* Article: Apocalypticism: A philosophy of history? By François Hartog. In Esprit Issue 6, 2014, pages 22 to 32
"Frequently invoked to describe the climate crisis, the word “apocalypse” has a long history, into which the historian François Hartog delves in an article published in the journal Esprit. Part of this overview draws on an anthology edited by the medievalist André Vauchez, entitled L’Attente des temps nouveaux: Eschatologie, millénarisme et visions du futur, du Moyen Age au XXe siècle (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002). The word “apocalypse” became part of the zeitgeist thanks to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now (1979). Never far away, the concept tends to return to the fore “when our doubts are most heavy, our disorientation most acute, our anxieties most gnawing,” Hartog writes. Such was the case in “the first centuries CE, between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, the mid-seventeenth century, the nineteenth century, around 1914, post-1945 when the world was in the grip of nuclear terror, and today, ‘the age of catastrophe’” be it “climate[-related], epidemiological, nuclear, or otherwise.” To him, the word “catastrophe” seems the most apt way of describing the times we are living in.
He casts back to the book of Daniel (second century BCE) and Revelation (end of the first century BCE) to trace the development of a “genre” that has never ceased to “return to the question of ‘the end,’ the transition from one time to another—from this time, now, to one that will be new and radically different.” The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed that the apocalyptic theme was already present in the Jewish tradition. We even find it in the accounts of some of the great prophets, like Isaiah and Ezekiel. In a sense, “the apocalypse accentuates the present, but transposed into a negative form.” In the apocalyptic tradition, “the present is such that there is no longer any escape. Refusal, rebellion, or any other action is futile . . . . There is nothing to be done except watch as the end approaches, and prepare ourselves for the encounter.” It is for this reason that he believes we should favor the word “catastrophe” to describe the current mood. There is a prevailing sense that we have “set in motion a new, negative kind of messianic age, as a potential apocalypse looms on the horizon, one that we must at all costs delay (at least), deflect, or, if possible, prevent.”
"While apocalypticism is part of—and inspired by—the prophetic genre, it also borrows from other traditions. Moreover, exegetes have remarked upon apocalyptic passages linked to certain major prophets (such as Isaiah and Ezekiel). The apocalypse is also set in motion by a crisis; more specifically, it unfolds around the aporia that it proclaims. The present is such that there is no longer any escape. Refusal, rebellion, or any other action is futile; the godless are bearing down on us, and we will be smothered. There is nothing to be done except watch as the end approaches, and prepare ourselves for the encounter. Today’s crisis has given rise to intense speculation, particularly when it comes to calculating the time we have left.
Apocalypticians wield prophecies in a retrospective manner, reactivating (and reinterpreting) ancient prophecies by appealing to pseudepigrapha. They conjure the past to speak of the present; it is as if the present could be revealed in some moment of the distant past (through the eyes of Enoch, Moses, or Daniel, who was said to have found himself in Babylon). As the exegete André Lacocque observes, “the apocalypticians’ future is our present, because they cast back to a distant past, under assumed names, to speak of contemporary events.”
"In the entry for “apocalypse” in Pierre Larousse’s French dictionary, he defines the term as referring to “experiments in what we might call the philosophy of history,” proposing the existence of “a divine plan guiding the course of history.” Alternatively, we can see them as the kind of universal history that might have been produced in biblical times (when God directed the affairs of the world). Let us return, once again, to Daniel. The book of Daniel is a direct response to the persecution of the Jews at the hands of Antiochos—what came to be known as the “abomination of desolation”—between 168 and 164 BCE. However, this bloodthirsty king did not come out of nowhere. He was one in a long and evil line begun with Alexander: the eleventh horn of the fourth beast, we might say, the cruelest of the cruel. It can therefore be read allegorically as a history of the Hellenistic world between the fourth and second centuries BCE (as viewed from Jerusalem). In precisely this period, a Greek author held hostage in Rome put forward a very different theory of universal history. For Polybius, the new world of Roman domination, an unprecedented phenomenon, ought to give rise to a new history, one that today we would call global. In this new history, Rome, as the instrument of fortune, would take the leading role. However, it seems that no apocalyptic or even eschatological vision was forthcoming to offer guidance and warn of its demise. Polybius too, perhaps, found it discomfiting to envisage the future of the Roman Empire: like all things that are born, live, and die, it would surely come to an end—but when, and how?
