John Lukacs’s death in May marked the passing of a great historian. More than one of his obituaries described him as an “iconoclast” and a “maverick.” A Hungarian émigré who fled both Nazi and Stalinist tyranny, Lukacs became one of the leading chroniclers of the tumultuous 20th century, particularly of the Second World War. His more than 30 books included provocative studies of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill. Their dynamic roles in shaping the modern world proved to him that history is the product more of individuals than of economic, political, or ideological “forces.” Lukacs insisted on the centrality of human actors to history, even and perhaps especially to the movement of ideas. And that centrality gave him hope.
Yes, the historian was often a pessimist and a self-described reactionary. But he also argued that the growing awareness of man as a historical being might lead to a “new humanism,” placing man back at the center of a universe in which materialism and scientism had relegated him to the periphery and submerged him in supposedly anonymous forces. People are not victims of the prevailing zeitgeist but active participants in their world. “It is the person (every human person),” Lukacs reminded us, “who is more important than any idea, since it is not the person who is part of the idea, but the idea which is part of the person.” (Emphasis in original.)
A powerful and eloquent writer who mastered English as his second language, Lukacs never gained the power and influence of an appointment at a prestige university. He taught for decades at Chestnut Hill College, a small Catholic women’s college in Philadelphia. He never earned a Ph.D. and often bemoaned historians’ preoccupation with credentials and titles. What counted most for him was the quality of a historian’s thought. He wrote subtle and sophisticated studies of the modern world but managed at the same time to reach a wide audience with grace and wit. His legacy as a writer, teacher, and mentor to younger historians ought to endure for generations beyond the close of his 95 years.
His greatest contribution came not in his works of biography or his characteristically nuanced handling of populism, nationalism, and socialism, but in the attention he gave to “thinking about thinking.” He brooded over the texture of the historian’s mind, and wove these reflections into all that he published. He considered his most important book to be one of his earliest, his 1968 Historical Consciousness. He never let go of his frustration at the book’s neglect by reviewers and its conspicuous absence from bibliographies on the philosophy of history. It was in this work, the culmination of 12 years of labor, that he developed in detail ideas he had been wrestling with since the mid-1950s. It is a towering work, one that every historian ought to read and contemplate. Serious students of history find it compelling.
At the heart of Historical Consciousness lies Lukacs’s insistence that historical thought is an inescapably human activity. And that is history’s great power and limitation. As a human enterprise, history—not the events themselves as much as our capacity to understand and explain those events—is incomplete, inaccurate, and not quantifiable. Its concern lies with the unique, the unrepeatable, the unsystematic. The historian’s knowledge of the past is personal, occupying a realm beyond the outmoded modern divide between the objective and subjective.
The historian participates in the creation of the past as a remembered past. He must express himself in the all-too-human vehicle of words. Ultimately, his attempt to make sense of the maddening complexity and contradictions of the past comes down to “man’s knowledge of man.” It offers a kind of self-knowledge distinct from the philosophical and theological. History offers its own distinct kind of knowledge that cannot be found through any other means.
Over the past few hundred years, history as a way of knowing has emerged as the dominant form of thought, Lukacs argued. We have become aware of ourselves as historical beings, and everything we have created has its history. Lukacs often said that the history of a thing is the thing itself. It is a work of the human imagination, a product of man’s art.
That does not mean that it is imaginary, or that the historian is at liberty to make of it what he will and turn it into power over other people. Indeed, understanding that history is a deeply human activity means that one of the chief virtues of the true historian must be modesty. History is a form of “chastened” thought, Lukacs insisted. It can claim just so much certainty about the past. Available evidence is fragmentary, lost, incomplete, manipulated by the purposes of past and present generations. Proof for the things we most want to know about the past may be non-existent.
The historian confronts limitations at every turn—in his materials and in himself. If he is true to his craft, he works under the sobering thought that it is possible to teach and to write history ahistorically. The pitfalls of what Lukacs called “think traps” lurk on every side. The historian must be on guard against allowing “vocabulary to substitute for thought”—and it should prick our conscience every time we are tempted to speak breezily about “Jacksonian America,” or “Victorianism,” or the “Roaring Twenties,” or “Baby Boomers,” or any other convenient label or category that we reach for instead of doing the hard work of listening attentively to the past. If we are not careful, we end up treating our classifications as if they were causes of human behavior.
Lukacs’s insistence on people as active thinkers, doers, and makers emerged most clearly in his provocative claim that, for the historian, what people do to ideas is often more important than what ideas do to people. Ideas do matter. Ideas do have consequences. But it is people who have ideas, not ideas who have people. Following this simple yet profound insight will transform the “history of ideas” as too often written.
If, for example, in addition to asking what Puritanism did to America, we were to ask what later generations of Americans did to Puritan ideas—selecting them, arranging them, turning them to purposes other than those held by the Puritans themselves—we would see that the past does not push itself forward under its own motive power. It is not a force. Instead, future individuals take hold of these ideas and turn them, selectively, to new uses. They shape ideas to their circumstances more than circumstances to their ideas. We reach into the past, as it were, with a crochet hook and pull forward into the present the words and images, documents and ideas that we want. We may be faithful to the context, texture, and subtlety of those ideas or we may not. We may have noble, benign, or nefarious intentions. In any case, we are active participants in remembering the past.
As Augustine discerned 1,600 years ago, human thought participates in an intricate interplay between memory, experience, and anticipation. These are not other words for past, present, and future. They highlight the condition (Lukacs’s preferred word over “fact”) of the human mind as engaged in a constant interplay of reflection, observation, and imagination. This is why Lukacs tried to teach us that what people think happened is more important than what actually happened—that what people think will happen in the future shapes their behavior in the present. In these ways, and not as exaggerated forces, ideas are decisive in history and shape tendencies in foreign affairs, religion, politics, society, and economics.
If John Lukacs was an iconoclast and a maverick, he was these things as much for the way he thought about thinking as for any book he wrote. For that we are in his debt. For that we are thankful.