After the Storm

Progress and the demented quest for historical purity


Late in November 1939, Walter Benjamin, an unemployed Jewish writer who had been residing in Paris, was released from a makeshift prison camp for German nationals housed in a disused chateau near the city of Nevers, in central France. He had been confined there for nearly three months since Hitler had invaded Poland, leading France to declare war on Germany. Influential friends were able to secure Benjamin’s release. He returned to his one-room, seventh-story flat in Paris and, as Europe tumbled into war, began writing what would become his final work, the twenty paragraph-length fragments that together form the “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

The “Theses” is an essay of lasting strangeness, dense and elliptical, intended, per Benjamin’s biographer, Bernd Witte, “as a fundamental consideration of the essence of historical time.” Yet for all its abstraction, much of it feels depressingly topical. In one fragment, Benjamin expresses scorn for the “current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century.” As if to prove his point, well into the twenty-first, with fascism on the creep from Washington and Brasilia through the capitals of Europe, we find ourselves astonished once again: How can this still be happening?

Then as now, Benjamin would argue, the problem—one of them anyway—was and is an unexamined faith in a highly irrational notion, one that blinds us to facts and conditions that would otherwise be obvious—and that, against all evidence opposing it, continues to inform the shape of our thoughts and the contours of our political discourse. In short, we are in thrall to the fetish of progress: the belief that history has a direction and a purpose, the faith that humankind is ascending a steady if circuitous route to greater and greater perfection.

Against this creed, Benjamin posed a curious interpretation of a then- obscure drawing by Paul Klee, one he had splurged to buy in 1922 and had hung like an amulet on the wall of every apartment in which he lived. It depicted an angel. Its wings were spread, its head spun all the way around so that it stared backward at the viewer. Thus, Benjamin wrote, was the “angel of history” propelled into the future while facing the past: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” The angel is pushed onward, he went on, by a terrible storm. “This storm is what we call progress.”

By 1940, when Benjamin was forced to flee his last apartment in Paris, the notion of progress had for more than a century provided the dominant narrative that allowed Europeans to understand themselves. The always imperiled edifice of Western civilization—the far-right’s fears today are not so different from the far-right’s fears 80 or 160 years ago—is unimaginable without it. Progress described for Europeans their past, their position on the path that carried them into the future, and their relation to everyone else on the planet. It created an easy hierarchy into which every time, every place, and every people could be slotted. By the mid-nineteenth century, faith in progress was already so ubiquitous as to be largely invisible to its adherents, whether they counted themselves revolutionaries or traditionalists and whether they lived in Europe itself, in the rapidly expanding settlements in the Americas and Australia, or in colonial outposts in Africa and Asia. To question it with any seriousness was to marginalize yourself as a crank, a heretic, or a fool. In the European imagination—which increasingly operated in racial terms, understanding itself as white—progress defined the world.

The Flouring of Humanity

Despite its pretensions to cosmic immutability, the idea of progress in the West has a legible history—one bound from the outset to conquest, and to fantasies of racial dominance. Its first explicit articulation is generally agreed to have appeared in a speech delivered in 1750 by the brilliant political economist Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, then just twenty-three. It is surely no coincidence that an early evangelist of economic liberty—“All branches of commerce ought to be free, equally free, and entirely free,” he wrote in 1773—would also be the first to lay out the ideology that would everywhere accompany the spread of capitalism.

Turgot would have ample opportunity to test his economic theories, if not his conviction that mankind was destined to shed its every flaw. In 1774, serving as the controller-general of finances under Louis XVI, he issued an edict abolishing all restrictions regulating the trade of grain in France. That year’s harvest was poor. Merchants, freed from laws that had outlawed stockpiling, hoarded wheat to drive up prices. Famine ensued. Riots broke out. In an uprising that later historians would view as a prelude to the French Revolution, crowds, many of them led by women, forced landowners and merchants to sell their grain at prices they deemed reasonable. The Flour War, as it would be known, ended with a fierce repression. The government called in twenty-five thousand troops. By 1776, court intrigues would lead to Turgot’s dismissal, and his reforms were soon reversed. Perhaps he was lucky. Turgot died a private man, of gout, twelve years before the monarch met the guillotine.

