the end of history …

Posted on Saturday 28 June 2008

I don’t know when it started, my fascination with certain words. One of the first I recall was ruth-less – meaning "lacking the qualities of the Biblical figure, Ruth." Then there was the realization that all our names for medical conditions referred to how people feel – dis-ease, sick-ness, ill-ness, and that we call people who see a doctor, patients [presumable because dealing with ill-ness requires one be patient– good advice indeed]. But my all time favorite is history [his story]. And who is the he? He is mankind, mankind in social groups in particular. So history is the story of mankind as a group or groups.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelThis meaning of the word history occurred to me when I was trying to understand the meaning of the Philosopher Hegel’s concept that, "We are at the end of history." While I’m always reticent to talk about my own understanding of philosophers, because people who are schooled in philosophy always give me a "there, there" look and proceed to complexify things beyond my ability to understand what they’re talking about. With that reservation, I think what Hegel and his interpreter, Alexandre Kojève, are getting at goes something like this. History is the study of mankind’s dealing with group life – and the interplay among and conflicts between group needs and individual desires. Tribal life, feudalism, monarchy, etc., history is the story about mankind’s difficult relationship with power within and between groups, and the various systems that have evolved over time for protection, social order, and conquest.

Alexandre KojèveFor Hegel and Kojève, a major paradigm is the Master/Slave dichotomy. It goes like this. A man stands in a field, thereby declaring his ownership. A challenger arrives and they begin to fight. There are only two possible outcomes. One man kills the other, winning the field. His fate is to await the next challenger for the next fight. The second outcome is that one of the fighters surrenders. The victor in the battle becomes the Master. The loser becomes his Slave. According to Hegel and Kojève, the Slave is the winner. He values his life more than winning. He gives up the dead end process of continuous fighting. As a Slave, he has to get his needs met through methods other than fighting and power – negotiation, barter, trade, relationship as equals. It is by the commerce and society of Slaves that we form social units that are civil-ized [another favorite word].

So, what of  "We are at the end of history?" History is the story of mankind coming to grips with how we should live in groups. And I never thought about it, but there’s kind of an answer to that question. We should have a system that maximizes human individual freedom within the constraints of a social order. And the social order should be fairly administered in a uniform way for all. And while all the systems don’t necessarily do that, or deteriorate into power based dictatorships periodically, that’s where this story of mankind is headed as an ideal. To me, "We are at the end of history" means we know where we’re going – even if we seem to be having a hell of a time getting there.

I was thinking about this today because of the current tangle in this country. For the first time that I know of, our governmental body does not agree with this goal. They’ve hidden behind "wartime" to excuse their deviations, but their disagreement is deeper than simply today’s circumstances. They believe that we should be the world’s "sole super-power." They would prefer to fight than negotiate. They do not believe in human equality. Their focus is not on the maintenance of individual rights. For them, there is no "end of history." History is simply the continued power struggles of the man in the field struggling to become the Master. Once you get to be Master, your fate is sealed. You are lonely, hated, a target, and it’s just a matter of time before some young Buck shows up that brings you to your knees or destroys you. In their well-worn version, history is not a process of mankind learning by experience. It’s about wars, and conquest, and fears. They think we "won" the Cold War. They want to "win" the Iraq War. And they refuse to enter the civil-ized discourse of the Slaves. They’re no different from the Islamic Jihadists who function under the same nihilistic mentality – Murder, Torture, Spying, Secrecy, Lawlessness, Corruption, Superpowers, Wars, Winning.

We’ve gone backwards in these last seven years. Fortunately, the world isn’t having any part of this foolishness. I expect they will welcome our return to our senses [if it comes]. Perhaps I should say, I hope the world will welcome our return to our senses…

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