What can History Teach us?

„What makes you think that some values are the right ones for everyone?“. I was walking through the streets of Berlin lately with a friend of mine and we were having an argument over values. We both agreed that rightwing populists were immoral, insofar as they propagated xenophobic and sometimes even racist thoughts. In my oppinion, they were threatening the order of political liberalism based on the universal human rights, which we should be taking for granted since the end of World War II. But my friend found it difficult to find a reason why these people should be wrong. „Isn’t the difference between you and them simply that they have other values of which they think they should be the right one for everyone? How can you claim that your values are superior to theirs?“

Of course, I didn’t claim that everyone should share my values in all respects. It is necessary to distinguish here between moral and ethical values. Ethical values are those that pertain to a conception of happiness which can differ from one way of life to the other. Some people believe that happiness lies with working a lot, being successful at work and leading a wealthy life. Other people, by contrast, that happiness lies in devotion to art, seeking solidarity in order to be inspired and looking for the meaning of being. I have no reason to claim that one way of life is better than the other. Moral values, however, are unconditional. They tell us that we should respect the dignity of human beings in every person, no matter where she (or he) is from, what she believes and whatever other particular feature she has.

My friend, however, was not yet quite convinced. „Why should moral values be unconditional? Haven’t we got the same problem again that you might have a different concept of what is moral than I do?“

I had the curious reflex of referring to history. Didn’t history teach us how important it is to respect certain moral rights and duties? Didn’t our ancestors agree on a catalogue of universal human rights at the wake of the second world war to tell us that certain values must be unconditional? Didn’t we experience abuses and horrors which should never be repeated? But, of course, this line of thought was fallacious. My friend quickly retorted: „But who says that history is right? Isn’t it rather that the winners write history?“

I couldn’t help but thinking of Hegel, who once said: „Der einzige Gedanke, den die Philosophie mitbringt, ist aber der einfache Gedanke der Vernunft, daß die Vernunft die Welt beherrsche, daß es also auch in der Weltgeschichte vernünftig zugegangen sei“. In English: philosophy has only one thought, which is the thought of reason, that reason rules the world and hence that world history must have been reasonable. Hegel believed in progress in human society. He believed that reason was immanent to the world (not a given a priori) and would reveal itself through the progess of human institutions. A constellation of human institutions, including all sorts of social practices and political institutions, that was unreasonable would disclose deep contradictions within itself. These contradictions would lead to the breakdown of these institutions and the emergence of new ones, a new human way of life.

The paradigmatic example Hegel was thinking of was the French revolution, which marked the breakdown of absolute monarchy and the emergence of the republic. A more recent example could be the dramatic collapse of a world order based on nationalism and colonialism after the second World War, which was replaced by a world order based on universal human rights and the right of self-determination. These transformations are indeed revelatory, insofar as a certain set of values and related institutions can be justified by referring to the contradictions in the preceding order to which they offered a solution. Hegel’s philosophy is interesting in that respect because he argues that we do not need an absolute reference (e.g. ‚pure thinking‘ as in a Kantian conception), which would always be disputable among people who might refer to different references. Instead, the reference is history itself, real processes, which reveal what is reasonable and what not.

The blind spot in Hegel’s philosophy, however, is his plain optimism. He thought that there must be a linear evolution in history which would culminate in an ideal form of society which would contain no more contradictions in itself. The current surge of nationalism and conservatism (return to traditional family values, concerns for cultural decadence, etc.) illustrate how easily people tend to forget about the lessons of history and seem to return to previous mindsets. Maybe, it is because Hegel didn’t take into account that changes such as globalisation, technological progress, demographic transformations and other factors constantly create new challenges in the face of which we need to redefine the rules and institutions of our society.

Nevertheless, Hegel’s philosophy is engligthening, insofar as it teaches us that we always have to make an effort to reappropriate the history of our institutions and values in order to understand to what extend they are reasonable. At the same time, we cannot take them for granted and have to stay open for possible changes, if new contradictions within our institutions appear and it becomes necessary to transform them again. Of course, when I had that conversation with my friend, I didn’t come up with a Hegel quotation and all these deep thoughts. But our short discussion made me realise that many people today feel uncertain about what ‚our values‘ are and I think philosophy can give us some guidance here.


2 Gedanken zu “What can History Teach us?

  1. You have touched upon something very interesting. The problem of our current societies is that we don’t value philosophy and other humanities anymore. We don’t listen to thinkers anymore. The power of the number is ruling nowadays. When people only look at the world through the lenses of economics, values lose their function of regulating our societies.

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    1. Good point. This might be a reason why people in very different context are reaching out for extreme ideologies to give back meaning to their life. A life that is not inspired by stories, thoughts and history quickly becomes void of any meaning. Right-wing populism, paramilitary groups or fundamentalists probably offer a very appealing alternative to a life that understands itself only through the lenses of salary, job perspectives and assets – as you very accurately pointed it out.

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