On history and the fabric of life

Paul Ricoeur ends his magisterial work on history philosophy, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli with a reference to Søren Kierkegaard’s discourse on the biblical birds in the air and lilies in the field (2000, p. 656). Why does he do so?

The works of his compatriot, Albert Camus, may hold a clue. Camus, too, similarly to Ricoeur endeavoured to make sense of the history of the 20th century which they were born into. While their beliefs were unalike, Camus contrasts the fates of his characters against the sun, the light, and the sea.

What does this have to do with history philosophy, one may wonder. Many years ago, I followed a university course on history philosophy with a brilliant teacher, where we read the classical 19th and 20th century works of history philosophers. While I failed the actual exam, my readings and reflections left me with a vague glimpse into how human beings considered their relationships to the divine and to nature. Over the course of history up until today, it is our changing views of this threefold relationship that constitutes our thoughts on history. At times, we treated the forces of nature with awe, as being divine. At other times, we have believed that the divine had given us lordship over nature or that we had raised ourselves above nature. That humankind was progressing to a higher form of development.

It took a Freud to remind ourselves that we too are a part of nature. The muddy trenches of WWI shattered forever our dreams and visions of mastery. In the Shoah or Holocaust of WWII, we tasted its bitter dregs. In the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, very much current in Camus’ lifetime (he died on the 4th January 1960), we foresaw what destruction humanity was capable of. Ricoeur who lived into the 21st century and had time to reflect on both the Truth and Reconciliation commission at the end of Apartheid and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia before his death on the 20th May 2005, endeavored to find a way for human beings to live together with truth, justice and reconciliation.

What our present generation of human beings can leave to the future generation is thus, according to Ricoeur, in Kierkegaard’s words, for the human in distress to contemplate the birds and lilies, and see how glorious it is to be a human being, thereby releasing their worldly cares. Ricoeur proposes: “…in opposition to this ruinous competition … the possibility of a work of forgetting, interweaving among all the fibres that connect us to time: memory of the past, expectations of the future, and attention to the present.” (Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004, p. 504; á l’inverse de cette ruineuse compétition…le possible travail de l’oubli, tissé entre toutes les fibres qui nous rattachent au temps: mémoires du passé, attente du futur et attention au présnt-original French version, 2000, p. 654-655).