The self in history
Rejecting our common inheritance has dire consequences for the future.
Over the past 50 years, only four statues have been erected in London’s Parliament Square. In 1973, Winston Churchill appeared on its north side, to be joined by Nelson Mandela and Lloyd George in 2007, with Gandhi added in 2015. This nicely balanced addition, two parts British war leader to two parts anti-imperialist independence fighter, neatly expresses the increasingly strained and distant – if not downright fractured – relationship Britain has with its own history, tradition and great men. Gandhi’s statue acts almost as an apology for that of Churchill: not quite a slap in the face for the man who labelled Gandhi a nauseating and seditious fakir, but close. In the case of the statue of Mandela, former London mayor Ken Livingstone most definitely intended it to act as an apology, arguing it would best be placed further up Whitehall, in Trafalgar Square:
‘It will be a square of two Nelsons. The man up there, his battle of Trafalgar was the defining battle that paved the way for 100 years of British empire, and Nelson Mandela looking down on this square will symbolise the peaceful transition to a world without empires.’
Livingstone, of course, has form when it comes to statues. In 2000 he called for the ‘unknown generals’ around Trafalgar Square (well, unknown to Ken at least) to be pulled down and replaced with something more ‘identifiable to the generality of the population’. His man-of-the-people shtick led to the Fourth Plinth Project and, from 2005, two years of Alison Lapper Pregnant mutely expressing a new model of female heroism in ironic counterpoint, one imagines, to the Horatian heroism of yesteryear. While last May, back in Parliament Square, feminist campaigners, including Caroline Criado-Perez, Emma Watson and Caitlin Moran leapt opportunistically on new London mayor Sadiq Khan’s straight-faced statement that he would be a ‘proud feminist’ in office, by demanding and getting a commitment for a statue of a suffragette outside Parliament. This redressing of balance is a way of trying to atone for the supposed sins of the past – to issue an apology, as it were – for all those men who have done things in the world, an apology in the name of all those – the women, colonial subjects, slaves, the disabled – who have suffered at the hands of white men. What gets rejected – as passivity and victimhood demands official recognition – is any part of history that does not live up to the new, and not-to-be-questioned, moral standards of Criado-Perez and her sisters.
A form of ritual apologetics has grown up around this rejection of history. Observe the fashion for recent prime ministers to seek absolution for and ‘make right’ a whole list of British wrongs: the Irish potato famine, the Guildford Four and the slave trade (Tony Blair); Alan Turing and child migrants (Gordon Brown); Bloody Sunday, the Hillsborough disaster, Stafford Hospital deaths and the Amritsar massacre (David Cameron). And today, under Theresa May, Operation Conifer rolls on in its search for evidence to convict Edward Heath of child abuse, busily protesting it is no witch-hunt, and murder investigations are pursued against British soldiers for the shooting of Official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972. A ‘murder’ that was promptly avenged by the killing of three British soldiers by the Officials.
These historical therapeutics fail to convince as apology (every time ‘heartfelt’, always so ‘sincere’), but they do express a willingness to repudiate and reject the history and traditions of Britain – of home – in favour of embracing – at least rhetorically – the multicultural, the different and the Other. Cameron, for example, looked quite comfortable (albeit faintly ridiculous) with his head wrapped in an orange patka, playing identity politics to drum up Sikh votes in Gravesend at the 2015 General Election. Yet ‘Dave’ was always far from comfortable in a tie, so fearful was he of appearing Old School, let alone posh, in any way. This is the open-neck shirt and hi-vis vest as historical and cultural, not to mention political, bad faith. It was the sartorial equivalent of Cameron’s drive to de-tox the Tory party and turn it into something new, something modern, something of the moment, something… well, not particularly conservative in its revolutionary zeal for turning ancient institutions such as marriage inside out, or the speed in which it sought to distance itself from its own past: its essential inheritance of a tradition that once worked to keep things largely as they were.
