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The Fate of Cain

May 24th, 2023 | 25 min read

By Michael Shindler

Since the modern-turn, no topic has provoked more speculation—from as many angles and at the nexus of so many disciplines—than that of modernity itself. We speculate as to when it really started, where it has as of yet taken hold, what its fundamental character is, and—perhaps most profoundly—why it is at all. And in turn these speculations have engendered a remarkable array of heavy-handed schools of thought, each typically more dismal than the last.

But relative to our distinguished predecessors, we, for better or worse, not only have more experience with the thing in question, but also a fundamentally different relation to it. For us, searching through the tangle of facts and the foregoing schools of thought for the solution to the seeming enigma of the ‘End of History’ is not so much a matter of making sense of an end, but a beginning.

***

In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, G.W. F. Hegel argues that History is the progress of the consciousness of Freedom: In the beginning there was the Idea of Spirit, but only in its implicit form: That is, Nature, within which (enigmatically hidden) was an unconscious impulse Spirit was to gradually render conscious, beginning at first with prehistoric man’s base cravings, instincts, passions, opinions, and so on. At the start of history proper these things—coalescing into the national spirits of distinct peoples—became the means whereby Spirit successively exhibited itself in its highest forms: grades by and towards which Spirit willed itself. So, in History Spirit proceeded to attain its object: its bringing-to-consciousness, self-realization, and contemplation of itself in concrete actuality.

In broad illustration, Hegel recounts that in Ancient China, before Spirit had properly begun to undertake its journey, people had no knowledge of it: they did not know Spirit (i.e., man as such) is free, for they only knew one is free. So, their freedom followed closely with Nature, was typified by extreme caprice or tameness, and was the prerogative of a despot. In Classical Greece, however, peoples had some consciousness of Freedom: they knew some were free and like the Romans following them their partial liberty was implicated in slavery. At last, however, through the gradual influence of maturing Christianity, the northernly nations came to know that man as such is Free—that the Freedom of Spirit constitutes his essence.

For Hegel, this self-knowledge signified History’s end: the last scene in the drama of Spirit. Peoples were finally conscious of themselves as free and that consciousness manifested in a novel type of State, a nation-state wherein a People is its own subject and object. In The Philosophy of Right, Hegel describes how this freedom is realized for individuals via their engagement in the life of the state, which he characteristically details in descending hierarchical triadic categories. But when Hegel died, the countries of the West did not quite resemble his neatly described State (not even his beloved Prussia), much less one where citizens realized their freedom directly through public life (a prospect Hegel in the preface to the aforementioned work reviles with reference to his rival, Jakob Friedrich Fries, a post-Kantian proto-nationalist philosopher then remarkably popular with student groups).

Old imperial states governed several nations at once. Smaller, ostensible nation states typically had sizeable populations of subjects properly belonging to other nations. Royal heads of state were often of foreign descent. Other heads of state, when they were not foreign, were often and widely thought (with good reason) to be governing not in the interest of their people, but of their class. To wit, at the beginning of the 20th century, the West had not quite reached Hegel’s conclusion: peoples as such were not evidently free. Nevertheless, in remarkably short order (while neglecting the finer points of the Hegelian system) the peoples of the West did realize their freedom, though at great cost.

The tragedy of the First World War is nowadays familiar: In a byzantine plot entailing a slew of nationalist secret societies, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand—a rumored supporter of a plan to create a third, Slavic kingdom within the empire that would have thwarted the aims of Serbian nationalists. At his trial he said, “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.”

Thus Europe roped itself into war with a gordian knotwork of alliances and justifications retrospectively so trifling that the notion the conflict was in actuality one of those events Hegel’s Spirit had driven peoples toward for its own designs seems manifestly more heartening than the alternative. States hitherto rife with tradition heaped all they had on the altar of victory. Nations began to develop an awareness of themselves as such, becoming regularly attentive to the wireless voices of their leaders for guidance. Law, constitutions, legal institutions, and the like became fluid and flowed in the direction of necessity. Nationalism, erstwhile the prerogative of dubious secret societies and student reactionaries, became commonplace. Following the Sailor’s Revolt, Imperial Germany transformed itself into a Republic. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the nation surrendered. At last, in 1918 the braided raiment of centuries fell from the shoulders of Europe amid the clatter of cavalry swords and dynastic crowns.

