August 6, 2007


George Bush, Hegelian: The president's quest for a sense of "history." (David Greenberg, Aug. 6, 2007, Slate)

Weighing in recently on Bush's historical turn of mind, David Brooks (subscription required) of the New York Times recalled the old (and now rather tired) debate about whether "great men" (according to Thomas Carlyle) or "great forces" (according to Tolstoy) shape history. Bush, Brooks wrote, sees history as "the club of those in power" who, by their actions, "have the power to transform people." The contrary view holds, in Brooks' summary, that "the everyday experiences of millions of people … organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations—from the bottom up." Without taking sides, Brooks extrapolates, "If Bush's theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks and the understanding of any chief executive."

But Brooks' gloss on Bush's theory of history is too simple. For although the president considers individual leaders the key to diplomacy, his thoughts about history—especially when he shifts into his philosophical mode—actually suggest he believes in a kind of determinism, in the inevitability of deeper currents. The twist is that Bush's deep forces aren't the organic social impulses that Tolstoy wrote about. Rather, they're the expressions of a spirit—a divine will.

"Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy," Brooks wrote, "or as he said … , 'I believe a gift of [the] Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me doesn't exist.' " Much more than the probing queries of a wide-eyed undergraduate, this defiant assertion of conviction sounds like the Bush we know. It's in keeping with countless other remarks Bush has made insisting that defeating terrorism is the "purpose" of his presidency. And it bespeaks a view of history that, while out of fashion for many decades, once enjoyed near-universal appeal.

Before the Enlightenment and the recourse to science and reason in historical explanation, most societies believed that the unfolding of events followed divine guidance. Even into the 19th century, chroniclers of the American story sprinkled their narratives with references to the hand of Providence. They interpreted the conquest of the West, the flowering of democracy, and the rise of the United States to greatness as the result of a supernal blessing. "A superintending Providence, that overrules the designs, and defeats the projects of men, remarkably upheld the spirit of the Americans," reads but one such passage, from Mercy Otis Warren's classic History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), "and caused events that had for a time a very unfavorable aspect, to operate in favor of independence and peace."

This faith-based theory of history resembles Bush's. In his Vanity Fair article, Halberstam interpreted Bush's recent talk of history as a puzzling departure from his previous inclination to cite "instinct and religious faith" as the underpinnings of his decision-making. If Bush sees history as a divine plan, the contradiction disappears.

But perhaps there's a more charitable way to think of Bush's understanding of history: as a Hegelian. (Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed, for one, has offered an intriguing Hegelian reading of Bush.) Like Carlyle, who was influenced by his work, Hegel venerated heroes who steer the course of events. After seeing Napoleon ride into battle to defeat the armies of Prussian monarchy at Jena in 1806, Hegel famously described the emperor as "the World Spirit riding on a horse"—a great individual shaping history. But Hegel also believed the battle at Jena to represent, as Francis Fukuyama stressed in his influential 1989 essay, the "end of history." History, Hegel argued, had an inner logic, a teleology, with the unfolding of liberty as the ultimate plan. For Hegel, Great Men like Napoleon don't just happen to find themselves as emperor of Europe; they're driven by an inner spirit that serves the aims of historical destiny.

It sometimes seems fair to wonder whether one of the chief differences between the Right and the Left is that the former has considered and responded to the ideas of the latter -- often in dispositive fashion -- while the latter, perhaps from simple hubris, remains unfamiliar with even the most basic ideas of the former. While one result is the sorry state of liberal analysis of conservatism, another, given the conservative bent of the country, is the Left's estrangement from America (as reflected in books like What's the Matter with Kansas?).

In particular, because they are so unversed in Judeo-Christianity, the Left frequently misses altogether the religious elements in conservative thought. Most of Mr. Greenberg's confusion here would be cleared up if only he understood something about the Providence of which he speaks and its centrality to US history, nevermind to History. Here's just one essay--from a rightwing rag, of course--that explicates matters rather better than the essay above, Providence and the President: George W. Bush's theory of history (James W. Ceaser, 03/10/2003, Weekly Standard)

WHAT DO CONSERVATIVES think today about History? As President Bush readies the nation for war, an abstract question like this one seems out of place. And yet, having raised this theme himself in recent speeches, President Bush has been faced both at home and abroad with widespread criticism for his use and abuse of History. Echoing others' arguments, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has accused the president of claiming to speak for "destiny and providence." European critics charge the president and his conservative supporters with a dangerous triumphalism born of a conviction that huge metaphysical forces are aligned on America's side. America, Bush is said to believe, represents God, History, and God in History.

