Herbert J. Muller’s The Uses of the Past
by Thomas C. Reeves
In the late 1950s, while Americans for Democratic Action and the American Civil Liberties Union were struggling against the legacy of McCarthyism, and Adlai Stevenson was still at work, after two failed attempts, to extend the New Deal and bring the White House under the control of the articulate and learned, Professor Herbert J. Muller was providing those in the moderate, anti-Communist left with one of the most powerful and persuasive interpretations of history ever written in this country.
A longtime professor of English at Indiana University, in 1957 he published a book that would become the foundation for a series of Muller volumes proclaiming the same theme. The Uses of the Past: Profiles of Former Societies, published by Oxford University Press, was a moving and penetrating statement of the Enlightenment credo, an examination of largely Western history that reflected not only the teachings of the likes of Voltaire and Jefferson but also much of post-war liberalism in the United States.
Progress & Pride
Muller was a secularist and an intellectual who believed that human progress and happiness depended upon reason, learning, individualism, and democracy. What he called “reasonableness” was the key to virtue and wisdom. Principal enemies were the tyrannical church and state, which “claimed absolute authority without enlisting the free consent of their subjects or permitting free criticism of the principles of their authority.”
Unlike Arnold Toynbee, who had claimed that pride was the root evil in human history, Muller declared that pride “may be considered the mainspring of civilization.” When free of superstition and tyranny, the human race could boast of reaching unprecedented heights of knowledge and creativity. “Only with the rise of science did men begin to entertain seriously the possibility of progress.”
Muller’s message was made more persuasive by his admission, from the beginning, that he did not have all the answers. “All in all, we doubtless suffer from too much doubt. But we are likely to suffer much more because too many men are too sure of themselves.” He conceded that much of history involves irony, paradox, mystery, and complexity.
Still, while we lack absolute truth about the human race and the universe, we can make enough sense of the story of history to know what kind of life leads to progress and happiness. Rigorous and honest thought is better than faith; Athens (the “freest, most democratic of the city-states,” which “had no blue laws, no priesthood, no Committee for un-Greek Activities”) is better than Sparta; doubt is better than dogma.
An admission of the principle of relativity and uncertainty “encourages a positive faith in positive values.” These were the values “of liberality, breadth of spirit, hospitality to new ideas, willingness to adventure, humility in admitting one’s own fallibility and the limitations of the human mind—of the tolerance that is indispensable for the pursuit of truth, for social harmony, and for simple humanity.” If they were not the highest of values, they were the values most “essential to the hopes of world order and peace.”
To Muller, “history itself is the deadliest enemy of the Eternal and Absolute.” He is especially critical of Judeo-Christian teaching.
Muller accepted the full range of liberal criticisms of Scripture, and dismissed Jesus and St. Paul as products of their time. He insisted that Jesus and his first followers did not mean to found a new religion, “much less so ceremonial a one.” Jesus taught “that through repentance and righteousness any man could earn the kingdom of heaven, by his own efforts. Then the Church went on to make him the equal of God.”
Muller assured his readers that Jesus had no theology and “made no pretense of offering new ideas about God.” He believed in “a personal God, but he felt no necessity to describe or explain him; for this was the God his lowly listeners already knew. He cannot answer such questions as why a perfect God created so imperfect a world because these questions never occurred to him. The recorded faith of Jesus had indeed a child-like quality.”
The entire concept of religion, Muller assured us, is mere fantasy. To accept it, people must “reconcile their idea of God with the idea of millions of island universes, and millions of centuries before man appeared on this obscure planet. With all respect for the conscious life of man, they may be unable to believe that its recent emergence is the main point of so stupendous a spectacle.”
Moreover, “the deepest religious thought of other societies, such as Greece, India, and China, has not required this kind of emotional satisfaction,” Muller continued. “The felt need of a personal God—not to mention a personal immortality—is a product of our tradition, not a requirement of human nature or the religious spirit itself.”
Baptism and communion came from sources too ancient to identify. “From the various mysteries came other ritual elements of the mystery of its mass, such as incense, vestments, beads, holy water, genuflection, and chanting.” Christianity could not have claimed universality and would no doubt have failed without “this ancient and cosmopolitan heritage.”
The Lord’s Failure
The Catholic Church, Muller asserted, appeared only because of the failure of the Lord’s vision of an imminent end of the world.
The triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire resulted in the rise of a totalitarian union of church and state, the persecution of Jews, the spiritual endorsement of slavery and serfdom, the ignorance and despair of the Dark Ages, arid scholasticism, the ludicrous cult of relics, the corrupt sale of indulgences (“A real estate boom in Purgatory was among the boldest, most original of late medieval enterprises”), and a zeal for dogma that persecuted the Waldenses and Lollards (“who took seriously the simpler ideals of Christ and the Apostles”) and a century after his death might have sent St. Francis to the stake.