In the summer just prior to the war’s end, Oswald Spengler’s first volume of The Decline of the West was published to great acclaim. Like Hegel, he argued the West was approaching its end, though not a glorious conclusion to a journey of spiritual progress in the realm of Freedom, but rather a senescence of a peculiar organism amongst the vast fauna of historical-humanity: the West had grown old and like its forebears would die.

For Spengler, the West—the ‘Faustian’ branch of the human tree—was born around the tenth century. Preceding it were the Classical peoples, humanity’s ‘Apollonian’ branch, who championed an earthy weltanschauung of self-centered somatic splendor unconcerned with past or future, reveling in muscular mortality. By contrast, the Faustian peoples possessed a spirit longing into the expanse, into past and future: feeling itself a wanderer everywhere but the far horizons of life, longing for a home it could never know: its metaphysic born of a doomed struggle with the infinite. At first in its “cultural” phase—corresponding with the age of Greece in the life of the Apollonian era—the Faustian peoples gave birth to all those things that by Spengler’s day their descendants were busy bringing into concrete actuality. So, as with Rome in relation to Greece, the West—no longer capable of true creativity—would live off the spirit dreamed in its youth and thereafter die: its final days characterized by a ruthless Caesarism akin to those last centuries of Roman history wherein the impromptus of Pan had given way to the measured rhythm of late-imperial statesmanship.

By and large, the contrast between Hegel and Spengler exemplifies the then prevailing divide in Western opinion between a vision of almost mystical triumph wherein the vaunted blue flower of the romantics would at last unfurl and a sepulchral science wherein it was sure to whither in the arthritic hands of its cultivators. The war, Germany’s loss, and the destitution of Europe gave the general public all the reasons they needed to herald Spengler’s account.

Aptly, in 1933, following the appointment of Adolf Hitler to the German chancellery, the philosopher and—for a lengthy period—Nazi apologist, Carl Schmitt remarked, “one can say that ‘Hegel died,’” meaning the polite bourgeois nation-states state of yesteryear that had allegedly facilitated the workings of national spirits through the bureaucratic veins of state had given way to a purer form of nation state where a revolution of will was possible. Ironically, the spirit that had seemingly lost everything in the war was by virtue of its loss now freer than ever.

In a not very philosophically rigorous speech on May Day 1935, Hitler (who had read Spengler’s Decline of the West in prison following the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch) said, “Yesterday we were still a powerless People, for we were strife-torn, falling out and apart in internal discord, fragmented into hundreds of parties and groups, leagues, and associations, ideologies, and religious institutions.” All that had been good, he lamented, had gone bad: “What was once meant to and able to give life more meaning was now passed off and perceived to be merely a burden to mankind.” And following this grim preamble, he remarked, “One author summed up the impressions of this age in a book that he entitled The Decline of the West,” continuing, “Is this really the end of our history and hence of our peoples? No! We cannot believe or accept it! It must be called not the ‘Decline of the West,’ but the ‘Resurrection of the Peoples of the Western World’!” He concluded, “Only what has become old, rotten, and bad dies. And it should die! But new life will generate. The will shall find the faith. This will lies in leadership, and faith lies in the people!”

In what would become the main Axis Powers, the will found the faith and the people their leaders. A sort of nationalism reemerged emboldened, manifesting most dramatically in Nazism, Italian Fascism, and Shōwa Statism (Kokka Shugi); the nation-states of yore were supplanted by post-Hegelian (in the Schmittian sense) nationalist-states. Leaders reconciled their peoples to law surpassing in scope and depth that which had hitherto been facilitated by mere civil servants. Nations strove toward fantastical dreams of palingenesis: a coming master race, rejuvenation of roman imperial glory, samurai futurism, etcetera—in the process yielding a nightmare that haunts us even now.

