History is not a seamless whole, extending from past to future; it is open to account only after, not before, it has happened.
The particular contribution to history that each moral actor makes - the unique role that he or she has to play and, above all, what will count as the "success" of the action at the end of the day - is, at the moment of decision and commitment, an object of hope, not open to historical verification before the event.
The actor cannot confront the future as though it were the past extended forward, like a historian with eyes in the back of his head. The only way to confront the future is in freedom, prepared to determine the indeterminate.
The deceits of history
One of the possible ways of sinning against the contingent nature of temporal experience is that form of anxiety which retreats from discerning God's call in the immediate horizon of the future-present, and turns instead to a reading of present experience which we hope may deliver the future up to clear and masterful anticipation. We look for "the way things are going" - the direction that can be read off the present.
Let us call this historicism, with a reasonable confidence that our use is close enough to the centre of gravity of a rather wide usage of that term.
Time, rather than essence, is taken to be the primary dimension of reality, the source of all meaning that there is, a meaning which can be displayed as "history." The orderliness of nature is taken to be rooted in history, which is narrated as a quasi-natural unfolding of events, whether a simple cause-effect sequence or a more complex organic development, that can be projected onto the inscrutability of future history, too.
An attraction of historicism is that it seems to offer the possibility of dispensing with moral concepts. All we seem to need for the direction of our action is that the next step will be known in the same way as the last step - namely, by narrating the story that led up to it. What we shall do will follow seamlessly from what we have been, and the need for a decision will be avoided.
What this leaves us with is action without a purpose, which is not an action at all. To purpose action, we must frame it in our minds, while it has no presence in the world, as a non-necessary event. We cannot purpose the whole of the future, to be sure, nor even much of it; a tiny fragment, comprising how we are to deploy our own freedom, is laid upon us as something we must take conscious responsibility for.
The attraction of historicism is that it offers the possibility of dispensing with moral concepts.
To frame it in our minds as a non-necessary event, we must conceive it as an act of a certain kind which can have, in a given context, a certain practical rationality - even if the kind the act belongs to is rare, the context exceptional, the rationality prophetic. We need to know "what we are doing." And for that we need moral concepts. The most that narrative logic could tell us is what we were experiencing. "We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves," as one of the great nineteenth-century novelists observed.
One form of historicism, which sprang from a Reformed cultural consciousness and came to be referred to by the imperishable Scottish term "whiggery," acquired a strong philosophical resonance in the nineteenth century. It was a teleological account of history, which read the past as a self-elaborating progressive narrative. The burden of making predictions which this narrative seemed to impose was evaded by Hegel's strategy of announcing the arrival of an "end" of history - a notion inseparable from the viewpoint of the "whig historian" (an English adaptation of the term), for whom the narrative of the past aims to display the compromises of the present as the best conceivable outcome.
Whig history was no mere cultural aberration; it belonged intrinsically to a culture for which all study, including study of the past, must be broadly useful. The most useful thing to be drawn from history was a positive approach to citizenship in the present, appreciating the upheavals that gave birth to the present age as a painful discipline that allowed the collective acquisition of wisdom, never to be gone back on.
The logic by which this optimistic civilisational historicism turned to nihilism at the end of the nineteenth century has been traced many times. And of nihilism we need only say that its re-assertion of freedom against nature could only recommend itself by floating on moral planks - such as "courage" and "honesty" - which strewed the waves after the vessel they had been part of had been sunk. To take nihilism strictly on its own terms is to agree that there is nothing to be said for it.
George Grant, an underrated figure in modernity-criticism whose work might have given guidance to advocates of later "green" concerns, had Nietzsche in his sights when he declared that "the conception of time as history is ... not a conception we are fitted for." "Time as history" Grant understood as "the mastery of human and non-human nature in experimental science and technique, the primacy of the will, man as the creator of his own values, the finality of becoming, the assertion that potentiality is higher than actuality, that motion is nobler than rest, that dynamism rather than peace is the height."
Grant's refusal of those programmatic themes left open the question whether he was right to accept the pretensions of nihilism to expound the concept of history more clearly than had been done before. Is history really a totalitarian concept, substituting for nature and de-naturing the world?
The idea of history turns on the reconciliation of good and time: the progress of time does not reduce the goods of nature to meaninglessness and vanity, but allows of a succession with its own meaning.
The Christian theologian is likely to have doubts about that, and to suggest, on the contrary, that historicism never, in any of its forms, succeeded in understanding history correctly. It could not take the tension between natural order and time with sufficient seriousness.
The idea of history turns on the reconciliation of good and time: the progress of time does not reduce the goods of nature to meaninglessness and vanity, but allows of a succession with its own meaning, congruent to nature but not identical with it. It is possible to underestimate the theoretical demands of such a reconciliation, which is what a variety of historicisms - spinning the logic of history out of nature or thrusting a logic of history over the top of nature - have done. Every such purely historical meaning turns out to be unmeaningful. It cannot yield the "love of one's own" to which Grant gave such great weight.
