The Terror of History

HomeArticlesThe Terror of History

History, to be precise about the term, is not everything that has ever hap­pened, but the remembered and recorded past, the past judged worthy of reflection and narration. A “history” is a story comprising, not all events, but significant events. The weight of significance is something to be determined by the person trying to make sense of the flow of events, and the result is a tale, a story worth narrating, a pattern of the significant and essential.

History is therefore a somewhat complex phenomenon, in that two com­ponents are required for its constitution: the occurrence of the significant events themselves, and the subsequent recognizing and telling of them. For this reason, when we speak of a “history” we might be referring to (1) a course of events, (2) the recorded narrative of those events, or (3) the combination of the two. Not only must there be a tale worth telling, but the tale must be drawn out or deciphered from the flux of events, and must be told, heard, and remembered, for history to exist.1

What makes events memorable? In general, we could say that memorable events are those that have the most explanatory, or revelatory, power. A bi­ographer eliminates the dross, the insignificant, from a life story, in order to expose the essential identity — the essential development, self-understanding, decisions, actions, and influences — of a person.

When Jean-Paul Sartre in his autobiography recollects that youthful occasion on which, after performing some mischief, he suddenly and painfully felt himself “seen by God,” and reacted by flying into a rage “against so crude an indiscretion” as divine om­niscience and by severing from that point all relations with God, we do not wonder why he includes the episode in his memoirs.2 He does not tell us, nor does he probably remember, what he ate for breakfast that morning; it is irrelevant to the formation of his character, and thus to his desire to under­stand and explain himself. The same principle, the desire to understand the essential, guides the writing of the story of a political or cultural movement, or the history of a nation or civilization. World history, too, is a narrative chosen in the hope or confidence that it is precisely these recollected events that will most help us comprehend ourselves and our human situation.

There is disagreement, of course, about which data have the highest ex­planatory value for telling the comprehensive human story. A world historian of Marxist persuasion, for example, will insist that material and economic conditions together with economically determined social relations provide the most fundamental data for making sense of human history, on the prin­ciple that these elements are constitutive of the human “essence.”3 By contrast, a Jewish or Christian portrayal of world history will be organized ultimately around shifting patterns of human response to divine presence (as under­stood within these respective traditions), as the key factors in making sense of the human story. Disagreements arise because events recommend themselves as most pertinent to human history in direct relation to certain assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality.

Every historian or philosopher of history identifies or presumes a ground of meaning, a bedrock of meaning, that con­sists of the reality or realities he or she is convinced are the most fundamental and enduring. For the Marxist historian, human meaning is ultimately to be determined in terms of material conditions and economic relations (these function as the ground of meaning); for the Jewish or Christian historian, human meaning is ultimately to be determined in relation to God (God is the ground of meaning).

However, professional historians and biographers are not the only people who construct histories. We all do, to the extent that we fashion into narrative wholes the stories of our own lives for telling to ourselves and to others. Our personal stories, we realize, are embedded in ever broader contexts of mean­ing that include family histories, national histories, and civilizational histo­ries, all of which we interpret in some fashion; these ever more embracing histories are in the end embraced by the overarching drama of humankind.

We have noted in the Introduction [to this book] that despite a breakdown of shared myths together with contemporary rationales for an irreconcilably fragmented hu­man drama, an experiential sense of the unity of human history remains alive. So it is that most everyone has at least some interpretation, however vague, of the overarching human drama as the ultimate backdrop of meaning within which his or her personal search for meaning takes place. Moreover, what­ever a person’s interpretation of the drama of history might entail, it reflects, as does that of any philosopher of history, assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality. In other words, every mature person’s self-understanding reflects some interpretation of the drama of human history, and this inter­pretation in turn reflects assumptions about the ground of meaning.

It will be revealing, then, to approach the question of human history by way of the constant human concern with the ground of meaning. Such an approach will help to make clear how the modern eclipse of transcendence has, by misdirecting the search for the neces­sary and transcendent ground of meaning toward contingent being, given rise both to disastrously influential visions of historical determinism and to experiences of history as a monotonous sequence of strictly mundane and equally valueless moments, in each case exposing contemporaries to what Mircea Eliade calls “the terror of history.

The Search for Transcendent Ground

Because it belongs to the very nature of human consciousness to be (to repeat Eric Voegelin’s phrase) an “experienced tension between contingency and necessity,” the human search for the ground of reality has always been a search for some necessary mode of being. The ground sought for is being or truth that is stable and enduring; only reality that must be the way it is, that is intrinsically beyond change and thus unalterable, is an absolute guarantee of stability of meaning.

An example of such reality is the God of ancient Hebrew faith: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains for ever” (Isa. 40:8). The God Yahweh promises an eternal law and justice that are not subject to change, as are mere created things: “The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth wear out like a garment . . . but my salvation shall last for ever and my justice have no end” (51:6). The enduringness of this same God and his salvific justice is further revealed, for Christians, through the epiphany of Jesus the Christ, who in witnessing to that justice declares in the Gospel of Matthew: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Thus the anonymous author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes confidently to his Christian brethren: “We have been given possession of an unshakeable kingdom” (Heb. 12:28).4

The transcendent ground of meaning need not, of course, be symbolized as a personal divinity. For instance, in the Chinese conception of the Tao we find affirmation of an impersonal reality that is both a necessary and unshakable law and the measure for grasping the true meaning of all things and all actions. Because necessary reality is that which is never otherwise, the Tao is not subject to change as are finite things:

There was something formless and perfect
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging . . . .

Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the universe.
The universe follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.5

East and West, early and late in human history, the ground of being is con­ceived of as permanent and noncontingent — a necessary reality with which humans seek to establish a firm and truthful relation as the final arbiter of personal and historical meaning.

