Causation of Historical Events

David J. Roscoe

The New Philosophy 67.1 (1973): 327–47


History is a common ingredient in the educational diet of students throughout the world and, in the West, has been since the Renaissance. The justification for its inclusion has most often been the argument that men can learn important lessons from history. This belief that history can teach valuable lessons is not a new concept; it can be found in the works of the ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus thought that history could be used to bolster the pride of the Greeks in the deeds of their ancestors, and the use of history as a device to develop national pride is with us still in both its bad and good forms. Thucydides desired that men should study history in order to face the problems of the future which he felt were certain to resemble those of the past. Thucydides was not only one of the earliest competent historians, both in style and methodology, but he was also the first to attempt a general explanation of history; namely, a cyclical theory which claimed that historical events repeated themselves in a constantly reappearing fashion and therefore a knowledge of the past would enable men to face the future with more certainty and confidence.1 (Herodotus was avowedly uncritical about his sources. He would include any story that seemed to serve his purpose. Once again, it is not difficult to see the survival of his historical school in the modern world.)

There can be two reasons for the desirability of the knowledge of the past; first, to face such events or similar ones in the future with confidence and courage, and secondly, if such events were undesirable, to avoid them if possible. As Santayana noted, "Those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them." There is, of course a very significant assumption underlying this quote, one that has bothered historians for centuries, namely: men have the ability to influence history—to their purposes. Most of the ancients were content to accept a fatalistic response on this point. They believed that man's life was governed by factors outside of his ability to control. To be more specific, the belief of the ancients was that the Fates, Spinning and Weaving and Cutting, determined the woof and warp of a man's life. Even after the decline of polytheism in the Greco-Roman civilization, this deterministic historical philosophy maintained its hold. The lack of an acknowledged revelation perhaps was responsible for this attitude. Many classic philosophers and historians allowed free will, but it is fatalism that dominates their literature.

It was the Christian historians who, working in the framework of Judeo-Christian concepts of man, were forced to deal with the problem of man's place in historical causation. Not that they abandoned the deterministic factor which they now called "Providence," but that they could not reject the concept of man having the freedom to choose between good and evil. The real problem which faced the church historians was reconciling the concepts of Divine Omniscience and free will. The great theologian and historian, Augustine, wrestled with this problem and came to the seemingly ambiguous conclusion that while God knew all future events including all of man's decisions, man still had complete freedom. Augustine, while laying the philosophical groundwork for predestination, firmly rejected such a position and was active in attacking those who would deny man's free will.2

This problem has been central to Western historiography since that time. One modern historian states that "freedom is a special problem for history," and continues by observing

. . . yet there also must be a sense of freedom, otherwise the behavior of human beings transcending these objective limits does not make any sense. What, then are the lines that separate freedom from necessity? And who would dare draw them and claim objective validity for his personal decision?3

The problem arises from factors which in the 18th Century would have been called "self-evident." Man feels that his decisions are his own, and there is all apparent evidence that man is free to do whatever he wills if he is willing to accept the consequence of his actions. On the other hand, it is easily seen that his actions are determined to an extent by a host of social, political and economic factors—and even his physical heredity over which he has no control. Alexander did not weep because he had no worlds left to conquer; rather, he wept knowing that there were worlds left to conquer but that despite his military skill and his personal will he could not overcome the adverse factors of geography, technological shortcomings and, most of all, the collective will of his troops, which was contrary to his.

Those who come to the study of history with a strong Christian ethos have found that they cannot escape this problem of balance between determinism and free will. Bishop Alfred Acton, in a thoughtful study of a problem, raised again the age-old question "How can God be omnipotent and yet man be free to act against His will?" He opined "happy indeed are those who, though not able to reconcile Divine Omnipotence, Omnipresence and Omniscience with human freedom of choice, have yet believed in both because both are true." He indicates that this is a perplexing problem and those "who cannot or will not . . . elevate their thought above time and space" should not even contemplate the problem but they "should simply believe them from religion" or "let them say to themselves that God is omnipresent and omniscient in a miraculous way." 4 "To the rational mind" Dr. Acton continues "such an answer is far from satisfactory" and he rightly indicates that the person trained in the field who dwells on this problem finds it difficult to avoid a certain fatalism and a feeling that foreknowledge of an event would seem to indicate that it is preordained.

As indicated, historians have been bothered by this since the Christian Era. (Interestingly enough, the Jewish historians were not really writing history but revelation so that their task, in one sense, was infinitely easier.) Christian historians have been "hard put" to avoid the fatalism that overcame the Greek and Roman historians when faced with a similar problem. The prominent historian Arnold Toynbee concluded that "history is a vision of God's creation on the move from God its source to God its goal." 5 As the reader is probably aware, Toynbee's overall philosophy of history is strongly deterministic, and he is the best known modern exponent of the cyclical theory of historical development and considers religion to be a major causal factor in the rise and fall of civilizations. Perhaps more typical of Christian historians would be William Bradford who wrote The History of Plimouth Plantation. He attributed the pilgrims' successes to God's favor and their failures to His anger so that while his book is a good source for history of that colony it leaves unanswered the question of causation.