But if a reconciliation cannot be accomplished by immanent dialectic or nihilist decree, it may be disclosed to us by God, as promise. The difference between "my people" and "other people" depends on a special and particular gift, a narrative identity, and a narrative identity is a temporal meaning that is only to be received as a gift, not discovered as a truth of nature or imposed as a fiat of will.
The cover of the crowd
It is not historicism as a theory, but the habits of mind encouraged by theory, that demands our attention. The theory quite easily diverts our practical attention from what it should most attend to.
Announcing the transparent advent of the future, historicism actually shuts and bolts the door against the future as a horizon of action, by substituting a narratable present - that is, the past horizon of the present. The key to our conduct of ourselves is then what has (just) come to be - the "where we have got to" from which an illusory sense of direction can be projected into an imaginary "where things are going."
That is precisely why historicism cannot find a place for the deep past, either. The past is focussed on the immediate, the just-having-come-to-be of the present, and cannot look back to take in the full range of memory and record available to us, which might educate us about the intelligibility of events.
Historicism does not, in fact, value the science of history very highly. Since narrative, to serve the turn we have in mind for it, has to reach an end right here and now, it has to be very selective narration, screening out whatever might find no authentication in "where we have got to."
Historicist relativism is the form of gnostic knowingness most typical of our age, with its delusive sense of being cut off from all other ages and experiences of mankind.
The roots of this theoretical false step are clear from the way it reinforces a movement of regression, shrinking back from the danger of action in conformity to the patterns of behaviour that prevail around us. "Where things are going" becomes a way of representing what other people are doing, and invests with a spurious dignity a rush for cover in the crowd. We regress into the pre-reflective "We" of the collective moral subject, ensuring ourselves not only against the burden of taking thought and making decisions, but also against the risk of damaging conflict with the common opinions of our society.
Such historicist relativism is the form of gnostic knowingness - a claim to have insight into the hidden mysteries of what is going on, or "what the times require" - most typical of our age, with its delusive sense of being cut off from all other ages and experiences of mankind. Circumstances may require specific and novel forms of action of us, but circumstances can be interrogated, analysed, explained and reflected on.
"The times" do not require anything in particular; they are simply give to us to live in, to make something of eternal value out of. That is why present times are hard to read, and those who pretend to read them can always pose as magi. The character of the times is yet to be determined, and that will happen precisely as a result of decisions we have now to take. To rely on the times to guide the decisions, is to commit ourselves to a circle of self-justifying sophistry.
On media and mediation
We find a concrete illustration of this in the role of the modern news media - especially the "old media" of newspaper publishing and broadcasting. The new media of instant electronic communications have fascinated philosophers and interpreters far more than the old, but it is the old media that tell us about the civilisation we actually inhabit rather than that which may possibly succeed it.
Most political discussion focuses on the way journalists perform their role, it being assumed that the role is perfectly self-evident. What concerns me here is not so much what they do as what we expect them to do and why we expect it. There is some truth in the claim that it is we who make the media, not vice versa.
The very name "media" conceals, and not innocently, the distinctive feature of this mediation - as opposed to the multitude of reflective mediations of art, history, philosophy, poetry and so on - which is its special concern with the immediate. It is immediacy that they mediate to us, keeping us in touch with what is unfolding - with the "new," the just-having-come-to-be, the past horizon of the present, not the past in its narrative depth, as tradition.
What we expect of the media is to typify our reactions, to impose familiar appearances upon the unheard-of, to ensure a process of routinisation of news.
Why are our first impressions of events so important to us, though even the ancient Greeks knew that second thoughts are wiser? It is because we feel our identities to be at stake. History and tradition, from which we derive identity, have to be brought up to the moment, made continuous with the present.
Every culture concerns itself with news-bringing in one form or another; most other cultures have been more relaxed about it. Perhaps simply because we have the power to communicate news quickly and widely, we are on edge about it, afraid that the world will change behind our backs if we are not au fait with a thousand dissociated facts that do not concern us directly. It is a measure of our metaphysical insecurity, which is the constant driver in the modern urge for mastery.
The new has no predetermined logic, so that focussing attention on it requires conceptual pre-patterning to register and control surprise and to integrate it into a narrative sequence. The unheard-of must somehow be heard of. And this is where late-modern media have established their line of supply. Devoting their full attention to the breaking wave, they echo its roar to us; we call upon them to show us the world new every morning, as though there never was a yesterday.
A second feature of some importance is that they are mass media. They cater to a society "democratic" in its self-idealisation, conceiving that every member, not only a small minority appointed to the task, will share responsibility for what is done in the collective name, and therefore has a right to know. For this reason we expect the media not only to assure access to the new, but also to regulate it - by exercising judgment as to what is true and false, what is important and what is not.
There is good sense in this. If a critical mass of observers in a society will think and act solely on first impressions, those impressions must be filtered. Who, after all, would not rather be instructed by professional news-bulletins than by rumour? But the good sense is political, not pedagogical. It does not make us more judicious or reflective, but directs our reactions into predictable channels. What we expect of the media, then, is to typify our reactions, to impose familiar appearances upon the unheard-of, to ensure a process of routinisation of news.
