How many “final” books can one man write? For most men, the answer is one. John Lukacs is not most men, however. In early 2013, ISI Books released History and the Human Condition, a collection of previously published (though revised) material that the press declared to be “perhaps John Lukacs’s final word on the great themes that have defined him as a historian and a writer.” By the time I published my review of that volume in the June 2013 issue of Chronicles (“Late Autumn Light”), we already knew that A Short History of the Twentieth Century, a volume of original material, would be released that fall. In my review of the latter book (“The End of (a) History,” January 2014), I noted that,
if A Short History of the Twentieth Century must mark the end of John Lukacs’s personal contribution to our historical consciousness, its readers can still be thankful, for it is a book worthy of his legacy—and of the man himself.
In so doing, I did not rely that time on his publisher’s hyperbole but on the testimony of Lukacs himself, who in these pages (“End of the World of Books,” Views, August 2013) had declared, “I shall write no more books—not because of despair but because of my age.” (That essay, in the Chronicles version, begins with Lukacs sending the manuscript of A Short History of the Twentieth Century off to the publisher.)
Yet here we are, three years later, and the greatest living historian of the 20th and, now, 21st centuries has just published another book, and this time, I shall not declare it his “final” volume. My refusal to do so is not out of a desire to avoid a George W. Bush moment (“Fool me once, shame on . . . shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again”) but from an abundance of hope, because this slim volume from St. Augustine’s Press points the way toward other potential tomes. We at the Center of the Universe comprises 12 essays, 11 of which were previously unpublished (the 12th being a version of “End of the World of Books,” still containing, paradoxically, the line “I shall write no more books . . . ”). I suspect (though I have not confirmed this with Lukacs) that among his papers (which he reveals in this version of “End of the World of Books” will take up residence at the University of Notre Dame after his passing) there must be further unpublished essays, significant both in number and in content, that could be compiled into future volumes as worthwhile as this one.
Yet here we come to a delicate matter, because I hope that any future volumes will find a home at a different publisher. While the contents of We at the Center of the Universe are worthy of John Lukacs, the treatment of those contents by St. Augustine’s Press are not. Minimal effort seems to have gone into the design of the book, both interior and exterior; and even less effort was expended on the editing. Minor errors that we corrected in publishing “End of the World of Books” are reproduced here; other essays appear to have been edited not at all; still others have errors that those familiar with Lukacs’s work will suspect were not his but were introduced by someone unfamiliar with his very definite, yet personal, style. Worse yet are the textual elements of the book over which Lukacs had no say: the rendering, in the Table of Contents, of “Madame Bovary” as “Madame Bovery,” for instance, or the chapter header “In the Midst of the Crisi [sic] of Humanism.” As any good editor knows, it is foolish to rely on a spellcheck to catch all spelling errors; but there is no excuse, these days, for not performing one at all.
But enough of that. The reader who can get past these distractions will be richly rewarded by the contents of this book. The themes expressed herein will be familiar to longtime readers of Lukacs’s work: the centrality of historical thinking (historical consciousness); the limitations of reason and science, which does not lie outside of history but has its own history, through the study of which we can come to understand its limitations; the false dichotomy between “objective” and “subjective” knowledge, and the recognition that human “knowledge of this universe is inevitably participant.” We are “At the Center of the Universe” (the title of the first essay) because
The known, visible, and measurable conditions of the universe came not before our existence and consciousness, but as a result of them. Our universe is as it is because at its center exist conscious and participant people who can see it, explore it, study it.