For many, if not most, of the modern Western historians the answer has been a denial of the existence of God or at best a denial of His interference in human events. Of those who deny God, Karl Marx is probably the most prominent. He postulated man's economic need as the basic motivating force in history. Under the influence of the German historian Hegel, Marx adapted the ancient Greek tool of logic, the dialectic, to historical interpretation. He had, he claimed, discovered ". . . the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes" and that these struggles are conditioned "by the degree of the development of their economic position."6

Here is the first clear statement of the concepts of economic determinism, dialectical materialism and the class struggle. He further noted that this law "has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science."

This is a secular predetermination with economics and the class conflict rather than God as a determining force. While Marx undoubtedly overstressed the role of economics and certainly over stated the case in his concept of class struggle, he did cause other historians to search for causation in institutions and in areas other than politics. He also reemphasized the forces which are beyond the individual man's normal capacity to control. Historians have rarely since neglected the role of economics as a cause in human affairs. If one does, he is suitably criticized in all professional journals for "ignoring the important influences of economic factors" in such and such an event.

Perhaps the most decisive factor influencing Marx and other 19th-century historians attempting to avoid the pitfalls of an inaccurate history was the rise in that century of a seemingly infallible natural science. The methodology and objectivity which characterized scientific fields made men question whether history, through the use of some scientific method, could develop "laws of history" such as Marx claimed to have done. The German universities were particularly prominent in this effort and of those historians probably the best known is Leopold von Ranke. Von Ranke admonished his students to follow "die sichere gang einer Wissenshaft." Having deleted God as a cause in human events they proceeded to advocate a scientific objectivity in history which would negate moral and ethical judgments. That is, history should be studied and written free from all ethical and moral bias. Von Ranke himself wrote an excellent study of the relationship between the popes and the German emperors during the Middle Ages, although he himself was strongly Protestant and an outspoken German Nationalist. Von Ranke's admonition to write history "wie es eigentlich gewesen" is undoubtedly the best remembered item of anything he wrote and typifies the desire of the 19th-century historians to write "accurate history."

This scientific school did not long go unchallenged. The fact was too obvious that history was not science and that the events which history undertook to explain could never receive the careful scrutiny required by scientific methodology. Nor did it seem possible to escape from the cultural setting in which the historian operated in order to achieve a scientific objectivity. A Chinese Communist scientist and an American scientist would undoubtedly come to the same conclusions regarding the results of a scientific event, but it is doubtful whether historians of these countries would draw the same conclusions about historical events.

Charles Beard whose Economic Origins of the United States Constitution shocked historians by its assumptions as much as it offended Americans with its accusations about the founding fathers, borrowed the Marxist claims of the importance of economics as an historical cause but rejected Marxist assumptions of scientific accuracy. In an article written after that book was published, Beard maintained that "history inevitably reflects the thought of the author in his time and cultural setting." He argued against "the intellectual formulas borrowed from natural science, which have cramped and distorted the operations of history as thought, have taken two forms—physical and biological." His conclusion was that the "historian who writes history therefore consciously or unconsciously performs an act of faith as to order and movement, for certainty is denied him."7

The problems faced are obviously the result of the historians' rejection of revelation and the concept of Divinity as factors in human events. In denying this, however, they, in many cases, ended like Marx and Beard by denying that man has more than a minimal role to play. Men are once again tools of forces neither human nor Divine.

No man in a public movement is a free agent. Although he seeks certain objectives and would strive toward them he must take into consideration other forces or speedily come to an impasse. All the factors in his time condition the way in which he shapes his destinies and help to determine the success of his policies.8

Modern historians after 2500 years of writing history have come no closer to solving the question of determinism than Thucydides.

Nor is the problem of determinism the only one facing the historian who ponders the philosophic implications of his craft. The question of a man's ability to overcome his bias is still a matter of debate, despite Morton White's claim that "the possession of bias or passion on the part of the historian does not preclude the possibility of his achieving objectivity in testing his hypothesis."9 Apparently taking this admonition much to heart a new school of historians associated with the new left have begun to rewrite history, especially American history, relating historical events more closely with modern social problems.

