Philosophy of History, Millenarianism and Revolution

Once certain structures of reality become differentiated and are raised to articulate consciousness, they develop a life of their own in history. One of the important insights gained by philosophers, as well as by the prophets of Israel and by the early Christians, is the movement in reality toward a state beyond its present structure. So far as the individual human being is concerned, this movement obviously can be consummated only through his personal death. The great discovery of the Classic philosophers was that man is not a “mortal,” but a being engaged in a movement toward immortality. The athanatizein—the activity of immortalizing—as the substance of the philosopher’s existence is a central experience in both Plato and Aristotle. In the same manner, the great experience and insight of Paul was the movement of reality beyond its present structure of death into the imperishable state that will succeed it through the grace of God—i.e., into the state of aphtharsia or imperishing. This movement toward a state of being beyond the present structure injects a further tension into existential order inasmuch as life has to be conducted in such a manner that it will lead toward the state of imperishability. Not everybody, however, is willing to attune his life to this movement. Quite a few dream of a shortcut to perfection right in this life. The dream of reality transfigured into imperishable perfection in this world, therefore, becomes a constant in history as soon as the problem has been differentiated. Already the Jewish apocalyptic thinkers expected the misery of the successive empires of which they were the victims soon to be superseded by a divine intervention that would produce the state of glory and the end of empire. Even Paul expects a Second Coming in the time of the living and revises the dream only under the impact of the experience of believers in Christ dying before the Second Coming.

Metastatic expectation of a new world succeeding the old one in the time of the presently living has become a permanent factor of disturbance in social and political reality. The movement had been suppressed by the main church with more or less success; at least the apocalyptic expectations were pushed into sectarian fringe movements. But beginning with the Reformation these fringe movements moved more and more into the center of the stage; and the replacement of Christian by secularist expectations has not changed the structure of the problem.

In the modern period, an important new factor entered the situation when the expectation of divine intervention was replaced by the demand for direct human action that will produce the new world. Marx, for instance, expected the transformation of man into superman from the blood intoxication of a violent revolution. (…) The eschatological state of perfection will be reached through direct violence. The experience of a movement in reality beyond its structure has been transformed into the magic vulgarity of aggressive destruction of social order.

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflexions.

Philosophy of History and the Axial/Ecumenic Age

Philosophy of history as a topic does not go further back than the eighteenth century. From its beginning in the eighteenth century, it became associated with the constructions of an imaginary history made for the purpose of interpreting the constructor and his personal state of alienation as the climax of all preceding history. Until quite recently, philosophy of history has been definitely associated with the misconstruction of history from a position of alienation, whether it be in the case of Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, or Marx. This rigid construction of history as a huge falsification of reality from the position of an alienated existence is dissolving in the twentieth century. Once the deformation of existence, which leads to the construction of ideological systems, is recognized as such, the categories of undeformed human existence become the criteria by which deformed existence and systems must be judged. Hence, the ideological systems themselves become historical phenomena in a process that reflects, among other things, the human tension between order and disorder of existence. There are periods of order, followed by periods of disintegration, followed by the misconstruction of reality by disoriented human beings. Against such disintegration, disorientation, and misconception there arise the countermovements in which the fullness of reality is restored to consciousness.

(…) If the concepts of order and disorder of existence are applied to the ever-increasing amount of historical materials, certain structural lines of meaning begin to emerge—always with the reservation, of course, that they may have to be revised in the light of advancing historical knowledge. One of the important results that will be incorporated in the forthcoming volume 4 of Order and History is the description of the Ecumenic Age. By Ecumenic Age is meant a period in the history of mankind extending roughly from the time of Zoroaster and the beginnings of the Achemenide conquest to the end of the Roman empire. This is the period in which the cosmological understanding of reality was definitely replaced by a new understanding of reality, centered in the differentiation of the truth of existence through Hellenic philosophy and the Christian revelatory experiences. Geographically, the Ecumenic Age extends from the Persian, and in its wake the Greek and Roman, developments in the West to the parallel development of ecumenic consciousness in the Far Eastern civilizations, especially in China. One of the aspects of this age has been caught in the concept of the Axis-time, the period in which, around 500 B.C., Heraclitus, the Buddha, and Confucius were contemporaries. Another aspect of this Ecumenic Age is the phenomenon which has given it its name—i.e., the imperial expansions through the Persians, Alexander, the Romans, the Maurya dynasty in India, and the Ch’in and Han dynasties in China. By about 200 B.C. we are no longer in a world of tribal societies or of small city states, but in the world of the ecumenic empires extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I have spoken of an ecumenic consciousness, meaning thereby that the actors and contemporaries of the imperial events interpreted them as a discovery and conquest of what they called the ecumene, as did Herodotus, or Polybius, or in China the first historians Ssu-ma T’an and Ssu-ma Ch’ien. The symbol ecumene becomes the idée-force of this period; and ecumenic conquest in the sense of domination over contemporarily living mankind has remained a fundamental force of history ever since, even if in practice the realization of such ecumenic—which now would have to become global domination—has never been achieved. The Ecumenic Age, therefore, has to be characterized by three of its more spectacular phenomena: (1) the spiritual outbursts on which Karl Jaspers concentrated; (2) the imperial concupiscential outbursts that have always attracted the attention of historians; and (3) the beginnings of historiography, in which the disorder created by the destructive expansion of empire is weighed against the order established, and the order established is measured by the newly differentiated understanding of existential order.

