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John Lukacs, Rekindling the Lamps of Civilization

JohnLukacs Eminent historian John Lukacs celebrates his 90th birthday on January 31. In a career spanning more than sixty-five years, John Lukacs has established himself as one of our most accomplished historians. He has written more than thirty books, including Five Days in London, The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, History and the Human Condition (ISI Books), and Historical Consciousness. For his original contributions to the study of history, Jacques Barzun called him “one of the outstanding historians of our time,” and Churchill biographer Geoffrey Best said “no other elder of our profession can handle such a variety of problems, persons, and episodes with a touch so personal and an intelligence so profound.” It is with great delight that the presents this tribute to John Lukacs, taken from the preface to Remembered Past, a collection of Lukacs’s greatest writings on history, historians, and historical knowledge from ISI Books. Happy Birthday, John Lukacs. —The Editors Born in Budapest in 1924, John Lukacs came to the United States in 1946 to escape the Communist takeover of his homeland. His life has spanned much of the history of the century about which he has so movingly written. As the author of The Duel and Five Days in London, May 1940, Lukacs is one of the most popular historians of World War II; as the author of Historical Consciousness, a study of the nature of historical thought, Lukacs remains almost unknown. Remembered Past seeks to call attention to this unjustly neglected aspect of Lukacs’s work. The diverse essays and reviews that compose this volume situate his corpus in the unfolding narrative of historical thinking. Human life is intensely, unalterably historical. “Man . . . has no nature,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. “[W]hat he has is . . .history. . . . Man . . . finds that he has no nature other than what he has himself done.” Even the body originates in the past, a unique variant of ancestral genetic components. So completely does the past infuse being that man has come to have “no proper place in what is new.” The restive discontent with custom and tradition and the impetuous embrace of novelty and fashion signal not progress but an illness that may yet prove fatal: the inability or unwillingness to accept human limits and to live within our means on our inheritance. “The error of the old doctrine of progress,” Ortega declared, “lay in affirming a priori that man progresses toward the better.” Time alone will tell. Without reconciling the ephemeral present with the enduring past, we will know neither peace nor rest. That much is certain. The accomplishments as well as the failures of history are ours to bear and to pass on. Civilization, and perhaps existence itself, depends on the effort to answer the unanswered questions of the past and to undertake anew the tasks that previous generations left incomplete. To forget the past is thus to invite moral catastrophe and spiritual ruin, for it means to lose contact with the self, with reality, and with all that is human. Of utmost importance, according to John Lukacs, is the continuing need to rethink the significance of the past itself, to expose the past to “multiple jeopardy.” Lukacs dismisses this persistent representation of history as science and social science, refusing, as he writes, to force “history into the Procrustean bed of the scientific method.” In this respect, Lukacs echoes the French social theorist Raymond Aron, who explained that “we speak of understanding when knowledge shows a meaning which, immanent to the reality, has been or could have been thought by those who lived and realized it.” Historians do not reconstruct, reproduce, or re-experience the complex reality of the past “as it actually happened,” summoning it again to life. Rather, they re-imagine its meaning and rethink its significance. The study of the past is an act of creative re-cognition in which historians contemplate the potential inherent in the actual and reexamine different and changing ways of feeling, perceiving, remembering, and thinking. About history there must forever be an element of contingency, indeterminacy, and doubt, since human communication even between contemporaries is always imperfect and since history is the continual reinterpretation of the past for the present. Unconventional though he may be, Lukacs is no cantankerous eccentric airing his private aversions. He is a historian, his standards and judgments about the present drawn from the potentially inexhaustible wisdom of the past. There is a depth and gravity to Lukacs’s finest writing that is rare in any time and nearly unmatched in ours. Humane and compassionate, evocative and profound, witty and sad, his meditations on history and human nature reflect the conditions of life and the fate of man during the short twentieth century and the long decline of the Modern Age. Toward the end of his elegiac A Thread of Years, Lukacs admits “it’s all over . . . for