We are in thrall to the fetish of progress: the belief that history has a direction and a purpose, and that humankind is ascending a steady if circuitous route to greater perfection.

His quiet demise at any rate makes for a dramatic contrast with his quasi- millennial visions of the prospects for human improvement—so long as the humanity in question was white and European. At the very beginning of the lecture in question, “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind,” Turgot made a surprising move. Once he’d laid out the key difference between the sort of time that governs humankind and that which governs nature—unending fealty to the cyclical rule of death and regeneration in the latter case, while human events succeed one another in a linear and “ever-changing spectacle” as the species lurches from “infancy” to “greater perfection”—he evoked the specter of “the Americans.” They put in their appearance on the second page. He was not thinking of the well-armed citizens of the current American polity, but of the original inhabitants of the hemisphere, whose presence posed something of a problem. If history was to be narrated as the story of the growing perfection of mankind, how to explain all those who seemed to lag behind, the tribes of so-called primitives scattered across the jungles, plains, and desert wastes?

We might think that progress is a way of thinking about history, and hence about time, but very nearly the first thing Turgot did was transpose time onto space by summoning the Americas as the place of the past. He explained the apparently uneven development of humankind and the anachronistic existence of the people he regarded as savages as a result of naturally occurring inequalities: “Nature, distributing her gifts unequally, has given to certain minds an abundance of talent which she has refused to others.” Differing environmental circumstances allowed those original talents to develop at different rates, “and it is from the infinite variety of circumstances that there springs the inequality in the progress of nations.”

We the Supreme

Before it was anything else, progress was a doctrine of supremacy—a fresh new faith for a rising era of unchallenged European dominance, a way of celebrating European hegemony by anchoring it in time, and rendering Europe, and specifically Bourbon France, the very apotheosis of human achievement. In a parallel move three quarters of a century later, Hegel would claim that same honor for the Prussian monarchy. “World history travels from east to west,” he declared, “for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.” One-and-a-half centuries after that, thinkers like Francis Fukuyama would advance much the same claim for an empire still further to the west—American liberal democracy in its most aggressively capitalist guise in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. As an ideology of over-confident elites, progress would prove itself remarkably resilient.

It’s worth recalling, though, that even in their earliest, most self-regarding rhapsodies, the initial prophets of progress had to ignore an enormous share of countervailing evidence. The first Europeans to lay eyes on the great cities of the Americas, for example, did not see them as Turgot did. Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, wrote to King Charles V that the Inca capital of Cuzco, which Pizarro plundered and largely destroyed, “is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would be remarkable even in Spain.” Cortés apologized to the same monarch that he did not have the literary skills to adequately describe the marvels of Tenochtitlán, built across Lake Texcoco, its temples and wide causeways rising from the water, with fragrant gardens and great public squares and markets filled with endless riches. Cortés’s soldiers, his lieutenant Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote, “had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, and all over Italy, and in Rome,” but they had never seen anything so wondrous as the Aztec city. “I stood looking at it, and thought that no land like it would ever be discovered in the whole world,” Díaz wrote. “But today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing.”

Issue Forth, Europe!

Just this past March, a team of British and Brazilian archaeologists published a paper about their discoveries of the remains of villages, roads, and fortified settlements long concealed by foliage in the Amazon, traces left by as many as a million people who nearly all disappeared at the same time—roughly when Europeans arrived on the continent. “Diseases travelled much faster than people,” the lead archaeologist told the Guardian. The Amazon’s population may have been largely wiped out before the Portuguese ever reached the area. Genocide helped too. The indigenous population of the Americas likely would fall by some 90 percent in the first 150 years after the conquest.

It’s a good trick, really, so seamlessly clever that Turgot and many millions since didn’t see it as a trick at all: allow biological agents to help you conquer half the world, slaughter and enslave whoever the microbes let live. You can then declare the hobbled remnants of the civilizations you have destroyed primitive and savage and interpret the degraded manner in which many of your victims survive as evidence of your inherent superiority, your right to rule over them and to continue to exploit them under cover of civilizing motives. As an ideology that put European culture at the pinnacle of human history and consigned everyone else to time’s lowland wastes, progress would function at once as an explanation of European dominance and a rationale for the slaughter and pillage on which it depended, and continues to depend.