In philosophy as much as in pop culture, the bogeyman par excellence in every modern story of good versus evil is invariably a sort of caricature of an Axis-variety ultranationalist. However, what marks him out for scorn is not merely his support for disagreeable policies, but rather what he embodies, which—whether in the dramas of Indiana Jones versus Donavan, Captain Kirk versus Khan, or Superman versus Zod—is something far more profound. He is, to the extent a lone character can stand-in for whole peoples, a nightmarish embodiment of those foregoing states in all their spectacular pomp and tragedy. With reference to the Hegelian mythus, he is a sort of purebred Napoleon; to Spengler’s, the last Faustian; he is the man who lives to make a sacrifice of man as such. (Correspondingly of course, the hero we send to battle the latter is always the embodiment of what we moderns are when we are most ourselves.)

To that end, during the war, Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, which was published in 1944 to an acclaim roughly equivalent to that of Decline of the West. It argued that societies, in the interest of attaining prosperity, had supported states practicing centralized planning, resulting in tyranny. These ‘socialist’ states (a catchall term Hayek used for virtually all modern economically centralized states, e.g., communism, fascism, Nazism, etc.) traded “the impersonal and anonymous mechanism of the market”, which generates unforeseeable results, with “collective and ‘conscious’ direction of all social forces,” which results in “deliberately chosen goals.”

However, all centralized planning, according to Hayek, is undemocratic. It entails “that the will of a small minority be imposed upon the people,” making the latter “mere means” to achieve abstractions such as “social welfare” and “the common good”—nefarious slogans masquerading as ideals people capitulate to under the influence of propaganda until the goals of the state are their own. So, Hayek proposed that states simply ought to try “to improve the general level of wealth” via free markets undergirded by societies supporting ‘classical liberal ideals,’ i.e., liberty, freedom, and individual rights—a felicitous hodgepodge that according to Hayek made 19th century Europe what it was before nationalism and other ‘socialistic’ forms of politics ruined everything.

But a revivified 19th century did not quite follow. Rather, a new breed of states emerged, and though they are typically termed with some variation of the phrase, ‘modern liberal democracy,’ which rings of Enlightenment yearnings and classical ideals, these new states are fundamentally unprecedented. Whereas antecedent states pursued courses of policy for reasons of faith, family, greed, grievance, revenge, glory, honor, lust, and so on, these new states have a considerably attenuated political aim: maintaining a balance of individual liberties and a general standard of living. In the words of Thomas Jefferson (likely derived from a formulation of Locke), these states aim for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” However, they do not quite aim for these things in a sense Jefferson or his contemporaries would have understood, but rather in one emergent after the war when the historical process that had unmoored that trifecta from their capitalized referents had long ended.

***

Less than a decade after the war’s end, sociologists surveying the west at large—notably, Daniel Bell in The End of Ideology and Seymour Martin Lispet in Political Man—found in terms of policy, that the right, erstwhile dominated by a free market Hayekian bias and the left, erstwhile dominated by aspirations of socialist reform, had come to a sort of consensus. Namely, that market intervention was occasionally warranted and that wholesale socialization (given ongoing Soviet failures) was unworkable. The policy toolbox of western states—already emptied of its more medieval and cumbersome religious and strategic instruments—had rid itself further of what was left from the 18th and 19th century, excepting little implements of economic tinkering to manage efficiency and equity. Thus, with its aims unprecedentedly narrow and means limited, policy became virtually scientific: the work of wonks rather than warlords or poets.

But since this new sort of state, the clear successor to the nation state, could not strictly be accounted as an instance of mere historical devolution, many philosophers of history quickly reasoned there must have been something profoundly off with the erstwhile popular (or at least respectable) Hegelian account.

