Thursday, May 17, 2018

Timothy Snyder on History



Timothy Snyder, American historian & political Cassandra. Will we heed him? 

One of my abiding interests is the study and use of history. History not just as a discipline, but as a way of knowing the world. And one of my other abiding interests concerns political thought and action. Every once in a while I come across an insightful piece of writing about one or other of these topics, but here I get a twofer from Timothy Snyder in his recently published book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America. In the prologue, Snyder writes:

History is and must be political thought, in the sense  that it opens a aperture between inevitability and eternity, preventing us from drifting from the one to the other, helping us see the moment when we might make a difference. 
As we emerge from inevitability and contend with eternity, a history of disintegration can be a guide to repair. Erosion reveals what resists, what can be reinforced, what can be reconstructed, and what must be reconcieved. Because understanding is empowerment, this book's chapter titles are framed as alternatives: Individualism or Totalitarianism; Succession or Failure; Integration or Empire; Novelty or Eternity; Truth or Lies; Equality or Oligarchy. Thus individuality, endurance, cooperation , novelty , honesty , and justice figure as political virtues. These qualities are not mere platitudes or preferences, but facts of history, not less than material forces might be. Virtues are inseparable from the institutions they inspire and nourish. 
An institution might cultivate certain ideas of the good, and it also depend upon them. If institutions are to flourish, they need virtues; if virtues are to be cultivated, they need institutions. The moral questions of what is good and evil in public life can never be separated from the historical investigation of structure. It is the politics of inevitability and eternity that make virtues seem irrelevant or even laughable: inevitably by promising that the good is what already exists and must predictably expand, eternity by assuring that the evil is always external and that we are forever its innocent victims. 
If we wish to have a better account of good and evil, we will have to resuscitate history.  
 
 The Road to Unfreedom: Russia Europe America (2018) 12-13. 

P.S. My review to follow soon.


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