What, then, is history?

23 August 2010


Saint Augustine asked “What then is time?” and acknowledged that he could not answer the question. But, as Wittgenstein has pointed out, some things that cannot be said nevertheless can be shown.

Augustine famously asked in his Confessions:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. (11.14.17)

quid est ergo tempus? si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio. fidenter tamen dico scire me quod, si nihil praeteriret, non esset praeteritum tempus, et si nihil adveniret, non esset futurum tempus, et si nihil esset, non esset praesens tempus.

If time is a mystery of the order identified by Augustine, what then is the history that is constituted by time?

In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote the following:

Parables.–It has been said that the mind is essentially narrative in its constitution. Whatever validity such a claim might have or might lack, stories may well be the most effective literary device for communicating the gist of an idea. Perhaps philosophers would have had a larger audience had they written parables instead of treatises.

Variations on the Theme of Life, Section 390

It could be said that the creation of narratives is an attempt to assert mastery over the complexity of history, and so to deliver oneself from what Mircea Eliade called the Terror of History — and the terror of history can only emerge with the emergence of historical consciousness. Historical consciousness is the midwife that delivers time of history. How does historical consciousness operate? Narratively. Usually.

In Deep Battle and the Culture of War I suggested that Western military thought focuses on the mastery of time. Mastery of history represents the apotheosis of the ambition to exercise strategic mastery over time; the mastery of time culminates in the mastery of history as its total form. Thus another definition of grand strategy emerges from this line of thought: grand strategy is the mastery of history.

Conceptions of history — the cataclysmic, the political, and the eschatological as discussed in Three Conceptions of History — form the basis for transforming the whole of time into a narrative. The conception is the intellectual dimension — often subtle, usually implicit, rarely brought to full consciousness — while the narrative is the moral, emotional, and aesthetic dimension of what is intellectually expressed as a conception of history.

The narrative dimension comes to us naturally, and speaks to us on a fundamental level: we feel it as much as, if not more than, we know it. It is important to pass through this stage of knowing — knowing on a visceral level, understanding history as a matter of gut feeling — but it has limitations that are as powerful as the lessons that it has to teach us. Therefore it is equally important to transcend this stage and to bring our implicit conception of history to fully explicit consciousness so that we know and understand what we are doing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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