The most notable theorist of this group was Russian émigré, nephew of Kandinsky, and French bureaucrat under Charles de Gaulle, Alexandre Kojève, whose lectures at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes influenced the likes of Bataille, Merleau-Ponty, and Lacan. His philosophy of history, in large part crafted from notions plucked from Hegel and Martin Heidegger, posits an account deriving in part from the former’s Master-Slave Dialectic and the latter’s notion of being-toward-death. In it, figuring prominently, is the character of the Master, a creature supremely aware of death whose existence is in contradistinction to the life lived in ‘in the bosom of Nature,’ a sort of Heideggerian saint of authenticity whose sole credo is ‘Conquer or Die.’

Kojève’s history, his grand story of man as ‘the desiring animal,’ the struggle for recognition, and so on begins with such Masters. In broad terms, at first there were the true Masters who being such forced others into slavery to do their work. But these Masters, being both creatures profoundly desirous of authentic recognition and profoundly discriminating, found their desire could not be sated by the recognition of mere slaves. Hence, the situation—by dialectical necessity, in order to reach a condition of broader recognition—progressed. Slaves overthrew not only their masters but the system of mastery itself, supplanting it with one in which they were masters of their work, and thereby these workers were able to recognize one another on level ground. However, the price of the bargain soon became plain. The erstwhile slaves, now workers, became in a way enslaved to the very system in which their work was situated. They became bourgeois.

For Kojève, peering over the postwar world, it was clear how the situation would progress. The dialectical synthesis, the organic resolution of ancient tyrants and the mawkish bourgeoisie, was already beginning to show its strange, new face over history’s horizon. By way of steadily accelerating capitalism the fight of the worker would determine the work of the fighter: even warlords would soon find themselves fighting at best for market efficiency. Capitalism’s apparent contradictions, rather than leading to Marxist revolution, were being—as far as Kojève could tell—increasingly well-managed by capitalism itself, its one hand accumulating vast riches, and its other always redistributing just enough to stymie any impetus for class violence. And all the while, the very technologies developed at the demand of the market would steadily coax the global homogenization of ideas, values, cultures, and so on—putting the kibosh on even supra-material impetuses for revolt. In time, the recognition of all by all would be achieved in a massive homogenized techno-capitalist state, ‘The Universal Homogenous State,’ which would be led by a vast bureaucracy atop which would sit a sort of supreme philosopher-bureaucrat. (As with Plato, Kojève’s ideal sovereign is an infamous example of self-portraiture.)

About this account of history, the nature of man, and more, Kojève corresponded with Leo Strauss, in the process generating a huge body of (explicitly and implicitly) pertinent work consisting of books (particularly On Tyranny, ostensibly a discussion of Xenophon’s dialogue, Hiero featuring material from both), essays, letters, unsent scribbles, and so on—which following their deaths, has garnered a cultish, bi-coastal devotion.

Famously, Strauss rejected the historicist position, contending it is absurd: if it were an accurate account, it would be an exception to its very own thesis given that since the present as such cannot be in dispute, it is saturated with a consciousness of history that eo ipso sterilizes its potential to be of any actual historical significance (To the man on his deathbed who has already lived his life, the question of the good life lacks oomph.) Moreover, Kojève’s anthropology, according to Strauss, because it is built on historicist suppositions regarding the nature of man and humanity, fails to account for the actual aims of man.

That is, Strauss argued the deductions Kojève makes regarding the fate of man and the End of History are ultimately arbitrary, given there is no reason to suppose his account of the grand historical struggle of man has its ultimate basis in man qua the Aristotelian zoon logon echon (rational animal): e.g., if the desire for recognition is why great men struggle, such a struggle cannot, it seems, be satisfied in the Universal Homogenous State, since its character is inimical to the performance of great deeds. (The very people necessary to construct and govern such a state would be those most disposed to reject it.) So, following from these objections, Strauss argued that Kojève should abandon his determinism: Even if the forces the latter outlined were seemingly paving the way for something like his End State, real men (andres) would have every reason to thrust humanity ‘back into history.’

In turn, Kojève melodramatically concluded that the former had more or less uncovered one of the great failures of classical thought: its utopian misunderstanding of humanity, human work, satisfaction, the dialectic of desire, and so on. (A picture of man not firmly standing in history, he reasoned, is not a picture of a man at all.) However, reflecting on Strauss’s objections, Kojève also realized something would have to give in order for his account to cohere. He writes, “It would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.”

