AU rights reserved. HUS the world is like an oilpress: under pressure. If you are the dregs of the oil you are carried away through the sewer; if you are genuine oil you will remain in the vessel. But to be under pressure is inevitable. Observe the dregs, observe the oil. Pressure takes place ever in the world, as for instance, through famine, war, want, inflation, indigence, mortality, rape, avarice; such are the pressures on the poor and the worries of the states: we have evidence of them

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AU rights reserved. HUS the world is like an oilpress: under pressure. If you are the dregs of the oil you are carried away through the sewer; if you are genuine oil you will remain in the vessel. But to be under pressure is inevitable.

Observe the dregs, observe the oil. Pressure takes place ever in the world, as for instance, through famine, war, want, inflation, indigence, mortality, rape, avarice; such are the pressures on the poor and the worries of the states: we have evidence of them We have found men who grumble under these pressures and who say: "how bad are these Christian times!

Thus speak the dregs of the oil which run away through the sewer; their color is black because they blaspheme: they lack splendour. The oil has splendour. For here another sort of man is under the same pressure and friction which polishes him, for is it not the very friction which refines him? This apparent lack is, however, a real gain if it is true that truth is more desirable than illusion.

Assuming that a single grain of truth is preferable to a vast construct of illusions, I have tried to be honest with myself and, consequently, also with my reader about the possibility, or rather the impossibility, of imposing on history a reasoned order or of drawing out the working of God. History as a partial record of human experience is too deep and, at the same time, too shallow to put into relief the humble greatness of a human soul which can give meaning, if anything can give it, to what otherwise would be a burden for man.

Of course, individuals as well as whole nations can be hypnotized into the belief that God or some world-process intends them to achieve this or that and to survive while others are going under, but there is always something pathetic, if not ludicrous, in beliefs of this kind. Nietzsche was right when he said3 that to look upon nature as if it were a proof of the goodness and care of God and to interpret history as a constant testimony to a moral order and purposethat all this is now past because it has conscience against it.

But he was wrong in assuming that the pseudo-religious makeup of nature and history is of any real consequence to a genuine Christian faith in God, as revealed in Christ and hidden in nature and history. More intelligent than the superior vision of philosophers and. Neither pretends to discern on the canvas of human history the purpose of God or of the historical process itself.

They rather seek to set men free from the world's oppressive history by suggesting an attitude, either of skepticism or of faith, which is rooted in an experience certainly nurtured by history but detached from and surpassing it, and thus enabling man to endure it with mature resignation or with faithful expectation.

Religious faith is so little at variance with skepticism that both are rather united by their common opposition to the presumptions of a settled knowledge.

One can, indeed, as Hume suggested," erect "religious faith on philosophical skepticism"; but the history of religious and irreligious skepticism has not yet been written. A man who lives by thought must have his skepticism-literally, a passion for search-which may end in upholding the question as question or in answering it by transcending his doubt through faith.

The skeptic and the believer have a common cause against the easy reading of history and its meaning. Their wisdom, like all wisdom, consists not the least in disillusion and resignation, in freedom from illusions and presumptions.

That man has to make here and now decisions which run ahead of his potential wisdom and therefore fall short of it goes without saying; but his planning and guessing, his designs and decisions, far-reaching as they may be, have only a partial function in the wasteful economy of history which engulfs them, tosses them, and swallows them.

They know and do not know, that acting is suffering And suffering is action. Neither does the actor suffer Nor the patient act. But both are fixed In an eternal action, an eternal patience To which all must consent that it may be willed, And which all must suffer that they may will it, That the pattern may subsist.. HE term "philosophy of history" was invented by Voltaire, who used it for the first time in its modern sense, as distinct from the theological interpretation of history.

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. While the abstention from any theological or metaphysical frame of reference, as advocated by Burckhardt, is in itself persuasive to the modern reader, the theological understanding of earlier ages is, at first, foreign to a generation which is just awakening from the secular dream of progress which replaced the faith in providence but which has not yet reached Burckhardt's resolute renunciation.

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.

This inversion of the customary way of historical presentation is actually practiced even by those who. 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 outstanding element, however, out of which an interpretation of history could arise at all, is the basic experience of evil and suffering, and of man's quest for happiness.

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. The Christian meaning of history, in particular, consists in the most paradoxical fact that the cross, this' sign of deepest ignominy, could conquer the world of the conquerors by opposing it. 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.

They signify a fund a-. 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.

To ask earnestly the question of the ultimate meaning of history takes one's breath away; it transports us into a vacuum which only hope and faith can fill. 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 them history was.

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. The claim that history has an ultimate meaning implies a final purpose or goal transcending the actual events. 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.


Meaning in History by Karl Löwith

A student of Husserl and Heidegger , he was one of the most prolific German philosophers of the twentieth century. 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. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was trained in phenomenology under Heidegger, and they developed a close friendship. He was an important witness in to Heidegger's continuing allegiance to Nazism.


Karl Löwith

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


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