The core or nucleus of the historical aspect of reality is the cultural way of being. The cultural mode of an activity consists in control over material by formation according to a free design. This free control applies to both persons and things, although the first is primary. Free control reveals itself in the historical formation of power. Without personal power a discovery or invention that aims at controlling “nature” cannot be historically formative. For example, the great Italian artist of the early Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, was also a great scientist. Apparently he already knew how to construct an airplane. But this knowledge went with him to the grave. It remained his private property. If he had gained support for his invention, it could have had a formative effect on world history. For that Leonardo needed historical power formation and historical influence, which he had as an artist but not as an inventor. What then is the nature of the personal power that equips the genuine moulder of history?
The 15 experiential, irreducible, Law-Spheres of Cosmic Time, (also called Aspects, Modes of Consciousness, Modalities, Meaning-sides.)
What IS “normativity?
Contrary to a frequently held opinion, the formation and exercise of power are not subject to natural laws. They are subject to norms, to the rules of what ought to be. The norms for the exercise of power are intrinsically historical norms. Nations and bearers of power are subject to them. It is not true, for example, that the individual national character is itself the norm for cultural development, as the Historical School taught. This irrationalistic view of history must be rejected emphatically, for the creation motive compels us to acknowledge that in every area of life the law of God stands above the creature subject to it. The creature is the subject (sujet) of divine order. But the ordinances placed by God over the process of historical development can be transgressed by nations and bearers of power. This possibility of transgression confirms the truth that these ordinances are norms. Man cannot disobey a natural law, such as the law of gravity.
Actually, whenever one speaks of the contrast between “historical” and “unhistorical” and calls unhistorical action “reactionary,” one accepts the existence of truly historical norms. When one characterizes a certain political trend as “reactionary” one makes a historical value judgment that presupposes the application of a norm for historical development.
But how do we know that God placed historical development under norms and not, for instance, under the natural laws that hold for electrical and chemical phenomena or for the organic development of life? The normative character of historical development is apparent from the place God assigned the historical aspect in the creation order. The contrast between historical and unhistorical action refers back to the opposition found in the logical aspect of reality between what agrees with the norm for thought and what conflicts with this norm. If a person contradicts himself in a logical argument, we accuse him of arguing illogically. The logical/illogical contrast presupposes that our thought function is placed under logical norms that can be transgressed.
Among the various aspects of reality the aspect of logical distinction is the first that displays a contrast between what ought to be and what ought not to be. The divine ordinances or laws for all subsequent aspects are normative in character. Norms are standards of evaluation, and as such they can be employed only by creatures who, endowed with a logical function, are capable of rational distinction.
Some maintain that norms appear already in the organic aspect. After all, we call an organism healthy or unhealthy depending upon whether or not it functions according to the “norm” for health. But this judgment rests upon a misunderstanding. A norm exists only for creatures who are responsible for their own behaviour and who are accountable for conduct that transgresses norms. Our ability to give account in this way is possible only on the basis of the faculty of logical judgment. Surely, no one would hold a sick plant or animal responsible for the abnormal functioning of its organism. No one would blame it for its sickness. Yet, we do hold someone accountable for arguing illogically.
Accountability is also at stake when we blame a political movement for its reactionary attitude toward historical development, or when we say of someone that he behaves antisocially, expresses himself ungrammatically, runs his business uneconomically, writes poor poetry, acts unjustly, conducts himself immorally, or lives in unbelief.
Norms are given in the creation order as principles for human behaviour. Within the historical aspect, as well as in all subsequent aspects of reality, these principles require formation by competent human authorities. The process of giving form to normative principles must always take into consideration the level of development of a people, for all subsequent aspects of human life are interwoven with the historical aspect of culture. Giving form of any kind always refers back to cultural formation in historical development. Accordingly, the principles of decency, courtesy, respect, civility, etc. require formation in social interaction, in our concrete social manners.
Likewise, lingual principles require the forms of language; the principles of economic value require economic forms; the principles of harmony require the forms of style; legal principles require the juridical forms of laws, decrees, statutes, and regulations. All the later aspects thus display an inseparable coherence with the historical aspect.
If the creation motive does not govern one’s thinking, it may seem that social interaction, language, economics, art, justice, morality, and faith are in essence historical phenomena, as if they are of purely historical origin. But the creation motive of God’s Word, which continually reminds us that God created all things according to their own nature, keeps us from this historicistic error and sharpens our ability to distinguish the aspects of reality. For example, positive law, in its human formation, is not historical in nature. In contrast to historical formation, which presupposes the power of those who give form to cultural principles, the legislator’s formation of positive law requires legal power and juridical competence. Legal power cannot be reduced to power in the historical sense. Such a reduction results in an identification of justice with power, which is tantamount to an abolition and negation of justice.