If man, this desiring animal, is defined by his ability to negate, to risk his life for that negation and thereby impose a new being upon the world, and so on—a state facilitating the mutual recognition of all by all would put an end to that struggle, the dance of desire, the play of negation and creation: it would be “the definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called.” However, after visiting Japan in 1959, Kojève infamously observed that the Japanese, despite being in the thrall of technological capitalism, maintained a sort of fastidious cultural snobbery, and since he figured that mere animals were incapable of something so subtle and profound as snobbery, he concluded that it was a means of preserving humanity after the End of History, ameliorating his despair somewhat.

In contrast to all this, Strauss staked out a position in defense of the classical project, resting on the supposed autonomy and superiority of philosophical life—a life that rather than being the stuff of history was supra historical, having a ‘religious,’ rather than a political character, tied sturdily to the eternality of Being. So, he pitted this account of classical man against the historicist one in a conflict now known as “ancients versus moderns.”

Put another way, whereas the original relation between Hegel and Spengler was that the former provided a progressive view of history granting man in all his particularity an absolute purpose, and the latter a cyclical view depriving the civilizational achievements of man of an ultimate meaning—the dichotomy between Kojève and Strauss seems more or less flipped. (Comically, the dialectic more often than not grants philosophy its wishes like a genie in a fable.)

To that end, this debate still echoes in contemporary discourse. Francis Fukuyama—via an article in the National Interest expanded into The End of History and the Last Man as well as countless publications and speeches providing clarifications and amendments since—has cultivated an awareness of the End of History reaching so far beyond the ivory tower that the phrase is now typically bandied about by people wholly unfamiliar with its discursive context. (It is not uncommon to hear oblivious potshots pronouncing the End of History ridiculous because history cannot end or moot because events keep happening.)

In broad strokes, Fukuyama’s popular account resembles Kojève’s, though without the latter’s murkier Heideggerian elements, tempered by decades of empirical observation, and perhaps rendered somewhat less firm. However, much like Kojève, Fukuyama is nostalgic for the thing that allegedly gave man his humanity—his energetic desire to engage in recognition-garnering acts—which Fukuyama with platonic color terms ‘thymos.’ Yet, being ultimately a champion of modernity, he warns his readers—conceding perhaps a point to Strauss—of possible “thymotic eruptions” and presents various possible solutions (with admitted downsides), e.g., wealth accumulation, as things modern western democratic liberalism can offer to stymie thymotic prodigals.

More recently, however, Fukuyama, rather than worrying about old fashioned thymos, has become more concerned with the potential erosion of humanity in a more basic sense. In Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, he describes our nature as “the sum of the behaviors and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetics rather than environmental factors” and therefore advocates for the strong regulation of developing biotechnologies lest humanity not only end in the sense Kojève had outlined but also in a far more disconcerting biological one.

In any case, the popular sense of urgency underlying the subject of the Strauss-Kojève debate—the prize of the contest between ancients and moderns—is fading. The question of a ‘return to history’ is moot for peoples writ large. The clarion call, ‘Conquer of Die,’ is neither familiar nor even viscerally repugnant to modern ears, but is more or less as strange as the notion of making war over differences in Christology. Andres, Men-With-Chests, Masters, and all other philosophically polished likenesses of Conan-the-Barbarian are all so outdated, as it were, they cannot appear in modernity as anything but ridiculous. In retrospect, such figures were what they were not merely because of the quality of their individual characters, but because of the social contexts in which they were situated, allowing them to realize their potential. (Thymos takes a village, if not a polis.)

Consider for instance the scene preceding Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide wherein he, standing on a balcony at Camp Ichigaya, attempted to rally soldiers to follow him into battle to restore the power of the emperor in a back and forth that reads like a cross between a Heideggerian fever dream and a satire of the Strauss-Kojève debate. At one point, he calls out, “A man alone is appealing to you with his life on the line […] Japan is reveling in economic prosperity and has become spiritually empty. Do you understand that?” to which the soldiers jeer, “what are you talking about?” and “Go to hell!” Later, he bellows, “Aren’t you all bushi [embodiments of the warrior-ethos]’ […] why are you protecting the Constitution that denies you?” to which the soldiers respond, “Bring him down!” and “Shoot him!”