It has been indicated in the Introduction why the search for a necessary ground of being is ubiquitous in human culture. The search is impelled by the natural human desire to understand as fully as possible the reality in the midst of which we find ourselves, a desire resonant with the awareness that our own personal existences are derived, dependent on something other, contingent. As René Descartes put it, we are conscious of occupying some sort of “middle ground” between “supreme being and non-being”: we do not have the power either to create ourselves or to ensure our existence, and we participate in the temporal order whose law is that of coming-to-be and passing-away.6

Stabilizing the Fragility of Existence

Hu­man existence is fragile, a precarious emergence out of nonexistence, hover­ing over the abyss of nonexistence to which it may return at any time. Part of the normal response to our awareness of this situation is anxiety: we feel an anxious concern to diminish the threat of precariousness, to seek a connec­tion to what is more lasting in reality, to secure a more firm foothold in being.7 Thus, the search for that which exists of necessity is scarcely a disinterested intellectual exercise.

On the contrary, it is endowed with massive emotional value, impelled partly by our anxiety over our own precarious existences, but impelled also, we should remember, by our trustful and hopeful yearning for ultimate meaning, whose most satisfying expression is unrestricted love of the mystery of unrestricted being. As our references to the Hebrew and Christian God and to the Chinese Tao have suggested, the search for insight into necessary being and our hu­man relation to it has for most of humanity not been experienced as a vain undertaking. A permanent and necessary order of reality has been identified, symbolized, analyzed, and made the focus of meditation and contemplation, worship and prayer.

We should be aware, though, that the Western God and the Chinese Tao are sophisticated symbols of transcendent reality that made their appearance relatively late on the human scene. They are two expressions of that profound transition in human self-understanding wherein the tran­scendence of the ground became explicitly distinguished and thus conceptu­ally sharply separated from worldly, spatiotemporal reality. In cultures not yet touched by this explicit identification of transcendence, the whole of reality including the sacred or divine ground was experienced without this sharp distinction between world and transcendence.

In all early cultures, reality in its completeness was experienced and understood in a more interpenetrat­ing fashion, as an interwoven unity of order, which may be designated by the word cosmos (from the Greek kosmos, meaning “an ordered whole”). In such cultures, the ground of reality was, we might say, imaginatively and con­ceptually still interfused with what we would call the natural world. In “Cos­mological” cultures, therefore, the search for necessary and permanent being found the goal of its search not in a transcendent divinity or principle, as this had not yet been sharply and clearly “differentiated,” as Voegelin puts it, but rather in the forces and rhythms of cosmic order, whose energy, lastingness, and regularities were understood to evidence sacred power and intention.8

The “undifferentiated” consciousness of Cosmological cultures will be revis­ited in expanding detail in the following chapters [of this book]. For now what needs to be understood is that in such consciousness, the necessary ground of being, not yet radically divorced from spatiotemporal being by critical thought, found adequate representation in an exotic multiplicity of imaginable and semi-imaginable divine beings, in stories of the relationships and conflicts of di­vine beings with each other, and in accounts of their creative actions with and upon the palpable world of experience.

The connection with permanent real­ity, then, for members of Cosmological societies, was the connection with “intracosmic” gods who were, inevitably, closely identified with what we would call the “forces of nature.” Furthermore, the ritual, sacred activities that se­cured and maintained that connection were the central scenes in the drama of Cosmological human existence. Mircea Eliade has explained in persuasive detail how the essential goal of re­ligious activities in archaic societies, which was to forge a connection with the power and enduringness of sacred reality, involved the repeated annihilation of time through ritual participation in the archetypal actions of divine per­sonages that established the world and its features “in the beginning.” These divine personages and events were understood to be true reality, real reality: efficacious, necessary, perfect, and immune from the deteriorating effects of time.

Unbearable Historical Time

Human existence, however, is lived in time, or in “history,” defined in this context by Eliade as “a succession of events that are irreversible, unfore­seeable, possessed of autonomous value.” From our present perspective, one of the most striking characteristics of the Cosmological outlook is its refusal to place a value on history so defined. It is an attitude typified, indeed, by an intense desire to abolish historical time, to periodically annul it and thus experience time as “starting over.”9

Why was this desire so intense, and how was it possible to experience the abolition or cancellation of historical time? First, the desire to annul time springs from the view that because “merely historical” or temporary things or events have no enduring or self-sufficient being, they have no intrinsic value. As finite and temporary realities they are not really real; they exist or happen, but because they are transient they are saturated with nonexistence and so with meaninglessness. Life in “historical time,” therefore — life in its character as a succession of unique and irreversible events — is not as such meaningful; it becomes significant only through its involvement in, its connection with, the unchanging, archetypal, true reality of divine being.

From within this per­spective, the desire to transcend the merely historical or temporal would be especially acute where suffering is concerned, because suffering that is merely “historical” and unconnected with sacred being and purpose would be expe­rienced as arbitrary and pointless. As Eliade emphasizes, it is possible for hu­man beings (whether of Cosmological or later cultures) to tolerate sufferings such as those inflicted by disease, natural disaster, or the cruelties of war­fare so long as they have a meaning that raises them above the level of pure arbitrariness, as long as they are not absurd. Purely “historical” suffering, however — suffering unrelated to any transtemporal meaning — is terrifying, and for many unbearable.10

Second, the annulment of the effects of historical time could be experi­enced as a genuine occurrence because Cosmological consciousness identi­fied the ground of reality — what exists originally and of necessity — with the powers and rhythms of what we would call the natural universe. That is, the eternal ground of meaning was conceived in such a way that it was not radically distinguished from spatiotemporal entities and events, and conse­quently the things and events of everyday life could, through appropriate rit­ual, be followed by the searching and participating imagination to a point of seamless merging with divine archetypes, and thus mundane reality could be experienced as dissolving into primordial, sacred reality.

A return to pristine origins, for both society and world, could therefore be experienced as fact. Through the efficacy of rituals of a renewing return to the sacred, historical time with its threat of meaninglessness and its accumulation of imperfect action, guilt, and suffering could be experienced as periodically annihilated and as beginning anew.11 It is a commonplace in historical studies to assert that as a consequence of these cyclical experiences involving the periodic annihilation and renewal of historical time, Cosmological cultures had no genuine experience of “history” in the larger sense of an overarching and ongoing linear progression of unique human events. History, we are frequently told, was (in the West) a discovery of the ancient Hebrews, through their experiences of an explicitly transcen­dent God, in relation to which human events for the first time took on the character of a unique series of unfolding situations, the story of a one-time Creation and its career in time.

