The Historian vs. the Historicist

In a previous post, I laid out what I hope is a God-inspired plan to examine what C. S. Lewis had to say about history: its significance, its limitations, how Christians should view it. I’m on this path of research because I am a historian and have taught history at the university level for more than thirty years. If this research leads to presentations at conferences, articles in journals, or even a book, to be it. If it leads to no more than my being a footnote in Lewis studies, so be it again. At least I will have scratched that academic itch.

Probably Lewis’s most direct statement on history can be found in his essay simply entitled “Historicism.” As I began reviewing it, I was actually amazed that at some point I had marked it up considerably. Why, then, did I not recall doing so? A fresh reading of the essay reminded me why I had spent a considerable amount of time on it at some unremembered moment in the past.

Lewis’s commentary in the essay was remarkably similar to an article I have given my students in a course on historiography. It comes from a book by Herbert Schlossberg called Idols for Destruction, with one idol being history. Let me begin with Schlossberg’s summary of what he defines as historicism; after that, I’ll turn to Lewis’s thoughts on the same subject.

The main point Schlossberg is making here is that there is a tendency for some to practically give history a personification and that we can’t really stop what history seeks to do. Whatever happens is what was supposed to happen; we are in the stream of time and we must drift along with it; we can’t do anything to stop it. This is often verbalized both in the positive—we are on the “right side of history”—and in the negative—don’t get on the “wrong side of history”—as if history has a mind of its own and we are mere dead wood in the scheme of things.

Lewis echoes Schlossberg’s comments but adds to them by making a clear distinction between those he deems genuine historians versus those who cross a line and become historicists instead. True historians do find causes that lead to effects in history, and they may even infer from what they have found what might occur in the future. After all, mankind has never created anything new under the sun—what has happened before might happen again. But that is not historicism. “The historian and the Historicist may both say that something ‘must have’ happened. But must in the mouth of a genuine historian will refer only to a ratio cognoscendi: since A happened B ‘must have’ preceded it. … But ‘must’ in the mouth of a Historicist can have quite a different meaning. It may mean that events fell out as they did because of some ultimate, transcendent necessity in the ground of things.” Lewis then offers these examples:

When Carlyle spoke of history as a “book of revelations” he was a Historicist. When Novalis called history an “evangel” he was a Historicist. When Hegel saw in history the progressive self-manifestation of absolute spirit he was a Historicist. When a village woman says that her wicked father-in-law’s paralytic stroke is “a judgement on him” she is a Historicist. Evolutionism, when it ceases to be simply a theorem in biology and becomes a principle for interpreting the total historical process, is a form of Historicism.

Now, certainly Scripture talks about certain things being direct judgments from God, and I accept those declarations. Yet, as Lewis warns, “But if any man thinks that because God was pleased to reveal certain calamities as ‘judgements’ to certain chosen persons, he is therefore entitled to generalize and read all calamities in the same way, I submit that this is a non sequitur.” In other words, it does not follow that just because God did (and still does) ordain certain judgments on individuals and/or nations, that every bad thing that happens to an individual or nation can be attributed to God’s direct intervention. There are natural consequences built into our universe that come about as a result of our actions, and then there are bad things that happen even to people who are following the Lord with their whole hearts. We need to be careful what we attribute to God’s judgments.

“Some who in general deserve to be called true historians are betrayed into writing as if nothing failed or succeeded that did not somehow deserve to do so,” Lewis cautions. “We must guard against the emotional overtones of a phrase like ‘the judgement of history.’ It might lure us into the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune. That would sink us below the Christian, or even the best Pagan, level. The very Vikings and Stoics knew better.”

How should Christians, then, view history? As a Christian historian, what are my guidelines? Lewis summarizes this nicely:

What appears, on Christian premises, to be true in the Historicist’s position is this. Since all things happen either by the divine will or at least by the divine permission, it follows that the total content of time must in its own nature be a revelation of God’s wisdom, justice, and mercy. In this direction we can go as far as Carlyle or Novalis or anyone else. History is, in that sense, a perpetual Evangel, a story written by the finger of God.

If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. Yes; and if the sky fell we should all catch larks. … I do not dispute that History is a story written by the finger of God. But have we the text?

The essence of Lewis’s argument is that we are not omniscient. Yes, God is over history, but does that mean we have a full understanding of His interactions with it? How much is His doing and how much is the result of what we do? Saying that all things work out exactly as God has ordained is a big leap in logic. Man has free will. Although the Lord is an intervening God who cares for His creatures, do we really have all the facts we need to know to make resounding declarations about when He has done so? As Lewis states, “But have we the text?”

When I teach Scripture, I make it clear that I believe what I read about God’s interventions. When I teach history outside of Scripture, I have to be more reticent. Did the Lord really intervene directly to save Jamestown? Was He absolutely on the side of America during the Revolutionary Era? I could multiply examples. I can give my considered opinion, both as a Christian and a scholar, but I must stop short of making absolute statements. After all, I have received no direct revelations on such matters.

I sometimes joke with students that I have not yet achieved omniscience, but that I am working on it. Well, omniscience won’t happen until I stand before the Lord in person and He deigns to instruct me further (if indeed, He really thinks I need to know everything). So, for now, humility is the key, even though I have received a doctorate in history. That doctorate never conferred omniscience.