One of the great spiritual aims of our time is the endeavour to understand history as a whole; several attempts have been made to achieve a universal historical synthesis, a general survey of universal history. This did not seem so pressing and urgent a task to the people of previous centuries as it does to us, of today. (This “today” we may understand as the period from the beginning of the present century.)
Oswald Spengler’s theory of history and culture was an attempt of this kind: planned on the grand scale and in parts splendid even if in detail it was vulnerable to criticism and if as a whole it was a miscarriage. There was no humanity for Spengler; humanity was for him only an abstract notion, something non-existent, void of reality; and in consequence, neither was there any history of humanity. Not only had there been no such history in the past, but there could not possibly be such a history in the future. All that is historically relevant, says Spengler, has taken place within the compass of eight high civilisations, of which our own, the Western, is the latest; everything else is “non-historical being” and superlatively irrelevant. Spengler, whose historical thought is orientated by the biological sciences, considers the civilisations themselves as a sort of great mysterious organisms. They come to life, they blossom like flowers of the field; they are indeed a species of blossom, great, mysterious and wonderful; they bring their fruits to ripeness, and they wither and die because these miraculous organisms of the highest existing rank, like everything alive also are subject to the laws of life which are in their final aim the laws of death. An air of pessimism breathes through Spengler’s learning. This is undeniable, although Spengler repeatedly and most energetically defends himself against the charge of pessimism.
Today it is the historical doctrine of Toynbee, which stands in the forefront of discussion. Interest has been evoked among the educated public of the whole world by the extensive and deeply solid work of this author; a proof that the effort to understand history as a whole — to seize, one is almost inclined to say, its innermost laws — has become one of the great longings, perhaps even the greatest longing of our day.
Toynbee’s doctrine represents in many respects an advance upon Spengler’s historical picture. We do not find in Toynbee’s work the dogmatic utterances of a speculative thinker who, believing himself to have discovered the essence of historical truth, tolerates no opposition to his theses; but rather the cautious formulations of an empiricist, who tries again and again to elucidate and to strengthen each of his opinions in the light of the facts.
Again, in Toynbee’s doctrine, we find place in history for the element of freedom; again, with him, man learns that in spite of all the powerful determining factors his fate is still put into his own hands, and he can create in liberty the future of his race.
Philosophers of universal history are trying everywhere to comprehend the meaning of this age, to “take the bearings of the present time” (Ortsbestimmung der Gegenwart,” the location of the present, is the title of a work by Alexander Rüstow.) New paths are being explored. All these thinkers share a conviction that by examining historical facts in their entirety, judgments of general validity may be reached, even if nobody dare nowadays speak about “laws of history” in a strict sense. And this very hesitation seems to us to represent an advance from the attitude of the previous century, when there was so strong a tendency to judge the value of a discipline in the field of the humanities, like one in the field of natural science, by its ability to produce its own system of laws.
The teachings, which emerge from history as a whole, are quite obviously of great practical value. From the experience and the understanding of history, politics take their orientation for good or evil, to be a curse or a blessing to the nations. That the nations could learn from history is generally recognised: whether in fact they have learnt much from history is another question. Can the nations then learn from each other? — can this nation learn from that? We believe it possible. It is quite certainly possible within the sphere of one single civilisation, a circle of nations, which have much in common. Had the Germans known in 1933 a little more of the history of England or of Switzerland, and had they made practical deductions from that knowledge, it would not have been possible for a Hitler to become a dictator of Germany, a demon to Europe and the bringer of such immeasurable sufferings upon Western humanity.
We believe that the doctrine of a Polish thinker of our times, on history and on civilisation, can be of great importance to the general historical thought of the Western European nations as well as in the practical political shaping of their fates; provided, of course, that this doctrine becomes known. This statement of ours should not cause astonishment; Poland is the most easterly portion of Western Europe, the outpost of the West so to speak. For a thousand years the Poles were to the West a protecting wall against the East; against all that swelling flood which threatened Europe from an alien world that was arrayed more than once against our own world in hostility. A sentinel on a wall, a guard on an outpost, acquires an acute perception and recognition of what is foreign, what is alien, menacing and dangerous. It may therefore be of quite particular interest to make the doctrine of a Polish historical thinker accessible to the public of Western Europe.