While this view reflects a solid core of insight concerning the decisiveness of the Hebrew experience of transcendence and its accompanying radical insistence on the significance of historical particu­larity, it is also partly misleading, because it oversimplifies the Cosmological experience. While the Cosmological understanding of existence was indeed dominated by cyclical experiences of time, unrepeatable linear time was not simply excluded from Cosmological awareness and self-interpretation.

After all, it is the disquieting awareness of linear or “historical” time that constitutes the motivating cause of Cosmological efforts to abolish time through rituals of renewal. However, unrepeatable linear time also, in many Cosmological societies, received symbolic articulation and acknowledgment. Voegelin has established this through his analysis of the phenomenon he calls “historio­genesis,” a feature of cultural self-interpretation readily discernible in Cos­mological cultures of the ancient Near East.


Historiogenesis is a mythopoeic speculation on ultimate beginnings. As cosmogony is a mytho-speculation on the origins of the cosmos, and theogony on the origins of the gods, and anthropogony on the origins of hu­mankind, so historiogenesis speculates on the ultimate beginnings of the presently experienced social order. It functions in the same way as does all myth: it explains how a phenomenon — in this case the speculator’s society — came into existence in an ultimate sense.

It does this by telling the story of this society beginning at an absolute point of divine-cosmic origins, proceeding through mythical and legendary events that merge into the known events of recent history, and concluding with the establishment of the society in which the author is writing, now firmly revealed in its inevitability.12 An example of historiogenesis can be seen in the Sumerian King List (ca. 2050 b.c.e.). The list identifies a continuous line of Sumerian kings and dynasties beginning with a divinely creative origin — “When kingship was lowered from heaven, kingship was first in Eridu” — and culminating in the author’s present (which was a period of imperial restoration).

Research has shown that, in fact, the imperial territory of Sumer included numerous city-states with parallel royal dynasties, one of which would temporarily gain imperial ascendancy over the others. In the King List, though, the parallel histories and dynasties are placed in temporal succession, straightened to a unilinear stream of history that firmly and directly links the present society to the divine origin. “The relevant course of events,” Voegelin states, “descends ineluctably from the cosmic origin down to the present of the authors whose society is the only one that matters.” The present society is thus legitimated and sanctified as the inevitable goal of history.13

There is no getting around the fact that unrepeatable and ongoing linear time is the object of interest here. Historiogenesis, with its rigid documenta­tion of the inevitability of the step-by-step process leading from cosmic be­ginnings to the current social order, is a “ruthless construction of unilinear history.” Cosmological experiences of time, then, can be regarded as having been somewhat more complex than is often assumed by scholars. The cyclical experience of time, and of time’s periodic abolition and renewal, can dom­inate a perspective that also, however, accommodates some recognition of unrepeatable linear time, the historical time in which “opportunities are lost forever and defeat is final.”14

However, it may be asked: is such an accommodation truly possible? It would seem to be a psychological impossibility to experience natural or social time as starting anew while simultaneously recognizing time’s linear continu­ity. In reply, it may be argued that such an accommodation only seems impos­sible to us because we have so completely lost the Cosmological perspective, which in part is characterized by the absence of certain conceptual distinc­tions. Most crucially, there is as yet no explicit conceptual idea of a transcen­dent ground of reality, and so correspondingly no explicit conception of an immanent, worldly, temporal reality radically distinct from the sacred. Reality is still the unity of the cosmos: the space and time of the finite universe are still saturated with the timelessness of divine presence.

With respect to the “com­pact” Cosmological experience of time, then, we might say that the experience of (worldly) unrepeatable time did not yet have enough distinct meaning to challenge the experience of the cyclical dissolution of time in the ever present sacred, that is, that the experience of ongoing linear time was enough of a concern to prompt the creation of such speculative forms as historiogenesis where these appear, without as yet posing a conceptual threat to the validity of Cosmological experiences, in religious ritual, of the cyclical abolition and renewal of time through its immersion in the sacred.

There would be a sense of time as ongoing, but also an ultimately more important sense of time as re­peatedly beginning anew. This appears to be the only explanation compatible with the harmonious coexistence in Cosmological cultures of historiogenetic speculation together with a rich body of rituals and symbols the primary pur­pose of which is the annulment and rebirth of “historical” time. Moreover, a single and fully understandable motive can be discerned be­hind both the ritual return to timeless, archetypal being and the indulgence in historiogenetic speculation. That motive is the desire to overcome the precar­iousness of existence and its attendant anxiety. We have noted how Cosmolog­ical religious rituals, by connecting participants with enduring and necessary being, overcame the threat of meaninglessness associated with merely tem­poral, contingent existence.

In a related way, the firm linking of the present state of society through historiogenetic accounts to the original divine or­dering of reality, in a manner indicating that no other course of events was possible, removed the index of contingency from social existence, and con­ferred upon it the sanction of necessity and the aura of predestination. Both symbolic forms, then, assuaged the anxiety that arises from an awareness that the meaning of particular, contingent existence depends on its relation to a self-sufficient and necessary ground of meaning. Both defused the threat of “mere” historicality — the threat, that is, of existence in time divorced from enduring, exemplary, timeless being.

The Breakthrough to Transcendence

The Cosmological achievements in ordering human existence into a proper relation to necessary being were therefore successful — up to a point. That point was the revelation of the transcendence of the ground of being. In ancient Israel, in Hellas, in the cultures of ancient China and India, there occurred breakthrough discoveries that established the ground of reality as lying beyond the orders of space and time. In Israel Yahweh revealed himself to Moses as the “I am what I am,” separate from all created things, and to later prophetic understanding as the God of all the nations. In Greece poets and philosophers discerned with increasing clarity the transcendent univer­sality of the first principle of reality, culminating in Plato’s conception of a “being beyond being” and Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.”