Unexpected interpretations of history have come from this school. The most interesting, perhaps, is their condemnation of Franklin Roosevelt as "a tool of the capitalists" who postponed the inevitable revolution of the proletariat which they felt should have developed out of the depression. Their interpretation of history results from their setting as a standard for historical behavior the attitudes of the present and especially their unquestioning acceptance that their own values are best and correct. Hence Abraham Lincoln is no longer the "great emancipator" but a "honky racist" who, in freeing slaves, was furthering the aims of Northern industrialists. This is a recognition of the fact that for history to make any sense to the present it must be interpreted in relation to some value system. The new left historians in their zeal to show the rottenness of the U.S.A. have actually done some fine historical work, questioning many myths of American history and coming up with very provocative conclusions once you get past their bias and delete their rhetoric.

For here we have what is essentially the uniqueness of history namely, that facts do not make the discipline, it is the interpretation of the facts that constitutes history. This also distinguishes history from the natural sciences: Its relation to facts. The scientist conducts his experiments in a rigidly controlled environment which he can reproduce and reobserve. This is impossible for the historian who must, except in the obscure case of some event caught by a motion picture camera, depend upon a host of observers. The natural scientist rejects, or at best holds in scant respect, evidence presented by a non-trained observer. The historian must perforce take his evidence from whatever source he can find and can only wish that he had more. History requires as much evaluation of observers as evaluation of facts. As previously indicated, two scientists witnessing the same event will almost always draw the same conclusion as to causation, but this is rarely true of historians, as anyone who has read the two or more books or articles about the same event, e.g. the Civil War, is all too well aware.

All of which bring up the perplexing problem of what is historical fact? Everyone thinks he knows what it is, but upon careful examination usually finds that what is given as historical fact is historical opinion. "Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation" is an example of an interpretation which is accepted as fact. A better example of a fact might be that Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. But there are many people, events and trends which can be identified as causes of the Protestant Reformation. Facts tell us nothing; they must be interpreted."The facts of history are . . . individual, concrete, unrepeatable events and entities" and "are accessable to us, not through direct experience or experimental repetition but only through the memory or through the indirect evidence of physical remains, verbal reports and written documents."10

The study of facts is not a statement of cause but merely a stream of events which awaits our interpretation. Facts tell us nothing about cause. They must be interpreted, and the defense of such interpretation can be seen in the correspondence of every professional journal and is in fact the major portion of most historical books and articles. For this reason it is usually not correct to say that history is rewritten but rather that it is reinterpreted and that these reinterpretations are based largely upon a change in bias or a new perception about man's past. One example of this is the attitude of historians toward the American statesman Alexander Hamilton. When the Federalist party, of which he was the leader, was in historical disrepute because of its supposed aristocratic tendencies, he was seen as an opportunist who admittedly had talent but who used it for his own selfish ends. When during the 30s the New Deal was looking for constitutional justification for the vast increase in federal power, Hamilton was rediscovered, and his economic theories and his attitudes about the Constitution and justifications for strong central government were praised. From being an anti-democratic pariah, Hamilton became a far-seeing statesman who laid the foundations of American economic and political growth. I might add that some new left historians are re-assigning Mr. Hamilton his old "bad guy" role. As Carl Becker indicated,

The present influences our idea of the past, and the idea of the past influences the present. We build our conceptions of history partly out of our present needs and purposes.11

How then would we interpret history? In attempting to make sense out of historical facts we must impose on them an order—a position—or as it is more commonly known, a frame of reference. The most common method of looking at history has been the so called cause-and-effect relation. That is, if two events follow one after another, the first was in some way the cause of the second. This is of course an over-simplification, but it catches the basic idea. With Christian historians, this was a convenient frame of reference, since it always allowed God as a first cause or Providence as an explanation of an event for which there was no other more obvious cause. The problem that modern historians face is that, rejecting a belief in God, they are left without this First Cause and cause and effect relationship deteriorates into a "chicken and egg" problem.

Actual origins elude us. Everything is the outcome of something proceeding it. The immediate sudden appearance of something, its creation by an individual or a group at some one moment of time is unknown in history.12

This is how one historian has described the impasse of history without God. Even where there is an apparent personal belief in God, one finds an attempt to remove Him from the historical process. This is an obvious reaction to the over dependence by theologians on Divine intervention as a cause without any attempt to search for a natural causation. Karl Popper in a fascinating address entitled "Has History Any Meaning?" claimed that "although there is hardly anything in the New Testament in support of this doctrine it is often considered a part of the Christian Dogma that God reveals Himself in history: that history has meaning and that that meaning is the purpose of God." He goes on to say "although history has no meaning we can give it meaning. Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate."13

Such interpretations lead inevitably to a chaotic understanding of history. Still, such approaches are obviously in evidence among modern historians and have played a large role with the anarchistic elements of many of today's youth movements. They are not, however, very satisfactory to the New Church historian who, while trained in the methodology of all the major historical philosophies, carries with him certain basic beliefs about man and man's place in the universe. Although this is derived from revelation, rather than from rational thought, he is willing, indeed finds himself compelled, to accept as basic these facts which his faith tells him are true. He feels history is more than chaos because there is an order in the universe. He approaches it

