The Ambivalence of History

“We all work together to one end, some of us with conscious understanding, others without knowing it…”–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI.42

There are happy coincidences when the things we read all seem to be making the same point. Or perhaps we become more aware of patterns previously present, but overlooked. A case in point is Jacques Maritain’s On the Philosophy of History (1957)* which I read not long after Malcolm Muggeridge’s Christian assessment of human events.

I find some of Maritain’s analysis to be overly optimistic, as regards the trajectory of postwar democratic culture. That said, there are insights worth rediscovering: specifically, what he refers to as the “ambivalence of history” and the “law of the double movement.”

[W]e may say that at each moment human history offers to us two faces. One of these faces gives grounds to the pessimist, who would like to condemn this period of history. And the other gives grounds to the optimist, who would like to see the same period as merely glorious….

It is a point of subtlety. Social development, like human experience on the individual level, is seldom unilinear. Both good and bad trends exist side by side. Religiously speaking, Maritain draws inspiration for his interpretation from the parable of the wheat and the cockle (Mt. 13:24-30).

Along with the possibility of misunderstanding history in radical or reactionary ways, life’s contradictions may perhaps incline us to apathy. But that’s not what the French philosopher is recommending. Truth does exist; there are moral gains in society. Nevertheless, these advances don’t occur all at once, nor are they imperishable.

An error in spiritual principle bears its inevitable fruit: we must expose the error and avow the loss. During the same period, however, there is an advance in human affairs, there are new human conquests. There are, joined to certain evils, gains and achievements that have an almost sacred value since they are produced in the order of divine Providence: we must acknowledge these achievements and these gains.

It is a point very much in line with Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine or Belloc’s adage that “truth comes by conflict.”

A more explicitly theological interpretation of this view is provided by Maritain’s contemporary, Msgr. Ronald Knox. He wrote that while “the action of human wills” often appears to thwart God’s purpose, “we know by faith that it is not so; the action of human wills, even of sinful human wills, does but in fact subserve his ends; he used the treachery of Judas as the lever of a world’s redemption” (The Pastoral Sermons).

* A free online version of this work is available through the Jacques Maritain Center.

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