Putting Order Into History

Erechtheum, Athens

Putting Order Into History

Aviva Zornberg has written another of her inspired books about the Bible, this one suggestively titled, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis.  

Why read the Bible?  Isn’t it a just collection of stories that aren’t true?  No.  It’s a collection of stories whose possible truth is worth trying to figure out. 

Discussing the “generation of the flood” [that is, the generation of people who, except for Noah et al, drowned in the great deluge] — as well as Adam’s sin in the Garden — Zornberg sees in both stories a failure of the characters involved to hold off chaos.  

What factors would go into such a failure?  She sees it as a refusal rather than a careless slip-up.  What’s being refused?  It’s the opportunity to stand in the presence of God – in whose presence we become able to feel, recognize and bear with our human incompleteness.

Sound easy?  Believe me, it’s not.  Let’s take a closer look.

Sooner or later, those who reflect on human history will meet the question of whether, in whole or in part, it makes sense.  The same question arises when any of us reflect on our own situations.  Is there any pattern or design that we can make out?

Natural as it may be, that question isn’t the right one.  Think of any concrete case of chaos that you have ever faced.  Was that situation one in which you were merely seeking to discern the pattern – as if the demand it made on you was purely aesthetic?  Wasn’t there rather something to do about it, or else refrain from doing?

What brings order into any particular messy situation?  Consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  The present ruler of Russia must have pictured it as going off without a hitch.  After all, Ukraine had been part of historic Russia.  My mother was born in Odessa and always spoke of herself as “born in Russia.”  At a Manhattan gathering one time, I was even told by two real Russian princesses (their titles of course a holdover from Tsarist days) that my mother spoke “a refined Russian” for which they expressed eloquent appreciation.

Suddenly, this Jewish guy, Zelensky, who’s a comedic actor, finds himself –  after what looks like a national vote for self-parody – lifted into the very presidency that he has skillfully enacted in his screen comedies.  Next, what is even more astonishing, he startles the world by identifying the Russian invasion as a cruel and despotic assault against an outpost of the democratic civilization that was first cradled in the West.  Ukraine is part of the civilized world!  Civilization must stand with Ukraine!

And what does the world do?  At first it thinks Zelensky is a mirage, a pipe dream; he’ll be gone in a few days and we’ll miss him … maybe, a little.  But that first opinion turns out to be a misconception!  Days pass and he’s not gone.  And neither is his well-tuned, highly motivated, fighting nation!  And slowly, hesitantly, then more and more concretely, Western nations begin to support him and his Ukrainian cause, in many material ways, even at the cost of their peoples’ economic interests, even at the sacrifice of the popularity of Western leaders with their own voters.

And that is how order is put into history.  Historians have told the same story about Churchill and England, when the probabilities favored Hitler and the reign of moral chaos for which he stood.

Closer to home, on January 6th, 2021, a dumbfounded nation watched a murderous mob invade the sacred precincts of our Capital, where elected representatives vote on the people’s business.  The mob was egged on (and retroactively told “I love you”) by a president who’d been defeated at the polls but decided to cast suspicion on democracy’s two indispensable vehicles: the courts and the ballot.

It was as if flood waters were closing over the ordering principles written in the law and inscribed in the nation’s hearts, minds and habits.

A member of the former president’s own party has stepped forward – likely damaging her own political future irreparably – to help make clear what has happened.  Who did what?  Who said what?  In what chronological sequence did these sayings and doings occur?  What constitutes probative evidence for each occurrence?

What’s the story?

It would be very hard, I think, to watch the January 6 hearings all the way through, each one from start to finish, and still dismiss them as I have heard partisans of the former president do.  What happened has been made intelligible.  It was an exceptionally difficult job whose outcome is still undecided.  Will we have a return of mob rule at the disposal of a single man?  Or will we see right order restored and effectively safeguarded for the future?

One may wonder, how these heroes – like Zelensky or Liz Cheney — know what to do?  Are they reading a script that the rest of us don’t see?  Yes, in a way.  

Aristotle drew a comparison between the ascent from the chaos of immediate experience to higher-level intelligibility and the right way for armies to conduct themselves in the field.  “It is like a rout in battle,” he wrote, “stopped by first one man making a stand and then another, until the original formation has been restored” (Posterior Analytics, 100a).

Day in, day out, these choices confront us.  We can join the rout, or help the original order of battle to reform.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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