. . . with a rational faith in Divine Guidance, the purpose of which man cannot see immediately, but only in its effects. The New Church man will gain strength of confirmation from every page of history.14

New Church historians have obviously not rejected or ignored the workings of God in history. Rather, they welcome them, claiming that "history is the study more than any other that provides opportunity for seeing the workings of Divine Providence in human affairs."15

As early as 1914 one historian expressed what he saw as the purpose of history in these words:

It is eminently desirable that we should so relate the law of Divine Providence to the story of man's experience that we may use the result as a spiritual guide to the experiences that are to come for that is the chief value of history, the value that comes from spiritual counsellor and friend.16

Somehow, therefore, the usual history as explained by secular writers makes the New Churchman uncomfortable with its assumptions about man and the universe. Even when the historians are religious men, their concepts are frequently at variance with those of the New Church. It is not surprising that Dr. William R. Kintner, in his article, "A New Church View of History" bemoans the fact "that New Churchmen are almost totally dependent on old church historians for their historical fare." There have been chronicles but few actual attempts at writing history by New Churchmen. He goes as far as to suggest the types of questions we should ask and offers a tentative outline. It is his belief that "the revelations of the New Church give us the broad principles by which the spiritual meaning of history can be discovered."17

One response to this plea is contained in an article by Geoffrey P. Dawson in The New Philosophy. He chided Dr. Kintner for not having referred to "Conflict of the Ages" in Words for the New Church, and stated that it was

. . . a sad reflection on the feebleness of human endeavor that in so short a time the intellectual labours of an enthusiastic generation should lie forgotten on library shelves, ignored while the call went out for the work to be done all over again.18

Unfortunately the historical studies included in the "Conflict of the Ages" are inaccurate in many areas, are almost inevitably lacking in documentation and, most important, make little attempt at using revelation to explain history, but rather they try to use history to support the validity of revelation. In addition, this history uses an interpretive point of view, that the history of churches can be seen as a series of conflicts, which is almost Hegelian. (Did the author study at the University of Berlin under Hegel?) It appears that Dr. Kintner's call is needed. Mr. Dawson apparently feels that such an attempt, however, would be merely an exercise designed to gain approval of the world and would not be of any help to the church. It is, however, the opinion of most, if not all, New Church historians who have made the study of history their career that such studies are important. "The study of history, and government makes man aware of what his country should have and be but also what he owes it."19 This and other comments previously cited should confirm that New Church historians see a value to the Church in the study of history.

History as seen by the New Churchman is not chaotic and does, or should, have meaning and purpose. That is not to say that there is some pattern in history which, once discovered would provide the key to a knowledge of the future. It is taught that the

. . . foreknowledge of future events destroys the human itself . . . therefore it is not granted to anyone to know the future; but everyone is permitted to form conclusions concerning future events from reason.20

With this the New Church historian is in a position to reject any historical school which claims to have an inviolable rule predicting the future, such as Marxism, and to conclude that any effort to discover or formulate such a law with scientific exactness would be wasted effort.

It is unprofitable generally to search the Writings for revealed historical facts or insight since with a few exceptions there is little direct information given. However, some of the comments on individuals are very illuminating and help to explain certain areas of history. One example would be the question of Louis XIV. Traditional Anglo-American history has pictured him as an egotistical megalomaniac who bankrupted his country for his own personal glory. Certainly an examination of his worldly career could easily lead one to that conclusion. The Writings tell us, however, that Louis XIV was characterized by love of country. With this information a whole new interpretation of Louis becomes possible. It explains, perhaps, why Louis remained popular with his people despite his failure to do anything for them either economically or politically. It is interesting to note that recent historians have come around to the view that Louis did what he did for the greater glory of France. One of his modern French biographers, Louis Andre, ended his work by claiming "Louis XIV did more good for his country than twenty of his predecessors together."21 This type of historical insight from the Writings, while both fascinating and valuable, is unfortunately too rare to attempt to base an historical study upon it.

What one must look for instead are insights into the nature of man and the order of the universe. Secular historians too have seen the value to history of a study of man's human psychology. R. G. Collingswood asserted "the laws of nature have always been the same and what is against nature now was against nature 2,000 years ago."22 Currently one of the most common forms of historical analysis is behaviorism.

The fundamental assumptions (of behaviorism) are that the subject of the historian concerns the past of man; that man individually and collectively is complex; that to study man in sufficient complexity requires social science concepts and theory; that man can only be studied as an analytical entity through some conceptual framework; and that once a knowledge of human behavior is gained other aspects of historiography fall into their proper sphere.23

As useful as such an approach might be, a New Church historian must be leery of the assumptions which will be made about man and his place in the world. A behaviorism which denies the uniqueness of man and does not carry a belief in the Divine is totally unsatisfactory. Yet, given the methodology and using a knowledge of man gained from revelation, a valuable analysis of historical events might eventually be possible.

