Lesson 22      The Goal of History


     Since the 18th century we have had faith in the progress of science.  Then for the first time the idea of humanity in progress did not rest on religious beliefs, such as the belief in the City of God, but on faith in man and in the ability of technology to radically change human life.  History walked the way of the progress of Science and Technology.

Today we have lost this enthusiasm.  As the third millenary approaches even fears and worries about the end of time reappear. An abundant literature on this subject is flourishing, its topic is often visions of an imminent apocalypse. We cannot believe as readily as our ancestors in the good of technology because we have seen that technology can also be a powerful factor of destruction.  In fact more than one intellectual bet on a decline of culture and a fall of humanity into barbarity.

    So where are we heading so rapidly?  Is humanity losing itself or is it following a path which will at last take it to its true goal?  Does History have a purpose?  Or is it just a formless chaos that owes its shape to the whims of human action?


A.  The Force of Ideas


    1.       First of all we must underline that the expression purpose of history can be understood in two ways:


    a.   It can imply that the human adventure has a meaning and is therefore not random.  This is the usual meaning of the word “purpose”.

    b.   It can also mean that not only does History have a meaning, but it also has a direction.  The purpose of History would then mean something like an arrow with this or that orientation.  We can establish a parallel between the concept of direction and that of progress or evolution.  It is easy to borrow the concept of evolution from biology and apply it to Humanity in the making.


     This is not the same as saying that History has a meaning and pretend that it is oriented towards a goal that it must realise.  The former position is humble, the latter more audacious.  We may call Philosophy of History any philosophical reconstruction which has something to say on where Humanity is heading.  It is the obligation of any Philosophy of History to show what drives History forward:  what gives History its dynamism and makes it follow a certain direction?  It is also the role of a Philosophy of History to formulate some idea as to what should be the goal of History, what it is aiming for and ought to reach little by little.

    2.   Let us begin by considering what we might call historical idealism.  By this we mean a doctrine that emphasises, in its interprÉtations of history, the force of ideas, the importance of the mind in shaping history.  A typical example of this is Hegel’s Reason in History.

    The problem arising when you want to maintain that History has a meaning is the that of violence. We would be perfectly happy to accept the idea that History progresses were it not that it is perpetually shaken by rebellions and barbarity, and were it not the case that man has so often been crushed by History.  In order not to pull wool over our eyes and look only at the pleasant sides of the human adventure we must start out as realists, and accept to acknowledge this apparent chaos that History manifests.  The greatest civilisations have come and gone, carried away by time.  The stuff History is made of is as much construction as destruction. The first category of History is a worrying one: change.

    “It is depressing to learn that so much splendour, such magnificent vitality, has had to perish and that we are walking on ruins.  The noblest and most beautiful things were torn away by History: human passions ruined them.  Everything seems destined to disappear, nothing remains.”  If the greatest civilisations can have appeared, then been erased, this means that all civilisations are threatened with extinction, ours just as much as whatever preceded it.

“However this category of change knows immediately another aspect: that from death a new life is born”, which Hegel interprets as “the Spirit reappears rejuvenated yet also stronger and clearer”.  Does this mean that we should go beyond the violence of History to view it as a continuous process?  We cannot limit ourselves to a gratuitous assertion that “all this is just brutal chaos and has no meaning”.  This is of course a justification for the withdrawal of the individual into himself and contempt for whatever is the meaning of the human adventure, but this flight from the problem brings no satisfaction.  The philosopher wants at least to know why, to what end, the happiness of individuals, people and nations has so often been sacrificed.  History ought at least to be intelligible as a matter of right. It would be arbitrary to declare that it is not, without justification.


    History is made by the acts of men.  The acts of men arise from their desires and desires make them find an interest in what they are doing.  If I am to turn something into a work then I must take an interest in it.  When my desire focuses on a single interest relentlessly pursued this is passion.  Those who changed something in this world had to mobilise all their passion in order to succeed.  Passion involves a man’s entire energy and throws him towards the goal he wants to achieve.  It becomes his will.  History’s heroes, from Alexander to Caesar, from Caesar to Napoleon, were men of passion. 

