- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

By John Lukacs,
Yale University Press, $22.95, 225 pages

John Lukacs' new book, "At the End of an Age," is a celebration of the historian's way of thinking and the wisdom history offers when it's done the right way. It's also but this is a secondary theme about the end of the era called the Modern Age that began 500 years ago with the Renaissance and endured up through much of the 20th century, during which it began to crumble.
These are subjects Mr. Lukacs, a very prolific historian, has taken up before in such books as "Historical Consciousness," first published in 1968 and reprinted two times since, and his 1970 "The Passing of the Modern Age." His new work presents a splendid riff on these themes and more: "At the End of an Age" is the product of a great historian who distills for us in this superbly lucid book the thoughts and what he calls the "indiscriminate reading" of a lifetime.
What characterized the Modern Age that Mr. Lukacs sees rapidly drawing to a close? It was a time of European domination of the globe, for one thing. But it can also be called, in Mr. Lukacs' opinion, the Bourgeois Age, the Age of the State, the Age of Money, Industry, and Cities, the Age of the Book, and the Age of the Family.
These are categories familiar to anyone who has studied modern history, but each of them are "fading and declining fast" as the Modern Age comes to its end, Mr. Lukacs argues. Only two characteristics of modernity show signs of enduring into the new age and these are science and what Mr. Lukacs calls mankind's "evolving historical consciousness." Of the two, historical consciousness at times, Mr. Lukacs calls it historical thinking is by far the more important because it offers the only authentic means for human beings to understand reality.
Of course science has scored impressive successes. It has made us healthier and longer-lived. It's made life easier and more comfortable in significant ways for large numbers of people. Mr. Lukacs acknowledges all that. His beef with science is its narrowness, given the breadth of man's experience which for Mr. Lukacs comprises the spiritual as well as the material.
"Scientific knowledge, dependent as it is on the scientific method, is by its very nature open to question," Mr. Lukacs argues. He has read closely the work of Werner Heisenberg whose well known Uncertainty Principle has inspired an enormous amount of commentary and for a while carried on a correspondence with the great German scientist. He's also read the brilliant French physicist and devout Catholic Pierre Duhem who wrote as early as 1913: "The study of the method of physics is powerless to disclose to the physicist the reason leading him to construct a physical theory."
For Mr. Lukacs, the thought of Duhem and Heisenberg suggests two things. The first is that science is unable to talk with certainty and finality about its own subject matter and therefore isn't the perfect source of knowledge many have labeled it to be. But it is the second point he gleans from his reading of the great physicists that Mr. Lukacs regards as the more significant and that is the realization that historical knowledge is superior to scientific knowledge.
Why this superiority? Because in a very true sense we human beings are history. We are not science. That's a clumsy way to say what Mr. Lukacs describes with greater finesse: "The existence of historical knowledge, the inevitable presence of the past in our lives [is not open to question]." It is simply the way things are. "We are all historians by nature, while we are scientists by choice," he explains. Furthermore: "The history of anything amounts to that thing itself. History is not a social science but an unavoidable form of thought."
How do we think when we think historically? "What history gives a mind, at best, is not a dose of relativism," Mr. Lukacs contends. On the contrary, "it gives us certain standards, the power to contrast, and the right to estimate." These are important gifts because they supply a sense of proportion and of knowledge of right and wrong that those not conscious of history lack.
Interestingly, Mr. Lukacs does not say our historical thinking can become perfect. Like scientific thinking, it is prone to error and uncertainty because it's done by humans and we humans are subject to limitations.
Indeed, it is through our evolving historical consciousness that we learn of these limitations and come to terms with them. Wisdom is accepting these limitations on what we humans can know. It's also realizing that what we know as conscious human beings is more real than what we know through the abstract methods of science.
Mr. Lukacs sees historical consciousness and thinking as first appearing 300 to 400 years ago, at about the same time science began its own impressive development. But he does not see the triumph of historical consciousness as a given or even as necessarily good. Too many variables can intervene to alter its evolution for the worse. Thanks to moving pictures and TV, for example, the age that's coming into being is one in which man's imagination has become predominantly pictorial rather than verbal, leading inevitably to "an impoverishment of language" from which all human thought will suffer.
In addition, there is a danger that mankind may turn away from serious historical thinking, embracing instead "unrestricted spiritualisms" and "mythical faiths, involving more and more beliefs in the existence of supernatural and superterrestrial phenomena."
But because man has free will Mr. Lukacs is a firm believer in free will he has the possibility of turning his evolving historical consciousness into something useful, true knowledge of himself and his condition. No doubt this is a difficult and long-term process, whose details Mr. Lukacs describes by metaphor: "Yet we must keep in mind that no cathedral is ever completed; that repairs and restructurings are needed from time to time; that the very surroundings of the cathedral change; and that every generations will see the cathedral in new and different ways."
In another passage, Mr. Lukacs shows what he means by historical consciousness at work: "Just as the purpose of medicine is not perfect health but the struggle against illness, just as the purpose of law is not perfect justice but the pursuit of it through the vigilance against injustice, the purpose of the historian is not the establishment of perfect truth but the pursuit of truth through the reduction of ignorance."
Mr. Lukacs is encouraged by what he calls the contemporary "appetite for history" among large numbers of Americans. "Within commercial publishing, popular histories have been outselling novels for at least fifty years," he writes. He quotes from the great Dutch historian Johan Huizina who wrote in 1935: "Historical thinking has entered our very blood."
One of Mr. Lukacs' great virtues is ability to find apt and cogent quotations from thinkers of the past to buttress his own views: from the early 18th century Italian Gianbattista Vico (whose notions about the centrality of history in human affairs is close to Mr. Lukacs'), for example, and from other writers he has read with great care, the Spaniards Jose Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, the Frenchman Georges Bernanos, the American Wendell Berry, and the Englishman Owen Barfield, a thinker Mr. Lukacs regards as one of the most lucid and profound of the 20th century.
In his last chapter, Mr. Lukacs argues that "we must now, at the end of an age, recognize that we, and our earth, are at the center of the universe," the very spot from which man was banished by the Copernican sun-centered solar system and by later developments in science.
Mr. Lukacs calls this "the most dramatic proposition of this book." But it is one for which the reader has been prepared by the major theme of this book: that it is we human beings, as flawed as we are, who are at the center of history and that it is historical knowledge that is our richest source of wisdom.
Mr. Lukacs writes beautifully. He has the gift of suggesting in a single sentence themes that might be taken up in whole books. "A historian who cannot write well cannot be much of a historian," for example. Or "All the parables of Christ taught us to believe in truth, not in justice."
This is a small book with a big punch. it can be read in a sitting or two. But what it has to say takes much longer to absorb and it certainly merits our attention.

Stephen Goode is senior writer for Insight magazine.

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