The balance that always needs to be struck between the objective and subjective has been upset. Objective history has been rejected for relativist histories and an almost fanatical intolerance for the standards and moral norms of yesterday. Certainly, the eagerness with which we seek to dispense judgement on the past indicates our self-regarding satisfaction with contemporary norms. The past is on trial and – from the standpoint of the present – every age has sinned. The Ancients have slavery, Christianity has the Crusades, the Age of Empire has the ‘genocidal colonialism’ of a King Leopold II of Belgium (whose plaques have just been shuffled away by Queen Mary University in London lest they prove offensive to ‘ethnic-minority-background students’). On the basis of just what perfect set of moral standards do we set ourselves up to judge our ancestors? Is there any chance we might be wrong about our attitudes? Has time really stopped with us? Are we quite so sure that the past is wrong and we are right? One does not need to embrace an anything-went historical relativism to maintain some humility and perspective about our own era. It is always up to us as individuals to try to make sense of the past and the different and difficult circumstances in which people like us have suffered and made moral choices and sometimes thoroughly bad choices. The judgement of them is just as much a matter for the self as was their own moral wrongdoing. The fashion for an unthinking public repentance and renunciation of the past is totalitarian in its impulse – it’s a showtrial for the past, one that undermines the importance of individual conscience in its assumed solidarity and groupthink.
Are we so sure of the rightness of modern moral values that we routinely and mechanically retrofit them to the history of institutions ruled in absentia not to live up to them? Are we now ready to denounce humanism itself because of its historic association with white European men? The fact that towards the end of 2015 students at William and Mary University in Virginia covered a statue of Thomas Jefferson with yellow sticky notes branding him a ‘rapist’ and ‘racist’, would indicate that, yes, we are.
This dehumanising apologetics for history is equally an apologetics for the self of Western philosophy, for those makers of history whose efforts to bend the world to their subjective desires, interests and passions are reflected in their statues. It’s a rejection of what we are – human subjects, self-consciously aware of our own freedom, and our own limitations – in the name of what we are not: victims, bodies, mute material things, the Other. It’s a rejection of the active self in the name of the passive and suffering object. It’s a checking of privilege: a refusal to act.
Selfies and Otheries
Cameron, like every other mainstream contemporary politician – from Obama to Hollande, Miliband to Merkel – was better defined by the selfie, not the perennial monument in bronze. Rather than striving to become a historical figure, someone that mattered enough to deserve to be put on a pedestal, to be represented in a form that would endure, a lasting example to future generations, the fashion is instead to be snapped as just one of the crowd, a regular guy in an everyday setting. The selfie is not a portrait – not a working up of an individual human subject into fine art – but is, more often than not, an ‘otherie’. It’s me with you. In its perfect form, it’s a powerful political figure or celebrity with an ordinary and unknown person. Obama paired with John Q Citizen in a form that represents their feigned equality, a pretence of the absence of hierarchy.
The selfie captures only the moment: essentially passive, it claims at most ‘I was there, then’, and is never then seen again. But the statue says ‘I did that, remember me’. It is a historical marker to a world made by human hands, by the passion, the drive and the self-interest of autonomous individuals.
Statues differ from selfies in another way too: they can be beautiful. They represent great historical actors who have worked themselves over, and worked over their worlds, much like works of art. And, as such, they can also be great works of art in themselves. Statues at that level become testimony to humanity’s ability to transform both itself and its given circumstances: it is possible to work with the given of natural raw material and from it create lasting beauty. The ‘great men’ of history have themselves been the means of transforming the old and ushering in the new: they are the historical chisels that chip away the stone coverings, giving us all access and visibility to what was already there, underneath, waiting to emerge. A Julius Caesar, a Napoleon, their greatness rests in their recognition of their own freedom to act – or, more precisely, their freedom to act and the historical necessity of their action – and in their externalisation of that freedom through the pursuit of their interests, their own agendas. What makes them historical figures is just that coincidence of their self-interest with human advance. Someone had to rip the covers off the rottenness of the Roman Republic, of the Ancien Régime, if history was to keep moving forward.
But today we no longer talk of the great men of history. We would rather apologise for them, knock them off their pedestals. Unlike the Victorians, we don’t erect many statues. We snap selfies. And while in the West we have seen a veritable explosion of public art in our streets and towns – colourful cows, abstract blocks, distorted figures – in other parts of the world we have watched iconic images of Lenin and Stalin relegated to massive graveyards of monumental heads, Saddam toppling from his perch in Firdos Square, ancient Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban, Nimrud bulldozed by ISIS, and Cecil Rhodes hoisted from his university by ANC cranes in Cape Town. We are witnesses to a bonfire of ideals, lit in the name of the Other. And maybe we should indeed repent the sins of those so convinced that they acted in the name of history itself that they excused themselves so much. The risk we run, however, is that this collective fury takes down the very idea of history, and the individuals that make it, in its assault on the values of the past.
