“March of Folly” Meets “The End of History”

For anyone who thinks that Barbara Tuchman’s account of history as the “March of Folly” ended with former neo-con Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “The End of History” — that is to say, that the “March of Folly” finally ended with the superior wisdom of neo-conservatism or neo-liberalism — well, all I can say is: “I’ve got a genuine extraterrestrial flying saucer for sale”. I also have an interesting historical anecdote about that and about “blowback” which, for some inexplicable reason, occurs to me a 3:00 am in the morning.

The anecdote stems from the Crusades, and you may already be familiar with the sordid tale. It seems that the Crusader army of the Fourth Crusade, being mustered in Venice, Italy  c. 1024 A.D., but idly waylaid before embarking for the Holy Land, were importuned (that is to say, had their palms greased) by the Merchants of Venice to weaken, loot, and dispose of a mercantile and commercial competitor — the Christian city of Constantinople. This they duly accomplished and left the city greatly weakened and diminished.

So little consciousness was involved in this that the mind is somewhat dumbfounded by it. Constantinople was Christendom’s first line of defence against invasion from the East. “The sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations”, as the New Testament puts it, which is also a statement about ‘blowback”, (or perverse outcome and ironic reversal, or hybris and Nemesis and the karmic law)  is very instructive in this case. When the Ottman Empire decided it wanted a big chunk of Christendom to add to its imperial holdings, it had a very easy time of it. Constantinople was too weak to put up any resistance. Not only did the Ottoman’s march their way to the very gates of Vienna, but today Constantinople is called Istanbul in Turkey, and is the country’s cultural, historical, and commercial centre.

It’s an anecdote about the lack of foresight, of course. And I suppose, too, that the reason it occurs to me at 3:00 a.m. in the morning to post about it is because I dreamed, for some impenetrable reason, I was a soldier in the Ottoman Army marching on Vienna, although in the dream I seemed to have been a double-agent.

I have the overwhelming impression with this conceit about “the end of history” that the same deficiency of foresight will be the only result, and with it an utter delusion that history as “the March of Folly” has also ended. There’s probably no greater delusion than this.

In the former Dark Age Blog, I once wrote that “the end of history” actually translates as the end of the Promethean spirit and its termination in the brother of Prometheus, Epimetheus. Epimetheus is the one who opens “Pandora’s Box” against the advise of his brother Prometheus. These are the “bookends”, as it were, of the Modern Era. The name “Prometheus” means “foresight” while the name Epimetheus means “hindsight”. So, it would seem that the Promethean spirit is reverting at the “end of history” to the Epimethean spirit.

There is a parallel for that in early history, too. The figure of Parsifal, the fool who becomes a knight of the Round Table and who features at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, ends in the figure of don Quixote, the knight who becomes a fool once more. Parsifal and Don Quixote are, in that sense, contraries and reversals of role — they bookend the rise and fall of the High Middle Ages respectively. The same might be said of Prometheus and Epimetheus, or in Goethe’s terms, his Faust and his Mephistopheles, or in somewhat equivalent terms, Dr. Jekyll ends as Mr. Hyde.

So, it strikes me that the triumphalism of “the end of history” is fully the equivalent of a “Cadmean victory” — a victory that brings ruin to the victor. That’s “ironic reversal” by another name, or another aspect of the process we call “enantiodromia“.

Enantiodromia, or reversal at the extremity, isn’t always about evil outcomes, though. It’s ambiguous. In Dante’s journey through the Inferno, the gateway to paradise lay at the very centre of Hell. And, in fact, that’s how Goethe’s Mephistopheles also describes himself — “part of that power that would ever evil do, but always does the good”. That also is enantiodromia. Nietzsche, likewise, was very familiar with the principle of enantiodromia even if he called it something different — “revaluation of values” — and why he could remain “cheerful” despite his anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism”. Like Dante, he had faith that the gateway to the “transhuman” lay through the hell of two centuries of nihilism — the crucible, in other words.

Post-modernism is Epimethean, rather than Promethean. The Cadmean victory as Nietzsche saw it was that the triumph of liberal institutions would be simultaneously their downfall. Mr. Fukuyama and his neo-conservatives seem to have missed that aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy (although Mr. Fukuyama has recently renounced neo-conservatism for somewhat similar reasons).

“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise” — that’s also enantiodromia and is one of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell“. Also “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”.  Enantiodromia is the two-edged sword in that sense, and that is the image of Christ’s tongue in the Book of Revelation also, and the probable meaning of his enigmatic saying “I would that you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will spew thee from my mouth”.


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