***

Even if it is given that man cannot return to history (or for that matter the condition of Strauss’s classical man) it is not at all clear how it is we ought to go on living. Our world is a finite thing, with a beginning, end, and duration of time between the two wherein we—despite our ostensible post-historical status—find ourselves still very much in the middle of things. If we wish to go on living well, we have to figure out what it is we are supposed to be doing with our lives. But to do that it would be helpful, if not necessary, to figure out what it is we have thus far actually done—what history and modernity meant and mean. Put simply, we have to get our story straight.

To simplify our task, we can divide the stories we have at our disposal into the cyclical and the progressive. (Other stories unmentioned thus far reduce history to mere material causes and effects: chains of facts wherein man as such possesses no transcendental quality, figuring more or less as an especially clever ape.)

Arguably, it is no coincidence the most profound advocates of the former lived in early modernity, never bearing witness to successive generations of moderns and postmoderns who—whether in Tokyo or New York—demonstrate a thymotically consistent post-historical character. Rather than living in a decadent civilization going to ruin (a vision presented unironically by reactionaries without alteration for the last two centuries) we live in a condition the character of which becomes everyday more solidified. Every new year is more modern than the last to the point that a quite modern decade such as the 1950s, which was bewailed by contemporary traditionalists as an age of inhumanity, is nowadays heralded by some of their amnemonic heirs as a paragon.

To wit, despite its endemic crises and perhaps even a rocky start, western liberal democracy is resilient. Were barbarian hordes to arrive from some subterranean pocket of history in search of Kojèvian conquest, they would be welcomed with open arms and in all likelihood assimilated within a generation. (For a less fanciful case in point, consider that the Taliban, which ostensibly possessed a thymotic prodigality on par with the great warbands of Viking legend, is now lobbying for a seat at the United Nations.) Nowadays, for a cyclical account to really hold water, it would have to convincingly postulate recognizable modernities in the depths of pre-history. (Whereas Plato had only to conjure a well-governed Atlantis for his purposes, a contemporary cyclicalist would have to endow it with techno-capitalism.)

Nonetheless, as warranted as a progressive account might seem, the particular accounts proffered by Kojève and Fukuyama, though insightful still have no real answer to Strauss’s criticism that modernity as understood as a great sublimation of human nature entails what seems to be an unthinkable concession: That man qua the thymotic, mastery-striving animal, not only forfeit his humanity, but do so generationally at the behest of self-conscious administrators collectively convinced of the necessity of animality, living for nothing more than snobbery and sublimation games. Even in light of the present-day seeming weakness of the cyclical view, this criticism seems to take the wind out of the alternative.

Moreover, this criticism cannot simply be hand-waived off as a mere theoretical problem. After all, the question of man as such remains a concern, if not the central concern of postmodernity. Were we in fact simply two-dimensional Kojèvian pseudo-animals, we would at this point either no longer be concerned with our animality or be content in our snobbery: i.e., though we already seem to live in a sort of Universal Homogenous State (or at any rate, in a political condition wherein our humanity as understood by historicists is practicably sublimated) our collective consciousness is not only unreconciled to it, but responsible for its tireless maintenance.

Thus, though our sympathies are with historical man, we steadfastly refuse to follow his example. (Case in point, Mishima rose to prominence not as a reactionary politician or military leader, but as a widely popular novelist, poet, and silver screen personality.) So, if we would nonetheless like to hew closely to a progressive view, we will have to find one accounting for this seeming enigma.

