Reinhart Koselleck and The History Question

The ways we place ourselves in the grand scheme of things

Here’s a question: where are we in history right now? Chances are, you’ve already asked yourself this at some point over these past few months. (Or heard people go on and on about it.) And there’s good reason for that—after all, pandemics don’t come along every year. But while the question might have become more ubiquitous over this period, it certainly isn’t new.

In fact, The History Question, as I’ll call it from here on out, has been around long before the crisis we face right now. Its shadow has hung over any and every moment or period we’ve sought to declare significant. And given our species’ general proclivity for narcissism, we’re talking about a lot of moments and periods in time. From discussions around the Black Lives Matter movement (“this time it’s different”, “the time has come for…”) to the inscriptions of long-dead kings (‘so-and-so is the greatest ruler for all eternity, we’re living in the best of times thanks to them’), The History Question has remained an implicit— yet deeply fundamental—part of how we understand the world around us.

So how do we make sense of it? How might we—if we even can—answer The History Question with any degree of certainty? And is it even a question worth asking? These follow-ups to The Question are, I suspect, impossible to answer definitively. But they are nonetheless fascinating to ponder over. Enter Reinhart Koselleck.

Koselleck, who one doubts is a household name nowadays, was an eminent German historian of the 20th century (in Wikipedia’s cookie-cutter wording, “widely considered to be one of the most important historians of the twentieth century”). His relevance in this context, however, is not so much as a historian, but rather as an epistemologist of history. This is because Koselleck’s work on what he called “historical time” represents a meta-inquiry into The History Question that remains as insightful as it is relevant today. To that end, it’s precious material here. And for Koselleck, it all starts with a painting—specifically, this one:

‘Alexanderschlacht’ by Albrecht Altdorfer

That’s German painter Albrecht Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht—or, for people like me who don’t speak German, The Battle of Alexander at Issus. The painting, completed in 1529, depicts Alexander the Great’s battle against Darius III of Persia nearly two thousand years earlier. But as Koselleck notes in his essay ‘Modernity and the Planes of Historicity’, it’s anachronistic.

The armies’ banners in the painting, for example, display each side’s total strength and future casualties. On the other hand, the upper half of the painting—resplendent with the Sun, Moon, and even a Tower of Babel in the shadows—bears far more primordial connotations. But, most importantly, in spite of Altdorfer’s meticulous attention to historical detail vis-à-vis the statistics of the war, the soldiers in Alexanderschlacht look nothing like either Persians or Macedonians. Instead, Alexander’s men look like Europeans, and Darius III’s like the Ottomans that attempted to siege Vienna in 1529—the same year that Altdorfer finished the painting.

This last observation is crucial, as it suggests something profound about the manner in which Altdorfer interpreted Alexander’s battle against the Persians. As Koselleck tells us, to the painter, the event was just as contemporary as it was historical. Thus Alexander the Macedonian became Germanic, and Darius III the Persian, Ottoman; the siege of Vienna was, in some sense, just the same as the battle of Alexander at Issus. And this recurrence goes back even further. The ancient imagery of celestial bodies and the Tower of Babel insinuate that at the heart of Alexanderschlacht is something timeless—an eternal struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, Christ and Antichrist. People across millenia were, as Koselleck puts it, “contemporaries of those who lived in expectation of the Last Judgement”.

So why all the focus on a 16th-century painting? Well, because to Koselleck, the painting typifies pre-Enlightenment Europe’s attitude towards history. To the 16th-century European Christian, history consisted of an endless replay of divine struggles, acted out on different stages (such as Issus and Vienna), and in constant anticipation of a final, grand Judgement Day. And so, in a sense, Altdorfer didn’t see all that much temporal distance between himself and Alexander the Great. But standing where we do today, we see a huge amount of distance between ourselves and Altdorfer—even though we’re only a few centuries away from him. (Compared to the eighteen centuries between the painter and Alexander.) What accounts for that change in perspective?

Koselleck’s answer lies in the onset of the Enlightenment period. He suggests that between the 16th and 19th century, two strands of thought arose to replace the sort of prophecy-based line of thought evident in Alexanderschlacht. The first, what he labels ‘rational prognosis’, comprised framing the future as a finite range of possibilities, with the likelihood of each possibility depending on prior events. And the second was the philosophy of historical progress—the idea that historical events followed a certain path that extended into the future. As these notions took more of a hold, history gradually gained a temporal angle to Europeans. And with that, there was suddenly a lot of space between the centuries.

