The end of history usually does not mean the end of time. In fact, it means that history has a definite goal in mind, one it is attempting to attain or one it has already reached. These expectations placed on human development depict an image of a meaningful history and comply, in an academic sense, with the school of thought we attribute to the philosophy of history. Classically speaking, when we view history from a philosophical perspective, we don’t perceive things as just singular occurrences. We consider them in their historical development. Who determines the course of history? Where do the laws that advance history actually come from? Can the goal of history be judged as positive or negative? All these questions imply how diverse the range of opinions is in regard to this matter. Yet, at the same time, it is possible to identify some of the criteria that are characteristic of end-time thinking: First, people commonly contemplate the end of history during periods of change, times that give them reason to think about the present and the future, because they are either afraid of the unknown or hoping for better times. Second, a primary prerequisite for believing that history has a certain goal that it is heading toward is based on the conception that occurrences are part of a progressive process. Third, this historical process must, however, be understood as human-made; the goal of history must be attainable within the life of human beings and it should not be reserved only for those of divine stature.
There is a basic difference between the way ancient and modern historians view the idea of progress. In early antiquity, history was generally seen as a decline, as the never-ending distancing from the golden ages of mythic times. So, in that sense, the historical process is firmly in divine hands, if it is of any significance at all: History is initiated by the gods and is therefore principally beyond human influence.
According to ancient thought, time flows constantly, without being directed, in the stream of eternal sameness. Certainly, during the course of antiquity, a cyclical picture of history is developed that has been documented in the cyclical theories dealing with transitional political policies. But change occurs essentially along the known paths of human existence. Compared with the anthropological constants that characterize humankind, social and cultural factors are of no particular significance. This even applies to a thinker like Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BCE), whose philosophy centers around the cosmic idea of becoming and passing away. But this thought has nothing to do with progress; change will not necessarily produce any improvements, so it is nothing to place your hopes on. That is also a reason why there are no relevant drafts of the future from that period of time. History is fundamentally the rendition of stories that illustrate human existence—as exemplified by Thucydides (460-c. 396 BCE) in his study on the Peloponnesian War.
Not until Judaism appears on the scene does a new awareness of time evolve: The belief in a future Messiah becomes a historic expectation that defines life itself. The anticipation of a redeemer gives an extraordinary meaning to the future and a structure to the historical process that has a redeemer as its goal. Consequently it is possible to imagine an end of history, even though this development is not historically manmade. Christianity’s development is similar: Although world history is divided into a time before and a time after the birth of Christ, historical appreciation remains focused on the Second Coming. Particularly in times of crisis, the promise of redemption has rekindled the specter of doomsday and transformed the fear of Judgment Day into the hope that all misery will come to an end. So it’s no wonder that throughout history believers have tried to accelerate salvific history. A vivid illustration of that is offered in the so-called Paupers’ Crusade of 1096. But the popular doomsday calculations can also be seen in that connection, because they include the wish to make the Redeemer’s Second Coming predictable. The Catholic Church has always eyed these number games with suspicion, in part because they spark a discussion about the expiration date of their own reign. Augustine (354-430) clearly rejected doomsday calculations: First, this knowledge is reserved for God. Second, however, there could not be a qualitative improvement of humanity, historically speaking, because, according to Augustine, Original Sin is the reason why humankind is never purely good or bad; it will always remain in that tense relationship where it depends on redemption. In a similar way, Martin Luther also rejected the thought of humankind actively promoting the Second Coming.
Nevertheless, this belief still finds support within the Christian community, and, in the course of time, it has been partly responsible for the evolution of two complementary structures: While the wish continues to grow that Christ’s Second Coming should be “prepared” within the worldly community, the meaning of Original Sin has been losing its significance. The transition is recognizable, for example, in Joachim von Fiore (1130-1202): Joachim differentiates among three realms, those of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and accordingly teaches that the third realm is immanent, born from the simple strength of monastic contemplation without divine assistance. These teachings are an early example of the budding secularization of doomsday expectations that gained further momentum during the Renaissance. During this era, the vision of history changes drastically. History no longer serves as a voice of divine revelation. It takes on its own significance: History becomes a forum of humankind’s ascent to its own Creator who endows it with his divine image, thus distinguishing humankind and setting it apart. With humankind’s increasing (self-)confidence, which also includes a
worldly portion of truth and goodness, it develops a willingness to accept evil as a worldly matter for religious reasons, as did Thomas Müntzer (1486/1490-1525). According to Müntzer, the teachings of original sin begin to fade, and the battle between good and evil that was carried out within humanity itself now becomes a battle of good people versus evil people. That is why Müntzer felt obligated to “purge” the Christian community of the false-believers, in order to herald the Kingdom of God.