Before it was anything else, progress was a doctrine of supremacy.

Turgot went on to sketch out a narrative that, with some modifications, would soon become widespread: the mantle of civilization passed from the once-great civilizations of Egypt, India, and China, all strangled by their own despotism, and onward, via the Phoenicians—in themselves mere “agents of exchanges between peoples”—to Greece and then Rome. This latter empire, a victim of its own descent into tyranny, “at last suddenly collapses” under the attacks of opportunistic hordes. The rise of Islam merited brief condemnation, almost parenthetically, as “a raging torrent which ravages the whole territory from the Indian frontiers to the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees.” The glories of Baghdad and al-Andalus were passed over without comment, though Turgot acknowledged that Islamic scholars did perform the service of transmitting Europe’s past to its future by disseminating “the feeble sparks” of Greek wisdom that they had managed to preserve. That was all it took. “The treasures of antiquity, rescued from the dust . . . summon[ed] genius from the depths of its retreats. The time has come,” Turgot enthused. “Issue forth, Europe, from the darkness which covered thee!”

His discourse concluded with a paean to the king—not the one Turgot would later serve and who would still later lose his head in the Place de la Concorde, but his predecessor, also named Louis, who died in his bed in the palace at Versailles, of smallpox. “O Louis, what majesty surrounds thee!” Turgot crooned. “Century of Louis the Great, may your light beautify the precious reign of his successor! May it last for ever, may it extend over the world!”

God’s Perfect Children

It is now such a reflex to consider past civilizations stupid and superstitious—or stupider at least than we are—that it’s hard to imagine the relief that thinkers of Turgot’s era must have felt on unburdening themselves of the past, launching themselves into a limitless future. Previous generations of human beings on nearly every patch of the planet had regarded their ancestors with veneration—and what a drag it must have been to have to lug those old farts and all their dumb ideas everywhere, and always with a smile. Turgot’s jubilation broke through in his punctuation, and in the impatience of his syntax: “What ridiculous opinions marked our first steps! How absurd were the causes which our fathers thought up to make sense of what they saw! What sad monuments they are to the weakness of the human mind!”

The first thing he hastened to toss over was the notion that all things are alive and infused with divinity. This idea—then still pervasive in the animistic beliefs of conquered and not-yet-conquered peoples across the globe, in the folk beliefs of Europe and in the more pantheistic strands of its esoteric theologies—was, by Turgot’s reckoning, one of “those delusive analogies to which the first men in their immaturity abandoned themselves with so little thought.” Like children, Turgot explained, they imagined that all the things they perceived that “were independent of their own actions were produced by beings similar to them, but invisible and more powerful.” Thus, they supposed, superstitiously, “All objects of nature had their gods.” Against this, he allied himself, if only half-heartedly, to a sterile monotheism, nodding to the Christian deity later in the lecture, but only in passing, and without a shred of the enthusiasm that he brought to subjects such as Reason, Europe, and France. But the task of denuding the natural world of agency and divinity was apparently an important one, and could not be neglected. For the grand procession of progress to march, the stage had to first be cleared of rivals. All the world must be dead, and man alone alive, rushing to the glory of his fate.

This odd notion would show up again, and with even greater force, in the work of Turgot’s friend and biographer, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, better known as the Marquis de Condorcet. An ardent republican, Condorcet served during the early years of the Revolution as secretary of the Legislative Assembly until that body was dissolved, and the king dethroned, in 1792. In those days, surely, the world must have felt like it was ending, or beginning again. Condorcet welcomed its rebirth. He was at odds, though, with the Revolution’s most radical factions, and was sharply critical of the constitution drafted in June of 1793 by Robespierre and Saint-Just. In July, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Condorcet would spend the next nine months in hiding, cooped up in a house on a small Parisian street just north of the Luxembourg Gardens. Three months into his confinement, he would be condemned to death in absentia. The Terror had begun. Despite these pressures, Condorcet continued to work on the text for which he would be best known, a book-length treatise of astonishing optimism entitled Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind. “The perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite,” he wrote in the introduction, and “the progress of this perfectibility . . . has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us.”

