“I am an historian, not a prophet.” ∼ John Lukacs
Clamat enim quodammodo omnis historia, Deum esse (“In a way all history cries aloud that God is”). ∼ Pope Leo XIII
For more than 60 years, from the mid-1950s on, John Lukacs wrote and spoke on the passing of the modern age. With his death on May 6, the end of that age has finally come to pass.
That the death of a single man, especially one whose name was far from commonly known, could be said to mark the end of an era, much less an age, might seem nothing more than a conceit of a writer who considered John Lukacs his intellectual touchstone, mentor, and, finally, friend. Though John would have understood the reasons behind such a claim, he would have rejected it regarding himself. He was not one to indulge in false pride—or, for that matter, false humility.
For those who don’t already know them, the strictly biographical details of John Lukacs’s life can be found in surprisingly good obituaries in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the significance of the life and work of the greatest historian of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries goes beyond the sum of his 95 years.
Born in Hungary on January 31, 1924, John Lukacs came of age during World War II. That “fact” is often presented as an explanation for certain themes in Lukacs’s work, but unlike other Central and Eastern European intellectuals who emigrated to the United States after the war (Lukacs arrived in 1946), John did not see the history of the last 75 years as a constant replay of World War II. He did see nationalism and socialism as the twin political and intellectual tendencies of the twentieth century, in both the West and in Third World countries subject to Western influence; however, the rise of both preceded World War II by 75 or more years, just as the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election makes it clear that neither nationalism nor socialism is going away any time soon.
What has gone away, at least as an intellectual tendency if not as an atavistic reality, is patriotism. John Lukacs was a patriot, in the deepest sense of the word: He loved a particular people in a particular place. He put his roots down in Philadelphia (more particularly, just outside Phoenixville, Pennsylvania), and made it his home for 73 years. He was buried there on June 5, and will await the Second Coming within a few miles of his home.
John once described principles as similar to a cannon on a rotating base: if you know where you stand, you can defend yourself from every direction. The same is true of patriotism. The patriot must, by definition, be rooted in a particular place; the nationalist, not so. Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is more often offensive. Patriots don’t go abroad, searching for monsters to destroy; nationalists too often create monsters in order to destroy them.
John described himself as a reactionary rather than a conservative, partly because, by 1970 at the latest, he saw the conservative movement in the United States as utterly uninterested in conserving anything. “Conservatives” had accepted capitalism as not just shorthand for the free market but as an efficient engine of “creative destruction.” The consequent embrace of Big Business in all of its countryside-destroying, strip-mall-creating, civilization-upending glory was anathema to a man who valued rootedness, stability, and order.
John often remarked that he was an historian, not a prophet, by which he meant that he was uncertain of what the future might hold, and he recognized that we cannot simply extrapolate from the past. Historical trends, especially in philosophy, politics, and culture, can be upended quickly, and they are often trailing indicators of what people think rather than portents for the future. “People do not have ideas; they choose them”; “What happens is inseparable from what people think happens”; and “What people think is often very different from what they think they think.” For the historian, actions should speak louder than words, and, as Lukacs often noted, what someone intends by an action is more important than what motivates that action. Intentions are conscious, and therefore potentially knowable by the historian; motives, not so.
Intentions are also important in one’s approach to the truth. As John often said, “A half-truth is more dangerous than a lie” because our recognition of the truth in the half-truth may blind us to the element of untruth. This is one of the reasons why Lukacs regarded nationalism as a greater danger than socialism. Socialism is built entirely on a lie, which means that it is ultimately unsustainable, while nationalism is a half-truth built on the reality of the nation and the patriotic impulses that arise from healthy attachments to kith and kin, hearth and home. One of Lukacs’s greatest insights was to recognize that the Cold War was less a struggle between communism and capitalism than it was a struggle between Russian and American nationalisms. Stalin saved the Soviet Union during World War II by stoking the flames of nationalism, a decision that shaped the course of the Soviet empire long after his death. Similarly, Red China saved itself from collapse by fostering nationalism, even though it meant having to compromise on communist principles.
In the midst of the Cold War, such insights were controversial, confined largely to Lukacs and his longtime correspondent and friend George Kennan. In hindsight, they seem obvious. Truth, Lukacs believed, is not relative, but its revelation can be more or less powerful depending on the context. As Lukacs put it in the Conclusion to the second edition (1985) of his magnum opus, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (1968), “a fact is inseparable from a statement of the fact which, in turn, is inseparable from its purpose,” and “the purpose of the historian should be the reduction of untruth.”
