Futures Past
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Futures Past

On the Semantics of Historical Time

Reinhart Koselleck, Keith Tribe

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Futures Past

On the Semantics of Historical Time

Reinhart Koselleck, Keith Tribe

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Modernity in the late eighteenth century transformed all domains of European life -intellectual, industrial, and social. Not least affected was the experience of time itself: ever-accelerating change left people with briefer intervals of time in which to gather new experiences and adapt. In this provocative and erudite book Reinhart Koselleck, a distinguished philosopher of history, explores the concept of historical time by posing the question: what kind of experience is opened up by the emergence of modernity? Relying on an extraordinary array of witnesses and texts from politicians, philosophers, theologians, and poets to Renaissance paintings and the dreams of German citizens during the Third Reich, Koselleck shows that, with the advent of modernity, the past and the future became 'relocated' in relation to each other.The promises of modernity -freedom, progress, infinite human improvement -produced a world accelerating toward an unknown and unknowable future within which awaited the possibility of achieving utopian fulfillment. History, Koselleck asserts, emerged in this crucial moment as a new temporality providing distinctly new ways of assimilating experience. In the present context of globalization and its resulting crises, the modern world once again faces a crisis in aligning the experience of past and present. To realize that each present was once an imagined future may help us once again place ourselves within a temporality organized by human thought and humane ends as much as by the contingencies of uncontrolled events.

