Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Evil in History: Karl Löwith and Jacob Taubes on Modern Eschatology

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Evil in History: Karl Löwith and Jacob Taubes on Modern Eschatology

Article excerpt

Around die end of die 1940s, a number of German philosophers debated the connection between modernity and eschatology. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, eschatology is the theological doctrine concerned with the end of history and the salvation of human existence. Karl Löwith's definition of modern progress as secularized eschatology in Meaning in History is the classic example of this continuity between pre-modern eschatology and modern thought.1 It is, however, certainly not the only one. Two years before the publication of Meaning in History, Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes had already developed an eschatological interpretation of Western modernity in Occidental Eschatology.1 Taking a very different perspective, Carl Schmitt, Eric Voegelin, and Norman Cohn, to name only the most important, have applied the concept of eschatology to modern politics.5

As a result of Hans Blumenberg's penetrating critique of secularization and eschatology, however, these eschatological interpretations of modernity have often been misrepresented, or even altogether overlooked.4 In the Anglo-American reception of the Löwith-Blumenberg debate, for example, Löwith's concept of secularization has often been radically oversimplified. In this regard, the latter supposedly defined secularization as the mere privation of Christian transcendence: progress is eschatology deprived of the supernatural and, more generally, modernity is Christianity deprived of its transcendent God.' For Löwith, however, the relation between Christian eschatology and modern progress is not merely privative. Rather, it also entails a more substantial account of modernity, and of its relation to premodernity. It is the aim of this paper to recover this substantial definition of modernity that underlies the topical references to eschatology. By showing how eschatology is essentially related to the problem of evil (section 1), I argue that Löwith's eschatological reading of the modern historical consciousness ultimately revolves around the notion of evil, and its epochal significance to modern thought (section 2).

In this regard, the comparison of Löwith's position to Jacob Taubes's account of modern eschatology will prove to be extremely illuminating (section 3). With regard to the role of evil in modernity, however, Taubes seems much more explicit than Löwith. Unlike the latter, Taubes does not just refer to Christian eschatology, but focuses his interpretation of modernity on the eschatology of Apocalypticism and Gnosticism, two radically dualistic systems characterized by fundamental cosmological pessimism. Despite this difference, the thematic scope of Taubes's Occidental Eschatology is strikingly similar to that of Löwith's Meaning in History, both develop a genealogy of the modern historical consciousness by uncovering its eschatological roots; both argue that the secularization of eschatology originates in Joachim of Fiore's medieval philosophy of history; and both agree that it culminates in the nineteenth-century philosophies of Hegel and Marx.

These similarities notwithstanding, Löwith's Meaning in History (1949) only refers twice to Taubes's earlier Occidental Eschatology (1947).6 This remarkable observation can be explained by the fact that the influence of Taubes's conception of eschatology on Löwith's book was minimal. The latter had indeed developed his basic thesis on the secularization of eschatology in several texts from the early 1940s, and thus before the publication of Occidental Eschatology.7 In this regard, the line of influence has to be reversed. The numerous references to Löwith's From Hegel to Nietzsche in Taubes's dissertation, Occidental Eschatology, clearly prove the former's profound influence on Taubes's early thought. In the autobiographical introduction to Ad Carl Schmitt, Taubes even explicitly praises this very same book: "It was like the scales falling from my eyes as I grasped the line that Löwith traced from Hegel via Marx and Kierkegaard to Nietzsche. …

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