Reinhart Koselleck’s inquiry into European epistemology of history therefore gives us significant insight into The Question as it was answered in different contexts. When asked where they were in history, the pre-Enlightenment European might have said something along the lines of: “The same place we’ve always been, right at the cusp of Judgement.” Conversely, the post-Enlightenment view of history as temporal gives us a more contemporary answer: far away from where we were centuries ago, and far behind where we might be in a few centuries. Koselleck himself provides an example of this view through Maximilian Robespierre. “The time has come to call upon each to realise his own destiny,” said Robespierre in his speech on the Revolutionary Constitution. “The progress of human Reason has laid the basis for this great Revolution”, he continued, “and the particular duty of hastening it has fallen to you.”

As you might have already realised, Koselleck’s inquiry is fairly limited in its scope, being solely concerned with Europe. But that doesn’t mean we can’t conduct a similar inquiry into The History Question as it’s been answered in other societal contexts.

As an example, let’s take a look at something more contemporary: the postcolonial state. On the 6th of March, 1957, Ghana achieved independence from British rule. Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister of the newly-born country, delivered a speech in Accra. Nkrumah spoke of how ‘the battle had ended’, and Ghana was now “free forever”; of how ‘New Africa was ready to fight its own battles’, and that from then on, ‘there was a new African in the world’. (This sort of sentiment is shared by other post-colonial leaders; Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ reads much the same.) Nkrumah therefore had a very clear answer to The History Question: that March several decades ago marked a pivotal moment in history on account of all the hope that lay ahead for his country. To him, Ghana wasn’t headed for any Judgement Day—it was headed towards a bright future.

And for a diametrically opposite answer to The History Question, we need only turn to a phenomenon (a person, to be precise) that’s even more contemporary: Greta Thunberg. Greta Thunberg tells us that our future—should we remain on our current path—is frighteningly bleak. She is, in a sense, an environmental prophet of doom, warning of imminent and ongoing catastrophe. Like Nkrumah, she too believes we stand at a pivotal moment in history—but for entirely different reasons. To her, this is a pivotal moment in history because of what our future will look like if we fail to act now; the path of history doesn’t necessarily lead to a golden future, and at the moment is more likely to lead us to a different sort of Judgement Day. (Although perhaps calling Greta Thunberg a ‘prophet’ might be misplaced—how many prophets so doggedly place fate in your own hands?)

What should be evident from this discussion so far is that whether you’re seated in 16th-century Europe or post-colonial Ghana, where you place yourself in history is more a function of your relationship to historical events than the sole occurrence of those historical events. Kwame Nkrumah had no way of knowing what might lie in store for his country; nonetheless, he imagined Ghana on a path to a golden future, on account of a feeling of optimism born out of newly-acquired political freedom. Similarly, strong faith in a specific cosmology was all that Albrecht Altdorfer needed to bridge the eighteen centuries between the Siege of Vienna and the Battle of Issus. And when it comes to the environmental movement, it’s worth remembering how recent its mainstream prominence is—it wasn’t all that long ago that smoke-belching factories represented long-term, Earth-bound prosperity.

On a final note, let me bring up a more dated societal response to the “where are we in history right now?” question: that of Ancient India. The traditional Hindu conception of time, as espoused in the Mahabharata, Dharmashastras and Puranas, is cyclical at an astronomical scale. As per the system, each cycle of time consists of four yugas (eras), lasting 4,320,000 years in total. And historically speaking, the texts tell us that we’re currently in the Kali Yuga—the last of the four eras, marked by moral and spiritual degradation. This conception of time yields its own answer to The History Question, suggesting that we’re at the worst point of history, and at the cusp of an extensive cosmological reset.

Such considerations of the yuga time system, and in particular its cyclical structure, once led European Orientalists to the belief that pre-colonial Indians ‘had no sense of history’. (The assumption being that a linear conception of time was necessary for a ‘sense of history’.) This is in part a flawed conclusion because it ignores various non-cosmological representations of time and history in Ancient India, such as the dynastic lists and biographies of rulers. But the Orientalists of the day were also gravely off the mark for a different reason: history as a framework appears quite fickle, bending to the whims of each society that attempts to trace it. This isn’t to say that there’s anything relative about sequences of historical events—a dead monarch is a dead monarch, whatever your perspective—but rather to suggest that any attempt to map the relationship between such events is inevitably seated in and shaped by a larger web of beliefs. To that end, the Orientalist and the Hindu sages of yore were both subject to the same governing influences—they only differed over the specifics.

So, where are we in history right now? Well, it all depends on who you ask.

Gaurav Kamath
Gaurav Kamath

Gaurav Kamath is a staff writer at ALMA MAG. He hopes his degree in philosophy will get him more than a job at McDonald’s, but that is still a working hypothesis.