He would not live to see the work published. Early in April of 1794, informed that his capture was imminent, Condorcet fled Paris. Two days later, bleeding from a wound on his leg, dirty and bedraggled from sleeping in the open, he walked into an inn in a village just outside the city. He ordered an omelet. When the proprietor asked how many eggs he wanted, Condorcet, who had presumably not eaten for days, aroused the suspicion of his host by answering, “a dozen”: only an aristocrat would presume to order an omelet of a dozen eggs. He was dragged to the prison in the commune of Bourg-la-Reine, which at the time was known as Bourg-l’Égalité, or, roughly, Equality-ville. Accounts vary, but either the following morning or the one after that, the Marquis de Condorcet was found dead on the floor of his cell.

While still in hiding in Paris, at work on the Outlines, confined to the rooms of the small house on Rue Servandoni, his country at war against most of Europe, hearing frequent news of the beheadings of friends and colleagues, Condorcet surely must have suspected that his own death, and not a pleasant one, was likely near. He nonetheless remained convinced, with a fervor that can only be described as ecstatic, that there was no other path for humankind than that of ever-increasing perfection. The final chapter of the text was devoted to forecasting the outlines of that bright future. Everyone on the planet, he predicted, would “one day arrive at the state of civilization attained by those people who are most enlightened, most free . . . as the French, for instance, and the Anglo-Americans.” This would mean an end to “the slavery of countries subjected to kings, the barbarity of African tribes, and the ignorance of savages.”

Condemned to death, Condorcet continued to work on the text for which he would be best known, a book-length treatise of astonishing optimism. “The perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite,” he wrote.

Condorcet was a brave man, and every bit the liberal hero: he had only the most passionate and eloquent words of condemnation for slavery, the oppression of women, and the brutal exploitation of colonized peoples. Still, his certitude rested on a deep and unquestioned conviction in the moral superiority of Europe, despite all the dizzying, fast-multiplying evidence to the contrary. Slavery and the various cruelties that Europe had visited on the people of Africa and Asia would soon surely end, he believed, “and we shall become to them instruments of benefit, and the generous champions of their redemption from bondage.” It’s quite a fantasy: the trafficker in human suffering reborn as enlightened liberator, his transformation gratefully acknowledged by the charges he so recently tormented. The roots of White Savior Complex run at least two-and-a-quarter centuries deep.

Condorcet was serenely confident that Europe held exclusive title to reason, peace, and justice despite the conflicts that had wracked the continent over the previous century—a seven-year war that had killed nearly a million just three decades earlier, the wars over the Austrian and Spanish successions that between them killed another million and a half—and despite the conflict into which it had recently been thrown. Europe had lit the way for humanity thus far, and so the continent was likewise destined to cut through all remaining darkness, leading the scattered people of the earth to a future without war or oppression or discrimination based on sex or tribal prejudice. Sanitation would improve, and nutrition, and medicine. Human lifespans would grow longer. One universal language would spread across the earth “and render error almost impossible.” Except for the language bit—English functions well enough—this is still the faith that fuels contemporary neoliberalism and the logic of “development”: the global extension of European ways, meaning open markets and liberal institutions, will spur technological improvements and improve the lot of all, indefinitely. One day the natives will thank us. It’s a powerful and alluring vision—at least for those who’ve appointed themselves as its lead administrators. Little wonder that Condorcet clung to it even as the world he knew was being washed away with blood.

John Gast, American Progress, 1872. (Library of Congress)

The Biography of Races

Of course, there are blood sacrifices along every stage of the progress myth—though some stand out in especially high relief. In volume three of his monumental Black Athena, Martin Bernal wrote of the surprising discovery, in 1978, at Knossos, of ceramic pots, likely more than 3,600 years old, containing the dismembered remains of children. Their bones were scarred with knife marks. They had been butchered and, apparently, cooked. Nearby, archaeologists found pottery and amphorae decorated with shields and the head of a Gorgon, images associated with Athena. Others would be more cautious, but for Bernal the find confirmed that Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, “was associated with human, and especially child, sacrifice.”

