Please help improve it by rewriting it in an encyclopedic style. He was trained in phenomenology under Heidegger, and they developed a close friendship. But because of the alliance between the Third Reich and Japan he had to leave Japan in and went to the United States. In he returned to Germany to teach as Professor of Philosophy at Heidelberg , where he died. He is known for his two books From Hegel to Nietzsche , which describes the decline of German classical philosophy, and Meaning in History , which challenges the modern, secular progressive narrative of history, which seeks to ground the meaning of history in itself. Hence its vision is necessarily dim in comparison with either Greek or biblical thinking.

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With the gradual dissolution of the eighteenth-century belief in reason and progress, philosophy of history became more or less homeless. The term is still used, even more widely than before, but its content has been so diluted that any thought on history may call itself a philosophy. The label "philosophy," as it is nowadays so cheaply used "philosophy" of life, of business, and even of camping , does not indicate a specific philosophy but merely public and private opinions.

In the following discussion the term "philosophy of history" is used to mean a systematic interpretation of universal history in accordance with a principle by which hiStorical events and successions are unified and directed toward an ultimate meaning. Taken in this sense, philosophy of history is, however, entirely dependent on theology of history, in particular on the theological concept of history as a history of fulfilment and salvation.

But then philosophy of history cannot be a "science"; for how could one verify the belief in salvation on scientific grounds? The absence of such a scientific basis and, at the same time, the quest for it caused modern philosophers and even theologians like Troeltsch to reject the prescientific treatment of history altogether, while accepting, in principle, the empirical method of Voltaire.

Arguing that the philosophy of history from Augustine to Bossuet does not present a theory of "real" history in its finitude, wealth, and mobility but only a doctrine of history on the basis of revelation and faith, they drew the conclusion that the theological interpretation of history-or fourteen hundred years of Western thought-is a negligible affair.

Hence the inverted sequence of our historical presentation. This somewhat unusual way of developing the historical succession of the interpretations of history regressively, starting from modern times and going back toward their beginning, may be justified on three grounds: didactic, methodical, and substantial.

Hence the didactic expediency of starting with what is familiar to the modern mind before approaching the unfamiliar thought of former generations. It is easier to understand the former belief in providence through a critical analysis of the theological implications of the still existing belief in secular progress than it would be to understand belief in progress through an analysis of providence. An adequate approach to history and its interpretations is necessarily regressive for the very reason that history is moving forward, leaving behind the historical foundations of the morc recent and contemporary elaborations.

The historical consciousness cannot but start with itself, though its aim is to know the thought of other times and of other men, different from our times and ourselves. History has time and again to be recovered and rediscovered by the living generations. We understand-and misunderstand-ancient authors, but always in the light of contemporary thought, reading the book of history backward from the last to the first page.

The methodical regress from the modern secular interpretations of history to their ancient religious pattern is, last but not least, substantially justified by the realization that we find ourselves more or less at the end of the modern rope. It has worn too thin to give hopeful support. We have learned to wait without hope, "for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. To do this is possible not by an imaginary jump, either into early Christianity Kierkegaard or into classical paganism Nietzsche , but only by the analytical reduction of the modern compound into its original elements.

The interpretation of history is, in the last analysis, an attempt to understand the meaning of history as the meaning of suffering by historical action.

In the Western world the problem of suffering has been faced in two different ways: by the myth of Prometheus and by the faith in Christ-the one a rebel, the other a servant. Neither antiquity nor Christianity indulged in the modern illusion that history can be conceived as a progressive evolution which solves the problem of evil by way of elimination.

It is the privilege of theology and philosophy, as contrasted with the sciences, to ask questions that cannot be answered on the basis of empirical knowledge. All the ultimate questions concerning first and last things are of this character; they remain significant because no answer can silence them.

It is the very absence of meaning in the events themselves that motivates the quest. Conversely, it is only within a pre-established horizon of ultimate meaning, however hidden it may be, that actual history seems to be meaningless. This horizon has been established by history, for it is Hebrew and Christian thinking that brought this colossal question into existence. The ancients were more moderate in their speculations.

