John Lukacs's Valediction

By Willson, John | The American Conservative, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

John Lukacs's Valediction


Willson, John, The American Conservative


History and the Human Condition: A Historian's Pursuit of Knowledge, John Lukacs, ISI Books, 233 pages

This is the best introduction to the historical craft of John Lukacs. History and the Human Condition does not replace the much longer Remembered Past, a wide-ranging selection of Lukacs's works also published by ISI Books. But this work, a coda to the author's career, contains just the right mixture of reflection and nostalgia (true nostalgia, Lukacs says, "is a desire less for a time than for a place"), addressing new and old historical problems, that it should serve well to draw a new generation of readers under his spell.

Lukacs has already influenced and inspired (and sometimes, infuriated) three generations of accomplished historians despite never having taught at prestigious universities where he could sequester graduate students and make disciples of them. Russell Kirk applauded his Historical Consciousness, especially its "moral imagination" and nuanced arguments against all philosophies of history. Forrest McDonald, meeting Lukacs for the first time--I happened to introduce them--discussed with him how their thinking about history had reached similar conclusions and praised Historical Consciousness as an elegant statement of those conclusions. Stephen Tonsor, Clyde Wilson, Richard Gamble, and many others have expressed their debt to his art. The distinguished Robert H. Ferrell, slightly older than Lukacs and not very often in agreement with him, wrote an essay, "Appreciating Lukacs," that must have mystified the Hofstadters and Schlesingers of the mainstream historical profession.

One of the essays in this volume is on Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: "The Vital Center Did Not Hold." While wishing no ill to a man who appears to have had a "pleasant career," Lukacs nevertheless sums up Schlesinger's life's work--and thus probably three-quarters of the work of his generation--by noting "the rapid decline of the appeal of liberalism, and the attraction and the force of a populist nationalism--the cult of the people and of the military power of the nation, the meaning of which Schlesinger cannot comprehend or perhaps even discern."

Such insights were what first drew me to Lukacs's writings, when I was a young historian at the end of the '60s thoroughly disabused of the Great Liberal Idea of Progress and trying to make sense of the cultural mess that decade was making of my chosen profession.

I first read Lukacs's The Passing of the Modern Age, thrilling to it almost as much as to Kirk's The Conservative Mind. At Kirk's suggestion, I then spent several weeks studying Historical Consciousness, which changed my life as a teacher. Its central insight--at least to a young scholar seeking a way to frame U.S. history that would counter the great myths of the land of opportunity, the primacy of the individual over real community, liberal internationalism, and the emerging nexus of the race-class-gender "social" history--was that a sound understanding of human nature precludes the need for a philosophy of history. Schlesinger once quoted Pascal as saying that "man is neither angel nor brute," which Lukacs calls a "safe, liberal, gray, centrist view of human nature. To the contrary: man is both angel and brute."

Such distinctions, and Lukacs is a lover of distinctions, demand that we study history according to truths that are beyond the ability of man to manipulate and that are rooted in his nature. One consequence of this Christian view of man--in Lukacs's case, this Catholic view--is that we must study real people, not categories of people. His critics, and many of his friends, have labeled John Lukacs a proponent of the "Great Man" theory of history. There is some truth to this, especially in the books for which he is best known--those about Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt controlling the destiny of the world in World War II--but it is only a half-truth and can cause readers to misunderstand what he means by studying real people.

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