“Therefore we say that nothing is ever done without being sustained by the involvement of those who collaborated to realise it.  We call this interest passion when the individual, repressing all other goals or interests, invests his whole self in one project and concentrates all his strength and needs therein.  Hence we can say that nothing great is ever achieved in this world without passion.”  However we could just as well say that what has destroyed so much throughout History is also human passion.  On the one hand passions follow their egocentric logic, on the other they build the world of mankind.  To protect itself from the excesses of human passions a society must endow itself with laws that serve as a rampart against passions.  We all know that in a state everybody’s freedom is limited by the freedom of everybody else.  We have social rules and duties such that the common interest prevails over the interest of each individual.  Law, insofar as it is recognised by everybody; is not an expression of private interest, but of the interest of everybody.  It is the work of Reason and not a product of passion.  In its principle Law is the expression of the will of the people.  Whence the everlasting conflict opposing Reason, the guard of rights, and passion, the servant of individual ambitions.  If everybody spontaneously followed Reason then order and peace would result, but since men are creatures of passion just as much as they are creatures of reason, the result is a conflict between the selfishness of passion and the universal goals of Reason.  This conflict must be resolved, willingly or unwillingly, so that human society is thereby forced to evolve in order to overcome its own divisions.  However we cannot view passion in the sole light of personal interest.  Does it not pertain to a great man to nurture a passion which goes beyond himself and extends its generosity to everybody?  He can feel a passion for freedom, a passion for suffering mankind.  These passions are not at odds with the universal goals of Reason.  Is it not precisely what we mean by an Ideal: to express in a heightened passion mankind’s most elevated goals?


    Let us consider for instance the historical turning point that is the French revolution?  In1789 the situation is critical, the feeling of injustice overwhelming.  There is no bread, taxes are too heavy, the power of the aristocracy is declining.  The prevailing aspiration is one of justice against the tyranny of a patently corrupt rule.  The philosophers of the Enlightenment had prepared the ground through the promotion of an ideal of equality, freedom and justice.  The ideas expressed in Rousseau’s Social Contract and the model of democracy are very vivid on the arena.  It takes only a tiny spark to light the fire of revolution.  Audacious men like Danton, Robespierre, Mirabeau will rise to carry this passion for justice latent in people’s minds and a new Ideal.  They have not invented it, they are its mouthpiece.  One can always say that Saint-Just, Danton, Mirabeau and Robespierre had, as individuals, selfish goals.   But in reality they were above all instruments at use for the collective consciousness to reach its goal: more justice, greater equality, the end of corruption.  From where did these men get their authority, their inspiration and their strength if not from collective consciousness?  People recognised them as those who expressed its wishes and desires.  Even if the individual in power has a personal goal, he is also unknowingly in the service of a goal that goes beyond him.  Hegel calls trick of Reason the process by which a hero in History believes himself to hold the reins of time, while in fact he is just the servant of a will higher than his own, which is the will of the people.  This will is nothing other than Universal Reason, in the form of the will of the people.  It is through passionate men that Reason realises its goals, yet blindness to reality and the euphoria of action conceal what is actually taking place.  The hero believes himself to be the master of Time.  He does not realise that he himself has a master.  This implies that the individual will be sacrificed once he no longer embodies the aspirations of the people of a given epoch.  Most of the actors on the stage of the Revolution will hang under the Terreur.  Yet this sacrifice will not have been for nothing.  Through it Reason will have reached its goal.  The universal goal cannot be achieved except via the mediation of individuals in history.  History’s heroes have been duped but the spirit of the people has continued forward.  For a time they received the necessary revelations about the possibilities of their day and age.  They carried the flame of the Ghost, and no sooner had their task been accomplished than they were sacked by History.  Napoleon finished in misery on the island of Sainte Hélène once his role on the stage of History had come to an end.  Like Danton, Robespierre, or Mirabeau, he was swept away by History, and yet it was thanks to him that History was made.  It is thanks to great men that the people progresses in its course towards the concretisation of its innermost spiritual aspirations.  And these aspirations of Consciousness are nothing other than the ideas and forces that push men to act and make them able to lift mountains and start revolutions.