They did not presume to make sense of the world or to discover its ultimate meaning. They were impressed by the visible order and beauty of the cosmos, and the cosmic law of growth and decay was also the pattern for their understanding of history.

According to the Greek view of life and the world, everything moves in recurrences, like the eternal recurrence of sunrise and sunset, of summer and winter, of generation and corruption.

This view was satisfactory to them because it is a rational and natural understanding of the universe, combining a recognition of temporal changes with periodic regularity, constancy, and immutability. The immutable, as visible in the fixed order of the heavenly bodies, had a higher interest and value to them than any progressive and radical change. In this intellectual climate, dominated by the rationality of the natural cosmos, there was nQ room for the universal significance of a unique, incomparable historic event.

As for the destiny of man in history, the Greeks believed that man has resourcefulness to meet every situation with magnanimity-they did not go further than that. They were primarily concerned with the logos of the cosmos, not with the Lord and the meaning of history.

Even the tutor of Alexander the Great depreciated history over against poetry, and Plato might have said that the sphere of change and contingency is the province of historiography but not of philosophy. To the Greek thinkers a philosophy of history would have been a contradiction in terms. To the Jews and Christians, however, history was primarily a history of salvation and, as such, the proper concern of prophets, preachers, and teachers. The very existence of a philosophy of history and its quest for a meaning is due to the history of salvation; it emerged from the faith in an ultimate purpose.

In the Christian era political history, too, was under the influence and in the predicament of this theological background. In some way the destinies of nations became related to a divine or pseudodivine vocation.

The meaning of all things that are what they are, not by nature, but because they have been created either by God or by man, depends on purpose. A chair has its meaning of being a "chair," in the fact that it indicates something beyond its material nature: the purpose of being used as a seat. This purpose, however, exists only for us who manufacture and use such things.

And since a chair or a house or a town or a B is a means to the end or purpose of man; the purpose is not inherent in, but transcends, the thing.

If we abstract from a chair its transcendent purpose, it becomes a meaningless combination of pieces of wood. The same is true in regard to the formal structure of the meaning of history. History, too, is meaningful only by indicating some transcendent purpose beyond the actual facts. But, since history is a movement in time, the purpose is a goal. Single events as such are not meaningful, nor is a mere succession of events.

To venture a statement about the meaning of historical events is possible only when their teloJ becomes apparent. When a historical movement has unfolded its consequences, we reflect on its first appearance, in order to determine the meaning of the whole, though particular, event-"whole" by a definite point of departure and a final point of arrival.

If we reflect on the whole course of history, imagining its beginning and anticipating its end, we think of its meaning in terms of an ultimate purpose. This identification of meaning and purpose does not exclude the possibility of other systems of meaning.

To the Greeks, for example, historical events and destinies were certainly not simply meaningless-they were full of import and sense, but they were not meaningful in the sense of being directed toward an ultimate end in a transcendent purpose that comprehends the whole course of events. The temporal horizon for a final goal is, however, an eschatological future, and the future exists for us only by expectation and hope. Such an expectation was most intensely alive among the Hebrew prophets; it did not exist among the Greek philosophers.

When we remember that II Isaiah and Herodotus were almost contemporaries, we realize the unbridgeable gulf that separates Greek wisdom from Jewish faith. The Christian and post-Christian outlook on history is futuristic, perverting the classical meaning of historein, which is related to present and past events. In the Greek and Roman mythologies and genealogies the past is re-presented as an everlasting foundation. In the Hebrew and Christian view of history the past is a promise to the future; consequently, the interpretation of the past becomes a prophecy in reverse, demonstrating the past as a meaningful "preparation" for the future.

Greek philosophers and historians were convinced that whatever is to happen will be of the same pattern and character as past and present events; they never indulged in the prospective possibilities of the future. This general thesis can be substantiated by reference to Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius.

What they mean is simply what they point out by having a point. And when at certain moments the actual human deeds and events coincide with superhuman intimations, then a circle of meaning is completed, wherein the beginning and the end of a story illuminate each other.