First it must be understood that there is room for debate among sincere New Churchmen as to certain of these concepts, and this is very evident in the historically crucial doctrine of the extent of man's freedom. This, as was previously indicated, has been a major historical problem and it is apparently no less so among men of the Church. There are those who contend that man's only freedom consists of making decisions for good or evil motives and that his natural freedom is merely an illusion. They maintain that the cause of historical events is determined in Divine Providence. Another group holds that Divine Providence is an operation not a cause. "Free will presents a problem in every history drawn to a tidy pattern of Divine Ordinance, but it is clear that free will is the root and cause of our history. . . . History must be ascribed to its proper origin, human intransigence."24 This paper takes its position with this latter view.

It is seen that essential humanity consists in freedom and rationality, for without the rationality to decide his actions and the freedom to put them into effect man would be no more than a beast and would in fact be incapable of regeneration.25 This is not to deny the role of Providence in human events; but, as stated, Divine Providence is not a cause but an operation, and that distinction is important. As Bishop Alfred Acton indicated

The whole course of Divine Providence is to preserve man in equilibrium to the end that in all that comes before him his power of decision may be truly free.26

This is to say that Providence interferes to prevent the hells from destroying man's rationality and thereby his freedom. Divine Providence would never interfere to the point where man could feel compelled to religion.27 "Man is bent from evil to good so far as he suffers himself to be bent in freedom. The Lord's Providence never moves a man farther than he is willing to go."28

What then are the implications of this for historical studies? In historical events one can see what man has done in freedom and then attempt to see how Providence has turned this to the greatest possible good without destroying man's freedom. How can these concepts aid a New Churchman in an understanding of historical causation and especially of the role of the individual man as a part of that causation?

The following statements are some possible approaches to these questions: (1) The details of a single historical episode are determined largely by the work of the actors involved. In a specific narrow historical event the men are usually in complete freedom to perform their actions. A specific example might be an act of heroism or a stand on conscience such as Martin Luther's. (2) Sometimes men are rendered almost powerless by social forces too great for man to control. It must be remembered that such forces, e.g., nationalism, romanticism, communism, et cetera, are obviously the results of the actions of men prior to the fact and the effects of Providence operating on these prior acts. (3) Long-term trends are likely to be determined more by Providence than by the acts of individuals.

The first statement, it seems should be easily accepted. An individual's will to a specific historical act whether for good or for evil should be ascribed to him. What factors go into the making of that decision we cannot know completely, but here again we have revelation as a guide in explaining human behaviour. Revelation also cautions us to avoid making final judgments about a man's motivation. Man may be motivated by a love of dominion or by a desire to advance his reputation or honour, but in attempting to be specific we frequently may arrive at the wrong conclusions. The story of Louis XIV given earlier should be a cautionary sign to any historian to avoid the overextensive use of this type of historical analysis. On the other hand, we know that what a man does he does not always do from freedom and rationality. It is the opinion of many modern psychologists and psychiatrists that a man who commits some evil such as assassination is mentally unfit and cannot be held to account for his actions. To put it into theological terms he is not acting in freedom from rationality. Again, our ability to make judgments, therefore, is limited to externals. On the plane of individual or collective historical events the New Church historian must make judgments according to his own value system regardless of the motivation. It is important that we keep in mind that man is the cause of these events and that they are not caused by some outside force. Many people ascribing causation to Divine Providence have either blamed God for the condition of the world or, viewing the evil in the world, have rejected the concept of God altogether.29

It is often pointed out that man is the victim of forces over which he has no control. That this is true seems only too obvious: This however does not remove man as a cause from historical analysis. The results of the Nazi movement in Germany compelled many men to kill but it must never be forgotten that men were responsible for the rise of Hitler to leadership in Germany. Failure to act is just as much a factor in causation as positive action. Apathy and indifference are attitudes rooted in man's nature and can be influenced by his rationality and freedom even when his failure to act may ultimately destroy his freedom in the natural sense. For this reason the excuse of brute pressure even on the part of Germans of the Nazi era does not entirely relieve the individual of his responsibility for the result of his action or inaction. There is no doubt however that fighting social and peer pressure is not easy. And yet here is an excellent opportunity to use history and religion to do what everybody says history should do, namely teach. Few things in history are so dramatic as the pictures of men resisting from conscience the social forces which attempt to compel them to mental conformity. Of course the more common scene in history is that of men being swept away by these social forces of which the rise of totalitarianism in the modern world is the one of most significance, but the example of men resisting these tides through force of will is an object lesson which would indicate the extent of man's free will.