And there is one such view that has been more or less under our noses all along. Namely, that Kojève and Fukuyama’s accounts of the motor of history, in attempting to explain a modernity Hegel had not foreseen, are less plausible than the most fundamental part of Hegel’s original account—if that account were to simply be extended past the battle of Jena up to the present. Arguably, if we dismiss the state Hegel presents in The Philosophy of Right as the conclusive historical state (as many did without qualms after the fall of Prussia) but retain the basic story of Spirit’s journey toward a consciousness of its own Freedom presented in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History and the more salient parts of The Phenomenology of Spirit, and extend it into postmodernity—we would have a narrative yielding a plausible solution to our enigma.

But before we go on to consider this narrative and the arguable particulars of its solution, it is important we bear in mind that our discussion and the enigma now shaping it are not primarily concerned with, for instance, the abstract underpinnings of Kojève or Hegel’s systems of thought (intriguing as they are), but chiefly the relative ability of these systems to tell a story about what we all have been doing with ourselves that makes the most sense.

However, this notion—that the story of Spirit realizing its Freedom as Hegel described it can be extended and still be sensible—may seem so simple (though admittedly contrary to Hegel’s intentions) that some might be left wondering why no one else has (at least in such simple terms) bothered championing it as of yet. But this is likely because of the implication any reasonably fleshed out account in this vein entails—which becomes clear in considering the character of this freedom as it manifested after the death of Hegel—not only makes accepting such an account seem like a bad bargain, but an inhumane one.

Like the master himself, Hegel’s successors for the most part discuss how Spirit in its manifestation as a novel form of state can be free, and even how that freedom is facilitated, for instance, within the political, economic, and social life of the State. But generally, they shy away from philosophizing at any substantial length or depth about the character of that freedom as it manifests in the outer life of the state: What the living Spirit qua State does in the world when at long last it gets ahold of its freedom. (Remarkably, in The Philosophy of Right, Hegel devotes a mere ten paragraphs to the subject towards the book’s end, almost as an afterthought.)

But just as we would expect in a good description of a free man, not merely an account of the form and internal life allowing for his freedom, but also an account of the sorts of things this man does with this freedom, mutatis mutandis, we should expect the same of a good description of the free nation state. After all, the easiest way to distinguish a free man from a slave is not by peering within his very being and deducing the nature of his self-relation out of a muddle of biological and psychological processes—but rather it is by observing how he lives in the world and distinguishing the character of his life as a definitively free one. Naturally then we ought to ask ourselves—if for no other reason than that we are chronologically well-positioned to give an answer—what it is the free, self-conscious nation state at the end of history does with its freedom in the life of the world distinguishing it from its predecessors?

But the moment we actually pose this question, the answer as to why no one has ventured to proffer the simple account under discussion becomes dispiritingly obvious—so dispiriting it is no wonder Hegelians and Hegel’s more inventive successors have for so long shied away from lengthening the thrust of Hegel’s narrative into the 20th century: What it is that the first generations of free nation states at the end of history did with their hard-won freedom is what they did in World War I and then did again with even more freewheeling verve in World War II.

That is to say, it is actually quite understandable as to why so many thinkers otherwise enamored with Hegel promptly abandoned his optimistic song and dance after the modern-turn. (Moreover, it did not help that Hegel’s most enthusiastic champions during the early 20th century were Fascists.) In the wake of the concentration camps, Hegel’s bildungsroman of Spirit seems like a sort of joke in the very worst taste. Even Kojève, who relished to an almost absurd degree the figure of the man who was above all master over himself, it seems, could not so stomach a state possessing the same self-relation.

Put another way, to extend the story of Spirit past the modern-turn is nothing less than to say that the Axis Powers, and the nightmare creatures they now represent in every distinctly modern story of good versus evil, are not only human, but the very thing humanity apparently strove for countless millenniums to become: that we are in a sense our own worst enemy.

***

In light of this implication, if we continue to pursue the sensibility of this account, and do not dismiss it outright as an obscenity, it would seem that we—who still have lives to live—are left with dreadful questions to answer:

Which, if any, of the great world-historical individuals—that long line of people whose historical march ended in goosesteps—can we justifiably admire? Can our historical traditions—which now seem teleologically tainted—be trusted as means of living well? Can our science, philosophy, systems of logic, and so on—our whole understanding of the world—that developed hand-in-hand with historical progress guide us anywhere worth following given where its fingers pointed? And if we cannot rely on these things—and everything else inextricably tangled in the tragedy of history—can we ever have enough ground to stand on to say of a claim that matters that it is other than subjective?