In India the Upanishadic texts on Brahman and the teachings of the Buddha, and in China the Confucian and Taoist insights, affirmed that the ground of reality is not to be identified with anything “intracosmic” but rather with a mysterious nonthing “behind,” “underlying,” or “beyond” all natural things. The revolutionary impact of these discoveries, as they spread through their own and then surrounding cultures, can hardly be overestimated. The solace-providing myths and rituals that secured attunement with ultimate reality for Cosmological societies eventually shattered or dissolved under the pressure of symbols of transcendent reality. A massive reordering of human existence was initiated that involved assimilating the fact and implications of these revela­tions and restructuring social, political, and religious life in accordance with their truth.

A first, brutal consequence of this differentiation of transcendence was that it made prominent and emphatic not only the essential unknowability of the ground of reality but also its relative inaccessibility. A certain sense of the pal­pable closeness of the divine, of human Consubstantiality with the divine, had been lost. The ground had receded to a “beyond” of space and time and of the finite conditions of imagination, leaving humans with a heightened aware­ness of the precarious contingency of temporal existence and a correspond­ingly heightened anxiety about securing the meaning of that existence. The new dispensation ushered in by the explicit differentiation of transcendence was characterized above all by “existential uncertainty” about the fragile sta­tus of the human relationship to the ground of meaning.15

A second consequence pertained to understanding the relationship be­tween the temporal world and timeless being. As the case of Israel shows most clearly, when the ground ceases to be identified with the natural world — when the “cosmos” conceptually splits asunder into (1) a world of spatiotemporal or immanent nature and (2) a transcendent beyond of nature (a Creator-God, in Hebrew and Christian thought) — then the finite (or created) world is indeed released into “history” in a pregnant sense. That is, objects and events of the physical world can no longer be archetypal in an immediacy of par­ticipatory identity; rather, they must be understood as only related to the timeless ground, in a permanent tension of relatedness. However, this places them solidly under the index of temporal and individual objects and events, so that the course of human events becomes a historical sequence of unique situations.16

A third consequence was that direct access to necessary and transtemporal meaning could now be found only through internal processes of the soul. Once the ground has been conceptually divorced from the physical universe, there can be no experience of direct access to transcendence except through the interior element in human being that is capable of discerning and re­sponding to transcendence. In the Hebrew and Christian traditions, this element is the “spirit”; the Greek philosophers identify it as psyche (soul) and, more precisely, nous (intellect, reason); the teaching in the Upanishads stresses the recognition of Atman (the true self) in its oneness with Brahman (the transcendent principle). Thus, the search for the ground was forced to turn inward, and to develop those subtle powers of self-reflective discern­ment that lead one to truth only by exposing one also to the many dangers of spiritual self-deception. And not the least significant obstacle to such a search is the need to develop the emotional capacity to embrace its permanent un­certainties.

Faith and Uncertainty

In the new dispensation, then, access to the timeless was still possible, but only under the conditions of what Christians call “faith”: the effort to order one’s existence through a hopeful and loving relation to an essentially myste­rious ground of reality that, in relation to the natural world, is a “no-thing,” nothing. Under these conditions, the experiences of ritual renewal and regen­eration are still accessible, though, of course, only in the realm of interiority, and so only on the level of the individual person, not on that of nature, or of society en masse. A clear example of this is the Christian experience of per­sonal regeneration through ritual participation in the birth, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, which allows the believer to transcend “mere” his­tory and its threat of pointless action and meaningless suffering and which sanctifies historical reality by infusing it with divine participation.17

The Hindu teachings on moksha (“liberation”) and the Buddhist paths to “en­lightenment” likewise promise an escape from time, through appropriate self-discipline, attentiveness, right-mindedness, and spiritual struggle. The anxiety over contingent existence, heightened now through explicit recognition of the sharp distinction between particularity and the divine ground, need not remain unassuaged; the anxious soul can adjust itself, through “faith,” to proper performance of its role as a temporal existence in whom a conscious relation to transcendent meaning is capable of being realized. It is still possible for history to be resolved in timeless reality, but only in the invisible silence of the soul.18

“Faith,” so understood, has a limited appeal. Most people, it has turned out, are incapable of embracing its high demands, particularly its permanent uncertainties, so memorably characterized by Søren Kierkegaard: “Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty . . . . If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”19

Another demand arises from the transformation of world time into a historical unfolding of unique situations. If all world events constitute a singular unfolding in relation to a transcendent ground, then each individual life is also a sequence of unique moments in which the willingness and ability to attune oneself to transcendent meaning take on decisive importance. Religious life no longer has the “general” character, as Eliade puts it, of periodic dissolution into archetypal meaning for the purpose of ensuring the overall functioning of the divine economy.

Now religious de­mands are personal, isolated, irreversible. The pressure of such responsibility is too great for most people to endure.20 The alternative, though, to adjust­ing to at least some of the demands of faith, in a culture where Cosmological myths and rituals have been rendered inefficacious and the intracosmic gods unbelievable due to the advancing influence of symbols of transcendence, is the relinquishing of access to timeless reality and the experiencing of existence as wholly contained within the time of “mere” history, that is, the time of history unredeemed by absorption into and resolution in the eternal present of necessary being and its self-sufficient meaning. This, too, is existentially daunting, perhaps in a strict sense psychologically impossible.

What in fact has emerged for most people in cultures East and West are ways of living that succeed in fending off the anxiety of historical contingency while not fully embracing the adventure of faith. These include:

1. Nurturing a partial faith, which acknowledges to some degree the transcendence of the ground of meaning and the implications of transcendence, while nevertheless continuing to some degree to invest temporal objects and events with sacred power or the value of necessity (including all forms of belief in “magic,” in strict intracosmic karma, and in “fate”);

2. Transferring to representative reli­gious institutions the absolute authority corresponding to the perfection of the ground, thereby rendering the ground comfortably “visible”; and tolerat­ing history by anticipating the end of time, taking refuge from the uncertain­ties and sufferings of existence in the thought of the eschaton, the last things and the end of world, which annuls history from the future, anticipatorily.21

In the major Western religious traditions, the discovery of transcendence established God as the ground of meaning and the backdrop of history, the ultimate reality in relation to which events have historical significance. In Jew­ish, Christian, and Islamic cultures, history is a story told by God — or, rather, cotold by God and humanity, humanity shaping the story of history through its sharing in the privileges of divine freedom and creativity.

