The Metahistorical Dramatists and the Triumph of Doubt.
Students of history have sometimes been tempted to imagine it as a great drama, its author God or a surrogate of God, like Hegel’s Absolute. For a century, every decade or two has witnessed the arrival of a historian who aspires to be the ultimate drama critic or rival playwright, best called a ‘metahistorian’, who goes beyond his more prosaic contemporaries, and offers an overarching theory, giving a unified interpretation of past, present, and future.
From World War I to the 1930s, it was the pessimistic arch-conservative, Oswald Spengler, who achieved international acclaim with The Decline of the West, which portrayed all civilizations, from ancient times to the present, in cycles of birth, flowering, stasis, and final decline. It was first published in 1917, and was an immediate sensation in his native Germany. Later translated into several languages, including English, it suited the intellectual mood after the First World War. Spengler’s play is unavoidably tragic; he once commented that ‘optimism is cowardice’..
From the 1930s to the 1950s, a far more elaborate but similar cyclical theory was provided by the English Christian historian and Foreign Office adviser, Arnold Toynbee, in his massive multi-volume work, A Study of History, written over two decades. His greatest influence was not in his own country, but in the United States, mainly through a one-volume abridged version. Toynbee was also a prolific journalist and lecturer, and he made the cover of Time in 1947. Americans liked Toynbee’s vision better than Spengler’s, still tragic but leavened by Christian hope. But while he lived until 1975, his popularity declined sharply after 1960.
Metahistory somewhat fell out of fashion from the 1960s through the 1980s, although Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), was in the tradition. Kennedy, a British historian teaching at Yale, drew on a military and strategic emphasis. But while his book had some impact on publication, he never captured the imagination of the intellectual world as widely as Spengler and Toynbee had at the height of their popularity.
Something near that was accomplished, however, at the start of the 1990s, by The End of History and the Last Man, by the Japanese-American historian Francis Fukuyama; the book continued to be widely read and discussed throughout the decade. Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian Big Idea was that ‘history’ was now coming to an end, as the entire world was moving to a common acceptance of liberal democracy in political institutions and capitalism in economics. In Bill Clinton’s America, the great drama ends in universal bourgeois happiness.
By then it was evident that media anointment is only extended to a single metahistorical dramatist at a time. Fukuyama has written several books since his 1990 bombshell, but has long lost the crown. In the English-speaking world of the 21st century, it has been firmly seized by Niall Ferguson, onetime Oxford don, now holder of two Harvard professorships.
Ferguson has some differences from all his predecessors. The earlier English historian he most resembles was not Toynbee, but another flamboyant Oxford don and TV star, A. J. P. Taylor. Ferguson owes him a great lesson. Taylor was a genuine scholar of note, but his fame, or notoriety, was far more derived from what he did in his most famous book, The Origins of the Second World War (1963) which offered a very unorthodox and even shocking thesis. In it, Taylor maintained that Hitler’s great evils were all in his domestic policies, while his foreign policies were what any German government would have tried to achieve in the 1930s. His big mistake, according to Taylor, was in going after the Sudetenland first, rather than first making his alliance with Stalin; had he reversed the order, Hitler might have achieved his objectives without launching the Second World War.
Ferguson launched his fame in England in almost exactly the same way, with a new history of the First World War, The Pity of War. Otherwise mainly notable for an emphasis on economic factors, it included a very Tayloresque attention-grabber, the media rising like trout to the bait. He claimed that the world would have been better off had the British simply stayed out. In that case, the Germans would have won the war in a year or two, and that would not have led to the terribly ruinous effects of the war that actually took place: a total catastrophe, not only for its terrible bloodshed, but in bringing the collapse of the old dynastic empires, the rise of Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism, and the seeds of another even more terrible war.
Ferguson thus revealed himself from the start as an enthusiast, a far more thoroughgoing and repeated one than Taylor, for ‘counterfactual’ history. In fact, he edited a whole volume of essays by young historians called Virtual History, of’ other interesting ‘what ifs’. But he was no new Taylor otherwise. Even historians who disliked the latter would agree that he was a master of English prose, both elegant and witty. Ferguson has always known how to be donnishly amusing, but has been a far more pedestrian writer overall. His books in his own field of financial history, like The Cash Nexus, despite being on interesting topics, have little of Taylor’s sparkle and flair. But he paid his scholarly dues with his two-volume work on the Rothschilds, made with unprecedented access to the Rothschild family archives, perhaps his last work that attained scholarly approval but few general readers.
Nonetheless, his ambition and energy has carried him to greater heights. Taylor was not only a lifelong leftist, but a despairing one; he explicitly declared that he had little belief that the writing of history, his own or anyone else’s, made much difference to the way actual history worked out, and he was almost indifferent to economics.. Ferguson, a Thatcherite and neoconservative economic historian, has always had larger hopes.
Taylor also remained an almost entirely British popular phenomenon. Ferguson made his Transatlantic jump early, giving popular courses to undergraduates on both sides of the water, and writing more and more books suitable for TV adaptation. To his adoring Harvard students and charmed TV interviewers he has also unveiled his own Big Idea, to teach the Americans about both the greatness and the follies of the British Empire, offering instructive parallels for the present U. S.
Ferguson’s recent books, Empire, Colossus, and this year’s Civilization: The West and the Rest, with its ‘six killer apps’, are not so much historical works as rivals of the journalistic ones of Thomas Friedman. But compared to past metahistorians, he has always been more commonsensical and less theoretical, even in his less popular works. Despite his fondness for Big Topics and dramatic counterfactualism, he has remained something of an Oxford empiricist. But adapting to some American public disillusionment with neoconservatism. he has also lately been forced into some backtracking; he must now struggle with the iron law that those who live by the trend shall perish by the trend.
In his fast footwork, suitable for the media revolution of his times, Ferguson may be offering the last gasp of the metahistorical project. No more the bleak pessimism of Spenglerian tragedy,, the magisterial remoteness of Toynbee, the geostrategic calculations of Kennedy. or Fukuyama’s Americanized happy Hegelianism. A. J. P. Taylor, who actually taught Paul Kennedy, lived long enough to sadly observe that his own kind of leftist politics could go through its own decline, but there was one kind of Oxford wisdom he always represented, which both Fukuyama and Ferguson have had to rediscover: historians are more a mirror of their own times than reliable prophets.