We exist today in a negative relationship to history, rejecting it as no longer relevant to the 21st century, and apologising for it to show just how far we have put it behind us. We deny our history when we judge that certain institutions – such as marriage, the monarchy, or the nation state – have somehow passed their sell-by date. And, as anti-historians, we rewrite history in support of particularist agendas, from feminism to other forms of identity politics. The anti-historical perspective assesses the relevance or irrelevance of history from the standpoint of today. Liberal commentators feel comfortable ticking off ancient Athens, for example, as a slave-owning patriarchy without ever feeling a need to come to grips with its intellectual and historical legacy. They fail to ask just why it was that democracy and chattel slavery emerged and advanced together. Now, of course, it is true that from the Renaissance to the Victorians we have mined the past – even rewritten it – to suit our own purposes, but what is different today is the extent to which we have cut ourselves off from history, viewing it as static and lifeless, a dead weight, flattering the present as all there really is.
There is almost a fervent apostasy behind the zeal of those who would rehabilitate the victims of yesterday’s morality. This historical relativism speaks the language of equality for all but preaches a reverse inequality, demanding compensation for the victims, putting our ancestors on trial.
As a result of this rejection of history and tradition, it can be difficult to see just what the central ideas or premises of today actually are. Our cultural, social and political elites – if they self-define at all – tend to identify themselves as anti-elitist. Their buzzwords are equality, openness, inclusivity, transparency, diversity, multiculturalism, secularism and non-discrimination. Not that these things are necessarily bad in themselves, but when they are all we have, then they speak to an absence of anything to really believe in. We lack a sense of what we stand for. Communities minister Sajid Javid may call for an oath of allegiance to British values, but he can no more define what it means to be British than he can believe in it enough to call for assimilation rather than integration. In other words, rather than calling for any British values whatsoever, this is nothing more than another debilitating demand for the celebration of difference and diversity.
It is the European Union – to take the most contemporary example – that takes the clearest stand for all those anti-values – open borders, a cultural entrepot, rootless cosmopolitanism, and so on – and it rightly inspires zero loyalty and not a whiff of passion in the citizens of its member states, because it does not stand for any positive principle.
This anti-elitist elite sees no intrinsic value, essence or spirit in anything much. Nor does it believe that anything much lasts or is worth preserving. Contemporary culture trades in ephemera, in the shock value of desecration, and in an empty universalism based on globalism, cosmopolitanism, human rights and a concomitant denial of the reality of the nation, its culture and laws. Contemporary morality focuses on the material (on smoking, on obesity), rather than the spiritual. Contemporary politics is so determined by the need to appear relevant to the present that the European Parliament can seriously set about building a House of European History which will focus largely on the history of the… European Parliament. The one thing that explains these different phenomena is the sundering of the West’s relationship to its own history.
The rejection of history is not a denial of history per se but rather a refusal to see ourselves as being part of that history: a not-in-my-name rejection of the demands that it places on us and a childish refusal to accept our historical inheritance. When politicians make grandstanding apologies for slavery, they seek to whitewash themselves through dissociation from the ‘bad old days’. This rejection of history collapses historically meaningful events into a vast assortment of facts in its refusal to discriminate between them, its refusal to pick any of them out into an historical narrative. We claim a false and easy liberation through denying the validity of the claims of the past on the present. The effect is to increase the supposed irrelevance of the past and to expand the domain of the present. What is becomes increasingly all there is; and the why evaporates. History ceases to have anything to do with the working out – through however difficult, circuitous, and unexpected paths – of reason. Our only touchstone becomes the world of ‘the real’: facts, not values. Artists, moral pundits and politicians all pride themselves with being ever so contemporary. The result is an increasingly obsessive form of living in the present moment. Cut off from the legacy of the past, and the possibilities of the future, the contemporary is all we have left.
Hand in hand with the expansion of the present come projects continuously to extend and push back the bounds of history. The idea we have long been comfortable with – since Hegel, at any rate – that history began ‘at the point where rationality begins to enter into worldly existence’ – that it relies on individuality, rights and law – is now dismissed in favour of a much grander (if less human) perspective. National history is rejected in favour of European history; Western history eschewed for global history; a narrative of human action is supplanted by climate change; and human history itself is replaced by Big History which takes upon itself to investigate the hundreds of millennia, if not billions of years, in which man did not even exist and for which there are no written records. To the extent that man is admitted to this new history at all, it is only as a biological species, determined by a blind genetic inheritance.