This triadic structure of spiritual outburst, empire, and historiography characterizes a period in the history of mankind. In my opinion it has to supersede other constructions of history, even non-ideological constructions, such as for instance Toynbee’s earlier assumption of civilizations as the ultimate units of historical study.

(…) None of these observations on discernible structures in the history of mankind, however, must now be converted in their turn into a doctrine. (…) The end of things, thus, has not come, and what a philosopher can contribute today to the understanding of an ongoing process is the understanding of the factors that make for integration and disintegration of the type just indicated.

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflexions.


Hegel’s dogmatic philosophy of History

The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. (…) The inquiry into the essential destiny of Reason — as far as it is considered in reference to the World — is identical with the question, what is the ultimate design of the World? (…)

All will readily assent to the doctrine that Spirit, among other properties, is also endowed with Freedom; but philosophy teaches that all the qualities of Spirit exist only through Freedom; that all are but means for attaining Freedom; that all seek and produce this and this alone. (…) [Therefore] it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History. The Orientals have not attained the knowledge that Spirit — Man as such — is free; and because they do not know this, they are not free. They only know that one is free. But on this very account, the freedom of that one is only caprice; ferocity — brutal recklessness of passion, or a mildness and tameness of the desires, which is itself only an accident of Nature — mere caprice like the former. — That one is therefore only a Despot; not a free man. The consciousness of Freedom first arose among the Greeks, and therefore they were free; but they, and the Romans likewise, knew only that some are free — not man as such. Even Plato and Aristotle did not know this. The Greeks, therefore, had slaves; and their whole life and the maintenance of their splendid liberty, was implicated with the institution of slavery: a fact moreover, which made that liberty on the one hand only an accidental, transient and limited growth; on the other hand, constituted it a rigorous thralldom of our common nature — of the Human. The German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to attain the consciousness that man, as man, is free: that it is the freedom of Spirit which constitutes its essence. This consciousness arose first in religion, the inmost region of Spirit; but to introduce the principle into the various relations of the actual world involves a more extensive problem than its simple implantation; a problem whose solution and application require a severe and lengthened process of culture. In proof of this, we may note that slavery did not cease immediately on the reception of Christianity. Still less did liberty predominate in States; or Governments and Constitutions adopt a rational organization, or recognize freedom as their basis. That application of the principle to political relations; the thorough moulding and interpenetration of the constitution of society by it, is a process identical with history itself. I have already directed attention to the distinction here involved, between a principle as such, and its application; i.e., its introduction and carrying out in the actual phenomena of Spirit and Life. This is a point of fundamental importance in our science, and one which must be constantly respected as essential. And in the same way as this distinction has attracted attention in view of the Christian principle of self-consciousness— Freedom; it also shows itself as an essential one, in view of the principle of Freedom generally.

The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate.

G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (published posthumously in 1837).

Kant’s hypothetical philosophy of history

All natural capacities of a creature are destined to evolve completely to their natural end. In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural capacities which are directed to the use of his reason are to be fully developed only in the race, not in the individual.

It remains strange that the earlier generations appear to carry through their toilsome labor only for the sake of the later, to prepare for them a foundation on which the later generations could erect the higher edifice which was Nature’s goal, and yet that only the latest of the generations should have the good fortune to inhabit the building on which a long line of their ancestors had (unintentionally) labored without being permitted to partake of the fortune they had prepared. However puzzling this may be, it is necessary if one assumes that a species of animals should have reason, and, as a class of rational beings each of whom dies while the species is immortal, should develop their capacities to perfection.

The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men. By “antagonism” I mean the unsocial sociability of men, i.e., their propensity to enter into society, bound together with a mutual opposition which constantly threatens to break up the society. Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., as more than the developed form of his natural capacities.

