The view from history

25 02 2014

I wonder what the next generation will think when they look back over this particular period in history. Will people think that we were trying to do our best for the world and those who share it? Will they think that we made mistakes, but that was understandable because in 2014 we simply didn’t know any better?

The German philosopher Georg Hegel believed that we could only understand history retrospectively. By taking the long view of the way we came through the years we are able to see the routes we took, the decisions we made, the plans, projects and people that were important to us at the time. For Hegel the unfolding of history is a way of showing us who we are and what we are made of.  By his understanding, history is not just a series of events, history is human progress. History is the way we move towards greater awareness, evolution and personal freedom.

Hegel believed that there would come a time when the world was free from conflict. In this new dawn there would be no more slavery, no human trafficking, no child labour, no corrupt governments, no use of starvation as a weapon of war, no prejudice, no human rights abuses. By rigorously and systematically challenging our old ways we would come to realise what we could keep and what we could chuck into the dustbin of history. We’d carry on like this, refining and polishing our ways until we had no more improvements to make. Only then would we be actually free to follow our destinies.

Does this sound like an impossible ideal? For many critics of Hegel, it certainly does and there are plenty of examples of terrible situations in the world that illustrate how humanity seems to be moving backwards. Sometimes, on days like today when I cannot get the image of the Syrian camps out of my mind, I cannot bear to listen to the news, but equally I cannot make myself tune to something less distressing because it feels like a betrayal of all those who are desperate that the world should not turn a deaf ear to their suffering.

I don’t blame people for tuning out. There is only so much that people can take and even the Radio 4 reporter sounded choked this morning by what she had witnessed among those families starving to death in the camps that have been under siege for months.  The word she used was ‘overwhelming,’ and that was the word that kept me listening and got me thinking of how people in starvation situations become so weakened that they cannot help themselves. Take food from people and you take their will to live. Cruel and corrupt regimes use starvation as a weapon of war. It is less direct than shooting protestors on the streets, and far less costly. Those who starve their people do not dignify them with opposition; they simply disregard them. They give them nothing so that they will become nothing.

The question we must ask is why do some regimes fear people so much that they must starve them into silence? What history are such regimes trying to prevent? We know from the gulag, from the death camps, from the mass exterminations that these acts are remembered and documented. The names of the silenced and the starved will be forgotten, but their suffering will not because there are people who witnessed it, and can never forget it. Those who suffer as the warriors of atrocity are those who become the new history. 

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4 responses

25 02 2014
smalfry

Keep writing Belinda. Soon I want to make the time to read all your earlier blogs.

27 02 2014
belindaseaward

Thank you, David, and I look forward to seeing you at the philosophy seminars soon!

26 02 2014
Michael Hussey

Hi Belinda
Reading your blog on Hegel and the comments on the Gulag and the Death camps I am reminded about that millstone around Hegels neck : philosopher of totalitarianism. Its the view I had of him 30 years ago when I was a politics student . Reading Peter Singers interesting little book on him has helped me to see that he was a very moral thinker who valued individual reason and conscience .It was his belief that we could all get on the same page on moral issues – leading to a harmonious ( but uniform ? ) society that seems to have caused the confusion. Mike

27 02 2014
belindaseaward

Thank you for your thoughtful comment Mike. Peter Singer does offer a fresh new look at Hegel and his short introduction is well worth visiting!

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