The End is Nigh
At the End of an Age
by John Lukacs
Yale University Press; 230 pp. $22.95
Historian John Lukacs has a bee in his bonnet. He believes we are living at the end of an age. When I first encountered this particular bee, in Lukacs's peculiar 1998 not-novel A Thread of Years, I put it down to the sympathetic fallacy (Lukacs was born in 1924) and to what the author himself has described as the "congenital pessimism" of the Hungarians. Without entirely discounting that last, I do now concede, having read a great deal more Lukacs in the interim, that his opinion goes somewhat deeper than what my daughter calls "geezerism."
Lukacs has been obsessing about this end-of-an-age business for over thirty years. In 1970 he actually produced a book titled The Passing of the Modern Age, setting out his ideas on the matter in some detail. Even when writing actual history, Lukacs has not been able to refrain from hoisting his THE END IS NIGH placard. In the envoi to Five Days in London, for example, his brilliant 1999 study of the Churchill-Halifax clash at the time of Dunkirk, we read: "Now … we can see that in 1989 not only was an entire century closing … but an entire age was closing as well, an age that had begun about five hundred years ago …"
Is Lukacs right? Are we living at the end of an age? If we were, how would we tell? A Romano-Briton of the early fifth century, watching the legions depart and wondering about the best place to bury his coin-hoard, might very well have felt that his world was coming to an end, and would have been correct to think so. A European born at the time of Constantinople's fall, who then lived to see the opening of the New World, meet Copernicus and witness the Reformation, would surely have had some inkling that one age had passed away and another been born. Are we in a similar case? If so, what will this new age look like? Will it, as Lukacs seems to expect, be a great decline, a lapse into barbarism?
In this new book, Lukacs seeks to bolster his conviction — which I am afraid I still believe to be mainly temperamental, and probaly false — by means of a long and rambling discourse on the parallels between our understanding of the physical world, as it has developed in modern science, and our understanding of the human world, as enlightened by modern historical scholarship. Our age is (says Lukacs) characterized by an increasing intrusion of spirit into matter, and of the blurring of distinctions between observer and observed. The materialist foundations of modern thought have been undermined thereby, and so the civilization built on them must come tumbling down.
Well, it is not news that thinkers of 150 years ago were much more sure that they understood reality — both physical and historical — than we are today. I am not clear, though, why the declinist thesis follows. Loss of confidence is, as Kenneth Clark noted, one of the sure symptoms of an ailing civilization; but the change of perspective brought about by modern physicists and historians looks, to me, more like a move to a deeper, more subtle view of what knowledge actually is. The great lesson of the 20th century is that all our knowledge is of a probabilistic nature. This is taking some getting used to; but probability is just as susceptible to mathematical interpretation as is certainty, so there is no necessary loss of confidence.
And I should feel that Lukacs's speculations were better grounded if his scientific judgments were more sound. In his third chapter, for example, he notes the protracted reputation of "modern" masters of thought, citing Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein.
They were regarded as modern masters at the beginning of the historic twentieth century, in 1914, as well as at its end, in 1989 … Nothing like such a protracted prestige existed in previous centuries. Were we to consider who were thought the giants of intellect and art, say, in 1820 and then in 1890, we would get an entirely different list of great names …
This begs all sorts of questions. Darwin's reputation remains bright because he made a discovery of millennial import; Einstein is, in important respects (and as Lukacs later concedes) not "modern" at all in the epistemological sense in which Lukacs elsewhere employs the word; Marx and Freud were not taken seriously as thinkers by the generality of scientists and historians in 1989 — I am not sure that Freud was ever so taken.
"This book is an essay, without scientific or scholarly presumptions," says Lukacs at the very beginning. I think, as a matter of fact, that the author has presumed a great deal, to not very much effect. Having now sampled Lukacs the essayist and Lukacs the "vignettist" (A Thread of Years), I must say, I very much prefer Lukacs the historian. And I still do not believe I am living at the end of an age.