Let me start with some basics, however unpalatable they seem to me. Unless you are an adamant believer in either faith-based progress narratives or their penumbral secular prolongations like Marxism-Leninism, free market capitalism, or law-based human rights-ism, there is no hope in history, at least in its broad sweep, what the Annales School historians called la longue duree.
To claim otherwise is a category mistake, pure and simple. To paraphrase Trotsky’s wisecrack about the dialectic, you may not be interested in the geological record, but the geological record is interested in you!
For more than twenty years I have been puzzling over a phrase from Nietzsche’s essay on the use and abuse of history that says, “We need history, but not the way the spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it.” One of the things I take it to mean (though doubtless other meanings can be derived from it as well—I remind you of another saying of Nietzsche’s: “there are no facts, only interpretations”), is that history looked at unflinchingly, and Theodicy properly understood, are in fact immiscible—again, I do not presume to speak for believers. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be derived from history as a discipline, let alone from historicism as a mode of thought, to explain, let alone justify a disaster like the Haitian earthquake of January 10, 2010, in which at least a quarter of a million people are believed to have died.
Of course, there is a geological explanation. From that point of view, we know precisely how the earthquake occurred; indeed, papers written by the geologists C. DeMets and W. Wiggins-Grandison in 2007 warned of the likelihood of a quake occurring on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden Fault off the Haitian coast—which is indeed where it did occur this past January. A team led my another geologist, Paul Mann, and including Wiggins-Grandison, presented a paper at the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in March 2008, that was even more explicit, and that same year, Patrick Charles, an emeritus professor of geology at the University of Havana, had warned that “all the conditions now exist for a major earthquake to take place in Port-au-Prince. Residents of the Haitian capital need to prepare themselves for this eventuality. It will certainly occur sooner or later.”
What does hope mean in this context? As these predictions from the experts demonstrate, there was nothing geologically surprising about what occurred. To the contrary, the point they were making was precisely that while it was a major event it was not unprecedented, even if the last temblor in the region of that magnitude had taken place in Jamaica in 1692—a huge gap in historical time as we normally think of it, to be sure, but no more than the blink of an eye in geological time. Even if one is committed to the Christian and post-Christian narrative of human history as a (more or less) linear progress, natural disasters do not qualify. Indeed, it is surely the Greek understanding of history as an ever-repeating cycle that more accurately corresponds to the realities of geology and of the natural world. At least one hopes so. For if the climate alarmists are correct—and I am simply not competent to have the right to an opinion on this debate (my conventional social democratic views on the matter signifying less than nothing)—then the history of the natural world in this century and the one that follows it will be one of regress rather than progress, and perhaps even catastrophic regress at that.
Obviously, what I am trying to argue here is that geology and history are not two, autarchic, discrete categories. As the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile demonstrate, they bleed into each other—literally, alas, as well as figuratively. We might be better served thinking of micro and macro history instead. Where macro-history is concerned, the case against human agency having much relevance (at least positive relevance) surely is a strong one. Is such hubris hard-wired into us? Is that what the neuroscientists will eventually tell us? It would not surprise me. Where the phrase “human agency” does not constitute an oxymoron is at the micro level. Even there I am persuaded that it is exaggerated, though that, of course, is because I think the Greeks, and some of their Renaissance followers like Guicciardini, were right. I suppose if I believed more in progress and less in chance I might think otherwise—emphasis on the “might.”
Let me be clear. I am emphatically not arguing that there is not progress in human history. The history of slavery and of women’s emancipation, and the history of science itself, disproves that completely. Yes, as Benjamin said, “every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.” But the civilization part is no less central than the barbarism part—something people for whom the phrase resonates (like me) often fail to emphasize sufficiently. And the acknowledgment that there is progress does not require one to accept the very much more radical claim that history is a progress. At the very least the fine old Scottish legal verdict, “not proven,” which is now, alas, falling into desuetude, seems appropriate here. For in practical terms, what, if anything, could Professor Charles’ warning about the imminence of a devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince have led to? Would the rich nations have banded together to rebuild the Haitian capital along more earthquake resistant lines? Would the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have flocked to the city from the countryside over the course of the past two or three decades in search of work of any kind have gone back to their villages? The questions answer themselves. There was, to come back to the question of hope, none whatsoever of that. To quote the great Marxist scientist, J. D. Bernal, “there is the future of desire and the future of fate, and man’s reason has never learned to distinguish between them.”
And, in any event, we should be modest when we invoke the word hope, which is a complicated and highly problematic idea. Think about it: As the anger that has steadily built among Haitians since the earthquake shows, hope has an extremely short shelf-life, and is far more easily dashed as a ruling emotion than, say, hatred. And yet it is no mere sentimental reflex for a non-believer to insist that John Wesley was absolutely right when he said “hope abides.” We know it does, both individually and collectively. And the intuition of even the most pessimistically inclined among us is that, realistic or vain, foolish or sensible, without hope we would lose contact entirely with the better angels of our nature.
But this does not manumit us from the question of whether history is the best context for thinking about hope. Or hopelessness for that matter. This may not be a problem for a believing Christian for whom hope in the resurrection is a strong foundation for a theodicy, even if no serious Christian thinks the problem of evil will become less challenging, let alone disappear because of it (whatever Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins may choose to imagine). But the serious “old” rather than “new” atheist, and, of course, believers from traditions where there is no concept of progress or afterlife, or to put it another way, where the progress is a progress toward a desired non-being, history in general and disaster in particular may precisely be the wrong context in which to hope.
Think of the great post-Auschwitz lament, “Why did the skies not darken?” Without God, the question is at once agonizing and meaningless, and conjures up Nietzsche’s great phrase about nature being “cynical in her sunrises.” Indeed, there is a poem by the British communist poet John Cornford, killed in Spain in 1936 while serving with the International Brigades, in which he marvels at the fact that the sky is as beautiful over the Nazi concentration camp at Oranienburg as anywhere else. Viewed through the icy prism of history, the skies regularly darken, then lighten again, whether over Auschwitz or the smoldering missions of Rwanda. That is its truest, its deepest tragedy.
Perhaps the answer, even, or even especially when we are thinking about history, is that in order to hope—as we must do if we are to live alertly and with some approximation of moral seriousness in a world that, viewed historically, is every bit the charnel house that Hegel said it was—instead of the fool’s errand of trying to reconcile hope and history, we should instead sever the bond that seems to yoke them together. Hope outside of history: Why not? Why can they not be experienced separately, as two human worlds—like tears and laughter?