Thursday, July 07, 2022

Schlegel on the Philosophy of History

 In The Philosophy of History (volume I, volume II), Friedrich Schlegel distinguishes two approaches to universal history, which in turn is necessary for assessing progress in human civilization. The first approach he calls liberalism, and it is characterized fundamentally by the principle of perfectibility. On what Schlegel calls the liberal approach, which Schlegel especially associates with Condorcet, "man is merely an animal, ennobled and gradually disciplined into reason, and finally exalted into genius; and therefore the history of human civilization is but the history of a gradual, progressive, and endless improvement" (volume I, p. 246). Schlegel criticizes this view on several points. It has no definite beginning, because while it might seem like it assigns the beginning of human history in an animal capable of infinite improvement, this is not in fact a definite idea at all; and likewise, it has no end, since it just specifies human progress in terms of indefinite improvement. Having neither definite beginning nor definite end, it has no clear standard of progress except, perhaps, local standards of progress; but it is very easy to see that by local historical standards of progress, regression is quite common. The natural march of the progress of humanity is very often in circles; deviation from straight lines is normal. Trying to fit human history into this abstract scheme requires a great deal of stretching, and often leads to judgments about historical significance that seem ill-founded.

The contrast to this, Schlegel calls legitimism, and it is based fundamentally on the idea that the nature and destiny of the human person consists in a likeness to God in need of restoration. (Thus the label, which is borrowed from politics; a legitimist is someone who is working toward the restoration of a royal dynasty.) This restoration is not an inevitable process; it is in some sense natural -- what is being restored is what is in some sense an unfolding of what is implicit -- but it requires a large amount of work (as well as providential aid). In short, what we have is less an inevitable progress than an  unavoidable project, in which we have to rebuild with tradition, animal capability, and reason what has been disrupted. Schlegel argues that one difference between the legitimist and the liberal views is that the legitimist view is less judgmental. On the liberal view, prior stages are easily seen as contemptibly defective, or at least something about which one can be dismissive; regressions are seen as unforgivable and willful betrayals of the natural course of progress; everything eventually has to be outgrown and everyone overcome because the good is something that is always tomorrow. On the legitimist view, however, there is in every stage of human history the expression of elements of the divine imprint, which need to be respected; regressions are often accidental misfortunes; what is good in each age needs to be carried forward as much as possible, although sometimes in new forms; progress is a deeper expression of something we in fact share with all our predecessors and successors, with whom we are engaged in a cooperative restoration of our place as creatures stamped in the image of God.

Up to his own day, Schlegel identifies three stages in this expression, which he calls Word, Power, and Light. The first is the age of primitive revelation, and the expression of the divine image in us is governed largely by fragmentary traditions and their mutations; in the second we have the rise of societies with a tendency to the universal, whether in empire or in Christian revelation, and the expression of the divine image is heavily influenced by the endless questions that arise in assessment of such powers and how they relate to each other. The third age is that of European ascendancy, and the expression is heavily affected by the questions that arise from both the confluence of illuminations that Europe had as a matter of historical contingency received and the European claim to enlighten the world. Schlegel would still count us as being in this period, I think, and likely to be in it for some time; everything is still either an extension of it, or a mutation of it, or a reaction against it. When we assess progress, we have to allow for the fact that each stage, while it can benefit from the prior stages and thus be a progress beyond them, can not only fail in this project of benefiting from what prior ages have learned, but can regress through ignorance, stupidity, or sin, and the severity of errors in each successive age can sometimes be far more serious and less excusable than the errors of prior ages.