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Information

Year
2004
ISBN
9780231502047
Topic
History
Index
History
Image
ON THE RELATION OF PAST AND FUTURE IN MODERN HISTORY
Image
MODERNITY AND THE PLANES OF HISTORICITY
In 1528 Duke William IV of Bavaria ordered a series of historical paintings which were to be hung in his newly built summer house at the Royal Stud. Thematically Christian-Humanist, they depicted a series of biblical events, as well as a series of episodes from classical Antiquity. Most well known and justly celebrated of these paintings is Albrecht Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht.1
Altdorfer reveals to us upon a canvas of one and a half square meters the cosmic panorama of a decisive battle of world-historical significance, the Battle of Issus, which in 333 B.C. opened the epoch of Hellenism, as we say today. With hitherto unsuspected mastery Altdorfer was able to portray thousands upon thousands of individual warriors as complete armies; he shows us the clash of armored squadrons of horse and foot soldiers armed with spears; the victorious line of attack of the Macedonians, with Alexander far out at the head; the confusion and disintegration which overtook the Persians; and the expectant bearing of the Greek battle-reserves, which will then complete the victory.
Careful examination of the painting enables us to reconstruct the entire course of the battle. For Altdorfer had in this image delineated a history, in the way that Historie at that time could mean both image and narrative (Geschichte). To be as accurate as possible, the artist, or rather the court historiographer advising him, had consulted Curtius Rufus so as to ascertain the (supposedly) exact number of combatants, the dead and those taken prisoner. These figures can be found inscribed upon the banners of the relevant armies, including the number of dead, who remain in the painting among the living, perhaps even bearing the banner under which they are about to fall, mortally wounded. Altdorfer made conscious use of anachronism so that he could faithfully represent the course of the completed battle.
There is another element of anachronism which today is certainly much more apparent to us. Viewing the painting in the Pinakothek, we think we see before us the last knights of Maximilian or the serf-army at the Battle of Pavia. From their feet to their turbans, most of the Persians resemble the Turks who, in the same year the picture was painted (1529), unsuccessfully laid siege to Vienna. In other words, the event that Altdorfer captured was for him at once historical and contemporary. Alexander and Maximilian, for whom Altdorfer had prepared drawings, merge in an exemplary manner; the space of historical experience enjoys the profundity of generational unity. The state of contemporary military technology still did not in principle offer any obstacle to the representation of the Battle of Issus as a current event. Machiavelli had only just devoted an entire chapter of his Discourses to the thesis that modern firearms had had little impact on the conduct of wars. The belief that the invention of the gun eclipsed the exemplary power of Antiquity was quite erroneous, argued Machiavelli. Those who followed the Ancients could only smile at such a view. The present and the past were enclosed within a common historical plane.
Temporal difference was not more or less arbitrarily eliminated; it was not, as such, at all apparent. The proof of this is there to see in the painting of the Alexanderschlacht. Altdorfer, who wished to corroborate represented history (Historie) statistically by specifying the combatants in ten numbered columns, has done without one figure: the year. His battle thus is not only contemporary; it simultaneously appears to be timeless.
When Friedrich Schlegel came across the painting almost three hundred years later, he was seized “upon sighting this marvel,” as he wrote, by a boundless “astonishment.” Schlegel praised the work in long sparkling cascades of words, recognizing in it “the greatest feat of the age of chivalry.” He had thus gained a critical-historical distance with respect to Altdorfer’s masterpiece. Schlegel was able to distinguish the painting from his own time, as well as from that of the Antiquity it strove to represent. For him, history had in this way gained a specifically temporal dimension, which is clearly absent for Altdorfer. Formulated schematically, there was for Schlegel, in the three hundred years separating him from Altdorfer, more time (or perhaps a different mode of time) than appeared to have passed for Altdorfer in the eighteen hundred years or so that lay between the Battle of Issus and his painting.
What had happened in these three hundred years that separate our two witnesses, Altdorfer and Schlegel? What new quality had historical time gained that occupies this period from about 1500 to 1800? If we are to answer these questions, this period must be conceived not simply as elapsed time, but rather as a period with its own specific characteristics.
Stating my thesis simply, in these centuries there occurs a temporalization [Verzeitlichung] of history, at the end of which there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity. We are thus concerned with the specificity of the so-called frühe Neuzeit—the period in which modernity is formed. We will restrict ourselves to the perspective we possess from the onetime future of past generations or, more pithily, from a former future.
I
First, we should clarify the sense of presence and achronological pungency that we have discovered in Altdorfer’s painting. Let us try to regard the picture with the eye of one of his contemporaries. For a Christian, the victory of Alexander over the Persians signifies the transition from the second to the third world empire, a sequence in which the Holy Roman Empire constitutes the fourth and last. Heavenly and cosmic forces were participants in such a battle, finding their place in Altdorfer’s painting as Sun and Moon, powers of Light and Darkness respectively attributed to the two kings, Alexander and Maximilian: the sun appears over a ship whose mast assumes the form of a cross. This battle, in which the Persian army was destined for defeat, was no ordinary one; rather, it was one of the few events between the beginning of the world and its end that also prefigured the fall of the Holy Roman Empire. Analogous events were expected to occur with the coming of the End of the World. Altdorfer’s image had, in other words, an eschatological status. The Alexanderschlacht was timeless as the prelude, figure, or archetype of the final struggle between Christ and Antichrist; those participating in it were contemporaries of those who lived in expectation of the Last Judgment.
Until well into the sixteenth century, the history of Christianity is a history of expectations, or more exactly, the constant anticipation of the End of the World on the one hand and the continual deferment of the End on the other. While the materiality of such expectations varied from one situation to another, the basic figure of the End remained constant. The mythical investment of the Apocalypse could be adapted to a given situation, and even noncanonical prophecies presented little variation from the figures that were supposed to appear at the Judgment, such as the Emperor of Peace, the Engelspäpste, or harbingers of the Antichrist such as Gog and Magog who, according to oriental tradition (also then current in the West), remained confined to the Caucasus by Alexander until the time came for their irruption. However the image of the End of the World was varied, the role of the Holy Roman Empire remained a permanent feature: as long as it existed, the final Fall was deferred. The Emperor was the katechon of the Antichrist.