The question of long-term trends would appear most likely to show greater action of Providence in history. It does not negate the role of man in history, but here we should see the attempts of Providence to take men's actions and turn them to the greatest possible good, that is, to both preserve man in equilibrium and "to lead him to good in as far as he will suffer himself to be bent in freedom." The entire concept of long-term trends of course presumes a linear view of history, and while revealed history of the churches would imply a more cyclical view, we are also told that the Divine foresight saw that it would be necessary for the Lord to be born on earth and, likewise, with the decline of the Christian Church the third revelation became necessary. This would indicate a linear concept of history, that is history that moves toward a point in future time. The leading secular exponent if this concept is William McNeill whose Rise of the West is actually a vast compendium of the growth of civilizations. He compares the history of civilization to a mountain range whose peaks are constantly being thrust upward and then are gradually eroded by the various geological forces.30 McNeill's sense of the importance of religion in man's life and his single source theory of civilization and cultural origin are very congenial to the New Churchman.

It would appear that the long term events would give Providence the best opportunity to work enduring results without interfering with man's freedom. The methods of Divine Providence must of necessity remain hidden and we can only see the workings from hindsight.31 The histories given in the Old Testament are examples of this. We can see the trend of history preparing for the birth of the Lord on earth starting in the Old Testament with the first prophesy in Genesis. Such a viewpoint leaves ample scope both for man's working and for Divine Providence. It would appear that Providence uses the areas in which man does not consciously work to perform its operations. This can most clearly be seen in the case of wars where even the most egotistical general will admit that carefully planned-out strategy frequently seems to be upset by some strange turn of events. How often in history do we see that something or another came within a hairsbreadth of success but for some unforeseen happening or some minor quirk.32 Here we could hope to see the workings of Divine Providence as clearly as earlier Christian historians. This is, however, unusual, for normally "the Divine Providence operates so secretly that, scarcely anyone knows of its existence" for the reason that "man may not perish."33

It may be very comforting for some to feel that whatever happens in history is attributable to the Divine Providence, but nothing can relieve man of the responsibility of his own actions. Man must not only be free to will good or evil; he must be able to ultimate it. Now in many cases, pressures and other forces will cause a man not to put into action his desires whether they be good or evil. Love of reputation, honor and gain will keep a man from committing evils which he may secretly desire to do, but that evil will still be ascribed to him. The point is that that man often is free to ultimate his acts if he so desires. Some say that man only decides to do some one thing or another and that Providence decides whether he is in fact free to ultimate it. The other school, while not denying the role of Providence, claims that man has natural freedom as well as spiritual freedom. If man wills to do good, he is in freedom to do so. The major question concerns the permission of evil. It is well-known, and often quoted, that man has freedom or liberty of thinking and willing but is not in freedom to say or do what he wills. These numbers however go on to point out that these restrictions are based on civil, moral, and ecclesiastical law and that Providence only uses these laws. If these civil laws break down, as they often have in history, it is usually followed by outbreaks of all sorts of evil.34 Several examples from history are obvious; the fall of Rome, several catastrophes during the Middle Ages, revolutions in modern time, and the breakdown of governments at the end of wars. The good that man wills and does is not, from himself but from the Lord, so he is free to ultimate his good especially if he acknowledges the Lord as the source of good and does it from a basis of truth. Evil on the other hand is a permission for the sake of man's freedom and hence his salvation. Man is permitted to think evils even so far as the intention to commit them. It seems logical that the possibility of ultimating these intentions must remain. All of this is, of course, not opposed to Providence; it is part of Providence since human freedom is the first law of Providence.35

Of the ancient histories, the record of the Jewish church is most complete, but of course this was written primarily as revelation and not as history. Archeologists have found that the Old Testament is quite accurate and in fact at least one Israeli archeologist uses the Bible as his guide in discovering the sites of ancient cities and fortresses. Unfortunately the historical record of other ancient peoples is not as clearly drawn. Still, however, with the Greeks and Egyptians there exists ample evidence that a knowledge of revelation, although somewhat distorted in their mythology, acted as guide to their actions and can be used to explain certain aspects of their cultures; for instance the brother-sister marriages of the Egyptian rulers.36

The rise of the Hellenic civilization is sometimes cited as an example of Providence working in history to prepare the intellectual climate for the reception of the New Testament. Still, as we have seen, the philosophies and modes of thinking which were developed by the Greeks were the results of men's rationality and their free thought, will, and action. Actually of course, what happened is that the Divine foresight, seeing the choices men would make, made decisions about the place and time of the appearance of the revelation. Not that this Advent was a necessity; for

. . . if this Church (i.e. the Most Ancient Church) had remained in its integrity the Lord would have had no need to be born a man. But as soon as this Church began to decline the Lord foresaw that the celestial church would eventually perish from the earth.37

It might be useful to state here something that should be obvious but sometimes is not connected with a study of history; namely, that man cannot free his thinking from the framework of time and space and that time and space are necessities of history. The Lord does not operate within these limitations, so any attempts to think of the Lord and His Providence in history must realize that He is not restricted by a time continuum as man is. Too much cogitation on this subject is frustrating, and suffice it to say that the term "foresight" is somewhat misleading since it implies a looking into the future which in itself implies a framework of time. The Divine of course sees everything in the present and in that sense is not planning or predetermining history from a knowledge of the future.

