Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Why History is Not Bunk!

Henry Ford is best known for his Model T and Fordism.

But it was the infamous quip, “History is bunk,” attributed to the petulant industrialist by a Chicago Tribune reporter, that Aldous Huxley would use to immortalize Ford as a modernist philosopher.

In his dystopian novel, Brave New World, Huxley successfully indulges our imagination by presenting us with a world without history, where history is, literally, bunk.

In the novel, the European controller, Mustapha Mond, interrupts the Director as he orients new students at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center.

He tells them, “‘You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspiring saying of our Ford’s: History is bunk. History,’ he repeats slowly, ‘is bunk.’”

Thomas Cole, Course of Empire (The Savage State)

Huxley continues,

He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather wisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees; some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk. Whisk—and where was Odysseus, where was Job, where were Jupiter and Gotama and Jesus? Whisk—the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, and the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony; whisk…‘That’s why you’re taught no history,’ the Controller was saying.

With a whisk of the pen, Huxley conjures his readers to imagine what it would be like to erase the history of civilization.

This is, of course, the goal of the Center, to literally construct a race of automatons without any knowledge of humanity’s past.

Without a past, Huxley’s “humans” are strictly utilitarian in nature and will presumably function according to the World State’s motto: Community, Identity, Stability.

The belief is that by eradicating from society’s collective memory the traditions that bound to their consciences the knowledge of culture’s wisdom and mores, they could achieve a utopian society.

Thomas Cole, Course of Empire (The Arcadian State)

The foundation of this society would be built on purely modern convention–something like what happened when the French adopted the ten-day calendar during the French Revolution.

In Huxley’s historyless world, Henry Ford is god, and society is created in the image of his industry and materialist socialism.

Huxley’s historyless world is shallow, filled with abundant comfort, exorbitant meaningless amusement, free sex, and loads of soma.

Absent from his historyless utopia are lions to slay, poetry to move the heart, hard work to callus the hands, broken dreams to weep over, goodness to strive toward, God to worship, beauty to pursue, and leisure enough to think about any of it.

To explain it another way, Huxley’s novel purports that to erase historical thinking from history is to erase humanness from humanity. Or, to borrow from a tawdry religious bumper sticker: no history; no humanity. know history; know humanity.

Thomas Cole, Course of Empire (The Consummation of Empire)

In essence, this is partly what Russell Kirk was getting at when he wrote in the preface to John Lukacs’ Historical Consciousness, “There is no man but historical man.”

Kirk subscribed to the understanding that the present condition of man, and in some real sense, even the future condition of man, must contain, or be some composite of, his collective past.

Or to say it in John Lukacs words, “The future is the past;” and “The history of anything may form a reasonable explanation thereof.”

What Lukacs—and by proxy, Kirk—means is the history of anything is the very thing itself

Therefore, the history of man is man, and thus there is no man but historical man.

Implicit in this idea is the understanding that historical thinking is an essential and inevitable form of human thought much the same way Aristotle understood “that man is by nature a political animal.”

Yet, just as Aristotle did not believe there was salvation in the polis, but still recognized it as an essential and inevitable form of human association, neither did Kirk assert there is salvation in history.

Mark Malvasi insightfully points out in his article, “Kirk never mistook the City of Man for the City of God.”

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire (Destruction)

In other words, by saying, “There is no man but historical man,” Kirk was not asserting some grandiose idea that history is a kind of savior for mankind, or that it was the means of achieving mankind’s greatly sought after utopia.

Rather, he was stating that historical inquiry, or historical thinking, is indeed meaningful, essentially part and parcel of the human condition.

Kirk rightly believed that by studying history, man could make sense of his suffering and toil and find meaning for his present reality.

By studying history, man would by no means eradicate all the sins of humanity, but he could strive toward a goal of preserving that part of his civilization that was good and avoid repeating those mistakes that were not conducive to human flourishing–like revolutions, 10-day calendars, and a World State with a Central Hatchery and Conditioning Center.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire (Desolation)

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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