This is why actual news coverage is so small a proportion of the media product. The blurring of the boundaries between news, entertainment and commercial promotions, theoretically distinct and supposedly insulated offerings, serves the function of the social embedding of news. The celebrity is the handhold, the advertisement the bridge that connects the world we are shown to our personal interests.
For filtering, categorising, bringing the unheard-of within the bounds of the heard-of, the cartoonist or the satirist who represents a dangerous tyrant as a stage-clown with his trousers around his ankles serves the purpose quite as well as a reporter in a war-zone. Frightening new horrors are written of in a consciously bland and traditional way full of mythic recognition-factors. Interpretative techniques call on a small range of typical phenomena. You and I, if we emerge for a brief moment from our customary obscurity into the public eye, will quickly be classified as devious politicians, predatory capitalists, irrelevant academics or cutting-edge boffins, heartbroken mums and so forth. The stereotype, the pre-determined classification, this is the technique that "digests" what is happening, and digests it "safely" - that is, without our having to question our view of the world.
The media exist to assuage the lurking fear that democracy is an unstable mix of iron and clay which may be brought down by a well-aimed stone.
The media, then, are a democratic institution. Their own account is that they protect democracy by securing a bulwark of free comment against the tyrannous pretensions of government and money. What we have most to fear, they warn us, is the erosion of their editorial freedoms - by "barons," government, big business or whatever - leaving the body politic prey to the machinations of the powerful.
It would be ungrateful to overlook the element of truth in this. The media have plucked a feather or two from the proud turkey-cocks. Yet the intense, and intensely trivial, news-and-entertainment saturation which forms 99% of the media's stock-in-trade, the vast swathes of newsprint and hours of broadcasting devoted to sport, horoscopes, emotional intrigues of actors and models and much else, has little to do with the logic of quis custodiet custodes?
Instead, it touches the deep politics of identity. This is what interprets us to ourselves, makes us feel at home with ourselves, represents the deeds and words we read as those of friends or enemies, moulds us into a common identity, teaches us to see ourselves as part of a shared struggle, all quite independently of what we are, what we do, what we suffer, who we share our lives with.
The constructed political identity competes not only with other reflective identities - such as that we may have as Christian believers - but with the immediate identity we derive from our social setting. This is democracy understood as popular government, not as republican government. The media shore up our faith in the stability and reliability of that essential element of democratic theory - the people, the "all-encompassing something that is nothing," as Kierkegaard described it, "the public." They exist to assuage the lurking fear that democracy is an unstable mix of iron and clay, and that the grandeur of the world to which our existence is entrusted may be brought down by a well-aimed stone (Daniel 2:42-45). Inevitably, then, they are parties in the struggle for popular power, soaking up whatever surplus of authority they can squeeze out of government, church and (in Britain) the monarchy by carefully directing suspicions in long-habituated directions.
The news media can themselves be embarrassed by too much news. This is reflected in the ambiguous position of their most interesting and admirable creation, the front-line reporter, that travelling adventurer who seeks out and describes things as they happen, and "gets the story right." Justly celebrated in legend and still, today, the one to whom we are likely to owe our gratitude for such moments of imaginative expansion as we may be given, or for new sympathetic insights into how others live their lives, the reporter has long been kept within strict limits, and was regarded in some quarters as a threatened species even before electronic communications began to take over.
What we look to the media for is the construction of the world of the moment, and reporting on realities may have only tangential relevance to that.
As far back as 1919, in philosophy's most generous tribute to the "responsibility" of journalism, Max Weber ignored the reporter's role entirely; for him it was the political journalist, the promoter of causes, who deserved our admiration and was so ungratefully rewarded. If getting the story right is the reporter's aim, the editorial staff have their own priorities; the "comment" column or staged interview is better suited to the purposes of routinising, while even the headlines, those sacred pillars of "shock," may be confected of press-officers' and PR hand-outs, plans, reports, draft speeches circulated in advance, notices of engagements, statistical projections, contested scientific claims, the insipid flavour of the whole drowned out with the pungent spices of speculation. What we look to the media for is the construction of the world of the moment, and reporting on realities may have only tangential relevance to that.
If "new every morning" is the tempo of divine grace and the tempo of our personal responsibilities, it is because the morning is a time when one can look back intelligently and look forward hopefully. It is the tempo of practical reason. The media's "new every morning" (quickly becoming "new every moment") is, one may dare to say, in flat contradiction to that daily offer of grace. It serves rather to fix our perception upon the momentary now, preventing retrospection, discouraging deliberation, holding us spellbound in a suppositious world of the present which, like hell itself, has lost its future and its past.
This article is extracted from Oliver O'Donovan's most recent book Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology, Volume 2 and originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics. We are grateful for permission to republish it here on Fulcrum.
Professor Oliver O’Donovan FBA is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Before moving to Edinburgh he was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford and a Canon of Christ Church.