The persistent claim of National Socialism that a nation establishes its right to exist through a historical power struggle was a typical outcome of historicism. “Might is right” was the political slogan of the totalitarian state. The slogan was all the more dangerous because it contained a moment of truth. It is indeed true, as we shall see later, that a world judgment comes over the nations in world history, though never in the sense that right dissolves into might. It is indeed the case that the figure of “legal power” points to the inseparable coherence between the jural and the historical aspects of reality. Without power in the historical sense juridical power cannot exist. Nevertheless, the nature of each power is intrinsically different.
Tradition and Culture
All historical formation requires power. Formation thus never takes place without a struggle. The progressive will of the moulder of history invariably clashes with the power of tradition, which, as the power of conservation, opposes every attempt to break with the past. In tradition one finds the embodiment of a cultural, communal heritage acquired in the passing of generations. Tradition shapes us, as members of a cultural area, in large measure quite unconsciously, because we have been nurtured within it from our childhood and thus begin to accept it as a matter of course without taking stock of its intrinsic worth. The wealth of tradition is immeasurably richer than the share which an individual can appropriate for himself. Anyone who dares to oppose it is never confronted merely with a few conservatively prone souls but with a communal power binding the past to the present and stretching across the generations. The innovator almost always underestimates the conserving power of tradition, for he sees only the surface of the present where tradition appears mainly as inertia, as a retarding force. But tradition has deep dimensions that reveal themselves only gradually in careful historical research. Only in that light does the investigator begin to understand how great the power confronting the shaper of history actually is.
It is childish to complain about tradition as if it were a grouchy old person who simply swears by what is and who fails to appreciate anything new. Culture cannot exist without tradition. Historical development is impossible in its absence. Imagine that every new generation would try to erase the past in an earnest effort to start afresh. Nothing would come of it. The world would be a desert, a chaos.
Cultural development, then, is not possible without tradition. The power of tradition is grounded in the creation order, since the cultural mandate itself is one of the creational ordinances. However, truly historical development also demands that a culture not vegetate upon the past but unfold itself.
Progress and renewal have a rightful place in history alongside tradition and the power of conservation. In the power struggle between both forces the progressive will of the shaper of history must bow before the norm of historical continuity. The revolutionary spirit of reconstruction, which seeks to dismiss the past entirely, must accommodate itself to the vital forms of tradition insofar as they conform to the norm of historical development. Surely, this norm of historical continuity is not a “law of nature” working itself out in history apart from human involvement. In every revolution guided by false principles an attempt is made to reverse the existing order completely. The French Revolution, for example, tried to begin with the year “one.” But quickly it had to moderate its revolutionary intentions under the pressure of tradition. If any revolutionary spirit is able to overcome the power of tradition, culture itself will be annihilated. Though this may be possible, man cannot overturn the creation order, which binds historical development to abiding norms. The creature cannot create in the true sense of the word. If the past were completely destroyed, man could not create a real culture.
[…] In examining the structure of the historical aspect, we uncovered the normative principle of historical continuity. Although the Historical School also arrived at this principle, it gave this norm an irrationalistic twist that led toward an acceptance of a fait accompli and that raised the individual national character as the “destiny of the nation” to the status of law. Appealing to “God’s guidance in history” only masked these unscriptural conceptions which conflict with the motive of creation. The norm of historical continuity does not arise from the national character. Rather, nations and rulers are subject to it. Good and evil may be mixed in the national spirit and in tradition, which demonstrates that neither may function as norms.
But if neither tradition nor the national character are norms, then is the norm of continuity an adequate standard for judging the pressing question as to what is progressive and what is reactionary in historical development? Evidently not. Not every movement that announces itself as progressive contributes to true cultural progress. In retrospect it may become apparent that it is basically reactionary.
National socialism undoubtedly claimed that it was an extremely progressive movement. Was that claim justified? Let no one answer too hastily, for I fear that many would be embarrassed if they were asked for the criterion of their historical value judgment. It is precisely the historicist who lacks such a criterion. What do we gain if on the historicistic basis one claims that nazism trampled the “rights of man” and the “foundations of democracy”? If everything is in historical flux and if the stability of principles is a figment of the imagination, then why prefer an ideology of human rights to the ideals of a strong race and its bond to the German soil? Is the modern conception concerning the “rights of man” still the same as in the days of the Enlightenment or the French Revolution? Are the modern views of democracy identical with those of Rousseau? If not, then from where does the modern historicist derive the right to describe his own internally undermined ideology as progressive and call the vital ideals of nazism terribly reactionary?
Surely, the quest for the norms of historical development must continue. The norm of continuity needs further clarification. This can be arrived at only on the basis of the ground motive of God’s Word. Historical formation occurs in the battle between conservative and progressive cultural powers.
Conservative power and Tradition
Conservative power guards tradition, which binds the present to the past. In the power struggle the progressive will of the historical shaper ought to accommodate itself to the vital elements in tradition. Tradition itself, however, is not a norm or standard for determining what one’s attitude should be toward a power that calls itself “progressive.” Tradition contains good and bad, and thus it is itself subject to the historical norm. Even the criterion that a progressive direction ought to take its point of departure from the vital cultural elements in tradition is not yet sufficient.