The greatest problem for the human race, to the solution of which Nature drives man, is the achievement of a universal civic society which administers law among men. The highest purpose of Nature, which is the development of all the capacities which can be achieved by mankind, is attainable only in society, and more specifically in the society with the greatest freedom. Such a society is one in which there is mutual opposition among the members, together with the most exact definition of freedom and fixing of its limits so that it may be consistent with the freedom of others. (…) The same unsociability which drives man to this causes any single commonwealth to stand in unrestricted freedom in relation to others; consequently, each of them must expect from another precisely the evil which oppressed the individuals and forced them to enter into a lawful civic state. The friction among men, the inevitable antagonism, which is a mark of even the largest societies and political bodies, is used by Nature as a means to establish a condition of quiet and security. Through war, through the taxing and never-ending accumulation of armament, through the want which any state, even in peacetime, must suffer internally, Nature forces them to make at first inadequate and tentative attempts; finally, after devastations, revolutions, and even complete exhaustion, she brings them to that which reason could have told them at the beginning and with far less sad experience, to wit, to step from the lawless condition of savages into a league of nations. In a league of nations, even the smallest state could expect security and justice, not from its own power and by its own decrees, but only from this great league of nations (Foedus Amphictyonum), from a united power acting according to decisions reached under the laws of their united will.

The history of mankind can be seen, in the large, as the realization of Nature’s secret plan to bring forth a perfectly constituted state as the only condition in which the capacities of mankind can be fully developed, and also bring forth that external relation among states which is perfectly adequate to this end. This is a corollary to the preceding. Everyone can see that philosophy can have her belief in a millennium, but her millennarianism is not Utopian, since the Idea can help, though only from afar, to bring the millennium to pass. The only question is: Does Nature reveal anything of a path to this end? And I say: She reveals something, but very little. This great revolution seems to require so long for its completion that the short period during which humanity has been following this course permits us to determine its path and the relation of the parts to the whole with as little certainty as we can determine, from all previous astronomical observation, the path of the sun and his host of satellites among the fixed stars. Yet, on the fundamental premise of the systematic structure of the cosmos and from the little that has been observed, we can confidently infer the reality of such a revolution.

A philosophical attempt to work out a universal history according to a natural plan directed to achieving the civic union of the human race must be regarded as possible and, indeed, as contributing to this end of Nature. It is strange and apparently silly to wish to write a history in accordance with an Idea of how the course of the world must be if it is to lead to certain rational ends. It seems that with such an Idea only a romance could be written. Nevertheless, if one may assume that Nature, even in the play of human freedom, works not without plan or purpose, this Idea could still be of use. Even if we are too blind to see the secret mechanism of its workings, this Idea may still serve as a guiding thread for presenting as a system, at least in broad outlines, what would otherwise be a planless conglomeration of human actions. (…) It can serve not only for clarifying the confused play of things human, and not only for the art of prophesying later political changes (a use which has already been made of history even when seen as the disconnected effect of lawless freedom), but for giving a consoling view of the future (which could not be reasonably hoped for without the presupposition of a natural plan) in which there will be exhibited in the distance how the human race finally achieves the condition in which all the seeds planted in it by Nature can fully develop and in which the destiny of the race can be fulfilled here on earth.

Such a justification of Nature – or, better, of Providence – is no unimportant reason for choosing a standpoint toward world history. For what is the good of esteeming the majesty and wisdom of Creation in the realm of brute nature and of recommending that we contemplate it, if that part of the great stage of supreme wisdom which contains the purpose of all the others – the history of mankind – must remain an unceasing reproach to it? If we are forced to turn our eyes from it in disgust, doubting that we can ever find a perfectly rational purpose in it and hoping for that only in another world?

Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784).

Is there a meaning to history? Augustine’s theological response

St. Augustine was the first Christian to offer a comprehensive Philosophy of History (…) One of his greatest accomplishments was the sanctification of Plato’s understanding of the two realms: the perfect Celestial Kingdom and the corrupt copy. (…) For Plato, the two realms never met, except on rare and mystical occasions. For St. Augustine … one also cannot readily separate the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, in any Manichean sense. While the two cities do not meet spiritually, they intermingle physically …. which is expressed in the teaching of the Gospel on the opposition of the World and the Kingdom of God and in St. Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities Babylon and Jerusalem whose conflict run through all history and gives it its ultimate significance.”

Christians live in the City of Man, St. Augustine argued, but sojourn as pilgrims in this world, as citizens of the City of God. (…) Love separates the two cities; that is, a proper understanding as well as a prideful, false understanding of the nature and significance of love divides this world from the next. “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the early city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self,” St. Augustine argued. “The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.”

This profound dualism—between the City of God and the City of Man—lasts as long as time itself lasts. Each new generation must consequently accept its place in history and fight the good fight, serving as a leaven in the City of Man, calling out the saints.