The question of the Lord's birth on earth raises another interesting problem in historical analysis. The Pax Romana existing at the time of the first Advent has often been cited as having been the result of Divine Providence to provide for the spread of Christianity. Recent historical studies have indicated that it was an earlier spread of the Jews that allowed the spread of Christianity, and one finds early centers of Christians almost inevitably located close to Jewish settlements. Moreover, recent demographic studies have indicated that as late as the time of Constantine, a time of supposed breakdown in the "Peace of Rome," the church comprised less than ten percent of the Empire.38 The greatest spread of Christianity took place after the Council of Nicea, and as late as the sixth century there was still pagan worship in Southern Italy. Here it is interesting to contemplate the role of Constantine in the spread of the Christian Church. Born a pagan, there is evidence that he was at one time a follower of Mithraism, but was converted to Christianity after his victory at the Battle of Milan. We can probably with safety assume that his conversion was not the result of a vision but the result of thought which had been going on for some time. As we know, no one is truly converted by miracles and Constantine was to all appearances a true believer. The Writings tell us that Constantine was "a Christian and also a zealot in religion."39 While his participation as a Christian popularized Christianity and caused many to join the church for external reasons, he never compelled any to become Christians. Yet when the question of the doctrines of Arius came up it was he who convened the Council at Nicea and demanded that they find some answer to this heresy. It is ironical, therefore, that Constantine was baptized on his deathbed by an Arian bishop and that shortly after his death there were fresh outbreaks of invasions by barbarians most of whom were Arian Christians.

In examining the story of Constantine and the Council of Nicea and the subsequent spread of Christianity, we are led to pose several questions. Why didn't the Christian Church Council come up with the right solution; that is, why couldn't Providence have led men or at least some one good man (and it's hard to believe there wasn't one) to acknowledge the fact that Jesus Christ is the one God of Heaven and Earth? The only reasonable answer is that men's free choice denied that possibility, for we are told the solution arrived at at least prevented a worse error, Arianism, and that the creed preserved the divinity of Jesus, but destroyed every good of charity and every truth of faith from the church for 1400 years.40 As a corollary to this controversy, it is interesting to note that Arianism and its attendant heresies continued to flourish in Africa and the Near East. It is not strange therefore, that Islam with its strong belief in the oneness of God arose and subdued these areas. It even crossed into Spain where it stamped out the Arianism of the Visigothic rulers of that country. This type of insight can give us valuable clues to historical causation.

The Middle Ages again give an opportunity for attempting an analysis of historical events with an eye to understanding them more clearly. This era, known as the Dark Ages and once considered a time void of culture by historians, has been seen to be the real start of Western Civilization. It was during this time that Christianity spread throughout Europe, albeit only as a veneer in some places. At least the pagan gods were replaced with a Christian God. Commerce was revived and universities founded. Nations began developing with the concept that ultimate sovereignty resided with the people under the laws of God, thus laying the basis for constitutional government. The use of universities gave men the intellectual skills and curiosity which would later be called upon to question the doctrines of the Catholic church. It is not surprising that all of the major reformers were university graduates. Also, the universities preserved Latin as a universal language to be used eventually as a precise instrument for the new revelation. The growth of commerce and the technological skills which accompanied this gave men an inter-communication which would eventually allow for the spread of new doctrine. Merchants and other urban groups were the first secular people to seek education and many would be at the basis of Protestant Revolution. Still, despite these long term trends which would seem to be the result of Providence, there are many instances in which individuals in history were able to influence history. Reference need only be made to such events as King John's desire to exclude the barons from participating in the government of England or Thomas Aquinas' systematization of religious thinking based on Aristotelian philosophy, which eventually became incorporated in Roman Catholic dogma, to see the results of that influence on a long term basis.

Of a more recent vintage there is the study of European colonization of the nineteenth century. One of the major justifications of such action was the hope of bringing Christianity to "backward" people and indeed the missionaries frequently followed the flag and vice versa. Still these areas have accepted little of the good of Christianity and much of the least laudable aspects of Western Civilization. Indeed in recent years Eastern cults have begun a theological counter-attack on the West and one sees not only "Black Muslims" but Zen Buddhists and pseudo-Hindus! What actions, human or divine, account for the failure of the original efforts? The answers are too numerous to go into here, but one might be the failure of the Westerners to divorce their doctrine from its cultural trappings. (It is hoped that New Church missionaries avoid this pitfall.)

