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 first stage of the argument starts from the rise of modern science, which has brought an ever-increasing control over nature. There is an increasing number of things – both nice and nasty – that humans can make and do. A society that fails to put science to military use risks being dominated and exploited by others which do. A society that fails to put science at the service of consumers risks a revolt of dissatisfaction at home, as we saw when the Berlin Wall came down. It is so plainly in the interests of the appetitive side of our nature to exploit science to the full, to develop the nice and the nasty possibilities it makes available, that it is no surprise so many societies have developed the forms of organisation which maximise military potential and productive capacity. Capitalism, industrialisation, urbanisation, bureaucratisation, secularisation, mass education – all this and much more can be explained as Reason’s gift to Appetite.

The second stage of the argument is to explain why people are not content to live in the prosperous unfreedom of countries like South Korea or Francoist Spain. ‘Citizens of these countries are something more than desire and reason: they have a thymotic pride and belief in their own dignity, and want that dignity to be recognised, above all by the government of the country they live in.’ The complication is that thymos has two opposed impulses: isothymia, the desire to be recognised as equal to others, which threatens to lead to Communism, and megalothymia, the desire to be recognised as superior to others, which threatens tyranny. Liberal democracy is the clever compromise by which Reason can tame thymos and harness its energy for social goals. Liberal democracy is the only system that gives some recognition to everyone, in the form of equal individual rights, and a great deal of recognition to outstanding achievement in harmless activities like sport and entrepreneurship.

There is of course a price to pay for satisfying the central needs of human nature. What remains after ‘The End of History’ is ‘The Last Man’. In borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase to complete his title, Fukuyama points to the culture of mediocrity inhabited by those who, like the readers of this journal, have chosen to live happily ever after. Without the belief in a Big Cause worth risking one’s life for, War is over – but so, too, is Art. Plato did not need to expel the poets from his ideally just city. Satisfied humans ‘could write endless poems on the beauties of springtime or the graceful curve of a young girl’s breast, but they could not say anything fundamentally new about the human situation’. As for a satisfied philosopher, once the quest for a full understanding of human nature is finished, little remains (apart from the odd bit of reviewing) but to present the true understanding in as clear and agreeable a form as possible.

This is what Fukuyama has done. He quite properly makes no claim to originality. Besides Plato and Nietzsche, he draws on Hobbes, Hume and Locke, on Aristotle and Machiavelli, Marx and Hegel, and numerous lesser sources of information, emphasising their agreements more than their disagreements and putting their ideas into clear, agreeable prose that anyone can understand. Hegel takes the leading role, because it was he who first declared the End of History. But Fukuyama expounds the message in an updated version deriving from lectures on Hegel given in Paris in the Thirties by an emigré Russian named Alexandre Kojève. Kojève is thus the chief architect of Fukuyama’s vision of history. Readers who have never heard of him, or his controversial interpretation of Hegel, may be curious to know why in 1992 – the year when Sarajevo came back into the headlines, when Los Angeles burned, and the Earth was lost at Rio – Kojève should be hailed as the prophet of the hour.

The origin of this year’s media hype for Fukuyama’s book is an exchange that took place in the Fifties between Kojève and the éminence grise of American conservatism, Leo Strauss. They disagreed about whether a little dialogue that Xenophon wrote in the fourth century BC provides an adequate understanding of modern tyranny. Strauss had said that it did, but he was sufficiently impressed by Kojève’s objections to write a reply in an essay called ‘Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero’. The revised and enlarged paperback edition of Strauss’s On Tyranny, which Allan Bloom brought out in 1963, reprints the entire debate for the benefit of students on the initiation courses that Strauss’s followers run in a number of American universities.

It was again Allan Bloom, the best-known publicist of Strauss’s ideas, who in 1969 edited the English translation of a selection of Kojève’s thoughts on Hegel. He called it ‘one of the few important philosophical books of the 20th century – a book, knowledge of which is requisite to a full awareness of our situation and to the grasp of the most modern perspective on the eternal questions of philosophy’. The praise is double-edged. It makes out that Kojève is the only rational alternative to Strauss.

Strauss taught his students to believe that modern thought is wrong because it is permeated with historicism – the notion that events and ideas should be explained in terms of their historical context. It was for polemical reasons that he set up Kojève’s intransigent, unfeeling version of Hegelian historicism as a paradigm of modern thought. (With enemies like that, who needs friends?) Thus Bloom’s phrase ‘the most modern perspective on the eternal questions’ is meant to sound absurd; it condemns modern thought at the same time as praising Kojève for putting it into words.

Bloom’s preface to Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel closes with the following statement:

If Hegel is right that history fulfils the demands of reason, the citizen of the final state should enjoy the satisfaction of all reasonable human aspirations; he should be a free, rational being, content with his situation and exercising all of his powers, emancipated from the bonds of prejudice and oppression. But looking around us, Kojève, like every other penetrating observer, sees that the completion of the human task may very well coincide with the decay of humanity, the rebarbarisation or even re-animalisation of man ... one wonders whether the citizen of the universal homogeneous state is not identical to Nietzsche’s Last Man, and whether Hegel’s historicism does not by an inevitable dialectic force us to a more sombre and more radical historicism which rejects reason. We are led to a confrontation between Hegel and Nietzsche and perhaps, even further, toward a reconsideration of the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, who rejected historicism before the fact and whom Hegel believed he had surpassed. It is the special merit of Kojève to be one of the very few sure guides to the contemplation of the fundamental alternatives.

The preferred Straussian alternative is indeed to embrace with heart, mind and soul ‘the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle’ – by which is meant, not what Plato and Aristotle actually wrote, but Strauss’s peculiar interpretation of ancient Greek philosophy as a cryptogram of conservatism.

Thus if Plato wrote that it is in accordance with nature for the philosopher rulers in the ideally just city to include talented women who have received the same education as men, by the canons of Straussian exegesis he meant the opposite. He was writing for the benefit of those who know how to read what Strauss called ‘a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth about all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines’, and he was insinuating that equality of the sexes is in fact against nature. Such insinuations go down well in conservative America. As Strauss himself put it, ‘today the truth may only be accessible through certain old books.’

Back now to Francis Fukuyama. Reviewers have been puzzled by the book’s very unHegelian suggestion that what remains after ‘The End of History’ is consumerism and the cultural desert of Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’. The quotation just given indicates that the suggestion came originally from Fukuyama’s teacher and mentor, Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind. There are signs in Fukuyama’s book that he is not firmly convinced that Kojève got everything right. No matter. By putting Kojève’s thoughts on Hegel into accessible American prose, he has helped guide others to ‘the contemplation of the fundamental alternatives’. Perhaps some of his readers will turn to Strauss instead.

Presented with Kojève and Strauss as the fundamental alternatives, one can only say: ‘God help America.’ It is indecent, in the world of 1992, to spend time contemplating so preposterous a choice. It is also dangerous. It is dangerous because the message to practical politics from both of them is that justice is not a goal to aim for.

This is explicit in Strauss, who contrives to read Plato’s Republic as a proof, valid for all time, that ‘the just city is against nature because the equality of the sexes and absolute communism are against nature.’ But Fukuyama’s retelling of Kojève gives an alternative route to the same conclusion. The USA is already a ‘post-historical’ country, like Britain. Plato’s strenuous effort to prove that social justice is essential for the happiness and well-being of a community has become obsolete. Capitalism and liberal democracy will do instead. We are all living happily ever after, aren’t we?

The Index to The End of History and The Last Man is 15 pages long. There is no entry for ‘justice’. Conservative intellectuals in the USA have been enthusiastic in their praise for Fukuyama’s achievement.