The stale partisanship that marks the contemporary intellectual scene is deplorable, but at least it forces us to cherish our rare encounters with independent thinkers. John Lukacs’ new autobiography, Last Rites, treats the venturesome reader to just such an encounter—a bracing contest with a nimble mind.
Fearing Communist persecution, 22-year-old Lukacs fled his native Hungary in 1946 and settled in the US. Over the past five decades, he has taught history at universities in Hungary and the US and has written close to thirty books and countless articles. He has written on the Cold War, World War II, the modern age, historical consciousness, the decline of Europe, the decline of America, Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, George Kennan, Budapest, Philadelphia, populism, Chestnut Hill College, and now, for the second time, he has written on himself. Of course, like all real intellectuals, Lukacs is inseparable from his thought. Last Rites is, therefore, largely a restatement of his eccentric opinions on the Cold War, World War II, the modern age, historical consciousness, etc.
Because his judgments do not come in convenient and familiar packages, reading him can be disorienting. While he is no liberal, for instance, it is misleading to call him merely a “conservative,” given that he routinely denounces most contemporary forms of conservatism. Yes, like most Hungarian émigrés he hated communism, but he also spent much of the Cold War attacking American anticommunism. The sense of disorientation is greatly increased by his rather rambling and ejaculatory prose, which is frequently interrupted by footnotes.
But there is nothing purely ad hoc about his judgments taken as a whole. His opinions form a coherent personal worldview, at the heart of which lies a duality (that is, a striking tension, not necessarily a contradiction), that Lukacs himself recognizes: On the one hand, his main project is a radical critique of the characteristic ideas of the modern age, but on the other hand he mourns its passing.
In the first chapter of Last Rites, he rehearses his main ideas about history and epistemology. Trained philosophers will find this exposition inadequate, but it provides a helpful sketch of his most stimulating theories.
Against the Enlightenment idea that knowledge is objective, Lukacs declares that it is “personal and participant.” Our ideas about the world are unavoidably intertwined with our personalities and histories, the categories of thought available to us within our language and culture, etc. They are also partly dependent on the dispositions and attitudes we freely choose while speculating or evaluating evidence. We can be lazy or stubborn, surrender to enthusiasm, antipathy, wishful thinking, group pressure, etc.; and this will affect our conclusions. This participant aspect of human knowing, Lukacs insists, explains why we can be held responsible for our ideas.
The major consequences of Lukacs’ epistemology are twofold.
First, it means that the historian is not a scientist searching for “laws,” but a person trying to understand other persons. He must not determine what “facts” led inexorably to certain “behavior,” but rather describe the complex mentalities and purposes that conditioned various events while retaining a lively sense of the contingency of the personal choices involved in these events. Always remembering the particularity of his own perspective he must not offer his attempt at understanding as definitive. His job is less to find the truth than to reduce untruth (by ruling out interpretations of history that could not be held in good faith after inspection of available evidence).
Second, it means that man is “at the center of the universe.” Since we cannot understand our world except through the changeable, historically conditioned categories we think with and the models we make, there is a sense in which we “invent” the world, and therefore transcend it. “For our universe,” says Lukacs, “is not more or less than our universe.” We ought not to be dominated (as we were during the modern age) by our own inventions. We should not make concepts like objectivity and mechanical causality, absolute, definitive, and universal, applicable even to the superior realm of the personal:
The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because at the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, study it, explore it.
Lukacs may be overhasty in classing the categories, methods, and results of the exact sciences with those of, say, the historical study of the French Revolution, but it is worth insisting that he is no mere subjectivist. He does not think of the world as our “invention” in some sense that would deprive it of all independent reality. Arguably, his epistemology compatible even with that of a quasi-rationalist like Aquinas. As Josef Pieper showed in The Silence of St. Thomas, Aquinas believed that human beings do not fully understand the essence of “a single fly.” Our understanding of being is never adequate to being itself. The Creator holds a monopoly on such infinite understanding, and we must make do with our human models.