Human beings make history. This understanding of history becomes more and more widely accepted until it is universally acknowledged in the French Revolution. During the revolution, history itself becomes the subject. Time draws a line. It becomes the modern age, leaving the ancient regime behind. Contrary to prior experience, traditions no longer have any intrinsic value of their own. They are outdated; the past is actually seen as the past. People are no longer embedded in existing structures. There are now unforeseen possibilities, and the future appears to be open and manageable. In antiquity it was the anthropological constants that determined thinking; now it is social circumstances. Conditions that are hostile to freedom and contradict the ideals of equality are removed by means of revolution and reform. The end of history now refers to a situation where human capabilities are optimally developed and established by people themselves.
For Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) this is a regulative idea that shows lawmaking reformers which way to go; for other representatives of German Idealism, for example Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), this demand sounds “more final.” But it was especially the early socialist currents of the 18th and early 19th centuries that portrayed a happy end of history with their utopias; among them were names like Charles Fourier (17721837), Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), and Wilhelm Weitling (1808-1871). They all shared a belief in the power of the Enlightenment and the goal of making the system of political dominance and economic exploitation superfluous.
August Comte (1798-1857), one of the founding fathers of French sociology, developed one of the most mature programs of this nature: Like many of his socialist comrades-in-arms, Comte was inspired by the innovative capabilities of science and technology and regarded the social sciences as the foundation for a controlled “reconstruction” of society, quite similar to the way the natural sciences controlled nature. To him, progress is no longer a question of faith or hope but one of positive knowledge, “positive” in the sense of real, useful, and precise knowledge.
Comte based his Law of Three Stages on this belief, claiming that knowledge first passes through a theologically fictional stage, then a metaphysically abstract stage before finally reaching a scientifically positive state formed by a spirit of order and progress. As soon as it is possible to subject the social changes to an intellectual authority, consisting of the most capable scientists, happiness on Earth will be assured. An earthly paradise under the political leadership of the intellectual elite sounds like a “positivistic” Plato—and it is no wonder that Karl Marx (1819-1883) rejected this and other programs as idealistic.
According to Marx, it was naive to believe that the effective powers of capitalism could be replaced by humanistic reason. Marx was convinced that the only way bourgeois society could be overcome was through its own contradictions. For instance, Marx’s well-known quote about capitalism digging its own grave says that the bourgeois relations of production themselves will reproduce the class struggle between capital and labor without initializing the instruments of compensation. Therefore, this conflict, according to Marx’s analysis, has an antagonistic structure: More and more workers will be enslaved by economic necessity and forced to carry their own skin to market, while more and more capital will be amassed in the hands of very few who will become richer and richer. It is this law of development for history itself that determines the course of affairs, no matter what the players want to do or should do. So the end of a certain history is predetermined. In this case, it is the history of bourgeois society.
End of Modern Society?
As is commonly known, bourgeois society not only failed to come to an end, it also successfully outlived its rival political systems in the context of the East-West conflict. The collapse of communist rule in the Soviet Union in 1989/1990 enabled the spread of liberalism in Central and Eastern Europe and inspired the hope of a “new world order,” supported by a consensus of the community of states and based on human rights and human dignity. This optimism is reflected in the analysis published by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama titled End of History, first as an essay in 1989 where it was tagged with a question mark, and then as a book in 1992. Fukuyama claims that political reason has reached its goal, because liberal democracy has succeeded in becoming the adequate form of government for people in comparison with other political systems. Significant occurrences should not be excluded, but they will not alter the basic situation that—seen from a universally historical perspective—political development must result in a marriage between democracy and the market economy. There are no other alternatives.
Fukuyama bases his historical considerations on an interpretation of G. W. F. Hegel by Alexandre Kojeve (1902-1968). In Kojeve’s version of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the end of history is reached when the contradictions that had previously existed in the various struggles for recognition are resolved and shared by everyone. Contrary to Marx, Kojeve specifically assigns capitalism the competence not only to spread affluence and global standards of values and rights but also to balance the inequalities of the market and to redistribute prosperity. He envisions a state of universal freedom and the successful emancipation from all pressures for modern society.