To the English-speaking public we present in this volume a translation of one of the major works of the Polish historical thinker, Feliks Koneczny. We believe that this historical doctrine can count on their interest, too; because we are fully convinced that this way of seeing history, with the consequent political ideas, is of the utmost importance for the community of Western peoples. Koneczny shares with most of the historical thinkers of our times the fundamental view of the plurality of civilisations. Historically speaking, there is no such thing as “humanity,” or at least it does not yet exist; consequently there is no history of humanity as such, but only historical currents within each of the separate great human circles, which we now call civilisations. And these currents are at least to some extent, if not completely, independent of one another. This idea is not new; we meet with it in Vico, already in all its clarity, and today it is one of the fundamental assumptions of all historical thought. Unfortunately in the course of the history of ideas, this idea has suffered a great but accidental misfortune. The undoubtedly correct perception of the plurality of civilisations has become tied almost always to a completely different idea with which it has intrinsically no connection; that the separate human civilisations are entities comparable with organisms, big creatures of semi-organic character upon which laws of life are binding, analogous to the laws of organic life. Already in Vico this idea is ringing; we find it again and again throughout the more modern study of civilisations, in almost every one of its representatives no matter how they may differ otherwise in their points of departure and in their general views. We find this “biologic” treatment of civilisations in its most radical form represented by Oswald Spengler whom we mentioned above.
We believe that this “biologic” way of seeing the civilizations brings no benefit to universal history; nor does it benefit the study of civilisations, since the association of a correct fundamental perception — that of the plurality of civilisations — with an arbitrary and quite unproved additional assumption can only do harm. Had the study of civilisations held to the doctrine of Francis Bacon, who four hundred years ago created with his inductive method an instrument of progress for the natural sciences, this study would have avoided much error. But it has not done so. Only a very few of the great historical philosophers, who can be counted as precursors of the modern study of civilisations, have resisted the temptation of misusing the speculative method. In fact, besides the great Montesquieu, as forerunner of a science of civilisations based on empiricism and employing the inductive method, we can mention only the Polish thinker Hugo Kołłątaj, whom Koneczny explicitly mentions. Otherwise, it is precisely the “great names” among the philosophers of history who swear allegiance to the speculative method, even in respect of the very problems whose solution by the speculative method is quite impossible.
Feliks Koneczny, so far as it is at all possible in the field of humanities, is a thinker without preconceived ideas. His study of history begins from no postulates, except those, which he expressly mentions as such. We must acknowledge this as rather a great merit in him when we think how many preconceptions, mostly unacknowledged, load the historical philosophy of such a man as Spengler for instance. Koneczny absolutely accepts the principle that in comparing civilisations, and in considering history as a whole, the answers can only be obtained a posteriori; this means a complete renunciation of any a priori treatment. And a science which emerges when one keeps scrupulously and consciensciously to the inductive method is a strict science, at least insofar as in the sphere of humanities there can be such a thing as a strict science.
Koneczny calls his study the science of civilisations. That science which gathers together the whole result of all historical disciplines must necessarily become a science of civilisations, because the civilisations are the final spiritual units and the final moving forces of the course of historical events. Universal history becomes comprehensible only under the aspect of civilisations differing from one another and struggling against one another. We have already arrived at a situation in the history of ideas when the final constitution of a science of civilisations, as a separate discipline with its own foundations, can no longer be postponed.
The last century saw the birth of many new scientific disciplines which dealt in part with problems which the science of civilisations must also encounter. Sociology in particular has been, and is, in fashion so to say; many people consider it as a sort of universal discipline, which contains general prescriptions for all other possible scientific disciplines in the sphere of humanities. Koneczny is not of this opinion and we agree with him. If we define sociology as the science of the ways and forms of social life — both of man and of animal — it becomes apparent that this does not embrace the whole complex of culture. There is still a gap in the system of humanistic sciences, which can be filled only by a new and specialised science; and this new science is the science of civilisations, for which no other discipline can be substituted. To this science we believe that Koneczny has made an altogether decisive contribution; and when in the future men will treat scientifically of civilisations, the name of Koneczny will occupy a place of honour. This opinion of ours will be accepted by everybody who tries to gain a closer acquaintance with Koneczny’s science, everybody especially who will follow him to an understanding of the particular way in which the Western civilisation differs from all others.