The universe existed before mankind did; but the significance of the universe, as we understand it, depends entirely on our existence. The announcement, as I write this, that scientists have discovered seven more “exoplanets,” three of which may have conditions conducive to the “development of life,” is not, as the search for extraterrestrial life is so often portrayed, a reason for humility but a sign of arrogance, a belief that we today know more than those who came before us, because we can posit that we “must not be alone.” The certainty that life can, and therefore must, have developed elsewhere, like the theory that life on earth arose through seeding from extraterrestrial sources, has always been at root an attempt to divorce man from the Christian narrative of his creation at the hands of God—and an attempt as well to deny his need for a Redeemer. Insisting instead on “our centrality, and on the implicit uniqueness of human beings and of their earth, is a statement not of arrogance but . . . of humility—a recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind”:
Arrogance is the moral limit of those who state that the scientific and mathematical formulas worked out by frail and mortal human beings over the short span of 500 or 600 years—water is H2O, light travels at 186,282 mps, E=mc2—are absolute and eternal truths, in every place and time in the universe, . . . just as shortsightedness is the mental limit of those who believe that mathematics and geometry preceded the creation of the world and will remain true even when our world will have ceased to exist.
Lukacs mentions only in passing here something that he has discussed at length elsewhere: The best of scientists have begun to recognize the historicity of all of these “truths,” and that recognition has pointed them to new discoveries that confirm that the very structure of the natural world reflects our inevitable participation in the universe and reveals the centrality of mankind, confirming the truth of “an anthropocentric and geocentric” understanding of the world, though in a far deeper manner than the crude uses of those words in the past.
Despite the title of this volume, these reconsiderations of the nature of human knowledge and of science are mostly confined to the first and last essays in the book (though they emerge as well in “In the Midst of the Crisis of Humanism”). In between, Lukacs, who turned 93 on January 31, ranges across other themes of his nearly 70 years as an historian, focusing especially on the great forces and men that dominated the history of the 20th century (and, so far, of the 21st): nationalism and socialism, Hitler and Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. The most perfect gem in this volume is “The Year 1924”—by no coincidence the longest essay (though, like several of the others, it ends too abruptly). There have been many turning points in the history of the 20th century, even more in the history of the modern world; but Lukacs, without explicitly stating that he is doing so, makes a strong case that 1924 marked the true end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the passing of the Modern Age. The year began with the deaths (on January 22 and February 3, respectively) of Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, each believers in their own way of Progress and Economic Man. “Outdated they were both,” Lukacs writes. “Succeeded they were by Mussolini and Hitler, outdated not at all. . . . Neither of them believed in Economic Man. They thought in terms not of the struggles of classes but of nations.” Hitler spent most of the year 1924 in prison in Bavaria, serving a sentence (light both in duration and severity) for leading an uprising in Munich in November 1923 that he hoped would spark a national revolution.
He turned [his] trial into a rhetorical victory for himself. He defended nothing, admitted nothing, denied nothing: indeed he proclaimed the cause of the National Revolution: “Yes! We wanted to destroy this state!” “I want what is best for the Volk!”
Hitler emerged from prison on December 10, 1924, Mein Kampf in hand, and rose to power over the next nine years, destroying the German state from within and remaking it in his own image.
In this and the following essay, “Hitler and ‘Amerika,’” Lukacs presents (as he has throughout his work) a far more nuanced picture of Hitler than that of the insane monster of contemporary myth. Hitler saw—in 1924 and even earlier—that, “in many places, and not only in Germany, Conservatism and Liberalism had begun to be succeeded by two new great forces, Nationalism and Socialism.” The defeat of Germany in 1945 did not bring an end to either of those forces, nor did the fall of the Soviet Union four-and-a-half decades later. Indeed, we live in an odd moment today, when most people think of the great forces of World War II and its aftermath as being entirely in the past, even as the terms conservative and liberal have been replaced almost entirely in American national political discourse by nationalist and socialist, respectively. In a confirmation of Lukacs’s decades of insight into the relative power of both forces, socialist remains largely a pejorative term (though Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination gave it something of a new lease on life), while nationalist has been adopted as a term of pride by many on the right, including a not insignificant number of people who explicitly reject Lukacs’s analysis. Not coincidentally, patriotism—the love of a particular people in a particular place (which Lukacs, like G.K. Chesterton, George Orwell, Russell Kirk, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, presents as the humane alternative to nationalism)—is rarely if ever found today in American national political discourse, even as an inaccurate synonym for nationalism, as it was often used from the 1980’s through the early years of this century. Indeed, those who have embraced the term nationalism in recent years are frequently angrily dismissive of those who continue to promote the Christian understanding of patriotism. While patriotism ultimately has deeper roots, reflecting as it does the historical norm of human life (the settled life of kith and kin in community, by definition connected to a particular place), nationalism is clearly a greater force in our democratic and increasingly populist age. (“Early in his life,” Lukacs notes in the essay “International? What It Is Not,” Hitler “declared that he was a nationalist but not a patriot.”)