    Hence humanity’s progress is not fortuitous.  It is advancing towards the Manifestation of Consciousness.  Yet it must also attend the harsh school of violence.  Hegel feels no compunction to admit that Reason governs the world, that it has governed History since the beginning and that it will continue to do so in the future.  Hence we should not give too much weight to the present.  Behind the commotion of events we must learn to discern the spirit animating them, and not to take the chaotic appearance of History for its reality.  Something sprouted in the French Revolution, a spiritual conquest that gave birth to the Declaration of Human Rights.  Consciousness had a breakthrough at that point.  Similarly those present when the Berlin wall fell were aware they were witnessing a historical moment that surpassed by far the narrow interest of the Germans.  The wall had a huge symbolic meaning.  It was the sign of the duality of two ideological systems and of their confrontation, capitalism and communism.  The fall of the Berlin wall is the end of ideological systems with totalitarian ambitions.  It is the breakdown of the faith in an ideology, of the belief that a “system” can truly change man.  The impact of this event was colossal and this because its spiritual bearing, the idea it carried forth, was a huge change, a real transformation.   Had we therefore been more lucid we would have been able to discern in the present the idea behind historical events and this would enable us to see the direction of human progress.

Let us consider Hegel’s ultimate perspectives: we can represent the history of each people using the Christian model of History.  It is as if each people had to walk its own way up the Golgotha and suffer in order to obtain atonement and salvation.  The violence of History is necessary because it is sacred, it is the sacrifice of humanity to God.  Humanity as a whole is God, a god who slowly grows to self-awareness through the different trials he has to undergo, through his ordeal in the world.  The end of History will be the actualisation of the Absolute Spirit in a world in the image of the City of God, which in Hegel’s philosophy is the realisation of the State.


3)  Nevertheless if this idealistic interprÉtation of History carries a certain conviction, it is also very problematic:

    a)                                                    The first difficulty that arises is that of the necessity of violence.  Can Consciousness only progress through violence?  Must there always emerge between men and their rulers a situation of conflict and passion, a relation of master to slave and slave to master that alone can spur the evolution of man?  If this is the case then everything that happens in history is justified.  If Caesar or Napoleon are heroes of History, they are no more so than Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin.  Each of them must have expressed the consciousness of their people at that time.  If violence is in addition necessary because sacred, then this justification of all History’s crimes and atrocities can only leave us morally scandalised.   

    b)                                                    How are we to understand the identification of Humanity to God?  A god that needs to incarnate, who is unconscious at the start and more conscious in the end can he really be a god? 

    c)                                                    Are we really able to decipher the course of Consciousness?  This would mean that man can read the intentions of universal Providence; yet is this not  presumptuous given the extraordinary complexity of history and the weakness of our mind?  Who says ultimate says the highest peak.  However once one has reached this peak one must go back down.  For the ultimate to have a definite meaning mankind would have to reach an accomplished state, an age of enlightenment of the mind and the arrest of time.  Yet how could time stop?  Apocalyptically?  Then the ultimate goal would be universal dissolution!  Who could possibly want this?  In a world that is perpetually in the making time cannot stop.  Then what meaning can we then give to the idea of an ultimate purpose or term?



B.  The Force of Circumstances


    1.       What the idealist interprÉtation seems to ignore is that events follow a course of their own, a course which man does not master and which yet seems to carry him into History, without it being necessary to view this as the action of a superhuman spirit.  In a world such as ours in which the material is more important than the spiritual, we tend to listen to those who explain history as the result of the evolution of the conditions of human life.  However the conditions that have changed most dramatically since antiquity are the economical ones.  Our post-modern time loves arguments founded on economics: it has even been said that today economics has replaced politics.  Let us follow this path and see if the economical logic contains any elements that might serve as food for a philosophy of history.

    2.   We said that if History has a meaning, it must account for History’s chaotic appearance in such a way that one can discern a mechanism of History and get a view of the goal it is about to reach; in addition it must be able to deal with the very serious objection that is violence in History.  This violence may effectively lead us to reject the idea that History would have a meaning.