Accordingly, the core of historical meaning is understood to be constituted by what takes place in human-divine interchange, in human response to divine initiative, in the dialogue between God and human creature repeatedly provoked by God’s manifestations of divine truth and will. History, then, in these traditions, is in its deepest meaning the history of theophany — of divine presence, appear­ance, invitation, provocation, and impact.22 Regarding historical (or differentiated) existence in the context of Western traditions following from the discovery of divine transcendence, two conse­quences of special importance should be emphasized.

First, from this per­spective the entire universe is a contingent affair: none of it is being that had to be, none of its events has an intrinsic necessity, and so the meaningfulness of personal action and suffering in the world are not guaranteed through ritual alone but only affirmed in the tension and uncertainties of faith. Sec­ond, because each personal existence is unique, a one-time appearance in a one-time story, every person carries an individual burden of responsibil­ity for successful action in history — for either attuning personal life with the truths of transcendent meaning or dissipating it in a flourish of irrelevancies.

Together these consequences make up the frightening aspect of humanity’s release from Cosmological into historical existence, which can be character­ized as the conscious exercise of unique and contingent existence. They are what lead people to try to avoid historical existence — through, for example, attempted reintroductions of intracosmic notions of the sacred, or through adherence to a rigid belief in “fate” or “destiny,” or through hope for an immi­nent end to history, or through the practice of techniques for being released from this world into a better one—all of them efforts to escape from his­tory. This explains why, typically, the demands of historical existence are able to be graciously affirmed and assimilated into action only so long as those traditions (religious, literary, political, philosophical, or educational)  that orient human living in conscious relation to transcendence remain effectual.

The Modern Loss of God

As discussed in the Introduction, the most recent act in the drama of the Western historical imagination involves a wide-scale dwindling of confidence in transcendent reality. Images and symbols of divine transcendence have be­come, for increasing numbers of people, ciphers that fail to communicate a genuinely intelligible or felt sense of truth. (Friedrich Nietzsche explains, in The Joyful Wisdom, that the phrase “God is dead” is to be understood as meaning that “the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable.”) 23   Some of the many and complex reasons for this have already been men­tioned.

These complex reasons include the rise of the modern mathematical sciences, and the impact on popular imagination of the use of their methods as an ultimate measure of truth and reality; the failure of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic the­ologies of history to respond adequately to changing political and economic circumstances involving global commerce and exploration, the emergence of nation-states, and the rise of industrial technologies; the defensive hardening of religious doctrines concerning transcendence into various voices of funda­mentalist assertion that respond to the challenge of secular worldviews only with increasingly inexplicable commands. And not least, with the philosophi­cal “turn to the subject” and the growth of modern historical consciousness, a steadily intensifying awareness of the human role in the constitution of mean­ing. The outcome has been a decreasing ability or willingness to understand history as a story that begins and ends in God; consequently, modernity has been characterized by a vigorous search for a genuinely believable ground of meaning and historical significance.

The past couple of centuries in the West have produced a wide variety of fresh answers to the question about the ground. In the climate of Enlighten­ment thought, a rapidly expanding faith in the modern scientific method as the sole arbiter for determining what is true and real, together with a fading of belief in transcendent reality, led the search for the ground to structures of the physical world and the laws that govern their motions and developments. Various forms of philosophical materialism and determinism (the ground of meaning is matter and the laws that govern matter) made their appearance.

More sophisticated types of determinism emerged that take the human sub­ject as agent more fully into account: the ground of meaning lies in the laws that govern the human use of material circumstances, that is, in the forces of productive relations (Marx); or the ground of (human) meaning lies in sources of psychic energy that, operating below the level of consciousness, guide the direction of human thinking and action with the inexorability of physical laws (Freud). What such answers have in common is their imputa­tion of the ground to some world-immanent aspect or aspects of being. From the point of view of the religions and philosophies of transcendence, they are forms of reductionism, in that they attempt to reduce transcendent meaning to purely worldly meaning. They are efforts at the radical immanentization of reality.24

World-Immanent Meaning of History

These reductionisms necessitate new answers about where history is headed. A purely world-immanent historical process must have a purely world-immanent goal. There appear secular doctrines of progress, of the relentless improvement of the human condition, perhaps to culminate in a perfected state of fully enlightened human relations and permanent peace (Kant), undergirded by the miracles of technology.

Alternately some, like Freud, see history as a battlefield between the forces of life and civilization, on the one hand, and those of destructive human urges, on the other, a sce­nario that relocates the traditional apocalyptic struggle for spiritual salvation to the natural and social world. Or, history is organized like a drama into a sequence of discrete acts — ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern  —that, if not leading to some permanent finale of perfection, still establishes a set of evolutionary categories for classifying its world-immanent mutations.

What is clear in all this speculation is the heightened concern with temporal history itself, along with a readiness to invest the immediate present with the high­est degree of historical significance. The philosophies of history that burst upon the scene in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as those of Condorcet, Kant, Comte, Hegel, and Marx, invariably assume, in one fashion or another, that the essential meaning of history lies in the improvements of progress, and that the justification of earlier stages of history is to be found in later (especially contemporary) achievements. Insofar as they assert as well that history had no alternative but to arrive at the present state of things, with the high point of advance being the author’s own society, we again come across the comforting conceits of historiogenetic speculation — a type of spec­ulation that, as Voegelin comments, “displays a curious tenacity of survival.”25

The modern fascination with ironclad laws governing the course of his­tory and with visions of relentless progress toward perfection is not difficult to fathom. It comes above all from the desire to find necessity operating in history. As the vision of transcendence fades, the awareness grows that if God or timeless being is no more than an illusion, the meaning of the historical enterprise is no sure thing. History becomes a story told by fragile human be­ings in precarious circumstances on a stage that could — by nuclear weapons or other means of devastation — be wiped clean with nothing remaining.