(…) [Christopher] Dawson, not surprisingly, credited St. Augustine as “the founder of the philosophy of history.” Unlike the Greeks, who held a more cosmological perspective on life, St. Augustine, following Virgil, St. John, and St. Paul, believed that history itself had a spiritual meaning. That God chose an obscure nomadic tribe to be his “Chosen Nation” proved his point, the great North African thought. The Christian recognizes that the Jews “had been made the vehicle of an absolute divine purpose, [and] was to him the very centre of his faith,” Dawson wrote. As opposed to the mythologies of the Greeks and the East, the Christian believes in the purpose to history. Indeed, Christ came not at any point, but in the “fullness of time,” when three distinct cultures intersected with one another, again proving that history was vital to God’s plan. Christ, coming in the “fullness of time,” was born into a Hellenistic Jewish culture, controlled militarily and politically by the Roman Empire, and divided, theologically, among several Jewish schools of thought. The Incarnation allows the Church, the representative of the City of God on earth, as Newman put it, “to gather His Saints.” Christian loyalty, then, can be to no nation, but to the Universal, Catholic Church.

This, of course, presents a great dilemma for any Christian. While we are already citizens of Heaven, we must live in the earthly City of Man. “The earthly city,” St. Augustine reminds us, “which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life.” Therefore, the City of Man moves in never-ending Polybian cycles of birth, middle age, and death. In the earthly city, “the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling.” Further, a Christian can never fully trust a government, which is, St. Augustine argued, nothing more than a gang of thieves and robbers that has bested all other gangs of thieves and robbers. When justice dissolves—and justice is a gift from God, not from the world—“what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed upon.” One sees this clearly in St. Augustine’s view of the Roman empire. “Rome is to him always, ‘the second Babylon,’” Dawson explained, “the supreme example of human pride and ambition, and he seems to take a bitter pleasure in recounting the crimes and misfortunes of her history.”

Bradley J. Birzer, “St. Augustine: Founding Philosopher of History.”

The Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Revolution

In the first place we must assume as our starting-point that in the many forms of government which have sprung up there has always been an acknowledgment of justice and proportionate equality, although mankind fail attaining them, as I have already explained. Democracy, for example, arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal. Oligarchy is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal; being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely. The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things; while the oligarchs, under the idea that they are unequal, claim too much, which is one form of inequality. All these forms of government have a kind of justice, but, tried by an absolute standard, they are faulty; and, therefore, both parties, whenever their share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution. Those who excel in virtue have the best right of all to rebel (for they alone can with reason be deemed absolutely unequal), but then they are of all men the least inclined to do so. There is also a superiority which is claimed by men of rank; for they are thought noble because they spring from wealthy and virtuous ancestors. Here then, so to speak, are opened the very springs and fountains of revolution; and hence arise two sorts of changes in governments; the one affecting the constitution, when men seek to change from an existing form into some other, for example, from democracy into oligarchy, and from oligarchy into democracy, or from either of them into constitutional government or aristocracy, and conversely; the other not affecting the constitution, when, without disturbing the form of government, whether oligarchy, or monarchy, or any other, they try to get the administration into their own hands. Further, there is a question of degree; an oligarchy, for example, may become more or less oligarchical, and a democracy more or less democratical; and in like manner the characteristics of the other forms of government may be more or less strictly maintained. Or the revolution may be directed against a portion of the constitution only, e.g., the establishment or overthrow of a particular office: as at Sparta it is said that Lysander attempted to overthrow the monarchy, and King Pausanias, the Ephoralty. At Epidamnus, too, the change was partial. For instead of phylarchs or heads of tribes, a council was appointed; but to this day the magistrates are the only members of the ruling class who are compelled to go to the Heliaea when an election takes place, and the office of the single archon was another oligarchical feature. Everywhere inequality is a cause of revolution, but an inequality in which there is no proportion- for instance, a perpetual monarchy among equals; and always it is the desire of equality which rises in rebellion.

Aristotle, Politics (Book V).

A great democratic revolution is taking place among us. Everyone sees it, but not everyone judges it in the same way. There are those who regard it as something new and, believing it to be an accident, still hope to arrest it, while others deem it irresistible because in their view it is the oldest, most continuous, most permanent fact known to history. (…)

If, starting in the eleventh century, we examine the state of French society at fifty-year intervals, we see a twofold revolution taking place. The noble has moved steadily down the social ladder, and the commoner has moved steadily up. One is descending, the other rising. Every fifty years they move closer together; soon they will touch.

None of these changes is peculiar to France. Wherever we look in the Christian world, we see the same ongoing revolution. Everywhere a diversity of historical incident has redounded to democracy’s benefit. Everyone played a part: those who strove to ensure democracy’s success as well as those who never dreamt of serving it; those who fought for it as well as those who declared themselves its enemies. Driven pell-mell down a single path, all worked toward a single goal, some in spite of themselves, others unwittingly—blind instruments in the hands of God.

The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact. It has the essential characteristics of one: it is universal, durable, and daily proves itself to be beyond the reach of man’s powers. Not a single event, not a single individual, fails to contribute to its development.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Book II).


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

Karl Marx, Theses On Feuerbach (1845).