The Owl of Minerva Takes Flight

Minerva with Owl. 2nd century CE.
Louvre, Paris, France. Photo by Janmad.

“The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk.” So wrote G. W. F. Hegel, the nineteenth century’s major philosopher of history. By that he meant that any given phase of history can be understood only in retrospect – after it’s over. Minerva was of course the goddess of wisdom and the owl her particularly wise old bird.

Since even Hegel, who claimed to understand history, disclaimed any such power with regard to future – or even present – events, I should certainly not try to discover the secret springs of our current historical phase.

I shouldn’t try, but I can’t help it. I’m curious. Besides, I do think that each of us is living out the story of her own life, and must inevitably be tempted to attach the defining concerns of that personal story to comparable large ones that extend into the story of humanity at the present hour.

So – with some allowances made for how easily I can be mistaken – how does the Big Picture look to me now? Let’s climb aboard the owl and fly around long enough to see the lay of the land.

The owl looks for wisdom, wherever it’s likely to be found. So, shouldn’t we first look at the natural sciences with their present puzzlements? From my bird’s eye view, I’ve been lately getting the impression that previous assumptions, about life happening on our earth as the result of chance combinations of chemicals, can no longer be sustained by those who know how numerous and intricate are the combinations in a single cell – beyond what chance alone could explain.

It now appears that the production of life – of self-replicating creatures that subsequently follow a Darwinian course of natural selection – couldn’t be an accident. Also that the same improbability confronts the biochemists with the later appearance of consciousness. And still later, at the human level, there’s inherent purposiveness which operates in a manner inexplicable just in terms of the principles at work at lower levels of complexity. It’s beginning to look as if nature might be purposive through and through.

Back in high school, we were taught that teleology (the view that purposes inhere in nature itself) had been discredited. Turns out, that’s unlikely to be true. Teleology might be the next big thing! Which would give philosophy, and perhaps theology, some new work to do.

Moving further along the sky lanes, the owl is now trying to get a sense for the present range of human purposes. The aerial view is quite puzzling to the owl. It sees the grey haze of skepticism settling over the humanistic disciplines and diversions of Western Europe as well as the English-speaking world.

Unlike ancient skepticism, the contemporary kind is not just doubt about whether we can know anything with certainty. It gets into deeper levels, raising doubts about whether there are such things as inbuilt desires, for example erotic desires, that derive from our biological natures. So, just as teleology – the view that every species is shot through with natural purposes – is starting to look inescapable in biochemistry and allied fields, natural purposes have fallen quite out of favor in the humanities.

The owl scratches its feathered head.

Let me help the owl. If you wanted to control a human being – without going to the trouble of isolating your target for ceaseless denunciation and coerced confessions – then the thing to do would be to put your victim out of touch with his or her natural desires. Subject a person’s desires to continuous and arbitrarily elastic redefinition – reinforced by the threat of social and professional ostracism – and voila! you can control your targeted person without physical coercion. It’s a means of gaining power at least as effective as the now-outmoded styles of brainwashing described in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and later reported in Robert Lifton’s actual account of mind control as practiced on captured American prisoners during the Korean War – and it’s so much cheaper!

Flying further, beyond democracies corroded by erotic manipulation and real tyrannies no longer able to credit their own ideological rationales – and what now do we see happening on our green earth down below?

Some years ago, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book titled The End of History. In it, he argued that no system of political thought remains credible – all others having by now discredited themselves – except for liberal democracy. In that sense, Fukuyama held, we have all entered the unsurpassable, world-historical era of liberal democracy!

Are there any signs that Fukuyama may have been right?

There is Ukraine.

There is a nation where a genuine historical eros animates a whole people to perceive and prefer liberal democratic values. We also see that seemingly skeptical nations, where those values were once harbored and thought through, are suddenly acting as if jerked awake and rousing themselves to support that people’s fight.

In such moments, there is nothing of skepticism.

Only a coming home

to self-recognition.

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” ( 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 . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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