In the view of Herodotus, history shows a repetitive pattern, regulated by a cosmic law of compensation mainly through nemesis, which time and again restores the equilibrium of the historiconatural forces.

History was to him a history of political struggles based on the nature of man. And, since human nature does not change, events that happened in the past "will happen again in the same or in a similar way. There is not the least tendency in Thucydides to judge the course of historical events from the viewpoint of a future which is distinct from the past by having an open horizon and an ultimate goal.

Only Polybius seems to approach our concept of history, by representing all events as leading up to a definite end: the world domination of Rome. But even Polybius had no primary interest in the future as such. To him, history revolves in a cycle of political revolutions, wherein constitutions change, disappear, and return in a course appointed by nature.

As a result of this natural fatality, the historian can predict the future of a given state. He may be wrong in his estimate of the time that the process will take; but, if his judgment is not tainted emotionally, he will very seldom be mistaken regarding the stage of growth or decline 7 IN HISTORY which the state has reached and the form into which it will change.

Moreover, the general law of fortune is mutability-the sudden turn from one extreme to the opposite. Having witnessed the perishing of the Macedonian monarchy, Polybius thought it therefore befitting to recall the prophetic words of Demetrius, who, in his treatise on Fortune, had predicted what war. I ask you, do you think that fifty years ago either the Persians and the Persian king or the Macedonians and the king of Macedon, if some god had foretold the future to them, would ever have believed that at the time when we live, the very name of the Persians would have perished utterly-the Persians who were masters of almost the whole world-and that the Macedonians, whose name was formerly almost unknown, would now be the lords of it all?

But nevertheless this Fortune, who never compacts with life, who always defeats our reckoning by some novel stroke; she who ever demonstrates her power by foiling our expectations, now also, as it seems to me, makes it clear to all men, by endowing the Macedonians with the whole wealth of Persia, that she has but lent them these blessings until she decides to deal differently with them [Polybius Histories xxix.

This mutability of fortune did not merely cause sadness to ancient man but was accepted with virile assent. Reflecting upon the fate of all things human, Polybius realized that all nations, cities, and authorities must, like men, meet their end. Polybius and his friend Scipio, however, only restate the classical mood as expressed by Homer Iliad vi. Hence he wished to instruct his reader how to learn from the study of history what is "best at every time and in every circumstance," viz.

The fact that Polybius felt no difficulty in prognosticating future developments indicates the fundamental difference between the classic and the Christian outlook and attitude in regard to the future. To Polybius, it was "an easy matter" to foretell the future "by inference from the past. Hence the fulfilment of prophecies as understood by the Old and New Testament writers is entirely different from the verification of prognostications concerning historiconatural events.

Though the future may be predetermined by the will of God, it is determined by a personal will and not by natural fatality, and man can never foretell it unless God reveals it to him. We do not think it even desirable. For desire and endeavour can only unfold freely when they live and act blindly, i.

After all, the future is shaped only when that happens, and if it did not happen, the future life and end of that man or that people would be different. A future known in advance is an absurdity. Foreknowledge of the future, however, is not only undesirable, it is for us also unlikely.

Antiquity, like most pagan cultures, believed that future events can be unveiled by special devices of divination. It can be foreknown because it is preordained. With the exception of some philosophers, nobody in antiquity questioned the truth of oracles, ominous dreams, and portents foreshadowing future events. Since the ancients generally believed in a predestined fate, future events and destinies were only slightly hidden from them under a veil which an inspired mind could penetrate.

It was therefore a common feature of Greek and Roman life to make decisions dependent on an inquiry into fate. This ancient trust in divination had never lost its reputation until the church uprooted it.


Karl Löwith

The Gateway to the Pacific Meredith Oda. For centuries, the history of the Western world has been viewed from the Christian or classical standpoint—from a deep faith in the Kingdom of God or a belief in recurrent and eternal life-cycles. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He went to Italy and in he went to Japan where he lectured at Tohoku University [2].


Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History



Meaning In History


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