    On basis of purely materialistic considerations about the destiny of man can one construe a philosophy of History?  The example of the French Revolution would suggest that one can.  The revolution came about during a situation of economical crisis, which revealed the gap between the urgency of human needs and the inability of the economic system to satisfy them.  A society is founded on needs and these give it its structure.   It is needs that connect people.  Man depends on the satisfaction of his most basic needs. His focus cannot be very elevated when his survival is threatened, when he cannot even find enough to eat, when he does not have acceptable accommodation.  The system that regulates the distribution of means and tries to promote prosperity is called economics.  One can look upon the course of humanity from the angle of economic transformations and thus it is perfectly possible to consider the economic relations as the mechanism of History.  We all know that the rhythm of change nowadays in our society is essentially that of technical innovations.  The technique truly revolutionised the manner in which people used to work.  The emergence of the steam engine, of mechanised tools, of the computer brought with them profound changes in economic structure.  It considerably increased productivity, made wealth accessible to everybody or at least it freed consumption.  The system of exchange has globalised relations between nations, and these relations were previously ruled by politics.  It is these economic transformations which we see at work all over the planet and which have changed the course of human History.  By the force of circumstances and from the material level of our existence we are pushed to change non-stop.

   Does this not imply that violence in History is essentially social?  And if it is social would this not mean that it is rooted in economic structures?  Behind rebellions, social violence, we can identify economic issues, the fight against injustice of those who regard themselves as exploited; but we also find a form of leisure for youngsters abandoned and unemployed.  As Engels explained, social violence stems mainly from economics.

   Since the Greek there have been all sorts of different societies connecting people through all sorts of economic systems.  History’s great turning points can be thought in terms of profound economic changes.  They can happen two ways:  either social violence overthrows a leadership which was too oppressive and kept people in too great a misery, or violence restores the power of those who own over those who have nothing.  The latter is reactionary violence.  In this respect this ideological and religious systems are only pretexts that people use to ask for a change in their living conditions.  What is really at stake is economical and has to do with the distribution of wealth produced and with increasing prosperity, and these goals are confusedly sought in all civil unrest.  Hence the evolution of History is primarily economical.

   If the mechanism of History is economics, this implies that what steers it is nothing other than the material forces and the needs at stake.  It is not necessary to go look for, as in some kind of religious vision, a Providence that would be steering the course of history, or to quest after a Spirit ruling the world.  History is made through conflicts, the conflicts of those who have wealth and the means of production, and those who only have their labour power.  The process of history is the struggle of social classes.  In capitalism this struggle takes the form of the struggle between the proletariat and the capital.  In ancient Greece it was the disparity between aristocratic nobility and the slaves it had working for it.  In the Middle Age it is the struggle between miserable serfs and the landowners.   Revolutions are the product of one class overthrowing the other.  Thus the French revolution witnessed the fall of the Aristocracy by the bourgeoisie and this gave birth to modern capitalism.  In the Marxist vision what matters is the economic infrastructure of a society and not its culture.  Culture, with its different forms such as Law, Justice, Art, Religion, Ethics, Philosophy, forms what is called the superstructure.  This is like an edifice superposed on a foundation that consists of the economic relations between men.  In Greece this basis was an economy founded on slavery, in the Middle Age it was an economy founded on the exploitation of serfs.  In the contemporary world it is founded on the ideological system that is ours: the bourgeois values resting on the exploitation of a proletariat by the capital.  The superstructure is, according to Marx, a justification of the infrastructure.  The ideal of any society is just its material assets and possibilities reflected in people’s minds:  “for Hegel the thinking process, which he even changes, under the name of Idea, into an acting subject, is the demiurge of reality which now only constitutes its external appearance.  For me on the contrary, the ideal is nothing other than the material translated and transposed inside the human head”.  If the Greek had an Aristocratic moral, an Aristocratic religion, a philosophy and a law for free men, this is because they lived in a system founded on the distinction between those who work, the slaves, and free men.  In the Middle Age the religious hierarchy stretching from pope to vicar via the bishop, is just the carbon copy of the hierarchical structure going from king to serf via the lords.  Religion is there to justify this situation, demand obedience and promise compensation in the world beyond where all social disparities will be erased.