To summarize: Reality exists independent of us, and it is appropriate and necessary to navigate and interact with it using our concepts and models—gifts of God that allow us to participate in being according to our rational nature. As Lukacs says in a footnote: “The world, and this earth were created by him for the existence and consciousness of human beings.” Some concepts and models can be eventually rejected, not because they do not help us dominate nature or bind our communities, (this is the position of the “pragmatist” of intellectual caricature) but because they are logically incoherent or inconsistent with experience—that is, because they fail the tests proposed by all great thinkers. But we are not permitted, as creatures, to absolutize even our best concepts and models.
To see that our knowledge is personal is to see that it is fallible. This should make us humble, and open us up to faith in God. It is because God is the logos that thought creation into existence that we can trust that the appearance of order is not merely a subjective (and possibly temporary) illusion and that our sincere efforts at understanding will always be rewarded.
It’s no surprise that a man this sensitive to context, history, nuance, and the primacy of the personal is disgusted by the contemporary world. We are living, he insists, at the end (or, more properly, just beyond the end) of a great historical age, and therefore suffer intellectual poverty characteristic of such periods. Modernity’s reductionistic and outdated abstractions dominate our scholarly and political discourse. Lukacs sees little to choose, for instance, between the American left and right’s particular ideologies of Progress, each supported by a propagandistic lexicon, iconography and simplistic mythos pretending to be history. The right trumpets a materialist vision of the triumph of Technology, Liberty, and the American Way, while the left clamors for its Gnostic vision of Science, Justice, and Global Civilization.
Lukacs thinks this loud simplemindedness is born of the pride that precludes true wisdom, understanding, and faith. Lukacs is drawn to “true conservatives” like Wendell Berry, who counter vulgar “neocon” materialism with a subtle understanding of individual and social health that emphasizes patient cultivation of particular relationships in particular places.
(Lukacs’ generalizations, though insightful, ignore important contemporary schools of American political thinking. It is especially unfortunate that he does not mention influential figures like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus. Their vision of a capitalist liberal democratic society justified in the language of Catholic personalism surely warrants the attention of a Catholic personalist like Lukacs.)
Although Lukacs recognizes that the dominant abstractions are modern abstractions, he has very few hard words about modernity as such. He was himself formed by the “bourgeois age,” admires its great figures and achievements, and urges his readers to study its exemplary civilizational ideal. Bourgeois social and political order created stability, decency, and discipline, but allowed creativity. Lukacs provides ample evidence for this claim in his in his elegiac discussion of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, painters who settled in eastern Bucks County early in the twentieth century. :
Most of them. . .were master woodworkers and carpenters. . . . After they lifted their nimble fingers from their brushes, their eyes moved from. . . their palettes and colors to the. . . precise fitting of grooves and planks and boards. . . . Edward Redfield wrote that ‘Bucks county was a place where an independent, self-sufficient man could make a living from the land, bring up a family and still have the freedom to paint as he saw fit.’ How admirable! How American! In once a country. At once a time.
. . .
[Theirs was] an American world that is now gone, a portion of a world with its provincialness and plenitude, including plenty of , modesty and goodness, of landscapes, God and man-made.
. . .
They were among the last incarnations of a civilization that had begun to sink in their lifetime. . . .They would be surprised to be called “bourgeois,” which was a curse word employed not only by revolutionaries but by intellectuals and artists during more than one hundred years; but they were bohemians not at all.
Their world was shattered by sensualism, radical individualism, and a commercial ethos. Lukacs’ complaints sometimes seem cranky, but one tends to sympathize with his portrait of the new barbarism.
In addition to living in a world he finds increasingly alien and disgusting, he is suffering the usual effects of old age:
I regret that I am old. I regret that I fear the future and, yes, I fear a sudden death. I regret that my appetite for life has been weakening. I regret that so has my curiosity, my reading, and, together with that, perhaps my very appetite for the past.
But there remain consolations. Lukacs has “inner resources” in abundance because he has always loved passionately. He has loved ideas and history, he has loved art, nature, his many friends, and his three wives (two of whom have died). He seems happy to enjoy loves present and gratefully remember loves past.
In short, in this last stage of his life, John Lukacs is tending his garden. But he is no Voltaire, smiling the sad smile of terminally chastened reason as the world whirls on in pointless frenzy. He is not merely making do, because believes in God, in the venture of faith, and in the Catholic Church, whence, he hopes, the wellsprings of true culture will keep flowing: “The Church must remain a single, lonely lighthouse of human comprehension, of wisdom, a proponent of love.”