But of course, these and related questions should already be all too familiar given they underlie virtually all novel intellectual thought and cultural innovation in the wake of modernity, or properly speaking, postmodernity—which it to say, regardless of whether the account in question is palatable, or even true, we are already acting and thinking as if it were. (In that vein, though the account under discussion is fashioned in terms of competing philosophies, it arguably already has a familiar counterpart—free from all philosophical pretension—which has long existed in our cultural consciousness.) But lest we become too lost in the horror of the implications this account offers, we must remember why it is we are even considering it.

Namely, it has the means to abrogate our grand enigma. If since the 20th century peoples constituted as states have actually been in conscious possession of their freedom, it would make sense that we would likewise possess a sense of culpability for the acts we performed with that freedom—and therefore have more than ample reason to fashion our collective life in the mold of modernity. It is precisely man as such—and not some sort of sublimated Kojèvian animal—that goes about contrary to our feeling for what we were and are that has fashioned for himself a condition that seems patently inhumane.

Nevertheless, at this point in our discussion, though this account seems to handy-dandily dispose of our enigma, it is still tempting to demur from taking it up. After all, what good is a story of humanity’s journey into modernity, if what is left of our humanity on the other side is self-loathing and confusion? But if we render this story of the end of things with reference to one of the beginning of things, what we have on our hands is perhaps somewhat less bleak.

That is, we can render our account something like this: In manifesting our newborn freedom, modern nation-states in the world wars behaved with all the wisdom of the first and second generations of Genesis. They became self-conscious and forfeited their patrimony. Brother destroyed brother in a contest of sacrifice. But at long last, at the End of History in the wake of unprecedented murder, nations became wary of what they had become. Nostalgically, they looked back to the era preceding the modern-turn. When Hayek pleaded for a reversion to the liberalism of the late 19th century, he expressed in a new fashion postlapsarian man’s age-old longing for lost paradise. But just as man could not return to Eden, we could not return to prewar conditions.

We do not know the wanderings of Cain—how long and in what manner he wandered in shame from the murder of Abel, but we can easily imagine that before Cain went on to start a family and found cities that he perhaps envied the beasts of the field. Could we not imagine further that for a moment his envy turned into a desire to emulate these beasts—that he perhaps tried for a moment or two to abandon himself to a condition of happy Kojèvian animality?

Strauss asks how any true man could live and govern as a modern given historicists’ assumptions about his defining nature—his desire for recognition, impulse toward Mastery, thymos, freedom, etcetera—and the answer in light of the story we are telling now is as old as it obvious: shame. Beside our desire to be seen is our more primal desire to not be seen: to cover our nakedness. The question of postmodernity is not simply how man can go on living in light of history, but whether man ought to go on at all.

***

In answer—if we dare to find this question warranted—though we cannot be certain, we can venture to say that if man appeared among the fauna of creation with a conscious freedom for a higher purpose, that the appearance of a new kind of state in history likewise endowed may serve a like purpose.

To that end, though we cannot erase the evils the first free states committed, we can likewise say based on our own experiences that though freedom in the vainglory of youth lends itself to evil the likes of which marked Cain, that freedom nonetheless constitutes the character of our life and enables us to live as we ought—that it is neither possible nor purposed for us to abandon our humanity; if we are to do good, we must recognize our choice to do so, though that choice entails the horrible temptation of the contrary.

Perhaps we can even hope that just as Adam’s taste of the Forbidden Fruit was both the cause of his expulsion from The Garden and the means by which he began to find his way beyond its gates, that what peoples first tasted in modernity was not only the cause of our expulsion from history, but also the means by which we will find our way anew. That is to say, though history came to a dreadful end, now in postmodernity we can go forward consciously making use of the fruit of our shame, our rediscovery of our nakedness, to know and to choose—with all the responsibility such choice entails—between right and wrong.