Daniel’s account in fact begins earlier, in the sixth century BCE, with Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem and the exile. In one last expansion of the allegory, both the statue that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream and the vision of the four beasts emerging from the sea embrace the entirety of history and announce its imminent end. Daniel eschatologizes the ancient theme of the succession of metals (from gold to iron) and vitiates that of the succession of empires, one of the great historical narratives up until the modern period. The four kingdoms, which were at once consecutive in time and, in another sense (from God’s perspective), a single, fundamentally evil whole, would soon fade away, to be replaced by the fifth and everlasting kingdom. This would mark the end of human time and the beginning of God’s eternity. Only by adopting this particular framing and synthesis of current events could they be understood, and the behavioral rules that would lead people through the harrowing but temporary trials ahead be established. The countdown to the apocalypse, already in sight, is what made it possible to grasp the overarching logic of history, by beginning at the end.
This explains the crucial emphasis placed on calculating the date separating the now from the as-yet unknown. These calculations have a long history, and it can be difficult to understand just how bitterly contentious they could be, vain as they seem from our point of view. Medieval exegetes in particular were driven to feats of inventiveness in their systems for interpreting the scriptures, following accepted Christian precepts on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments (according to the concordia principle), preferably without direct conflict with Augustine. The most heated debates concerned the approximate dates of the millennium foretold in the book of Revelation and the Antichrist’s rise to power. At one time, it was not uncommon for certain individuals—the pope, for instance—to find themselves accused of being the Antichrist. Indeed, such accusations were a way of convincing oneself that the apocalypse was surely under way, and the end was nigh. It must be so, if the Antichrist, or Antechrist, to use a term frequently used in that era, was already on the scene.
Calculating the number of days, years, weeks of years, or jubilees remaining is one thing; settling on one specific date is quite another. In 1260, when Joachim of Fiore ventured a start date for the third age, the Age of the Holy Spirit, he was weaving eschatology into chronology. In a sense, in seeking to chronologize eschatology, he turned the prospect of the apocalypse into the very engine of history, rather than merely its end point. Revolutionaries of every stripe would follow his lead. This is what Henri de Lubac described as a major disruption, tracing the repercussions like a line of dominoes into the modern age.
Henri de Lubac, La Postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore… By recognizing three Gospels—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or the Everlasting gospel, which he believed to be imminent—Joachim spliced the apocalyptic temporal order into the chronological order of the city of men. This is precisely what Augustine sought scrupulously to avoid when he wrote of these two cities, the city of God and the city of men, that would follow their own paths until Judgment Day. Thus, Joachim attempted to temporalize the Trinity and (at least partially) to historicize eschatology, attesting to “the apocalypse’s secular resistance to all attempts to reduce the future to the hereafter.”
This, in fact, is the essential question. Where does the boundary lie? Is it in before the day of Judgment, by a short time at least, or beyond, and only beyond?
Insofar as the apocalypse is the gaze the present turns on itself—uneasy, desperate, and exalted—it is a presentist discourse. It is the imagined end to a bounded present. Yet, by the same token, it is also the promise of an escape from crisis by escaping time, that is, by wrenching free of this time of crisis and passing into an imminent future of peace. Indeed, as long as the apocalypse remains there, on the horizon, then nothing, no failure or postponement, can suppress it. All that is required is to reanimate it, reformulate it a little and update it, adapting it to the present moment. The calculations can always be rerun. After all, that is what Daniel did with Jeremiah’s prophecies, and what Jerome would do with Daniel’s, and so on right up to the present day. This is equally true of feverish speculation about the end of the world (predicted, most recently, for December 21, 2012) and the once-banal insistence that the worse things get, the better the prospects for a (revolutionary) future.