It has, of course, come to be accepted in modern times that presidents will speak of History, provided only that they mean nothing by it. Whenever presidents wish to elevate the tone of an address, they invoke History. History becomes the omniscient observer, watching over the president's and the nation's shoulder. History--we all know the phrases--is "judging" or "testing" us, it will "record what we do," or, in its sterner moments, "will not forgive us." Used in this way, History has become no more than a figure of speech, the great empty suit of modern rhetoric.

The problem with President Bush, so the charge against him goes, is that he has gone beyond these merely ritual usages. When he speaks about "Providence" and "history," as he did in his State of the Union address, he unfortunately takes his own words seriously. [...]

GEORGE W. BUSH is the product, far more than his father, of the modern conservative movement. Like Ronald Reagan, he is a self-described optimist who once went so far as to chastise a conservative intellectual for the sin of pessimism. What Bush has added to the mainstream of conservatism is a religious dimension, which in the case of the question of History includes the theme of Providence.

Providence is one of the richest and most complex--and therefore one of the most variously interpreted--of all religious ideas. For many, of course, the mere mention of a religious term is sufficient to provoke Pavlovian accusations of political messianism; any idea of religious pedigree (other than the message of peace) is devoid of all sense. Yet those willing to consider the matter more deeply will find that traditionally, Providence has had a reasonably determinate meaning. One of its central themes is that the course of history, from a human standpoint, is unfathomable: "The Almighty has His own purposes." One conviction, however, remains supreme: While the path of events before us can never be fully known, and while there will always be difficulty and pain, Providence offers a basis for hope and a ground for avoiding despair. Yet it disclaims any pretension to know the future and offers no assurance of divine reward for our action in this world. At the practical level of human affairs, the focus remains on human responsibility and choice.

The most sublime evocation of the "providence of God" in political rhetoric appears as the central theme of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural. This speech carries a message of ultimate hope without any guarantee of immediate reward. It keeps the focus in the political realm on duty, on the need to do right "as God gives us to see the right." These aspects of this great speech are well known, but less known, perhaps, are two other things. The first is that Lincoln's recourse to Providence was a response to the nineteenth-century precursor to the Doctrine of History that had circulated before the war and that taught, in the words of the historian George Bancroft, that "everything is in motion for the better. . . . The last political state of the world likewise is ever more excellent than the old." Standing where he did in 1865, after experiencing all of the agony and turns of fortune of the Civil War, Lincoln had come to know the centrality of political choice and to experience pathos. The second thing was that no sooner did Lincoln give the speech than he was widely criticized for not invoking God more directly on his side and for not promising a swift and certain reward. In one of his last letters, Lincoln explained that such a wish was contrary to the idea of Providence and unsuited to the education of a great people.

Although no one at this point can claim to know administration "policy" on Providence, President Bush's comments have followed in the Lincolnian mold. As he observed in his State of the Union address: "We do not know--we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history." Without taking anything away from a practical kind of optimism, the theme of Providence seems to have separated the president from the embrace of anything like a Doctrine of History. The focus has been on duty. Perhaps this language, suitably developed and elaborated, provides the best framework for conservatives both to express and reconcile their hopes and fears about history.

Presidents, it hardly needs to be said, are not philosophers. Yet in their responsibility to act, it happens that their words sometimes open a dimension of theoretical insight that more abstract thought misses. Modern man is growing ever more impressed with his supposed mastery of the physical environment. By contrast, it is obvious that the course of history can never be brought under his complete control. There will always be shocks, surprises, and events. So long as this fact does not lead to skepticism and paralysis, it can serve as a salutary reminder of the intrinsic limits of the human situation. It bids us open our thoughts, in a spirit of wonder and awe, to something much larger than ourselves. And this too is a part of the conservative message.

Note that where Mr. Greenberg takes the quintessentially liberal line that it would be "charitable" to consider George W. Bush to believe that he can shape the events of the world -- a notion that Christianity/conservatism thoroughly rejects -- Mr. Caeser correctly observes that Mr. Bush's actual views place upon him a duty to God, irrespective of mere events. Were he an Enlightenment figure and America an Enlightenment country, Mr. Bush might well shuck off his/our obligations and do whatever made him feel good, but that's not how we roll.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2007 12:43 PM

Great post. Thanks. Related, and outstanding and important, in today's WSJ ... would love it if you commented:

Warm regards,


Posted by: Qiao Yang at August 7, 2007 11:25 PM