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History, Progress, and Time

History, Progress, And Time

Man is constructed as a function of history in such philosophies of history as those of Comte, Hegel, and Marx, with an apocalyptic present, that is, a present in which all past reality is relegated to a dead past and all present is concentrated in this empirical present in time, loaded with expectations that something meaningful will come out of this present. That is the characteristic of the apocalyptic attitude, projecting into the future and forgetting about the past: the dead past and the living future. With regard to such an opposition of a dead past to the living future, one should, for instance, be aware that these ideas of a time that flows from a past into a future on a symbolized line — just one line running through the point of present — is a conception, a meaning of the word future, which does not become current before the middle of the eighteenth century. Up to the middle of the eighteenth century we have no term for what today we call “the future”— a better future, a more peaceful future, or God knows what. This term, or meaning of, future did not exist in any European language before 1750. . . .

Against such immanentist constructions of history, I shall develop in these lectures a different concept of history: history as an open field of existence. The difference between the constructions just characterized and what I shall present here can be formulated diagrammatically in the following manner. If you have this late-eighteenth-century concept of time you would have to have something like a line of time. . . .   If you have the problem of open time, you would always have to consider that at every point of presence on this line [Voegelin has drawn a line on the board] we are not moving only on this line, but in openness toward divine reality, so that every point of presence is as T. S. Eliot formulated it, a point of intersection of time with the timeless. That is the point of presence. Thus, the whole series of time would not be a series on a line at all but a series of present points in which none is ever past, but only past in relation to their present, not really past. Ontologically, really, it is always in relation to the presence, which is the same presence that constitutes my present here and now.

On this conception of a divine presence, which is the presence in every present point on the line, depends every conception of history that makes sense, every sense of history at all. There would be no reason whatsoever why we should worry about anything that happened three thousand years ago, or three minutes ago, unless there were a reason perhaps to remember it, because it is connected with our present point three minutes later, because it has a presence just as our point has a presence. So a proper diagrammatic formulation would not be the line, but you would have to make it something like a flow of presence, as I call it, with a direction in which there is permanently a tension between the immanent and transcendent poles. That would be a proper diagram of time, but not a straight line.

[As I said,] this line point, this line diagram of time, arose in the eighteenth century and already Kant had his trouble with that conception of a straight line of time. Because he had to ask himself: If we have such a straight line of time going in one direction and approaching a point of perfection somewhere in an indefinite future, in an indefinite future you would have then, on the one hand, “Indefinite,” and on the other hand, in capital letters, “PERFECTION.” That is his conception of history, history as an indefinite approach to the realm of perfection. And then he would ask himself, How large is our perfection in any finite time in which we live? — because, after all, we don’t live infinitely, but only for a span of time.

Now take any finite piece of time, make it small “t” (which may represent ten years or fifty years or a century or a human lifetime), and then ask yourself the question, How large is progress within that finite time? And then you would have to formulate that this finite time is equal to large “PERFECTION,” so that small “perfection” is related to complete perfection like “t” to infinity, which gives you then the equation, [“p” is to capital “P” times “t” divided by infinity,] which is equal . . . to what?  [Member of audience: “Zero!”]   If you have that conception of a line of time in indefinite perfection, all finite progress in time is zero, so that is an illogical term.   I am operating with the conception of a flow of presence. . . .   Merleau Ponty has given, in his Phenomenologie de la perception, a further very amusing analogy of the problem of time. Time is nothing but a relation between myself and what I imagine to be time. Therefore, if I have such a line here, now, I cannot talk about it in the abstract, but I have to place myself in relation to it. And if I imagine it to be a flow, and myself standing as a person here on the border of that river of time, it flows past me in this direction, a flow presumably ending in some sort of ocean.   Therefore all past time lies here in the future and all future time comes back here from very late in the past. That’s a lovely concept! — which has considerable importance in reality, because this past time is what we try to recapture sometimes.

For instance, De Quincey has this symbolization in his “Savannah-la-Mar,” that all time in his concern is the past of his life, appearing as an underground or undersea, and it has to be recaptured somehow, enlightened perhaps. It is the past time, and you have a similar problem in Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu, the time that got lost, and that is the time with which you are occupied, if you operate with such a conception of a line.   Of course you can take another situation. You can assume that you are in the middle of the flow and you are infinite: then the flow would go past you. You would be a constant at some point, and then indeed you would be in the stream flowing with it into the future. . .   But you see, I just want to loosen up a bit your idea about time. It is not an easy matter, but you can use all sorts of symbolisms. You should be aware that you use symbolisms, why you use symbolisms, and that the question, “Which is the proper symbolism to be used?” can only be solved by an analysis of reality, and not just by talking about time. One has to analyze reality. Here I am using the concept of the flow of presence. . .


This excerpt is from The Drama of Humanity and Other Miscellaneous Papers: 1939-1985 (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 33) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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