All of these figures appeared to emerge into historical reality during the epoch of the Reformation. Luther saw the Antichrist in possession of the “holy throne,” and for him Rome was the “Whore of Babylon”; Catholics saw Luther as the Antichrist; peasant unrest and the growing sectarian militancy of diverse sections of the declining Church appeared to foreshadow the last civil war preceding the Fall. Finally, the Turks who stormed Vienna in the year of Altdorfer’s painting appeared as the unchained people of Gog.
Altdorfer, who had assisted in the expulsion of the Jews from Regensburg and had connections with the astrologer Grünpeck, certainly knew the signs. As city architect he applied himself, while working on his painting, to strengthening the fortifications so that they would be secure against the Turks. “If we fight off the Turks,” said Luther at the time, “so is Daniel’s prophecy fulfilled, and the Final Judgment will be at the door.”2 The Reformation as a movement of religious renewal carried with it all the signs of the End of the World.
Luther frequently referred to the fact that the Fall was to be expected in the coming year, or even in the current one. But as he once added (and recorded for us in his table talk), for the sake of the chosen, God would shorten the final days, “toward which the world was speeding, since almost all of the new century had been pressed into the space of one decade.”3 Luther was speaking of the decade since the Reichstag at Worms, at the end of which period the Alexanderschlacht had, as we know, been painted. The foreshortening of time indicated that the End of the World was approaching with greater speed, even if the actual date remained hidden from us.
Let us stop for a moment and look forward over the three hundred years whose structural change in temporality is the subject of this essay. On May 10, 1793 Robespierre, in his famous speech on the Revolutionary Constitution, proclaimed: “The time has come to call upon each to realize his own destiny. The progress of human Reason laid the basis for this great Revolution, and you shall now assume the particular duty of hastening its pace.”4
Robespierre’s providential phraseology cannot hide the fact that, compared with our point of departure, there has been an inversion in the horizon of expectations. For Luther, the compression of time is a visible sign that, according to God’s will, the Final Judgment is imminent, that the world is about to end. For Robespierre, the acceleration of time is a human task, presaging an epoch of freedom and happiness, the golden future. Both positions, insofar as the French Revolution descended from the Reformation, mark the beginning and end of our period. Let us try to relate them in terms of visions of the future.
A ruling principle (Herrschaftsprinzip) of the Roman Church was that all visionaries had to be brought under its control. Proclaiming a vision of the future presupposed that it had first received the authorization of the Church (as decided at the Fifth Lateran Council, 1512–1517). The ban on the Joachimite theory of the Third Empire; the fate of Joan of Arc, whose determined affirmation of an unlicensed vision led to the stake; the death by fire of Savonarola: all serve as examples of the fate awaiting prophets whose visions were postbiblical in character. The stability of the Church was not to be endangered; its unity, like the existence of the empire itself, was a guarantee of order until the End of the World came.
Correspondingly, the future of the world and its end were made part of the history of the Church; newly inflamed prophets necessarily exposed themselves to verdicts of heresy. The Church utilized the imminent-but-future End of the World as a means of stabilization, finding an equilibrium between the threat of the End on the one hand and the hope of Parousia on the other.5 The unknown Eschaton must be understood as one of the Church’s integrating factors, enabling its self-constitution as world and as institution. The Church is itself eschatological. But the moment the figures of the apocalypse are applied to concrete events or instances, the eschatology has disintegrative effects. The End of the World is only an integrating factor so long as its politico-historical meaning remains indeterminate.
The Church integrates the future as the possible End of the World within its organization of time; it is not placed at the end point of time in a strictly linear fashion. The end of time can be experienced only because it is always already sublimated in the Church. The history of the Church remains the history of salvation so long as this condition held.
The most basic assumptions of this tradition were destroyed by the Reformation. Neither Church nor worldly powers were capable of containing the energies which Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin unleashed upon the European world. In his old age, Luther himself doubted the possibility of peace; the Imperial Assemblies labored in vain, and he prayed that the final day would come, “asking only that it not be too soon, that there be a little time.”6 The task of the empire in postponing the End of the World echoes through the plea of a man who saw no way out for this world. The empire had failed in its duty.
Shortly afterward, in 1555, the Religious Peace of Augsburg was signed so that “this praiseworthy nation be secured against an ever-threatening ruin,” as it says in paragraph 25. The Stände agreed that a “stable, secure, unconditional, and eternally lasting peace was to be created.”7 This was to hold even if (and while disputed, this was conclusive) the religious parties should arrive at no settlement and find no unity. Henceforth peace and religious duty were no longer identical: peace meant that the fronts of religious civil war were to be shut down, frozen in situ. Today we can only with great difficulty gain a sense of quite how monstrous this imposition seemed at that time. The compromise, born of necessity, concealed within itself a new principle, that of “politics,” which was to set itself in motion in the following century.
Politicians were concerned about the temporal, not the eternal, as the orthodox among all parties complained. “L’heresie n’est plus auiourd’huy en la Religion; elle est en l’Estat,”8 retorted a French lawyer and politician during the confessional civil war. Heresy no longer existed within religion; it was founded in the state. This is a dangerous statement, if we repeat it today. In 1590, however, its meaning consisted in formulating orthodoxy as a question set in terms of the jurisdiction of the state (Staatsrecht). “Cuius regio, eius religio”9 is an early formula for the sovereignty of individual rulers, whatever their confessional tendency, over the religious parties within their domains. But it was only after the Thirty Years War had worn down the Germans that they were able to make the principle of religious indifference the basis for peace. Primarily begun as a religious war by the Stände of the Holy Roman Empire, the Thirty Years War ended with the peace negotiations of sovereigns, the status to which the territorial rulers had emancipated themselves. While in the West modern states arose from guerre civile and civil war, the religious war in Germany transformed itself—thanks to intervention—into a war between states, whose outcome paradoxically gave new life to the Holy Roman Empire. The renewed life was under new conditions, of course: the peace decrees of Münster and Osnabrück had validity, up until the French Revolution, as the legal (völkerrechtlich) basis of toleration. What consequences did the new arrangement of politics and religi...

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