In that volume, which is largely concerned with presenting linguistic evidence for the African and Asian heritage of ancient Greece—Classical Greek, by Bernal’s estimate, owes as much as 40 percent of its vocabulary to the Ancient Egyptian and West Semitic languages—Bernal also argued that Athena was a descendant of the Egyptian goddess Nēit and a near cousin to the Canaanite deity ’Anat. All three were powerful figures—bloodthirsty warriors “of renewable virginity,” as Bernal put it. All three were associated with weaving and birds of prey: Nēit with vultures, ’Anat with eagles, Athena with the owl. Plato and Herodotus both attested to Athena’s identity with Nēit. Inscriptions in Cyprus, where Athena and ’Anat shared a temple, equated the two deities.

“There are no simple origins,” Bernal cautioned. It is never a question of a direct and singular genetic inheritance, of roots leading up a trunk and bifurcating into branches. Human history, he suggested, is more like a river, splitting off into tributaries, merging and diverging again and again. Or perhaps like a crowd, joining arms and letting go, splitting into smaller groups that at times reach out to clasp hands with one another. The worship of Nēit would be largely subsumed by a cult to Isis, the veneration of whom would in turn be transferred to the Virgin Mary. ’Anat, whose worship may have involved the sacrifice of virgins, was in northwest Syria regarded as the sister and sometimes the consort of Ba’al, one of the primary gods in the Canaanite pantheon, who was alternately adored and rejected by the ancient Israelites. Archaeological evidence uncovered on the Nile island of Elephantine, in the contemporary Egyptian city of Aswan, suggests that an isolated community of Jewish mercenaries living there in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. worshiped ’Anat as the “Queen of Heaven” and the consort of Yahweh, who was regarded by other contemporary Jews as the one and only god. Behind and beside any One there is always an other, and behind each of those wait many more.

Bernal’s larger argument was not about ’Anat or Athena or even language, but about the making of history itself. (Black Athena, it should be said, sparked a furious controversy. Many of Bernal’s etymological claims have been discredited, but his broader historiographical argument has held up quite well and, in some cases has been confirmed by the outsized fury of his conservative critics.) Until the early nineteenth century, he proposed, there was little controversy about the debts Greek culture owed to Africa and to points farther east. During the Renaissance revival of Greek thought, “no one questioned the fact that the Greeks had been the pupils of the Egyptians.” Throughout the Enlightenment, too, European intellectuals were openly fascinated by Egypt.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, though, a new paradigm took hold of Europe. It arose, not coincidentally, as European economies reconfigured themselves around the by-then steady flow of wealth from the Americas, most of it procured through the labor of African and indigenous slaves. This wealth, and the quick pace of technological change that followed in its wake, only served to validate the ever-deeper conviction in the superiority of European civilization. All that exploitation had to be justified somehow; or if not justified, disguised. History was reconceived, in Bernal’s words as “the biography of races,” a narrative subject to the laws of something called progress.

If Europe represented the mature stage of human development, it would need a lineage. Since the genealogically obsessed tend to favor purity, it would help if its ancestry suffered as little admixture as possible. Greece—whose natives were unquestionably European, famously clever, and passably fair-skinned—would be elevated. The Greeks would be reinvented to match the most flattering self-image that Europeans could muster: a people supremely rational and wise, with the stubborn independence of a noble race, uniquely capable of self-governance, and mercilessly strong when justice and necessity demanded it.

That this image would not have been recognized by either the Greeks’ contemporaries or by the inhabitants of the continents being mowed under by “Western civilization” was irrelevant to the larger project of historical reclamation. Plato and Aeschylus became the heritage of the English, the Germans, and far-flung white Americans. Greek joined Latin as an indispensable part of the education of the European elite. Classics emerged as a discipline. By the early nineteenth century, wrote Bernal, it had become “increasingly intolerable that Greece—which was seen by the Romantics not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood—could be the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites.”

Egypt, until recently the object of admiration and awe, would now be “flung into prehistory to serve as a solid and inert basis for the dynamic development of the superior races, the Aryans and the Semites.” As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the Semites, too, would be tossed out in a hurry. All Phoenician and Canaanite influence on Greece, and any evidence of substantive cultural exchange with the cultures of Mesopotamia and the Levant, which had until recently been considered uncontroversially obvious, would become suspect. Except to the undeniable degree to which Christianity was inconceivable without them, the Jews would also be largely crowded out. Thus was established what the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand calls “the mythology of white continuity.”