When the present becomes all there is, the tragic outcome is that we are less present in the world than maybe we have ever been. Man is no longer part of his own history. He has been reduced to the status of a voyeur, watching from the wings. It is almost as if Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four had it right: ‘History has stopped. Nothing exists except as an endless present in which the Party is always right.’ That is, we exist in a denial of alternative possibilities – the possibility, in short, of imagining things differently than they are. This possibility, represented by the historical subject, is always personal, never social or collective. The future, as Chantal Delsol puts it, ‘belongs to those who will work to promote the excellence of beings. Everything that nurtures the subject will also nurture society. The converse is no more than a farce drenched in blood.’
Freedom and autonomy are possessions of the self, not the mass. It is in the figure of the individual that we strike the balance between history as an impersonal force (the ‘iron laws’ of History) and the anything goes view of history as merely what one chooses to say it is. The assertion and recognition of the value and worth of human beings is the moral imperative of every historical moment. It is something for each and everyone of us to struggle to do justice to. Human dignity, human self-consciousness, is the horizon of transcendence that marks the edge of the possibilities that the here and now afford each of us.
Witness to the destructive cannonade of the French revolutionary army at the Battle of Valmy in 1792, Goethe offered the following as some little consolation to the dejected Prussian officers standing round him: ‘Meine Herren, a new epoch of world history begins from this place and time, and you can say that you were present.’
Fourteen years later Hegel wrote on 13 October 1806 from Jena:
‘I saw the Emperor – this soul of the world – go out from the city to survey his reign; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.’
On that day Hegel did not have to read the newspapers – he was present as history itself was acted out before him.
But with the coming of the modern age came the sundering of authority from political and economic power, leaving man increasingly able to make a world fit to live in, but less and less persuaded that he has the right to do so. The waning of the great-man theory of history is testament to the slow diminishment in the importance of the individual against the emergent power of the masses, of society and of the state. It also testifies to the rejection of the primacy of reason in determining what should happen, what should not, and what was right, what was wrong.
At almost the very moment enlightened man discovered that truth existed only in the unfolding and development of history, so a reaction set in against this insight. A deep sense of discomfort was felt at the opening up of history into an ongoing process lacking any necessary end and, what is more, a process that man – in the absence of God – had to take responsibility for. In our disenchanted world, what has replaced ideas of beauty, the good, and truth, is the concept of process being all that matters, but a process stripped of the twin engines of reason and freedom, a de-centred process with man taken out. Instead of conceiving of the process of history as the working out of human reason and freedom, we have the elevation of the concept of change to the status of a fetish. History becomes just what happens to us; we are no longer actors on its stage but members of the audience. We have become afraid to act because we can never tell what will happen when we do: the law of unintended consequences has made us afraid of ourselves. So we make a virtue of self-denial, and value security over freedom. We think every act is a narrowly selfish act and that pursuing our agendas in the world – trying to make history – is always a zero-sum game. We forget that our exercise of reason can lead us to act in ways that benefit others as well as ourselves. It is reason that allows us to break with the blind instinctual laws of cause and effect that operate in nature. The more we reason, the truer we are to ourselves; in fact, the more selfish we become, the more we work out how we can impose ourselves on a world that – without history – is simply brutely unreasonable.
No more future anymore
History, in the tradition Herodotus began, was written in an attempt to understand the reasons for those things that mattered, the things that were historical, by which we were to understand those things that made a positive difference, in particular those events that led to an increase in human freedom in the world. Whether they might be the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks or the American Revolution, that approach gave the possibility of a shared understanding of history through an inquiry into the reasons for things.
History is precisely that bringing together of the subjective and the objective. It is the narration of what happened, a reflection by the historian on the world that has been brought into being. It represents the creation of new points of perspective that historical change has set up, new ways of understanding the world. With the fateful decision to cross the Rubicon, with the collapse of the Republic before Caesar’s army, it became clear that the authority of the Senate was no more and that the moment demanded an individual with enough authority to rule an empire.
If, instead of history in this sense, we turn to memory or forms of history that focus on things that literally ‘don’t matter’ in the sense of being history-making (the ‘life stories’ of 12th-century peasant children), then we lose that shared basis of understanding. Which is to say we give up on, and reject, the task of writing (and making) history.
History puts us in a narrative in which the past is tied to the present, and to the future, in an unbroken chain of human activity. When we snap that narrative thread, it is not just the past that sinks out of view, but the future, too. It becomes unrelated to what we do and is soon nothing more than whatever (shit) happens. We become largely passive observers to apparently random events, the only certainty being the inevitability of change. But change as a force now understood as acting upon us, condemning us to increasing irrelevance as the clock tick tocks. We perceive ourselves as ever more limited creatures – one-day flies – with just 50 things to do before we die.