For that reason (and for others), Lukacs was never one to preach to the choir. Several obituaries have quoted these lines that John Willson wrote in The American Conservative in 2013: “John Lukacs is well known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions.” (Notice the implied importance of intention.) “This,” Willson continued, “has earned him, among friends and critics alike, a somewhat curmudgeonly reputation,” yet that reputation said more about those friends and critics than it did about Lukacs himself. John was not a sophist; he never said anything he did not believe to be true. People who seek the truth yet disagree about what the truth might be can recognize the good intentions of their fellow truth-seekers; those who have chosen a set of ideas—literally, an ideology—and elevated it above the search for the truth find honest men a source of irritation.
For John Lukacs, the pursuit of the truth in history, in language, and in human affairs was bound up with the reality of his Catholic faith. John thought of himself as a bad Catholic. Yet I learned more from him about the centrality of the Incarnation in history, and in historical consciousness, than from any of the Fathers or Doctors of the Church. He rarely wrote Catholic articles, and never Catholic books, but he wrote always as a Catholic—an important distinction.
After I laid bare the centrality of the Incarnation in his thought and his work in “Christ and History,” my review for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture of his book At the End of an Age, John sent me a note. I was afraid to open it, because, in that review, I had criticized Yale University Press for their failure to edit the volume. (Not “to edit the volume well,” but “to edit the volume” full stop.)
When, a couple of days later, I finally got up the nerve to read the note, I found that John had taken my criticisms of the editing in stride. (Indeed, he agreed with them.) And then, turning to my discussion of the core of his thought, he wrote: “You have understood my work better than anyone else.”
The core of that work—the intention, not the motivation—is found in a short passage near the end of Historical Consciousness, and for me the power of these words has not diminished in the nearly 30 years since I first read them:
Justice is external, truth is internal; and truth is of a higher order than is justice. (Perhaps in this respect the historical evolution of mankind is represented by the progress from the Old to the New Testament, a progress of consciousness: Christ taught the truth, at the expense of justice, if need be.) The pursuit of justice can be a terrible thing, laying the world waste (and isn’t this a peculiarly American inclination, amounting at times to a predicament?). The pursuit of truth is life-giving. Truth responds to a deeper human need than does justice—especially near the end of this age, when we are threatened less by the absence of justice than by the nearly fantastic prevalence of untruth.
Whether I have done John Lukacs justice in this all-too-brief tribute, I do not know; but what I have written offers a true, if incomplete, portrait of the man. There is much more that could and should be said of his understanding of the relationship between imagination and memory, morality and language (the choice of every word, John believed, is a moral action—hardly a common position in this age of ideology and social media), of the historicity of truth (which is something very different from claims of its relativity), and of the central place of man, and his consciousness, in the universe. (From Historical Consciousness: “knowledge is neither objective nor subjective but personal” and “human knowledge is not only personal but participant”—both insights flow from, and also deepen, the Christian understanding of the centrality of the Incarnation.)
“There is significance in the end of things,” a wise young man of my acquaintance once said, and this is as true of the end of the earthly life of John Lukacs as it is of the passing of the modern age of which he was the preeminent historian. John lived long enough to write two autobiographies, Confessions of an Original Sinner (published in 1990, when he was 67) and Last Rites (2009, when he was 86). The cover of the latter is a full-bleed picture of John standing in the library that he had designed and filled with perhaps the best-curated selection of books since Jefferson’s, the look of contentment on his face in stark contrast to the sense of gloom that the words of the book’s title normally evoke.
“I am an historian, not a prophet”—Yet the prophet, strictly speaking, is not one who predicts the future but a man who calls those who have ears to hear back to the truth. And all truth, as John Lukacs understood, points in the end to the Truth, who is also the Way and the Life; hence the hope to be found in John’s words in the penultimate paragraph of Last Rites:
Ambition and greed invoke, they reach out to a future. Envy and pleasure insist on the present. But gratitude: it comes always from a past. There is my gratitude to the past, to my past, including those who loved me and whom I loved. Beneath and above them is my enduring gratitude to God, for both my past and my present. Will the sincerity of this gratitude suffice to escape His adverse judgment of me? I do not think so; I only hope.
(Photo credit: Intercollegiate Studies Institute)