The search for necessary laws governing history may be diagnosed as the search for a historical meaning that transcends human intention and action, that will relieve individuals of ultimate responsibility, provide a measure of for­giveness, and reestablish a sense of permanent meaning to human existence in time. It is, of course, a doomed search, for it is yet another reductionism. It unsuccessfully attempts to impose necessity — revealed by the spiritual and philosophical discoveries of the Axial Period to belong only to the timeless and self-sufficient being of transcendence — onto a world history whose in­trinsic contingency remains, if unhappily, all too assuredly felt.

The modern secular philosophies of history, then, are not satisfactory solu­tions to the anxiety of contingent existence, which can be adequately assuaged only by experiences of timeless being. Mircea Eliade has again put the mat­ter succinctly: all points of view that reduce historical meaning to purely worldly conditions are not only frustrating but finally terrifying, because by removing timeless meaning from those conditions they “empty them of all exemplary meaning,” and what results is a “terrible banalization of history,” because physical, worldly, historical being is intrinsically perishable being.26

Human actions are reduced, in effect, to temporary maneuverings in the void. Most distressingly, there is no protection against the threat of meaningless suffering. Calamities of misfortune, disease, oppression, and cruelty — not to mention the collective victimization resulting from totalitarian warfare and policies of mass intimidation, incarceration, deportation, and genocide — must be considered brute accidents of history, no more than mistakes or hap­penstance.

From the victim’s perspective, this is hardly supportable. Here we can iden­tify one of the sources — one of many, to be sure, but certainly a significant source — of the explosion of political terrorism on the part of secular revo­lutionaries during the past century and a half. For the secular revolutionary, if suffering is not felt to be redeemed through its participation in exemplary, divine meaning, then history must be forced, on pain of meaninglessness, to yield an outcome that justifies that suffering. History must be made to achieve a just solution, and the debts of suffering and injustice must be paid in history; only the victims, fighting for their due through violent action, can ensure this result.

If political reality is proving stubbornly resistant to be­ing shaped in accordance with envisioned justice, there is at least recourse to the democracy of fear, regardless of any politically realizable goal; through arbitrary acts of terrorism the victims of the terror of history can reduce representative others to their own state, and thus achieve historical parity. The terrorist psychology of secular revolutionaries is quite intelligible as a response to being cornered by the terror of history.27

Of course, most people who suffer from the terror of history, even exces­sively, do not become terrorists. They find other ways to cope with the threat of meaninglessness. As Henry David Thoreau noted, many an existence is lived in “quiet desperation.” Others seek out evidence of a fateful necessity ordering the patterns of their lives. In Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot presents a catalog of popular antidotes to the burden of historical contingency:

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,

To report the behaviour of the sea monster,

Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,

Observe disease in signatures, evoke

Biography from the wrinkles of the palm

And tragedy from fingers; release omens

By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable

With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams

Or barbituric acids, or dissect

The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams: all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

And always will be, some of them especially

When there is distress of nations and perplexity

Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.

They are “pastimes and drugs,” and not solutions to the question of personal and historical meaning, because they seek answers within the dimension of time, of imaginable past and future, whereas redemption from the terror of history can be found only where the human search for meaning encounters its transcendent ground, at “The point of intersection of the timeless / With time . . . .” We might add to Eliot’s list the pastimes of terrorists and neigh­borhood gangs, the drugs of television and shopping, and the perennial belief that a New Age, with all its consoling perfections, is upon us at last.28

All Meaning is Subjective

Another coping mechanism has been found by the postmodern philoso­phers of groundlessness and their professional followers, who have decided to make the most of the death of God and the absence of necessity by announc­ing, like Richard Rorty, the apotheosis of contingency. Trained to think things through and to eschew outmoded solutions, they are consistent enough to re­alize that without transcendent meaning, there can be no “ground” of histori­cal relevance at all.

It has become, therefore, intellectually au courant to insist that a historian’s criteria for selecting pertinent materials are irredeemably subjective and arbitrary—that situating conditions, including unconscious motivations and biases, social and linguistic structures and instabilities, all the factors that make up the completely contingent personal and cultural perspective of a historiographer, render his or her construction of histori­cal narratives unique and contestable at best, self-serving and reactionary at worst. The logical conclusion is that all principles of selection for telling a history, all “backgrounds of meaning,” are equally valid — or, with respect to the desideratum of a “true” account of significant events, equally invalid.

It can be exciting to deny that there is any ultimately stable meaning within the scope of human experience. Exciting in the short run, anyway. A more profound experience of the idea leads to more problematic feelings. If it is re­ally true that there is no human connection whatsoever with timeless mean­ing, then no event can be more meaningful than any other; to thus reduce all events to equal status and every storyteller’s perspective to equal arbitrariness is then tantamount to reducing experience to meaninglessness. This is an­other reason that the idea of groundlessness, as a counter in philosophical and academic games, has little real purchasing power.

People continue to search (and search with success) for the genuinely timeless ground of personal and human history in part because the mood evoked by a serious adoption of — rather than mere intellectual flirtation with — the idea of groundlessness is ex­istential despair, a despair evident in those who genuinely suffer, existentially or politically, from the terror of sheer contingency. Eloquent voices of that despair are to be found scattered throughout Western literature of the nine­teenth and (especially) twentieth centuries, with none, perhaps, more fluent than those of the characters in the works of Samuel Beckett. With anguished precision they speak of purely historical time as an interminable piling up of valueless moments, each as pointless as the next:

“Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abom­inable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?”

“Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of . . . that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life. Ah let’s get it over!”29

As Beckett and other artists who speak for innumerable victims of the terror of history attest, the principal symptom of full and honest exposure to sheer contingency is despair.