Kojeve’s interpretation, which is especially influential in French philosophy, should not be understood as a true-to-the-original reconstruction of Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel (1770-1831) himself does not assume that the dialectical logic of the struggle for recognition will be overcome. The state may restrain the struggle between individuals, but the intergovernmental world remains in its natural state and thus in the paradigm of the struggles for recognition. It has always been this point of view that others have used to accuse Hegel of having glorified the nation-state. For Hegel, however, it is more a matter of the plurality of concrete life forms. The Age of Enlightenment’s universal demand should not seduce us into overlooking the fact that particular “national characters” have lives of their own regarding specific political communities; in Hegel’s opinion, that would be an example of apolitical thinking denying itself the insight into the bourgeois era’s cultural bondage. The tendencies of bourgeois society to expand into a world community is based on the success of the economy’s division of labor. But it is Hegel’s conviction that “no state can be established” on the interplay of diverse egoistic interests, calculated economic decision making, and formal lawmaking alone.
From the perspective of Hegel’s philosophy of freedom, there is no end in sight for history, either. In Hegel’s opinion, freedom and consciousness have a dialectic relationship: History advances in an awareness of freedom when its consciousness becomes conscious of itself and propagates itself as self-consciousness, as in the case of the French Revolution, which marked a decisive breakthrough toward general and political freedom. Yet this new understanding of freedom also introduces new demands that Hegel discusses in the context of the Jacobin terror. In view of the demands of the modern globalized world, Hegel would hardly speak of the end of history. Instead he would speak of the need to understand the ambivalences of freedom. This not only requires that the processes that brought about a lasting impulse for integration following the end of the East-West conflict in Europe are taken into consideration. It also requires that the “opposing movements” of regionalizing systems of order are understood, movements that stir up new conflicts and transform old systems. So it remains to be seen whether the effective cultural diversity, for example, between Islam and the West, will be consolidated in a new systematic rivalry, a “Clash of Civilization” (S. Huntington). And the future of liberal democracy is just as uncertain, considering that the majority of nations will hardly accept it as the universal and ultimate goal of history.
This “realistic” point of view of an uncertain future has also led, among other things, to a greater theoretical humility within political philosophy and the theories of international relations. On the one hand, it has promoted historico-philosophic reflections on end time that are connected to postmodern and post historical concepts. Even Kojeve is ambivalent about his envisioned final stage of history: In the general state of happiness, man’s “negativity” fades, Kojeve claims, and with it his will to overcome himself, his ability to transcend his own nature. This view also absorbs Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) thoughts on the “last man,” who tries to numb the pointlessness of his existence by satisfying his “little desires.” One of Nietzsche’s central thoughts consists in enlightening the world about the end of all illusions. Human reason set forth to retrace Christianity’s promise of truth and morality; but, according to Nietzsche, it found—in the truest sense of the word—nothing. Consequently, man’s own self-enlightenment had to end in the “death of God,” making man responsible for the meaning of his own life. In Nietzsche’s opinion, it is a task only the strongest individuals are able to cope with.
Postmodernism celebrates this disillusionment—in the words of Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998)—as the “end of the great tales.” It opens the world to a pluralistic diversity of views and attitudes that also allow criticism of the outdated ideas of a self-dependent subject. According to the views of postmodern theorists, it doesn’t have as much to do with the end of history as with the end of the totality of every historical interpretation based upon reason. They don’t see the open future as uncertain. They understand it as a form of liberation, opening the world to the chance of new ideas. Specifically, this belief in the power of innovation, particularly in the areas of the arts and culture, is branded by the post-histoire representatives as an illusion. Not diversity but simplicity characterizes the personality of the modern age. Yet this hectic business, as Arnold Gehlen (1904-1976) claimed, cannot deceive us from seeing that it is essentially just cultural redundancy. Only remakes and recycling, but no real progress anymore, neither in the arts nor in other social areas. The post-histoire view says that history has come to its end, because society has lost the strength to set new goals.
By reviewing the history of philosophy (of history) and considering the various schools of thought, it seems that any reflections on the end of history are a question of mood that can be compared to a theory of colors: ranging from hopeless black to gloomy gray to a happy colorfulness and a confident rosy-ness. So the course of history is, to quite a relevant extent, a question of what people themselves are willing to risk.
Oliver W. Lembcke
See also Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Clock, Doomsday;
Comte, Auguste; End-Time, Beliefs in; Enlightenment, Age of; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Gehlen, Arnold; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heraclitus; Kant, Immanuel; Luther, Martin; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Postmodernism; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Thucydides; Time, End of; Universe, End of; Zeitgeist
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