The Paradox of Chaos and the Emergence of History

The year 2020 seems to have brought us “a hell of evils,” to borrow philosopher Immanuel Kant's phrase. Can history help us make sense of the chaos we are facing?

2020 has been a year of chaos. Pandemic, riots, terrorism, political polarization and deepening distrust, economic stagnation if not depression, fears over climate change, and aggression by major world powers are just some of the causes of anxiety worldwide. Indeed, last year a poll showed that nearly half of the human race fears climate change will lead to our extinction. 2020 has only compounded those fears.

People around the world are anxious that “a hell of evils,” to borrow philosopher Immanuel Kant’s phrase, is overtaking us and leading us to our doom. It is not simply that bad things are happening and that events are spiralling out of our control. Modern human beings seem too to be incapable of formulating a response to such chaos. The ideas, philosophies, religions, and narratives that in the past have helped us to make sense of our world seem inadequate to the task of our current chaotic moment. Of particular note is the inability of our rationality to understand and to control events.

For its part, the Western world has relied on the Enlightenment narrative of progress and democratization to provide a sense of sense and purpose. But with democracy in worldwide retreat, and facing pressures of discord in the United States which has served as a lodestar for democracy throughout its history, the narrative of progress too is in shambles.

Westerners, having convinced themselves only a few short years ago that they had achieved worldwide supremacy and even an “end of history,” now worry that that climb upwards has led us to a precipice. Having taken the purpose of their collective and individual lives for granted, people in the West seem now to mainly see chaos and purposelessness.

“We fear we are like Icarus, whose wings have just been melted by the sun.”

We seem to be in that moment that Kant feared of when the “hell of evils” might “overtake us, however civilized our condition in that nature, by barbaric devastation, might perhaps again destroy this civilized state and all the cultural progress hitherto achieved” (Idea for a Universal History, Seventh Proposition). We fear we are like Icarus, whose wings have just been melted by the sun.

Deep within the chaos of our time, one might, ironically, probably find something of a consensus that it is the worst year in people’s recent memory. Indeed, a recent poll reveals half of Canadians regard 2020 as the worst year of their lives, with the young being the most pessimistic. This pessimism is played out in numerous ways, including a popular internet meme that suggests “Mayhem,” a recurring character from Allstate Insurance advertising, as the Time magazine Person of the Year.

Internet meme about Mayhem being the Time magazine person of the year

The “Chaosmos”

Despite our moment of chaos, there seems to be widespread agreement that we live in a moment of chaos. This is a paradox worth noting. Does not chaos imply discord, disagreement, and confusion? Yet there is no disagreement that we face chaos, and this fact suggests there is something more to reality than chaos.

It is worth noting how this paradox has been recognized in previous chaotic moments in humanity’s history. For instance, the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, writing in his Theogony approximately twenty-seven centuries ago, sings that the world came into being with chaos. But he understood chaos not as a “disorder” or “confusion.” Rather, he understood chaos as an opening or gaping expanse, the emergence of a possibility for the opposite of chaos, namely, cosmos or order. Three centuries ago, Kant had a similar thought of emergent possibility when he spoke of humanity’s pre-history as an “unfilled void”; humans created their history by filling that void. Chaos is perennial. These two examples, along with others discussed below, suggest that our moment is not special.

“People in the West have forgotten that there is no cosmos without chaos, as there also is no chaos without cosmos.”

By noting the paradoxical nature of chaos, we recognize it to be a place of emergent possibility, and counterpart also to cosmos. People in the West have taken for granted the goodness and purposiveness of their civilizational order, and they have also taken cosmos for granted. They have forgotten that there is no cosmos without chaos, as there also is no chaos without cosmos. German political scientist Tilo Schabert writes: “This is the history of things: they fall apart and they are one, and they are one and they fall apart.”

Schabert also suggests that reality is a compound of chaos and cosmos, a “chaosmos,” which is a term he borrows from novelist James Joyce. Cosmos is the human response to chaos. This human response includes the formation and maintenance of human communities, which as a political project has as its aim the good ordering of human souls capable of enjoying friendship with one another. The key element of the human response to chaos is recognizing that chaos is due to their own unruly passions and desires. Key to cosmos is the cultivation of the soul, and the benevolent rule of reason over those unruly passions and desires. One of the causes of the current anxiety is that we have taken reason’s rule for granted (through products of rationalism—law, civilization, technology) and have neglected taking responsibility for soulcraft.

Making Sense of Chaos with History

To identify their place in reality amidst chaos, human beings are anxious to know a beginning of their history in which they feel to be involved. Our place in reality is a place in a story and there are various ways of telling that story. History then is not simply an academic exercise. It is an existential response to the anxiety we feel when we face chaos. History is the inquiry that tries to make sense of chaos.

“History is an existential response to the anxiety we feel when we face chaos.”

The existential challenge of chaos both now and, it seems, perennially for human beings, necessitates careful inquiry. Tilo Schabert and I invited six other scholars to consider this paradox by asking them, “Wherefrom does history emerge?”, which is also the title of our newly edited book. It carries the subtitle, “Inquiries in Political Cosmogony,” because reflection upon our history and our place in the world also requires us to inquire into the world itself.