One more thing about Athena. Homer customarily followed her name with the adjective glaukopis, which is usually translated as either “bright-eyed” or “grey-eyed” and holds a range of meanings from bright and flashing to blue, light grey, or even green. The point would likely have been lost on most early twentieth-century lovers of the classics, for whom fair eyes were an indicator of racial superiority. But for the Greeks, Bernal wrote, blue eyes were associated with ferocity, and with misfortune. “The paleness of Athena’s eyes,” he concluded, would have “added to the terror she inspired.”

The Hermetic Vanishing Trick

There is another way to think about the origins of progress. In the mid-1960s, the British historian Frances Yates began to document the influence of the Hermetic tradition on Renaissance thought: Hermetic as in Hermes Trismegistus—the mythic figure associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth—to whom the varied writings grouped together as the Corpus Hermeticum were for centuries attributed. The god Hermes, whom the Greeks considered identical to Thoth, was a mediator between gods and mortals, a guide to the paths that stretch between us and the heavens. Hermes/Thoth was the messenger, the patron of travelers, thieves, and seekers. In his more ancient form, as Thoth, he was the scribe of the gods—at times depicted with the head of an ibis or the head of a baboon, or with the face of a dog on a baboon’s body. It was Thoth who brought hieroglyphs to humanity, and with them astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics, gifts of all the many forms of knowledge of the cosmos.

His supposed heir, Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice Great Hermes,” was likewise a sort of gateway between divine wisdom and human ignorance, passing on wisdom that had been lost for generations, and illuminating the secret pathways that access the divine. In The City of God, Augustine wrote that Hermes Trismegistus lived “long before the sages and philosophers of Greece,” and was a grandson of the god Hermes and hence a distant cousin of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus and presented it as a gift to mankind, just as Thoth had given us writing. The actual Hermetic texts are a diverse bunch, and not nearly as old as Augustine supposed, though Cosimo de’ Medici did not know that when, in about 1460, he had them brought to Florence from the monastery in Macedonia where his agents had discovered them. Cosimo ordered Marsilio Ficino to translate them as quickly as possible into Latin. He already had Ficino working on a translation of the complete works of Plato. Put that aside, he told him, and do this one first. Cosimo was old, and wanted to read the fabled Hermes Trismegistus before he died; Plato mattered less.

Even long after Hermes was banished, this would remain the very creed underlying modern scientific endeavor: that all things could be known and all of nature mastered.

The texts themselves were likely composed by several different authors from the middle of the first to the end of the third century A.D. They were written in Greek but were likely composed in Egypt. In them theology, cosmology, magic, and the seeds of what we would now call science—astronomy, medicine, botany, mathematics—are inseparably linked. Together, Yates argued over the course of her career, they form a hidden and much-repressed current that in various ways informed many of the great minds of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment: from Bruno, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola to Bacon, Leibniz, and Newton. In other words, the proudest treasure of what we persist in calling Western Civilization, its tradition of empirical and critical reason, was until the eighteenth century in fruitful and more or less constant conversation with esoteric works of Egyptian, gnostic mysticism attributed to the grandson of a trickster god.

In the years that followed, this lineage would be meticulously erased. The strands of thought and belief with which it had fruitfully intersected—Jewish and Christian mystical traditions, Paracelsian alchemy, Neoplatonist philosophy—would be marginalized and mocked. Just over a decade after Newton’s death, the German historian Johann Jakob Brucker published a monumental and influential history of philosophy, the first of its kind, in which he characterized the Hermetic texts—as well as Kabbalah and Neoplatonism—as Philosophia Barbarica. They were, to Brucker, corrupt, pagan superstitions that stood opposed to the eminently rational history of Christian, European truth-seeking. Many of the entries in Diderot’s Encyclopedia would be cribbed straight from Brucker, whose ideas were smuggled hence into the heart of the French Enlightenment.

