Study Guide

At the End of an Age

by John Lukacs

At the End of an Age Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

 

The Hungarian-born John Lukacs has always eschewed the tendency toward narrow specialization practiced by most academic historians. He has written histories of the Cold War, of the age of the bourgeoisie, and of fin-de-siècle Budapest, as well as several works that defy the usual descriptive labels. At the End of an Age is one of these, and it is in some respects an extended footnote to several earlier books, including his Historical Consciousness: Or, The Remembered Past (1968), a work whose central conundrum may be stated simply: What does it mean to write history in an age in which the very conditions of understanding have themselves become historical? At the End of an Age reconsiders a number of answers to this question, among them the claim that historical understanding, governed as it is by the principle of indeterminacy, can be neither purely objective nor purely subjective, but is necessarily relational or participatory.

Lukacs begins with a chapter that seeks to justify the claim that the present is, indeed, the end of an age. The age in question is the modern age, which began some five hundred years ago and which still lingers on. Lukacs is convinced, nonetheless, that however prolonged its expiration, the modern age is passing, soon to be replaced by a new civilizational phase. What this new age may look like, Lukacs is hesitant to say. The current moment is the interregnum, but precisely whom does it affect? The modern age is, first of all, a European phenomenon, and thus a distinct period in the ongoing development of Western civilization. However, European expansionism meant that the typical institutions and cultural assumptions of its modern age were carried throughout the world, and thus the end of the modern age is a global concern.

Lukacs insists that the passing of the modern age is not synonymous with the decline of the West. He makes a convincing case that the modern age is, thus far, the most illustrious age in the history of the West, a complex mosaic of ages, none of which can be said to be more essential to its character than any other. The modern age is, however, primarily a bourgeois age, which was first of all the age of the State (here understood as the sovereign nation-state). Allied at first with the absolute monarchies of western Europe, the bourgeoisie emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the ruling class of most of the nation-states of Europe and North America. The modern age was also the age of money and industry. Money, while not the invention of the bourgeoisie, has certainly been a distinctive sign of its mode of power, and it was under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie that, by 1900, money reached the greatest extent of its value and the Industrial Revolution became the engine of an unprecedented prosperity and mobility.

Lukacs offers a brief but illuminating discussion of the bourgeois invention of privacy—a phenomenon he associates with the age of the family, a period in which the idea of “home” was associated with a heightened interior life and a new respect for the privacy of individuals within the matrix of familial ties. Only later, growing out of this initial recognition of an almost sacred zone of privacy, did the panoply of individual rights begin to be recognized and sanctioned by a growing body of law. It must also be noted that the bourgeois family was an urban family—the bourgeoisie represent the first ruling class in Western history to be identified almost exclusively with city life. Thus, the modern age is also the age of the town, and Lukacs notes the irony that the many great metropolitan centers that developed under the auspices of the bourgeoisie had, by the late twentieth century, become the breeding grounds of millions of autonomous, deracinated individuals for whom the bourgeois cult of privacy had become virtually meaningless. Instead, the denizens of the modern city in its decline crave not privacy but recognition, not concealment but exposure.

Modern science appeared in the seventeenth century, and is popularly assumed to be the quintessential product of the modern age. However, as Lukacs argues in chapter 2, “The Presence of Historical Thinking,” a more important development occurred at roughly the same time: the emergence of historical consciousness. As late as the Renaissance, the past was understood much as the classical Greeks and Romans had understood it: as a reservoir of types or models of virtue and vice, as a source of moral or political instruction, but never as the story of how the present came to be what it is. Only at the beginning of the seventeenth century does a break occur, suggesting a new understanding of the past as historical development. Thus, Francis Bacon, in 1600, was the first to use the term “progress” to mean not progress in space but in time. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the popular interest in historical narrative grew enormously, but even the historical understanding of the Enlightenment, Lukacs argues, was deficient by modern standards. It required the Romantic...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)