In his contribution to our discussion, Schabert convenes a “panel of experts”, which includes some of the great historians and philosophers of history of the West: Herodotus, Thucydides, Virgil, Flavius Josephus, Augustine, Erasmus, Kant, Hegel. This group spans a wide period of time but despite this, Schabert expresses some astonishment when he discovers that the panel is unanimous with its response to the question.

The panelists express unanimity in response to chaos, just as in our own moment of chaos we find some consensus about the year 2020. The panel of experts agrees that the answer is within the human soul, the site where humans respond to chaos by endeavoring to create cosmos. They agree that inquiry into our place in reality, and its beginning and direction, is a proper response to that chaos.

Schabert subsequently notices that the panel is united on the nature of that inquiry. He identifies three levels of the inquiry: the empirical, analytical, and hermeneutic. Each member of the panel follows each logical step of this pattern.

At the empirical level, the panelists describe of what they see history consists: “slaughterhouse,” “spectacle of passions,” “acts of violence,” “hell of ills,” “war,” “quarrel,” “envy,” “rape,” and so forth. The list of adjectives is dismaying as it is brutal. The empirical level shows the encounter with chaos. Even so, they recognize that such chaos also produces effects; it is the origin of actions and hence, of history.

“The panel of experts agrees that history is created out of disordered passions.”

The panelists also agree of the cause of this chaos: humans and their disordered passions and appetites. Thus, human beings create history out of themselves, their souls. The panel of experts also agrees that history is created out of disordered passions: fury, envy, hatred, evil, pride, lust for power.

Turning to the analytical level, the panelists agree that disordered passions alone do not create history. The moderns on the panel, Hegel and Kant, explain that the struggle among the passions drives history which has a rational direction. Reason seems to guide history, which humans amidst their short-term struggles and wars do not recognize. This is the narrative of progress.

Schabert notes that earlier thinkers were more reserved about how cosmos and history emerge. He points to Erasmus of Rotterdam who notices that struggle takes place within human souls, between reason and passion. Reason is not superimposed by providence, by nature, or by God. It is the human responsibility to govern oneself.

Erasmus’ insight leads to the final level, the hermeneutic. The panelists agree that the rule of reason requires them to consider the world in which human beings act. What possibilities for reasonable action does the world provide? Is the world friendly or hostile to human aspirations for happiness and justice? Hegel and Kant think nature will allow history to progress toward a final state that Kant calls the “universal cosmopolitan condition.”

Our moment has thrown hope in progress into profound doubt. However, we also must not forget that Kant soberly regarded it as more of a hope than as a practical reality. Again, Schabert points to the insight of Erasmus, who thought cosmos could only be obtained by good, ethical rulers, who are capable of practicing friendship within themselves (their ordered souls ruled by reason) and with one another.

Schabert concludes by citing the insight of Greek historian Thucydides, who explains the utmost importance of judiciousness and courage. The judicious person sees peace as the goal of human aspiration, and the courageous person is courageous for that peace. Schabert concludes regarding the significance of judiciousness and courage: “This is the only teaching, if there is one, that can oppose the world’s taking place in conflict. There is no other.”

Our discussion proceeds from a newly-formed panel of experts of contemporary scholars tasked to answer the title question and broaden into non-Western perspectives . We include “updates” from voices close to the original panel, including ancient Greeks: Homer, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle.

We include a response from two modern novelists who offer profound reflections on the nature of history and the nature of civilization, Washington Irving and James Joyce, whose novels, Rip Van Winkle and Ulysses respectively, explore the nature of history and of civilization. We also include a response from Winston Churchill, who is widely credited with saving Western civilization from the chaos of the “darkest hour.” However, we have also included submissions from outside the West, including from Japanese Buddhism, ancient Iran and Zorostrianism, the foundation of Mexico.

Contemporary Voices

The answers by our panel of experts focus on three broad themes that reflect the three levels that Schabert identifies of the earlier panel: chaos and political conflict; soulcraft, and friendship.

Jonathan Wensveen finds that Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War paints a stark picture of chaos. This includes not only the brutal fighting between Athens and Sparta, but also the civil wars fought within the city-states, especially in Corcyra. Even so, the chaotic violence was preceded by the confusion caused by disordered passions and injustices, where judiciousness and moderation are seen as their opposites.

Wensveen sees parallels in contemporary Western politics, including the United States, where identifying oneself as a “moderate” or a “centrist” has become an increasingly untenable and reviled position. This is brought out by the fact that in his passage on the civil war at Corcyra Thucydides makes it clear that the first people eliminated in that conflict were those that neither “party” could “trust”—people who, under normal political circumstances, would have facilitated conducting a politics characterized by civility and compromise. Amidst chaos, civility and compromise become seen as vices, not virtues.