The Remedy

In the course of this chapter the term history has undergone more than one change of meaning. At the start, it was defined as (1) a record of memorable events with explanatory power, events whose significance is determined in relation to some ground of meaning, however this ground maybe conceived. Later, in the context of our discussion of Cosmological culture and its eventual dissolution through the explicit identification and symbolization of transcen­dence, the term history was used to designate (2) the experience of temporal existence as a succession of unique persons and events, sharply distinguished from the timeless dimension of reality (which becomes, when the timeless dimension is rejected as an illusion, the experience of “mere” history). And finally, history has been described as (3) a pattern of human events unfolding in relation to a transcendent ground, as human beings search for and undergo transformations in relation to timeless meaning.

It will be noted that in the popular mind, as well as in the writings of most historiographers, world history is understood in the sense of (2) above. That is, even if a permanent ground of meaning is assumed, history is thought of simply as the total world-immanent course of events. However, we have seen that it is this conception of world history, or rather this experience of his­tory, that can provoke terror once the timelessness of transcendent meaning ceases to be believable. It is the image of human reality as “mere” spatiotem-poral existence that prompts the building of existential and intellectual escape routes, not all of them harmless, from the burden of sheer contingency.

It will be noted further that history in the sense of (3) is a version of the general definition of history with which we began (1) — a refinement, in fact, reflect­ing the discovery that necessary, timeless reality must have the character of transcendence. For reflecting on world history, then, we will say that history (3) is the most philosophically sound conception of the process of human history, informed as it is by the fullest range of philosophical and spiritual insights into the transcendent nature of the ground of meaning.

At the level of personal experience, it is again history in this sense, history as a pattern of human events unfolding in relation to a transcendent ground, that offers the sole responsible remedy for the terror of history. That is, in the modern world, anxiety over the implicit nothingness of purely contingent personal existence and world history can be genuinely allayed only through consciously gaining access to timelessness through experiences of transcen­dence, through insights and emotions that connect us with a nontemporal sense of identity.

Thus the recurrent appeal for many, even in a strenuously secular culture, of injunctions to “put on the mind of Christ” or to “find one’s original Buddha-nature” or in any equivalent way to ground person­ality in the transcendently real. “[Man] probably cannot rejoice over the gifts of existence,” notes Eliade, “if he does not take them as signs that have come from the beyond,” for only then can one “build a structure and read a mes­sage in the formless flux of things and the monotonous flow of historical facts.”30

This can be accomplished only through personally suffering open­ness to the mystery of transcendence — an openness that is always existentially challenging, but that is especially hindered, in our times, by the opacity of traditional symbols of transcendence, by modern secular conceits of a purely world-immanent history leading to a purely world-immanent goal, and by postmodern declarations that sheer contingency is all there is. Only through openness to the mystery of transcendence can historical existence in the end be found to be not a nightmare, but a meaningful adventure, perhaps even a blessing.

What, then, would the process of world history look like, so to speak, with its transcendent ground taken properly into account? [In the next chapter Prof. Hughes ] will turn to The Ecumenic Age, the fourth volume of Eric Voegelin’s five-volume Order and History, which stands as the high point of his efforts to articulate and apply the principles of a philosophy of history that would do justice both to contemporary scholarship in all relevant fields and to the fact of a tran­scendent ground of human existence.



1. On this “double constitution” of history and its epistemological implications, see Voegelin, “What Is History?” in What Is History? 10-13.

2. Sartre, The Words, 102.

3. “[At] each stage [of history] there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special char­acter . . . . This sum of productive forces, capital funds and social forms of intercourse, which every individual and generation finds in existence as something given, is the real basis of what the philosophers have conceived as ‘substance’ and ‘essence of man’ ” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, 59).

4. Translations are from The Jerusalem Bible.

5. Mitchell, Tao Te Ching, chap. 25.

6. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation Four, 79.

7. For the classic philosophical texts on anxiety (angst), see Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety; and Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, esp. 225-35. For an analysis of the relationship between anxiety and the search for the ground to which the present chapter is much indebted and which deserves a place among the basic philosophical texts on anxiety, see Voegelin, “Anx­iety and Reason,” in What Is History?

8. For an introduction to the Cosmological perception of reality, see Voegelin, Israel and Rev­elation, 39-84. Voegelin regards the explicit discovery or “differentiation” of transcendence in various world cultures, and the ensuing transitions from what he calls “compact” (or Cosmo­logical) to “differentiated” styles of self-understanding, to have constituted the single most im­portant and problematic development in the history of the human search for meaning. For a summarizing account of his treatment of the subject, which dominates his writings on con­sciousness and underpins the organizational plan of much of Order and History, see “The Ques­tion of the Ground,” chap. 2 in Mystery and Myth, by G. Hughes, 41-69.

9. Eliade, Myth of Return, 95. The present chapter is indebted for its title and one of its guiding themes to Eliade’s detailed analysis in Myth of Return of what he calls “the terror of history,” which is also the title of its fourth and final chapter.

10. Ibid., 95-102.

11. See Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, 69-80.

12. Voegelin makes it clear that historiogenesis is not universally found in Cosmological so­cieties: “As a matter of fact, wherever it can be dated, historiogenesis proves to develop later than the speculations on the other realms of being [the gods, the world, and human being]; and in some Cosmological societies it does not develop at all” (“Anxiety and Reason,” in What Is History? 55). Nevertheless, its presence in those Cosmological cultures in which it is found confirms that the concern with irreversible time, and thus with “history,” is not entirely absent from Cosmological societies. Even more fruitfully, Voegelin finds historiogenetic speculation to be “virtually omnipresent” in all later developed societies, East and West, from ancient Israel, China, and India up to and including the modern West (56). It thus appears to be a symbolic form of considerable importance for the understanding of historical self-interpretation. For Voegelin’s analysis, see “Historiogenesis,” chap. 1 in The Ecumenic Age, 108-66. The essay “Anx­iety and Reason,” published posthumously in What Is History? (1990), is an earlier version of this chapter.

13. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 115. On the Sumerian King List, see 114-18, 134-36. The classic text is Thorkild Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List (1939).