By the “vital” elements in tradition we refer to the inseparable coherence of historical development with the development of organic life. I have repeatedly stated that the historical aspect of reality cannot exist without this link. In the divine creation order all aspects of reality are placed in an unbreakable coherence with each other. If any were left out of this coherence, the others would lose their meaning and the possibility for their existence. It is a consequence of the integral character of God’s creational work that every aspect of his work coheres inseparably with the others. Only in this coherence is it possible for each aspect to reveal its irreducible, unique nature.
The historical aspect maintains its coherence with the organic aspect through cultural life. Cultural life should follow its own development. As such, it cannot be reduced to organic life, even though cultural life cannot exist without organic life. Historical development cannot be seen simply as an extension of the organic development of plants, animals, or man. Organic development takes place in accordance with the specific natural laws prescribed by God in the creation order. Creatures are not responsible for the process of the birth, growth, and death of their organisms. But, as we saw earlier, the historical development that takes place in cultural life is subject not to natural laws but to norms, to the rules of what ought to be. These norms presuppose the human ability to make rational distinctions, and they are given by God as principles requiring concrete formation by those who possess historical power.
Because historical development is subject to norms instead of natural laws, it is improper to view the “vital forces” in tradition, to which we have to attach ourselves in the continued formation of history, as natural givens not subject to standards of historical evaluation. In particular one should not go along with the Historical School, which argued that “unconscious, historically vital powers” and the “individual national character” operate in the process of history under “God’s providential guidance” just like the “vital power” in a bodily organism. Such an appeal to “God’s guidance in history” can only serve as an escape from one’s own responsibility for the course of cultural development. In this way of thinking “God’s guidance” became identical with Schicksal, the destiny or fate of a nation. In practice “God’s guidance” was reduced to the point where the national character itself became the norm. In other words, responsibility for cultural development was relegated to a mysterious “national spirit” [Volksgeist] that could not be altered and that swept the members of a national community along like an irresistible fate.
A view of history led by the scriptural motive of creation comes to an entirely different conclusion. In cultural tradition “vitality” is not rooted merely in the national character, nor does it signify only that large parts of tradition are still supported by enough historical power to prevent their eradication. Both are indeed necessary for historical development, but, by themselves, they are not sufficient. True “vitality” in a historical sense only points to that part of tradition which is capable of further development in conformity with the norm for the opening or disclosure of culture. This norm requires the differentiation of culture into spheres that possess their own unique nature. Cultural differentiation is necessary so that the creational ordinance, which calls for the disclosure or unfolding of everything in accordance with its inner nature, may be realized also in historical development.
This point is eminently important for the pressing issues of the “new age.” Indeed, we may not rest until we have gained clear insight into the meaning of the historical norm of differentiation and into this norm’s foundation in the divine creation order.
[…] Did National Socialism then follow a truly progressive line when it imposed its totalitarian ideas upon western culture according to the model of the old Germanic Führer principle? I trust that by now it is clear that a well-founded scriptural answer is possible, and that this answer contains a historical judgment upon the totalitarian tendencies which still threaten our cultural development after the fall of national socialism.
Individualization and National Identity
We have seen that a culture which has not yet begun to differentiate isolates itself from cultural interaction among peoples and nations which play a role in world history. Such a culture is bound rigidly to the organic aspect of the community and to a nature religion of the stream of life. In these cultures neither science, an independent art, a body politic, nor an independent industrial life can arise. For every differentiated life sphere depends, for its historical development, upon cultural interaction in world history. With the cultural exchange the historical aspect discloses its coherence with the aspect of social interaction.
In this connection we should note that differentiation of the distinct cultural spheres goes hand in hand with individualization. Individualization here refers to the development of genuinely individual national characteristics. Because of it, one can speak of French, British, and Dutch cultures. A primitive, enclosed culture is never national. “National” consists of the individuality of a people characterized by common historical experiences and a disclosed community of culture. This historical individuality is first developed in the cultural relations and exchange of civilized peoples. This individuality is thus entirely different from the individual traits of tribal and racial communities which are based on “vital” or organic factors.
The national differentiation of culture is thus consistent with the disclosure of culture. In the idea of the “Greater Germanic Empire” propagated by National Socialism, the national element was purposely suppressed. Here too one can ascertain the reactionary character of National Socialism as a historical and cultural movement. It nourished itself on the myth of “blood and soil,” which had no room for the national individuality of culture. National individuality was replaced by the primitive idea of a people [Volk] based upon the “vital” or organic community of race and tribe.
The national character of a people is not a product of nature but the result of culturally formative activity. Cultural formation is subject to the norm that God established for the historical disclosure of culture. Thus a specific instance of national individualization, actually developed in a particular time and place, can never be elevated to the status of a norm. For it is quite well possible that such a specific instance displays anti-normative traits such as a lack of initiative, sectarianism, untrustworthiness, bourgeois provincialism, an illusion of national grandeur, or an apostate glorification of national culture.
(Herman Dooyeweerd, Roots of Western Thought, pp 66-82)