Yet it is our inescapable duty, our very human nature from the moment of birth, to start out from wherever we find ourselves, to accept the legacy of the past and carry it forward into the future, as Aeneas once bore the gods of his Troy to a new home in Italy. Today, though, unlike that ancient hero, we live in such fear of ourselves that we let the future determine our past. As the English conservative Michael Oakeshott put it, we are:
‘acquisitive to the point of greed; ready to drop the bone we have for its reflection magnified in the mirror of the future… discarded motor-cars and television sets have their counterparts in discarded moral and religious beliefs: the eye is ever on the new model.’
The corrosive impact of change for the sake of it means that culture, morality and politics have ceased to operate as they once did.
They cannot operate without a history which is grounded on reason, law and the freedom of the individual to pursue his own ends. Instead of culture, we have at best entertainment. Instead of a morality of treating humans as ends, but never means, we are indifferent to each other except as means to some end. In place of politics, we have an asocial, faceless and increasingly intrusive bureaucracy, a ‘kind of no-man rule’ as Hannah Arendt put it, in which we subsist in a continuous frozen present with only our mutual solitude in common.
Cut off from our inheritance – the achievements and legacy of the past – in what Kant termed our self-imposed minority, we face a seemingly impossible problem: how can we preserve the past, how can we rediscover the past, without the help of the past? In this situation, there is a need for clarity and courage. We must recognise that when things are gone, they are gone, and that no amount of nostalgia can alter that fact. Tradition cannot be restored once it is broken. Might we, however, still be able to act traditionally even in the absence of tradition?
Today, we need to make a conscious effort to recognise our heritage, our shared culture and history because it no longer comes naturally. We must engage with the world as it is. Accepting our inheritance is part of accepting our finitude and limitation, and that acceptance is what provides the foundation or stepping-off point for the project of exercising our freedom.
In a way, the problem is one of our own freedom. Which is equally to say, the possibility of its solution lies in the public exercise of our reason. And this involves conflict – with oneself (to do the right thing), and with others (who conceive differently of what is right). What is important is that we are not afraid to engage in that conflict, while finding ways to achieve it through justice and love, rather than through violence. Through justice because it is through justice and law that we regulate a civilised society in which freedom is predicated on individual autonomy, and in love because freedom is dependent on the recognition of others’ freedom.
What the situation of today demands is that we find a way of desiring to live in the present because we value it, and because we find ourselves at home there in homes we have made for ourselves, and not just because we happen to be there. The only way we can really live is as autonomous individuals who decide for themselves what they want.
Through arguments and public decisions over Brexit, we have the opportunity today to look at our past and rethink it with more clarity than ever before. But we are reluctant to do so. The world has lost its wonder and charm as we have started to doubt and lose faith in our own ability – as humans – to work profane miracles.
We can only recapture that wonder through being in the world with each other, through learning to see the same thing from the perspective of our friends… and our enemies. Our problem, then, is one of how, if one wishes to become present in the world, to jump that gap between private existence and public life. It is a problem which demands learning how to judge – how to judge what is good and what is evil, how to determine truth from lies. It relies on our freedom to discriminate in culture, in morality, and in politics. And the freedom of others to mark us down.
In this effort we might also find that historical experience continues to have relevance. As Cicero argued: ‘Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.’
History, like man, is born, grows and develops. And, like man too, history is not born to die, but to begin. The agent of history is man in his coming of age and in his recognition of his own freedom.
The freer we are, the more uncertain we are of where we are, what we should do, what road we should follow. Admittedly, that is a reason to be afraid of our freedom. But if we turn our backs on the uncertainties of our own making, the only thing we can be sure of is that we will be subject to the certainties of others.
We need to be present in the world and that means re-presenting ourselves. It’s a matter of telling stories about ourselves, of making statues again. When we make images of great men and women – life’s beginners and enders – we recognise ourselves as creators of ourselves, as people who have earned the right to say that we were there. And that we did what we wanted to. And that it mattered.
Angus Kennedy is the author of Being Cultured: In Defence of Discrimination and the founder of The Academy, the Institute of Ideas’ ‘University as it should be’. The theme of this year’s Academy, on 15 & 16 July, is ‘From universal man to identity politics: the rise and fall of The Self’. More details here.
This is an edited, updated and reworked version of an essay originally submitted for the Notting Hill Essay competition in 2015, where it was long-listed.
Picture by: Tim Evanson, published under a creative commons license.