That a civilisation is a scientifically definable notion and not only a convenient collective denomination for disparate things could be easily proved. Every civilisation is a coherent system of values, and of judgments on values; of moral distinctions and social precepts, which point to each other and depend upon each other. Putting it briefly, a civilisation is a general way of life. When we say that an Indian is culturally different from us, we mean by this that the relation of man to man, the relation of different social factors to each other, are not the same in India as in Western Europe; different civilisations mean different ways of seeing values, and different ways of resultant behaviour. Differences of civilisation are differences too in personal life-aims, as well as in the consequent differences in attitude and conduct towards others. Clearly these differences are of the utmost importance, since the civilisations are the highest subdivisions of humanity under its spiritual aspects. It is impossible to turn to humanity and to pass silently over the differences of civilisation, as if these did not exist or as if they were of secondary importance. Only in the light of a science of civilisations is it possible to understand the present antinomy of East and West. Only a science of civilisations is able to point out to Western man his highest aims, which at the same time mean a duty towards the whole world. Again and again Koneczny indicates that every political theory and every political praxis which disregards the differences of civilisations within humanity, or which does not reckon with those to a sufficient degree, is doomed to total sterility and in consequence must come to nothing.
The science of civilisations, as thought of by Koneczny — as a science concerning the unfolding of the humanitas within time — must be self-transformed into a central science among the humanities; and it is also easy to see that the insights and conclusions of such a science, embracing the totality of what is human, must be of the utmost practical importance.
We do not hesitate to consider the doctrine of Koneczny to be one of the sharpest weapons which can serve in the struggle for the defence of the West. His view of the differences between the basic forms of civilisations allows him to interpret the history of the Western nations in many respects quite otherwise than has usually been done before. It is not the Imperial idea, of which the Germans felt themselves to be the bearers, which now appears as the truly Western idea; but something quite different, the idea of a federal Europe conceived as a brotherhood of nations, equally free and with equal rights. The Imperial idea, on the other hand, originated much more in the Byzantine world; and during the whole of the Middle Ages the role of the Byzantine world was to the Western world rather that of a temptation. In view of this, the Ghibellinism of the Middle Ages appears in quite a different light. The peculiar phenomenon of Prussianism obtains only thanks to Koneczny’s doctrine of civilisations a true explanation. What is the essence of this extraordinary phenomenon? — Prussia, which was something like a permanent provincial rebellion against all that was generally European? To this question too we find in Koneczny an answer which is basically accurate.
But it is his explanation of Russianism which we consider to be, above all, one of the greatest merits of Koneczny. Exactly in the present situation of the world, a clear comprehension of the spiritual roots of this phenomenon with which we are so ill at ease is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, even the leading intellectual personages of Western Europe are inclined in a vast childlike innocence to believe that the whole of the present state of affairs in Russia is only transitory, and therefore to underestimate the menacing reality of modern Communist-led Russia. To shock the optimists into wakefulness is not a pleasant duty, but it is a duty none the less, and Koneczny does not evade it. Today Western civilisation stands in face of the gravest and most dangerous crisis in her whole history. She stands confronted by a menace which comes not only from outside but also from within, since for many people within the domain of the Western world itself the traditional values of its civilisation no longer present a living spiritual obligation. In the circumstances, everybody who sharpens our awareness of this obligation is welcome to us.
We believe that Koneczny’s doctrine is the concern of the whole of Western European society. Even if this or that detail of his words will not pass the test of time, the essence of his doctrine seems to us unassailable. Everyone to whom the fate of his own country, as well as that of Western society, is dear, can learn much from Koneczny.
At the request of the Editors of “Polonica Publications”, I give with pleasure my permission to reprint the following abridged and slightly modified English translation of my remarks on Koneczny’s work and importance, which have previously been published in Germany.