most of the world that I . . . cherish.” Even with “the sad decline of civilization,” however, “. . . a few remnant memories of beautiful things and of decency and goodness” survive. Life is still sweet and still worth living. Lukacs refuses to succumb to self-pity or despair, which on more than one occasion he has dismissed not only as sinful but also as useless. Lukacs does not merely lament the passing of a civilization but aims, if possible, to revitalize it or to find its equivalent, though he is far from sanguine about the prospects. His anxious expectations notwithstanding, Lukacs is no disciple of Oswald Spengler, no prophet of doom contemplating the inevitable “sinking” (Untergang) of the West. A vestige of civilization and its traditions may yet survive, Lukacs writes, “at least in some small part due to [Winston] Churchill in 1940. At worst, he helped to give us . . . fifty years. Fifty years before the rise of new kinds of barbarism . . . , before the clouds of a new Dark Age may darken the lives of our children and grandchildren.”  Lukacs has aligned himself with Churchill, the writer, the historian, and the man of letters, the conservative guardian of tradition, the reactionary agent of a civilization founded not on birth but on breeding. To live in an age of dissolution and crisis entails special responsibilities; chief among them may simply be the unwavering refusal to capitulate, the stubborn will to press on. With somber fortitude, Lukacs continues to remind us of a world, very different from our own, that rested on the cultivation of manners and morals, on a luxuriant interior life, on the ideal of the gentleman, and on a sense of place and permanence. By calling to mind that lost and discarded world, Lukacs, like Churchill, may have afforded us a little time to rethink the world that we have made, time to face ourselves, time to slow the descent into the monstrous and inhuman Dark Age that now approaches, and time, perhaps, to rekindle the lamps of civilization in the West that, one by one, have begun to flicker and go out. Regrettably, few historians have more than a passing acquaintance with John Lukacs’s historical philosophy. The fate of Lukacs’s books, particularly his masterful Historical Consciousness, arises in part from the intellectual stagnation that Tocqueville recognized as characteristic of a fading democratic age. Lukacs’s most unorthodox and original works do not conform to prevailing suppositions and categories, and, as a result, are either misunderstood or ignored. The inflation of scholarship and the bureaucratization of thought have contributed to the inattention from which such volumes as Historical Consciousness suffer. Even the most assiduous historians cannot hope to read all the books and essays published on a subject in which they proclaim expertise. Those works that do not receive adequate publicity, that do not add an élan to footnotes and bibliographies, often remain unknown, and so unread. The reasons for such lapses are even more complex and disheartening. As Lukcas points out, during this so-called Age of Information no one reads much anymore because few share the inclination to read. “We have now entire slews of professional experts who read little while they write much, for the sake of firming up their professional status,” he observes. “In this respect, too, we may see the devolution of democracy into bureaucracy.. . .” Malice is not the source of this appalling ignorance. It emerges instead from the inability, and perhaps the growing unwillingness, to contemplate ideas that do not correspond with established, institutionalized, and accepted norms and systems. Little professional advantage or reputation accrues to scholars who dare criticize approved methods, impugn cherished theories, and question authorized conclusions. Those who adopt unpopular values and assumptions become immediately suspect, their work regarded as illegitimate, disreputable, and worst of all, insignificant. Remembered Past aims to offer some redress, not only in the interest of doing justice to an incomparable writer, but also in the hope of sustaining his lifelong quest for truth, or, more humbly, reaffirming his determination, as much moral as intellectual, to reduce untruth. Lukacs’s oeuvre of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles encompasses the history of the Modern, or as he prefers, the Bourgeois Age, focusing chiefly on the political, ideological, intellectual, and military struggles of the twentieth century, the men and women who stood at the center of those conflicts, and the attendant decline of a civilization and a way of life. Integral to that project has been Lukacs’s effort to “think about thinking,” specifically to clarify and interpret the emergence of historical consciousness during the five hundred years that constitute “modern” history. No endeavor is more important to understanding ourselves and our world—especially as the institutions, ideas, values, and experiences that made up the life of that era recede and disappear.  


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