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Society & Culture

The Loss and Recovery of Truth

“Philosophy of history is a concept coined by Voltaire,” Gerhart Niemeyer said to me in the spring of 1977, repeating the first sentence of his lecture, “The Loss and Recovery of History,” delivered at a Hillsdale College seminar a few weeks before and later published in Imprimis (October 1977).  He went on to say that from the beginning “philosophy of history had an antitheistic character”; indeed, it was specifically anti-Christian, and in the hands of Voltaire’s successors Hegel and Marx and others “is a form of the loss of reality,” and thus the loss of truth.

This was heady stuff for a sidewalk conversation.  We were across the street from Broadlawn, Hillsdale College’s presidential palace, then into the second semester of Gerhart’s six-year presence on the Hillsdale campus.  He was explaining to me, a 37-year-old second-year associate professor of history (although in my 15th year of teaching), why Aristotle considered philosophy more noble than history as a field of study.  It had to do with Aristotle’s conviction that philosophy, like poetry, could deal with the general or ultimate things, while history was limited to the particular.  I had already learned that such conversations were normal for Gerhart on sidewalks, in automobiles, faculty offices, at cocktail parties, the dinner table, or anywhere else one might be with...

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