Dieter Fuchs’s study of Irving Washington’s Rip Van Winkle shows how such chaos can result from an illusory sense of history. In response to the chaos at the foundation of the world, Washington Irving proposes a linear approach to history. His novella constructs an American foundational myth based on the mythical origin of the history of Ancient Greece. The American War of Independence is viewed as the starting point for a linear progress towards an imperial hegemony. A telos of history – imagined as an eternal state of never-ending bliss – is assumed, though put into doubt by the parodic nature of the novella.

Washington’s parody shows how the linear myth can hide injustices, which fester and erupt as we witness in today’s chaos. Fuchs juxtaposes Irving with James Joyce’s Ulysses, which represents a cyclical interpretation of the past, he firmly works out a never-ending concept of cyclicality. History follows a repetitive pattern, it repeats itself. It is futile to seek a beginning, a starting point of history. Such a movement backwards would go on ad infinitum. It is unclear whether this is better than the linear approach.

In response to chaos, whose cause is our disordered desires, our panelists appeal to the cultivation of our souls. There are philosophical and religious methods of doing so. Manuel Knoll considers Plato and Aristotle’s understandings of war and peace, and draws a clear line between those political conditions and the psychological dispositions that lead to them. Disharmonious souls produce war; harmonious souls have the best chance at producing peace. Plato and Aristotle provide guidance on how to do this.

“Rituals are a weapon against evil.”

Antonio Panaino speaks of the answer from Zoroastrianism (or Mazdeism). The decisive agonist in this story is time. Two divinities struggle with each other, a good one, Ohrmazd, and an evil one, Ahreman. With the beginning of their struggle the world’s story begins, and humans are in midst of the struggle. It is mostly in the human mind that the struggle with the mental forces of Ahreman is to be fought. Humankind therefore has a central role to play in the story of the world, through liturgical rituals, among other things. Rituals are a weapon against evil. Yet, Ahreman’s fate – and hence the eschatological closure of the world’s story – is settled by the essential difference between him and Ohrmazd. The latter is the eternal God while Ahreman exists but in time. He is time’s prisoner and must give way in the end.

Eiko Hanaoka reports on Japanese Buddhism’s response. The desires of humans, she observes too, cannot be crushed. Evil and suffering remains with us. According to the teachings of Buddhism, however, one can live in action (hence producing history) and, yet, be detached from one’s egocentric Self (the source of wrongdoing), nevertheless. Hanaoka describes the five stages which lead from the egocentric Self to the true Self that is in harmony with all other fellow humans and things of the world. The pursuit of these five stages brings forth the experience of a progress from worldly truth to absolute truth.

But souls are not cultivated in isolation. As Panaino and Hanaoka observe, rituals that gather together individuals form part of the answer. Rituals are methods of bonding people together in friendship and love and in society.

Davíd Carrasco evokes the ritualistic response to the chaos of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. In focusing on the union between the Aztec women La Malinche and Fernando Cortes, Carrasco makes us acquainted with an exemplary story of race mixture. While a violent, cruel process of destruction and enslavement went on, from sexual encounters between indigenous peoples and conquistadors a new social body emerged that, retrospectively, is striking by a surprising fluidity of identities. The history of Mexico began, as Carrasco asserts. New social Mexican cosmologies superseded the Aztec indigenous world views, as it is paradigmatically demonstrated by the cult of “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Dangerous but not Hopeless

The forging of friendship, especially among political leaders, is a crucial response to chaos. Schabert cites the wisdom of Erasmus, who evokes peace that would be created by wise princes enjoying friendship with one another: “Let kings be attached to each other, not by political intermarriages, artificial and factitious ties, but by pure and sincere friendship” (Querela Pacis).

I consider the lesson of Homer’s Odyssey, which is of a journey from extreme loneliness and speechlessness to convivium, friendship, public speech. We learn through it how history is brought into form. History emerges from actions performed and, then, from sharing stories about them. At their gatherings, friends engage in storytelling and through this storytelling a historical consciousness is formed and articulated. I then refer to the example of Winston Churchill, who in the “darkest hour,” responded to chaos by viewing his art of politics art in terms of storytelling.

“We have relied too much on Enlightenment rationalism and its accompanying myth of progress that masks chaos.”

Chaos is a permanent fixture of the human condition. The responses by the contributors to the question Wherefrom Does History Emerge?  display a wide range of responses to chaos, but also some convergent themes. The responses themselves reflect the perennial relationship between chaos and cosmos. Our current chaotic moment is dangerous but our panelists agree it is not hopeless. If anything, they suggest our widespread anxiety may be due to modern human beings being too lax and forgetful of that perennial relationship. We have relied too much on Enlightenment rationalism and its accompanying myth of progress that masks chaos.

Perhaps this moment, with the guidance of our panel of experts, can teach us of the importance of judiciousness and courage as a response to chaos. Again, in Schabert’s concluding words: “This is the only teaching, if there is one, that can oppose the world’s taking place in conflict. There is no other.”

[Title Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain]

John von Heyking

John von Heyking is Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge (Canada), where he teaches political philosophy. He is author of Comprehensive Judgment and Absolute Selflessness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship (2018), The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (2016), and Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (2001). Most recently he is co-editor, with Tilo Schabert, of Wherefrom Does History Emerge? Inquiries in Political Cosmology.

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