Lukacs revisits the role of nationalism in one of the shortest essays in the volume, “America and Russia: What a Strange History of Our World.” Written before the 2016 presidential election, this essay has taken on an added significance in its aftermath. “Russian-American relations will remain, for a while, as perhaps the principal reality in this world,” but unlike in the past, they will be shaped less by “the relation of states” than by the interplay of American and Russian nationalism. Lukacs observes that “there is no deep-seated hostility of the American people against Russians,” but he also notes that
Popular sentiments matter more than what we used to call “public opinions.” The complex and manipulable existence of the former may amount to more even than the existence of unimaginable murderous weapons.
The period from October through December 2016 saw repeated attempts by the outgoing Obama administration and certain Republicans in Congress to manipulate popular sentiments in such a way as to create hostility among the American people toward Russia. For now, those efforts seem to have come to naught; but the potential, and the danger, remains—which is why another essay in this book, “The Crucial Summit: Churchill and Stalin,” as well as the 2010 volume Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs, should be mandatory reading for all members of the current administration in the White House and the State Department.
One final insight bears notice. In “Beyond the End of an Age” and “End of a World of Books,” Lukacs laments, as he has elsewhere, that “the primacy of the written word is now largely gone,” replaced by the “domination of pictures.” It would be easy to dismiss this as the musings of someone who does not understand the glories of the internet, where more words are written every day than at any other time in human history. Yet recent studies conducted in the wake of the debate over “fake news” bear Lukacs’s observation out. Researchers have found that most consumption of electronic text (especially on social media) is more akin to looking at pictures than it is to reading. From the beginning of the World Wide Web (or at least, from the beginning of advertising on websites), electronic publications have referred to pageviews as “impressions.” The word seems literally to describe what occurs in the minds of “consumers” of online media.
This “pictorialization” of the imagination, Lukacs argues, has resulted in the destruction of attention, not simply to the written word, but to our fellow man. Thought is inseparable from language, and the devolution of our language affects our ability to think, and to communicate—not simply effectively, but humanely. (Think of the effect that the devolution of our political language into rote formulas and epithets, the common portrayal of our political opponents as our “enemies” and “evil,” and the politicized redefinition of everyday terms such as male, female, and marriage have had in increasing the political divide in this country.) At the end of the Modern Age, the decline of the primacy of the printed word and the devolution of language have become not simply a cultural problem but a moral one.
Lukacs senses that, too. “In the beginning was not the picture but the word”; and
Sometimes I fear that as the life of Christ—only 2,000 years ago, a tiny portion of what we know of the history of mankind—becomes further and further away because of the passage of time, the meaning of his words, his life, his calvary may weaken in the imagination of men.
Yet the Word, as Lukacs notes, will be there “forever too,” and that in itself is cause for hope. If we are at the center of the universe, it is because God has placed us here. And our history here has meaning because His Son entered it: “Christ’s life among us, on this earth, may have been the central event in the history of mankind.”
Return the printed word to its rightful primacy in your imagination by buying and reading this book. Savor its contents; this remarkable collection of essays will whet your appetite for the next “final” volume from John Lukacs.
[We at the Center of the Universe, by John Lukacs (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) 112 pp., $18.00]