    Marx pretends he puts things back in their place when he defines man as creature of nature consisting of needs, from which a spiritual dimension is a mere derivative.  Man’s primary motives are the satisfaction of his material needs.  A man is a living being that needs to eat, sleep, wear clothes and so on.  It is these needs that tie man to society.  This must be our starting point and this leads to the idea that the structure of society is the result of its economical organisation, which is the organisation of needs and the distribution of exchanges.  This too explains why nothing is ever static in a society.  Needs exert their pressure.  Technological inventions modify economic output.  Consequently History advances despite man in tune with economic change and through the evolution of the economic system.  From this reasoning it follows that if one could change the system one could change everything.  Change the capitalist economy and you will overthrow bourgeois morality, law, philosophy, art and even science.  Since History is the history of the class struggle, favouring the evolution of history is to guide this class struggle in such a way that you radically change the present economical system.  This means that you have to fight alongside the working class proletariat, those exploited by the system to restore its merit to the workers work instead of stealing it like does the Capital.  Viewed from this standpoint what matters is not to interpret the world and History, but to change the world and History.  Since the people allows itself to be seduced by the horns of humanitarianism one must shake it out of its inertia and provoke, through acts of violence, a necessary revolution.  Violence is all old societies midwife says Marx.  The slave cannot overthrow the master without violence.  Whence the justification, here called revolutionary action (think of Action Directe![1]), of terrorism as a means to conduct the class struggle using arms when this struggle fails using democratic means.  All the superstructures issued from the capitalist system must disappear because this is what the direction of History demands since it is economic forces that rule the world.

   In the end the movement of History leads to a classless society founded on equalitarian economic relations.  The movement of History that happened through the struggle of the classes will be abolished in a classless society in which all the contradictions and all the antagonisms will disappear.  This Marx thinks will be the end of pre-history and the beginning of true history.  Yet before this can happen as long as capitalism is present in the world the people who will follow this road will have to install a transitory period of proletarian dictatorship in order to prevent any going back and any reactionary spasm by the Capital.  The abolition of private property will end bourgeois society and totally modify the economical infrastructure.

3.       We must admit that the doctrine of historical materialism does carry conviction and this because of the simplicity of its explanatory system, which avoids abstract principles such as the one of a Ghost conducting the world.  Yet it is not without its pitfalls:


a)       Marxism holds that the economic forces rule the world, yet what is an economic force without its guiding ideology? Is it not precisely its forceful ideology that gives historical materialism its strength and its ability to incense populations and drive them to a revolution?  The force of Marxism is its ability to account for and respond to the feeling of social injustice and to have promised a better world to those who believed in it.  It is the perspective of a just society, an equalitarian society that gave rise to hope.  Hegel was right: it is Ideas that rule the world!  Normally the pertinence of materialism should have been proved by the superiority of its economical system and not by its ideology.  The contrary has been shown.             

B) How then can we concede that the historical process necessarily follows economical laws as ineluctably as those of Physics?  Men have the freedom to make History take the direction it should take.  Economics does not constitute an inescapable fate History would be subjected to.  C) For a long time one awaited the arrival of the classless society and one looked upon this as somerhing that would necessarily happen.  Must we not admit that the Communist society is more of an ideal than the necessary outcome of the course of events ?  If we must invest any hope in this and believe in the establishment of communist society, is this any different from the belief of the Christian in the pending Kingdom of God ? Coming from a teaching which purports to evacuate religion this is an odd outcome indeed ! D)  Can we really take seriously the idea that culture would be just a by-product of Economics ?  Does it make sense to pretend that morality is the result of Economics ?  Is this not on the contrary a moral judgement of economics ?  In the same way Art, even though it may be linked to a point in time, owes most of its value to its timeless aspects.  Similarly Philosophy is timeless.  There is not a single aspect of culture which does not some way or other go beyond the frame of economic contingencies in such a way that in reality it is more the spiritual dimension that determines the course of economics rather than the other way round.


C.  History as a Manifestation and Creation of Consciousness.


    Let us not be blinded by a quibble of doctrines.  What matters is to see what is actually happening.  The road History follows is one that is at once something slowly exerting its pressure, a transformation of matter, and a slow and progressive evolution of consciousness. 

