, it has little to do with the real task of the historian at all), but it gives support to those who wish to subvert either small groups under their influence or culture as a whole to their own ends. In the former case, there have been a number of groups, spawned by the emergence of Protestant fundamentalism in the mid-to-late 19th Century, who have claimed to be able to apply passages from Scripture to history and predict the immanence of the end-times; in most cases this has only led to a narrow grasp of both Christianity and Western culture, but in some cases (those involving a personality cult of some kind) it has led to great psychological harm and sometimes tragedy. It is the latter case though – that of wedding a certain view of history to one’s own political ends, and of subverting the surrounding culture to those ends – that is most damaging.

Lewis cites the example of Mussolini (and alludes to Hitler); to this we could also add Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong and many other statesmen beholden to the Marxist view of history. In their fervent belief that history was tending towards an earthly utopia, one free of both want and of risky liberty, rid of the interference of religious faith and objective morality, and of which they would be the primary agents in implementing, they committed acts of violence still unrivalled in both quantity and kind. Lenin’s famous saying that ‘if you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs’, whilst doing a great disservice to the intense suffering caused by these regimes, pretty much sums up their ethos – history was on their side, so they were justified in doing whatever it took to bring its ends about.

Not unrelated to this view of history is the narrative which has its roots in the Reformation period (where solid groundwork was done to tar the name of both the Catholic Church and anything that the prior medieval period may have achieved) but is most commonly associated with what came afterwards – the Enlightenment. In the 17th and 18th centuries particularly, we read more and more of the idea that reason (unchained from faith of course) and science will set us free, that all we need to be happy is to cast off the religious and cultural shackles of old, embrace naked liberty and decontextualised empiricism and let ‘history’ take its course. Because of course history is on our side, and thus anything new, anything ‘progressive’ is a step in the right direction – be that in the realm of experimental science or in faith and morals.

Improvements in science and technology have of course been made, but the ideas that a.) we had to implement a divorce between faith and reason to achieve this, and b.) that we can see morals and philosophical categories in the same way have no foundation other than in the narrative forged during and after the Reformation and fully unleashed during the Enlightenment period – it is based not on history (which, as this thorough review outlines, actually undermines such a view; see also here) but on historicism. And, as we see more and more ethics being cast aside in the name of ‘progress’ (e.g.; easy-access abortion, legalisation of euthanasia, the eagerness that the UK government has to approve methods of genetic engineering that could have any number of disastrous short and long term consequences, and which raise significant ethical questions) as well as the speed with which Western culture seems to be gutting its own sense of identity from within, it is justifiable to wonder whether the Enlightenment narrative is not actually quite a damaging one as well.

For the Christian though, what does Lewis’ negative assessment of historicism mean for how we view history – clearly we must believe that everything is in some sense providential, so how do we reconcile this with not being able to actually assess the ultimate significance of past events in our life? Well, it is important to remember that rejecting historicism does not mean rejecting history, let alone God’s revelation of Himself within it – we can still have great confidence, based on both faith and the careful work of real historians, that the great events embodied in the Creeds are sound, and that we can appeal to a correct interpretation of sacred history via the voice of the Church.

For other events though, we are in the same position as anyone else, and it is only really to the present moment that we can reliably look for signs of divine import. What task is put before us now, in this moment, is something to which we can always apply the call to love both God and neighbour, and thereby discern its significance. It is also the only place where, in this life, we can touch Eternity. Furthermore, knowing that we do not, indeed cannot, have access to the inner meaning or big picture of God’s intentions in history means that even the smallest acts of charity we perform may well have a significance far beyond anything we can imagine – in preventing us from the belief that the way of things is ‘on our side’, humility before history also ensures that we recognise the worth of every contribution to it, no matter how small.