After the End of History

Alan Ryan discusses what happens when history comes to an end

In Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a group of rather self-consciously decadent persons are contemplating the follies of the 1890s: fin de siecle' murmurs Lord Henry, fin du globe, ' answers his hostess. 'I wish it were fin du globe,' says Dorian, with a sigh, 'Life is a great disappointment.' A century later, the feeling that we live at the end of history has returned, but in a very different shape. The current fashion in 'endism’ is not decadent and Wildean, but optimistic and sociological, loosely Hegelian, and more than a little confused.

The belief that history – or History, since it is the process as a whole, not the stream of particular events that is in question – could come to an end or has come to an end is a philosopher's variation on a Judeo-Christian theme. The Greeks saw history as cyclical and repetitive, where significant patterns recur, such as the movement from good to bad government and back again, but one without overall direction or purpose to it. Thucydides offered his history of the Peloponnesian War to all ages, thinking that the future would be much like the past, and the struggles of the Athenians and Spartans therefore a lesson for all time. The idea that History has a plot or a purpose comes naturally to Christian thinkers; the Christian conception of human history is that it is the working out of a divinely scripted drama with a beginning (the Fall), a middle (human life until the Second Coming) and an end in the Last Judgement.

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