Finally, the apocalypse may be understood as the conclusive end of history. This is a truncated or negative apocalypse, the overture to nothing. There will be no new world, or new humanity, over the horizon. Such apocalyptic visions, some more radical than others, were common currency at the time of the First World War. By the early 1920s, there was a widely shared sense of witnessing a collapse of civilizations, as Paul Valéry observes—a more gradual but ultimately unavoidable form of sinking. Today, these negative apocalypses have been replaced with the notion of “catastrophe.” Now the generic term, “catastrophe” deliberately mobilizes a certain vocabulary, imagery, or schema borrowed from traditional apocalyptic narratives. Clearly, however, a catastrophe does not impinge upon another world, nor another time. A catastrophe is an event, one that upsets our habitual patterns, suspending the ordinary experience of the passage of time. Afterward, the world keeps turning, taking another direction or returning to its everyday course, until next time. And so it goes on. What literature and especially cinema have so enthusiastically embraced more recently is the post-catastrophic genre. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a prime example. McCarthy’s novel, later adapted for cinema, describes at length a world on the brink of complete dissolution, where man has truly become a wolf to man. The apocalypse has been and gone, but the aftermath remains. In fact, the aftermath is all that is left, although McCarthy studiously avoids making this explicit.
The Angel of History, the protagonist of Walter Benjamin’s Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History, occupies an interstitial space between apocalypse and catastrophe. With his synoptic view of history, he is, essentially, another apocalyptic device. Yet, carried off by the winds of progress, the angel is driven “irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned,” while “where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.” Here, Benjamin makes a thematic switch. The modern concept of historicity is reversed, or inverted. History no longer means progress but, conversely or simultaneously, an inexorable march toward catastrophe. Of course, this was not Benjamin’s last word on the matter, since his nine theses were intended to resurrect the possibility of a messianic age, which is also an age of revolutionary action.
For a long time, the word “catastrophe” belonged to a literary register, denoting the bleak, fateful climax of a dramatic poem. It was not until the modern period, the nineteenth century in fact, when Larousse recognized its more recent, narrower meaning as a “decisive misfortune.” Unlike the apocalypse, a single-shot gun if the reader will pardon the analogy, a catastrophe is liable to recur. We have (of our own volition, we might say) entered the “age of catastrophe” (climate, epidemiological, nuclear, or otherwise). What I mean by this is that there is a common thread linking all of these catastrophes, and that is our own actions: what we have done, are doing, or, even more so, what we have put off doing or refused to do. This realization has prompted many to completely reevaluate our understanding of modern history. No longer a history of progress, punctuated by successive industrial revolutions, it is now read as a geohistory, dubbed the Anthropocene, said to have begun in 1783 when James Watt came up with the steam engine.
It was at this point that human activities began to have increasingly pronounced effects on the earth, triggering an irreversible slide. Now, a little over two centuries later, we find ourselves in the unprecedented position of having set in motion a new, negative kind of messianic age, as a potential apocalypse looms on the horizon, one that we must at all costs delay (at least), deflect, or, if possible, prevent. An early harbinger of this age, Günther Anders, was one of the first to question our “blindness to the apocalypse,” especially now that the atomic bomb has turned us into “the horsemen of the apocalypse.” For all his reflection on the implications of the bomb, Anders could not foresee the novel problem of what to do with nuclear waste. Another prominent voice was Hans Jonas, who, with his “imperative of responsibility,” had no qualms about whipping up fear. It was by reading Anders and Jonas that Jean-Pierre Dupuy developed his theory of “enlightened catastrophism.”
“Point… We would be mistaken to see these authors as modern-day apocalypticians. On balance, they are more akin to prophets, announcing what will be, unless . . . . However, in our aging European societies—worn down by crisis, immune to futurism, and mired in presentism—we are preoccupied with immediate concerns and prone to retreat inward, even as capitalism proves incapable of refraining from maximizing profits in the present moment, or putting them on hold for tomorrow."
* Special Issue: Apocalypse : When the Future Becomes Unthinkable. Esprit. Issue 6, 2014
* Original Article (French) : L'apocalypse, une philosophie de l'histoire ? François Hartog