14. Voegelin, “Anxiety and Reason,” in What Is History? 55.

15. Ibid., 69-70.

16. Voegelin, “What Is History?” in What Is History? 21-23, 35-36. This consequence of worldly things and persons being understood as unique and temporal in a profound way, and as existing in a “tension of relatedness” to transcendent reality, equally pertains to those cultures, such as the later Hindu, in which the physical universe is conceived as a thing that will be born and reborn in infinite succession, and to philosophies, such as certain branches of post-Aristotelian thought, in which history is imagined to be a finite thing whose persons and events will periodically recur, repeating themselves down to the smallest detail. The transcendent timelessness of the ground must have already been conceptually removed from the finite and physical realm for the cosmos to be considered a “thing” that can be successively reborn, or for history to be thought of as a “thing” that can occur over and over. See Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 128-33, 393-95. We will return to this topic in the following chapter.

17. Eliade, Myth of Return, 129-30.

18. There are, of course, important differences between Western and Eastern religious views on access to transcendent timelessness and salvation from time. The most important of these derive from the Western view of the universe as created ex nihilo by a personal God, while classic Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, and Upanishadic teachings portray the universe as a beginningless and endless process arising from an impersonal divine mystery (though Hinduism and Buddhism embrace rich traditions in which the transcendent ground is personified, and Western mystical theologies acknowledge an unknowable ground of being beyond all analo­gies of personification).

These differences lead to a difference in the value placed on the finite world. In the West, as the creation ex nihilo of a personal God, the imperfect world with its in­evitable suffering is emphatically sacred and good, while in Eastern thought there is a tendency to devalue the world and the suffering existence naturally entails. Importantly, it also leads to different experiences of history. In the West, the concept of a Creator-God who creates the world ex nihilo separates the ground so radically from finite being, while simultaneously establishing it as the work of free and loving divine intention, that world history enjoys a high degree of autonomous value. In comparison, the Eastern concern with history is mild: the “nearness” of transcendence, as it were, limits the value of history. In this connection, Voegelin speaks of the rather “muted mode of differentiation” and the “muted” historical consciousness present in Eastern traditions (The Ecumenic Age, 356, 394).

19. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 182. The “objective uncertainty” here re­ferred to concerns the very Western problem of the mystery of God, but it can equally be applied to the question of the mystery of the Tao, or Brahman, or nirvana.

20. Eliade, Myth of Return, 108-10. Voegelin highlights the difficulties of faith as one of the psychological consequences of the discovery of transcendence: “[The] thread of faith, on which hangs all certainty regarding divine, transcendent being, is indeed very thin. Man is given noth­ing tangible. The substance and proof of the unseen are ascertained through nothing but faith, which man must obtain by the strength of his soul . . . . Not all men are capable of such spiritual stamina; most need institutional help, and even this is not always sufficient” (Science, Politics, and Gnosticism: Two Essays, in Modernity without Restraint: The Political Religions; The New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 310).

21. On eschatological hope as an antihistorical attitude, see Eliade, Myth of Return, 111-12.

22. Ibid., 102-12; Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 289-90, 317.

23. Walter Kaufmann, ed. and trans., The Portable Nietzsche, 447. The title of Nietzsche’s work, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, is also translated as The Gay Science.

24. As Voegelin has stated the matter: “What has happened to the transcendent ground in [this] connection? It has become, let us say, immanentized. We still have, of course, the quest of the ground, we want to know where things come from. But since God (in revelatory lan­guage) or transcendent divine being (in philosophical language) is prohibited for agnostics, they must put their ground elsewhere. And now we can see, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, in the Enlightenment, a whole series of misplacements of the ground:

“The transcendent ground is misplaced somewhere in an immanent hierarchy of being . . . . There is a whole gamut of possibilities of misplacing the ultimate ground: from human reason down to such phenomena as the Nordic race and — in between — the libido, the productive relations, economic or political rationality, and so on. … If you reflect on the whole series . . . you will find that there is a limit to such misplacements of the ground; you can misplace the ground only in more or less identifiable, distinguishable areas of immanent existence: human reason or animal urges or economic or political urges or the libido or sex relations or the color of the skin, and so on.”

“But you can go only through: reason, psyche, body, inorganic matter. We can observe, for the last two hundred years, that every possible locale where one could misplace the ground has been exhausted” (“In Search of the Ground,” in Conversations with Eric Voegelin, 13-16).

25. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 117. For an overview of modern progressivist philosophies of history, and an account of their derivation and their deviation from the Hebrew-Christian understanding of history, see Karl Löwith, Meaning in History.

26. Eliade, No Souvenirs: Journal, 1957-1969, 55.

27. It might be argued that religiously motivated terrorism, too, springs indirectly from the terror of history, insofar as it erupts from an anxious need to verify God’s love for history’s victims through visible defeats inflicted upon their “enemies” in the here and now.

28. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” in Four Quartets, 135-36. In 1930 Austrian Robert Musil, in his novel The Man without Qualities, described those who in every age are ready to proclaim “the pernicious nonsense known as the New Age”: “This sort of people had in all ages regarded themselves as constituting the New Age…. In these people there lived, in the queerest way, the conviction that it was their mission to bring order into the world . . . . It shook them, it blew like a gust through their heads . . . . Ulrich had once, for the fun of it, asked them for exact statements of what they meant. They had looked at him disapprovingly and called his demand a mechanistic view of life, and skepticism, asserting that the most complicated things of all could only be solved in the simplest way, so that the new age, once it had sloughed off the present, would look quite simple” (184, 190-91).

29. Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 57B; Endgame, 70.


This excerpt is from Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy From Ancient Societies to Postmodernity (University of Missouri Press, 2003); also see “Ezra Pound and the Balance of Consciousness” and “Voegelin’s Question of the Ground.”

Glenn Hughes

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Glenn Hughes is Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He is author of several books, including Transcendence and History (Missouri, 2003); A More Beautiful Question (Missouri, 2011); and co-editor, with Charles Embry, of The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness (Missouri, 2017).