One last topic of interest is the rise of modern totalitarianism. Human freedom has known no tyrants more cruel or all-encompassing than those associated with Nazism and Communism. Operating away from any kind of revealed ethical system, these movements effectively suppress all opposition, and modern technology enables this control to be both constant and frightening. Again, the question can be raised: Where is the operation of Providence and what is the work of man? Men's love of self, of the world, and of dominion makes them receptive to the demagogic rantings of leaders, especially in those areas where any economic gains would be welcome. Such events are too contemporary to see clearly the effects of the operations of Providence, but such answers must be sought and the effort must be made or we will face the loss of a generation. For in a way the real problem turns on the entire rationale for New Church education, the evangelization of the children of New Church parents. We must be sure that our intellectual endeavors leave them prepared to face a doubting academic community and a skeptical world. Our approach to history, our study and interpretation of it, must be such that it shows clearly the role of Providence in its operation and, even more important, that it can demonstrate the truth that man is free but that there are consequences of his actions; that he must consider the results of his actions and remain firm in the knowledge that when he freely makes an effort to shun evil he need fear nothing for then he has not the strongest power in the universe on his side, he has the only power—the one Omniscient and Omnipotent God, the Lord, Jesus Christ, the Ruler of Heaven and Earth.

Footnotes top

1 For a further discussion of Greek history and philosophy see Arnold J. Toynbee, Greek Historical Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950).

2 Etienne Gilson, ed. Augustine (New York: Image books, 1958).

3 Hans Meyerhoff, ed. The Philosophy of History In Our Time (New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1959), p. 21.

4 Alfred Acton, "Divine Government and Human Freedom of Choice," New Church Life, Vol. XLVIII (1928), p. 533. See also pp. 535, 541.

5 Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. X (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1954 ed.), p. 3.

6 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis R. Napoleon (New York: International Press), p. 14.

7 Charles A. Beard, "Written History as an Act of Faith," in Meyerhoff, op. cit. pp. 143–145.

8 Carl Gustavson, A Preface to History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), p. 54.

9 Morton White, "Can History Be Objective?" in Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 199.

10 Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 19.

11 Carl Becker, "What are Historical Facts?" in Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 135.

12 E. P. Cheyney quoted in Gustavson, op. cit., p. 63.

13 Karl Popper, "Has History Any Meaning?" in Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 306.

14 Lawson Pendleton, "Providence and Permissions," New Church Education, Vol. 17, p. 43.

15 Sigfried Synnestvedt, "Medieval and Modern History," (unpublished manuscript in the Academy of the New Church Library, Bryn Athyn, Penna.).

16 William Whitehead, "The Development of History," Journal of Education, Vol. XIV, p. 170.

17 William R. Kintner, "A New Church View of History," New Church Life, Vol. LXXXVII (1967), p. 497.

18 Geoffrey P. Dawson, "The Basis of a New Church View of History," The New Philosophy, Vol. IXXV, p. 194.

19 Sigfried Synnestvedt, "American History and Government," (unpublished manuscript in the Academy of the New Church Library, Bryn Atbyn, Penna.), p. 1.

20 DP 179.

21 William F. Church, The Greatness of Louis XIV, (Boston: D. C. Heath & Co., 1959) p. xii. This book gives a good picture of the historical debate on this question.

22 R. G. Collingswood, "The Historical Imagination," in Meyerhoff, op. cit., p. 75.

23 Robert F. Berkhofer, A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis, (New York: Free Press, 1969) p. 5.

24 Dawson, op. cit., p. 197.

25 AC 2106, 2194, 2767; also in DP 85–96.

26 Alfred Acton, op. cit., p. 545. See also DP 21–23 and HH 589–603. 27 DP 43: 2.

27 DP 43: 2.

28 AC 6489.

29 The foregoing is based on a reading of DP 71 : "Man should act from freedom according to reason"; DLW 264: "By freedom is meant the capacity to think, will, and do these things (i.e., good or evil) freely"; and AC 10777: "The reason why the evil succeed . . . is that it is according to order that everyone should do what he does from reason and also from freedom."

30 William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 249.

31 DP 187, DP 336.

32 DP 251. For the question of Providence in war see also DP 212, 212: 3 and DP 70. For a similar attitude to "chance" in war see the biography of any major military figure.

33 DP 211.

34 DP 71, 281 ; TCR 497, 498.

35 DP 234–235, 281–282.

36 Aubrey Cole Odhner, "Search for the Ancient Word through Mythology and Correspondence," New Church Life, Vol. XCII (1972), pp. 28–83, 114–120.

37 AC 2661.

38 Thomas Henry Hollingsworth Historical Demography (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1969).

39 TCR 636.

40 TCR 634.