This was the same historical moment when the grand narrative of progress, that glorious arc of Reason that had traveled to Paris and London from Athens and Rome, was beginning to take shape—as well as the critical interval at which, as Bernal documented, the Greeks were being elevated and all traces of Africa erased. Brucker’s work had been published in Latin by 1744, the Encylopedia beginning in 1751, Turgot’s “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind” in 1750. For most of the next two centuries, the texts of the Hermetic corpus would be consigned to the forbidden and derided margins. To take them seriously got you labeled an occultist, a swindler, or a quack. Like a forgotten continent, the Hermetic corpus would not be rediscovered until the middle of the twentieth century, when Italian historians, and later Yates, began to rescue it from the disrepute into which it had been banished for so long.

But perhaps old thrice-great Hermes never really went away. Was not the very idea of progress also dependent on the conviction, shouted throughout the Hermetic corpus, that heaven is here for the taking and that humans, despite our mortal bodies, are in essence godly, capable of understanding all that exists, and even of sharing in the creative powers of the divine? “Unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God,” the Hermetic texts advised, and then explained just how to do it: “Make yourself grow to a greatness beyond measure, by a bound free yourself from the body; raise yourself above all time, become Eternity; then you will understand God.” If that wasn’t easy enough, the text went on: “Believe that nothing is impossible for you, think yourself immortal and capable of understanding all, all arts, all sciences, the nature of every living being.”

This, even long after Hermes was banished, would remain the very creed underlying modern scientific endeavor: that all things could be known and all of nature mastered, that mankind, or at least some civilized subset thereof, was marching on a path toward perfection. He—and until very recently, it was always only he—could understand the behavior of the farthest stars, the nuclei of cells and the viscera of atoms, the nature of tortoises and finches, and also of the unfortunate savages who could not walk this path unaided. He could construct a society in which justice reigned and human beings lived, like gods, as equals. This vision, or what little spark of it remained, would not only be a cudgel for empire. How can we imagine any revolutionary faith without it—and not just faith but practice?

Redemption Song

For Walter Benjamin at least, refusing to be blinded by the false promises of progress did not mean that hope was lost. It meant that one could begin to see. Even at the very end, Benjamin believed that the past contains within it an orientation toward its own redemption. This is perhaps less mystical than it sounds. He understood the present—what he called the “time of the now”—to be pregnant with all that has come before, each moment containing within it, “in an enormous abridgment,” the entirety of the past. The past is not inert. It calls out, clamoring for redress. It exists in the present as demand. The “time of the now,” he wrote, is “shot through with chips of Messianic time.” If eternity, all the past and every future, flits through every moment, then we can grab it there. In other words, right here.

For Benjamin this could only be a political act. It meant overturning any structures that relied on the exploitation of labor—which is to say not only our sweat and our skills but our time, being in all its divinity as it pulses through our veins—or on the “mastery of nature,” which was, he suggested, of a piece with any other form of exploitation. And it meant rejecting the slumbrous fantasy that history will carry us to some better land. It would not. Time had to be “blasted out” and history blasted open. Only then could it be redeemed, and with it, us.

This was not, for Benjamin, a choice. It wasn’t that redemption lay behind some distant gate at the end of a path that we could choose not to walk, or that there were other, smoother and easier roads that we might take with less effort, on which we might nonetheless survive. Then, as now, the only other way led to extinction.

In June of 1940, shortly after Benjamin completed the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” German troops entered Paris. Benjamin fled to Lourdes and then Marseilles. He left a copy of the “Theses” with his friend Hannah Arendt, another German Jewish philosopher who was, like him, hoping to escape to the United States by way of Portugal. That September, Benjamin made it as far as the sleepy town of Port Bou, on the Spanish side of the border with France. He was welcomed with neither hospitality nor mercy. Local police informed him that he would be escorted back to the border the following morning and delivered to the French authorities—and thence, almost certainly, to the Gestapo. Benjamin, ill and exhausted, despaired. Alone in his hotel room, he swallowed an overdose of morphine tablets. His body remains in Port Bou, in a cemetery carved high into a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Hannah Arendt made it out. She and her husband were allowed to leave France and to pass through Spain into Portugal, where they spent three months stranded in Lisbon. They passed the hours reading Benjamin’s words aloud to one another, and to the small group of refugees who had gathered there, waiting to sail to safety, on the edge of a crumbling world.

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novels Ether and The Suitors. His latest nonfiction book, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, is out now from Penguin Press.

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