A Review of Last Rites, by John Lukacs
In 1990, at the age of sixty-five, John Lukacs wrote a well-received "auto-history" entitled Confessions of an Original Sinner. Now, almost twenty years later, Mr. Lukacs has given his readers part two: Last Rites. The book not only appears to constitute a valedictory for an erudite and influential 85 year old man -- who admits that his curiosity, reading and appetite for life are weakening -- but also the swan song for the five hundred years of European culture carried forward, until recently, by the United States.
Which is to say that Mr. Lukacs sees signs of America's decadence all around: academics who neither buy nor read books, the widespread decline of serious reading, "the rapid deterioration of attention, the nervous constriction of its span," an "unwillingness to think," the rise of pictorial culture (a new "Dark Ages of symbols, pictures, images, abstractions"), and, most ominously, the emergence of a militaristic political conservatism in the United States.
He notes: "In 1950 there was not one American public or political or academic or intellectual figure who declared himself a 'conservative.' By 1980 more Americans declared themselves 'conservatives' than 'liberals.'" Accompanying this rise of political conservatism was a "militarization of the popular imagination" that abetted the replacement of normal patriotism with aggressive nationalism.
Relying upon such ugly nationalism, the President and Vice President who occupied the White House prior to the Obama administration believed "that going in Iraq and crushing its miserable dictator in a quick war would be popular, resounding to the great and enduring advantage to…[their] reputation and to the Republican Party's dominance in the foreseeable future. There have been many American presidents who had chosen to go to war for different reasons: but I know of no [other] one who chose to go to war to enhance his popularity."
Sick, but widespread, American nationalism also goes far to explain why the opinion elite, the mainstream news media and the misinformed public would lend their support to an unprovoked, illegal, and thus evil, war of aggression. It wasn't the behavior one would expect from a civilized people.
(Writing about the fate of liberalism in the United States, Mr. Lukacs asserts, "Ten years after the 1960s it was just about dead. It belonged to the past; it had nothing more to achieve; it was exhausted. Its tasks had been done." Unfortunately, Last Rites is silent about America's recent economic collapse and the overwhelming decision by America's voters to elect a liberal, Barack Obama, to direct its recovery and, perhaps, its transformation.)
Nevertheless, Last Rights leaves much to be desired, especially when compared with two recent and exceptionally thoughtful books by Mr. Lukacs -- Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred* and George Kennan: A Study in Character ** (see links below). Beyond the swan songs, it's a watered-down goulash containing sketches of his life in Chester County, Pennsylvania, tender memories of his native Hungary and brief vignettes capturing the loving and lovely essence of each of his three wives. It also is weakly seasoned by Mr. Lukacs' poorly reasoned epistemological "grand truth," which he presents in Chapter One: "A Bad Fifteen Minutes."
Knowledge, according to Mr. Lukacs, is neither objective nor subjective, but always personal and participant. "Every person has four relationships: with God, with himself, with other human beings, and with other living beings." Moreover, our knowledge is participant, because there cannot be "a separation of the knower from the known."
Although Mr. Lukacs acknowledges that matter existed before the human mind, its preexistence is meaningless, because "without the human mind we cannot think of its 'existence' at all. In this sense it may be argued that Mind preceded and may precede Matter (or: what we see and then call matter)."
Going further, Mr. Lukacs concludes: (1) "What happens is what people think happens." Thus, he denies the possibility of "objective" history. Yet, inconsistently, he objects to those who define history as "the narration of actions worth remembering." Worse, he insists, "every person is a historical person." (How about the millions of persons over the ages, who have died without leaving a trace?)
Mr. Lukacs also insists, "The human mind intrudes into causality, into the relation of causes and effects." For Mr. Lukacs, this conclusion -- famously demonstrated by Heisenberg - leads to another: science is little more than a "probabilistic kind of knowledge with its own limits."
Now, I also have doubts about science, and not only about quantum physics. We've yet to satisfactorily explain how life originated on earth. Moreover, my mind reels when I read that within the first one-thousandth of a second after the big bang, a particle smaller than an atom expanded instantaneously to the size of a galaxy.
Yet, "uncertainty" with regard to quantum physics, the origin of life or even the scientific working backward from the expanding universe to the big bang hardly justifies doubt about whether water is H2O and it certainly does not support Mr. Lukacs, when he asserts: "When I, a frail and fallible man, say that every morning the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, I am not lying. I do not say that a Copernican or post-Copernican astronomer, stating the opposite, that the earth goes around the sun, is lying…But my commonsense experience about the sun and the earth is both prior to and more basic than any astronomer's formula."
Thus, when Mr. Lukacs further asserts, "the known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness," he believes that he has eviscerated the "Copernican / Keplerian / Galilean / Cartesian / Newtonian discovery" that removed both man and the earth from the center of the universe. Yet, he's accomplished no such thing. Newton's law of universal gravitation continues to bring to earth every consciousness convinced that it can remain aloft forever. Moreover, the brick wall will have its say, notwithstanding the fearless consciousness of every man determined to run through it. In a word, the "known" demands due respect from the "knower."
This has enormous implications for man's freedom, a matter Mr. Lukacs barely mentions. Ask any technophobe who has suffered through the upgrade of a computer program and subsequently found himself compelled to learn new ways to accomplish the same old tasks. He'll tell you that he felt like a helpless slave, subject to a new program (and, thus, the whims or insights of some distant technician). Yet, as the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev observed, virtually every type of "objectivized" knowledge poses such a threat to man's freedom.
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