Happily ever after

M.F. Burnyeat

  • The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama
    Hamish Hamilton, 418 pp, £20.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 241 13013 1

In 1989 the National Interest, an American journal, published an article by Francis Fukuyama called ‘The End of History’. It was reprinted around the world in a buzz of discussion. Was Fukuyama right to claim that the End of Communism spells the End of History? Not many people thought that he was.

Now we have the book of the article, weighing in at around four hundred pages. It was launched earlier this year in a buzz of publicity such as few books receive. Publicity is expensive. What, one asks, made this book so special?

Certainly, the title is dramatic. But it does not mean what most readers will expect it to mean. Fukuyama accepts that events will go on happening and that more humans will be born. He is talking about the end of history in the sense of its culminating goal or completion (telos). His thesis is that, ever since the advent of modern science in the 17th century, history has been moving in a quite definite direction, towards the kind of liberal democracy in a capitalist economy that we see exemplified in the USA and many other countries today. The combination of capitalism and liberal democracy provides, for the first time in human history, a stable solution to the problem of how to arrange for the harmonious and simultaneous satisfaction of all the main needs of human nature. Accordingly, a country which achieves both capitalism and liberal democracy has no reason to move on. The goal has been reached. What was sought is found. They can all live happily ever after.

To understand why, according to Fukuyama, readers of the London Review of Books are in a position to live happily ever after, we need first to understand human nature. To do that we open the fourth book of Plato’s Republic, where we learn that the human soul consists of three parts. The appetitive part houses the desires for food, drink and sex which must be satisfied if life is to continue. The middle part, called thymos, is centred on the desire for recognition by others: it erupts in anger at a slight or injustice, it strives to win honour and fame in a noble cause. The reasoning part is concerned with truth, knowledge and the overall good. For human beings to be happy, they need a political system through which all three parts can be satisfied and brought into harmony under the guidance of reason.

Plato argued that the only system capable of solving the problem was the authoritarian hierarchical structure of his ideally just city, in which the family and private property are abolished for the philosophers who are to rule everyone else. Fukuyama’s claim is that capitalism and liberal democracy have actually done it – so far as it can be done in the real world. He argues this in two stages, first laying out the advantages of capitalism for the appetitive part of the soul, then the advantages of liberal democracy for the thymos. The upshot is that Plato’s drastic, utopian measures are unnecessary. The aims of his Republic are comfortably realised in Britain and the USA.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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