Christ, the key to human meaning
by Ken Myers
Gil Bailie was a guest on Volume 160 of the Journal, discussing his book The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Mystery of Personhood (Angelico Press, 2023). In the Preface, he writes that this book “emerged from its immediate predecessor, God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.”
That earlier book (published in 2016 by Angelico Press) includes a brief chapter titled “The Refusal of History.” In it, Bailie explored the nature and origins of historical consciousness, which he distinguishes from mythological consciousness. The chapter includes two epigraphs:
“Karl Löwith correctly argued that there is no universal history without Judaism and Christianity. That is, the notion that all mankind shares in the same history, a linear history moving toward a goal, only appeared historically with the Judeo-Christian tradition.” —Glenn W. Olsen
“[A]ll history is . . . a riddle that cannot be solved unless we plough with some heifer other than our reason.” —Johann Georg Hamann
Affirming René Girard’s anthropological framework — that cultures have their origins in an originating act of violence — Bailie argues that a society with a mythological consciousness remembers its past without the detachment to question the originating act of violence, a detachment enabled only with the development of a historical consciousness.
“The consciousness of those whose rituals exist to repristinate an aboriginal beginning is strikingly different from the consciousness of those whose acts of recollection produce moral misgivings about events in the past — events in which they or their ancestors actually participated and for which they feel a genuine degree of contrition. Any realistic prospect for a better future depends on these moral misgivings and the contrition they inspire. It is this historical form of the remembered past, and not the morally impotent mythological form, that is most compatible with human hope. Those who recall the past with contrition are precisely the ones who are able to look to the future with hope.
“As long as they remained beholden to their gods and the cycle of sacrificial rituals that appeased them, our ancient ancestors lived in a cyclical and not a historical world.”
Bailie goes on to argue that Christianity provides the key to historical intelligibility. He references Jacques Maritain’s observation of “the great pagan melancholy” — the inability of pre-Christian cultures to escape the sense that the destiny of Man is to be a victim of fate.
“According to at least one careful observer, Thucydides’ quest for a principle of historical intelligibility not only ended ignominiously, but it also had an unpropitious beginning. In his introduction to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, M. I. Finley writes: ‘There is not a sentence in the book — this cannot be stressed enough — that states explicitly what Thucydides thought history was about, why it was worth a lifetime of very hard effort to write a detailed and accurate history of the war, or why that history could lay claim to being a possession for all time.’ Although the classical historians had a gift for cataloguing historical events, if [Charles Norris] Cochrane [in Christianity and Classical Culture] and Finley are correct, these towering figures of Greek historiography lacked an adequate anthropology for which they can hardly be faulted, inasmuch as the key to anthropological intelligibility is the discovery of the Trinitarian God that was finally revealed on the Cross and that broke in on the world a half-millennia after Herodotus and Thucydides. The shortcomings of these Greek historians are nonetheless of interest to us because, to the extent that Christianity and its epistemological and moral benefits are set aside, those deprived of these things will, in the words of Joseph Ratzinger, lose their way in history and squander their cultural patrimony on utopian social experiments.
“Cochrane is quick to insist that the classical world’s failure to discover ‘a principle of historical intelligibility’ was simply ‘calamitous, for the ideal of intelligibility thus betrayed took speedy vengeance upon its betrayers.’ Inasmuch as the culture founded on a Judeo-Christian understanding of history is in the process of betraying the principle of historical intelligibility — precisely, as [René] Girard reminds us, by our ‘panic-stricken refusal to glance, even furtively, in the only direction where meaning could still be found’ — we would do well to heed Cochrane’s ominous warning. We will do so by asking two questions: What prevented the emergence of historical consciousness over the course of several millennia? And what eventually overcame this resistance and awakened historical consciousness?
“It is highly germane to our inquiry that Cochrane finds that failure epitomized by a casual remark Thucydides makes at the end of his chronicle of an Athenian social crisis in 415 BC, a crisis related to political conspiracies lately foiled and others rumored to be in the making. As rumors spread, Athenian social consensus, such as it was, fractured and grew more and more volatile. As Thucydides put it, ‘every day showed an increase in savagery and led to more arrests being made.’ One of the prisoners was persuaded that a confession in which he would implicate other conspirators would win his release, and, in any case, not materially worsen his already unpromising prospects. Confessing his own guilt and that of others produced a considerable lessening of social tensions. ‘The Athenian people were delighted at having now, as they imagined, discovered the truth, after having been previously in a terrible state at the idea that the conspirators against the democracy might never be found out.’ The confession having been made, the prisoner was released, and all those against whom he had given evidence of a highly dubious nature were brutally killed. Cochrane labels this event a ‘bloodbath,’ and he places remarkable emphasis on the concluding sentence of Thucydides’ chronicle of it. The sentence reads as follows: ‘In all this it was impossible to say whether those who suffered deserved their punishment or not, but it was quite clear that the rest of the city, as things were, benefited greatly.’
“If Cochrane’s intuition is correct, the classical failure to understand what is happening in history is symbolized by a morally blasé interpretation of a blood-bath whose victims were very probably innocent, but whose innocence was regarded as less worthy of attention than the fact that “it was quite clear that the rest of the city, as things were, benefited greatly” from the violence that cost them their lives. Thucydides’ moral nonchalance with regard to violence that both fell on innocent victims and was of visible benefit to the community of victimizers was a species of the tendency found throughout the ancient world to defer to the social benefits of sacrificial rituals while discouraging a moral evaluation of them. As Cochrane helps us understand, the quest for a principle of historical intelligibility comes to an ignominious end precisely when this tendency to subordinate the truth about the victims to the social benefits that flowed from their victimization is indulged.”