1.       In any case we don’t need to read the mind of Providence in order to give History a meaning.  It is enough if we consider that the progress of mankind is an Ideal worth pursuing.  Everything we do in this world should contribute to the general progress of humanity.  This is the mark of a great work.  What is a great man if not one who through his life and work has contributed to the betterment of the human condition?  Even if humanity does not achieve its highest goal in one life we can at least hope that the human race as a whole is progressively developing its natural aptitudes.  True, taken as individuals men do not behave as rational or even reasonable citizens of the world; all too often they hunger for destruction, ready to commit all sorts of insane deeds in order to reach their goal.  Yet do no events themselves in the end catch up with them and their excesses?  Does History not exert a balancing influence, which from time to time brings man back to a more wholesome vision after a long erring?  Everything men do pertains to History.  Man’s excesses always catch up with him and this way Nature always forces him to find the wisdom that he cannot discern by himself.  Nature has fostered the development of living species on this planet: would it not also look after the evolution of mankind?  Expressed in this way our problem boils down to “trying to see if it would not be possible to discover Nature’s purposes behind the insane course of human action”.


    The idea of a design of nature when applied to humanity has a specific meaning.  All the natural dispositions of a species must unfold with time.  This has already taken place in Nature for other species than man.  Man is a special case because in him Nature has handed over the development of this potential to the creature itself instead of orchestrating it herself.  What distinguishes man from animals is that he must cultivate his body and mind in order to fully use and enjoy them.  Instinct does not have to be cultivated.  When creating man Nature did not confine him to the narrow limits of instinct.  She gave him freedom and the ability to act according to goals he has set himself.  You could say that History is to man the long education of the species, the long road he has to walk in order to reach his true goal.  The goal of History is the full development of Humanity in man.  If men retain the capacity of counter-productive behaviour this is because they are free to stray off the path of their own evolution.  Yet this is precisely what stimulates social progress since it can be understood as problems that need to be overcome through institutions and education.  In History man prepares his freedom and watches it mature, in History mankind gets set up for adulthood.

    Hence one must not accuse Nature of inflicting a tragic fate on mankind.  Men are alone responsible for their violence.  Evil is never necessary for human progress, but when it occurs as it happens it is in the end neutralised by good.  The system of Nature is organised in such a way that man must finally return to goodness.  Nature did not want evil, only man did.  Yet Nature can use evil for good.  It gives the course of History the impulse that obliges it to return to equilibrium.

    Thus we can admit that History progresses, yet without for this sake removing responsibility from man: the course of History does not strip man of his freedom.  If there is providence in Nature it is not imposed but present as wisdom.  It is not the cruel compulsion of Reason that demands sacrifices, nor the compulsion of some class struggle rooted in economic causes.  The progress it shapes is indefinite: it is the emergence in the human race of a more enlightened consciousness.  In Kantian terms the philosophy of History is a matter of practical reason and not of theoretical reason.  We are not supposed to pronounce oracles about history but contribute as best we can to its progress.

2.       We cannot measure progress in History simply by measuring technical progress, nor scientific advancements.  Nothing says that a barbaric nation cannot be technically highly advanced.  Unless economic progress comes with moral progress, with cultural progress, then this is just a caricature of progress.  This ultimately implies that the true progress in History is one of consciousness.  A true spiritual evolution could well extend the biological evolution which is taking place on Earth.  This is the thesis developed by Aurobindo in The Human Cycle.  If evolution has made man’s vital nature come to maturity, then it can also accomplish “the transition that will take us from a mental and vital level to a spiritual level.” The life force that has guided evolution has taken it, via an increasing complexity, to a stage of self-awareness.  Therefore we are allowed to think that the next step in evolution, following that of mental development, will be one of spiritual development.




    If humanity is capable of blowing up the planet twenty five times over any time then one has the right to wonder if the idea of a goal of History is not just something inside our heads hand bend towards pessimism.  Where is the goal of History if humanity will have destroyed itself tomorrow?  What meaning should one give to an adventure that may end in total destruction or in the return of the most ignoble barbarity?  

   Nevertheless it is not enough to look at facts.  This does not eliminate the necessity to work towards the progress of History.  History can have a meaning, even if we put aside our most impatient aspirations.  The future is unknown, but it is elaborated within the present and the present is the only element on which we can act.  If we wish tomorrow to be better than today then we must mind the grain we sow today.  The world we leave to future generations must be better than our own. 




[1] Action Directe: terrorist group active in Germany and France in the eighties, which sought to “overthrow capitalism” through terrorist deeds such as the assassination of Georges Besse, the managing director of Renault.



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