Still, Muller found a few good things to say about medieval Europe, praising its relative freedom from national prejudice, its condemnation of avarice, and the integrity and creativity of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Renaissance, although marred by cynicism, was a better time, not only because of its artistic brilliance but also because of the rediscovered sense of the dignity and worth of the individual. The author has much less patience with the Reformation, in part because of Luther’s strong religious principles (“he worshiped the authority of a Führer God, whose first command was blind faith and obedience”) and in part because the German Reformer relied upon the authority of princes, which set the stage for religious wars.
Muller complained that Protestants split into many sects, “almost all dogmatic and intolerant.” He continued: “The early Protestants were alike in their historical ignorance of the Bible, their belief in its plain, literal truth, and their arbitrary selection and interpretation of this truth.”
Individualism & Enlightenment
The most interesting side of the Reformation was its often unintentional emphasis upon individualism (“the Christian was a free man, spiritually subject to no human authority”) and democracy. This created a union with other forces that were making the modern world. Muller credited John Calvin with introducing the Christian work ethic and dignifying the pursuit of wealth. “He invented an ideal type hitherto unknown to religion and culture, a type neither humanistic nor ascetic—the God-fearing businessman.”
Proponents of the Protestant ethic, such as the Puritans, began by justifying the institution of interest, but within a century they had sanctified capitalism as God’s plan for society. Moneymaking was now a vital and blessed activity.
This led to the belief that poverty was a sign of moral failure. “Presently it was discovered that the best way to keep the poor industrious and rescue them from temptation was to pay them low wages, keep them poor. A long line of ministers down to this century preached the necessity of poverty in the divine economy.”
The impact of Protestantism, Muller believed, was greatest in its material and political manifestations. In particular, “Protestant countries . . . built up America, sending colonists and traders to the new lands, while the Catholic countries sent soldiers and priests.”
The Enlightenment, especially the rise of modern science, received the author’s highest praise, for its leaders gave the democratic world its stirring faith in free thought, tolerance, and rational consent. “It let into Europe a clear, steady daylight, and focused this light on many time-honored prejudices and barbarities, in particular the unreason of political and religious tyranny.”
He was not uncritical, however, and chided the philosophers for their enthusiasms, such as a faith in limitless progress and of the automatic connection between reason and knowledge and wisdom, virtue, and happiness. But these were minor faults, for while the principles of the Enlightenment were sometimes naïve and never self-evident, they were “noble and necessary.”
In a chapter called “The Byzantine Tradition,” Muller drew a connection between the Orthodox churches and the rise of the Soviet Union. Orthodoxy was narrow, rigid, and ultra-conservative, making no concessions to the modern world. He believed that this fed Russia’s hostility to the alien culture of the West with its emphasis on rationalism, independence, bourgeois respectability, and compromise.
So, once again, religion and faith, as opposed to secularism and reason, bear much of the blame for tyranny and human suffering.
Readers of Touchstone will be unimpressed by Muller’s biblical and historical interpretations. But it would be folly to underestimate the continuing appeal of his message, even if his way of putting it bears all the marks of its time.
It sanctions our contemporary legal and political framework; few would want to repeal our religious and civil liberties or opt for some form of totalitarianism to replace our democratic institutions. Moreover, the author’s appeal to reason as the guide through life tempts many. Reason has a way of telling you what you want to hear, often making a deity of what one encounters in the mirror. “Reasonableness” usually turns out to be what you hold to be true.
After a long lifetime as a historian, I find Muller’s interpretations often over-simplified and at times partisan and inaccurate. But I once found him compelling. For fourteen years, as a graduate student and young professor, I embraced the thesis that “right reason” would bring happiness and peace to myself and to the world.
That brought me to the brink of total despair. How is it possible to discover right from wrong and lead a virtuous, love-filled, and productive life without the grace of the living God? The challenge for me was hopeless, and I returned to Christianity.
In Muller we behold the example of those, especially in academia and in the media, who remained within the Enlightenment fold, chained by worldly dogma and forever seeking heaven on earth. They need our prayers.
Thomas C. Reeves is a retired history professor who lives with his wife Kathleen in the Wisconsin countryside. Among his numerous books are biographies of John F. Kennedy and Fulton J. Sheen. His latest book is Distinguished Service: The Life and Times of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. (Marquette University Press).
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“History Rebuffed” first appeared in the April 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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