Against Grand Narratives, Part 1

Shadia B. Drury

Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and Karl Marx published the Preface to a Critique of Political Economy (all 1859). So, in 2009, we celebrate (or lament) the 150th anniversary of the roles played by these three big ideas in our history—liberalism, Darwinism, and communism. Despite their apparent differences, these are all “grand narratives” that belong to the same Zeitgeist, and grand narratives are both dangerous and puerile and should be abandoned. But what is a grand narrative anyway?

Since the triumph of Christianity over the pagan civilizations of Greece and Rome, the West has suffered from an inability to affirm life in this world without an overarching purpose to give it meaning and make it worthwhile. This is where grand narratives—grand and glorious tales—come to the rescue. They save the world from the meaningless cycle of birth and death; they give life a magnificent and majestic purpose beyond itself that somehow redeems it from its supposed worthlessness.

Narrative is integral to human life insofar as every human being is a story that begins with birth and ends with death. But a grand narrative is not an ordinary story. A grand narrative weaves all the different stories into a single historical account with an outcome that transcends the intentions and purposes of the multiplicity of diverse actors. For a grand narrative to succeed, it must destroy the pagan view of life as an endless and repetitive cycle. It must replace the cyclical view of history with a linear view that has a magical beginning, an arduous middle, and a very splendid finale. The Abrahamic religions—Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim—are classic examples of grand narratives. All renounce the cyclical view in a favor of a linear drama in which God created the world at a given point in time and is guiding it toward a spectacular destiny unlike anything that has ever been seen before. This grand finale is nothing short of the total transfiguration of existence. In this reinvention of being, adherents of each of the Abrahamic religions believe that God has given them a critical role to play. They must struggle, fight, and die to assist God in bringing about his grand finale. But each group has a different version of God’s plan. Each group is convinced that when the drama is complete, lo and behold, its members will be exalted over the rest of humanity. In the first scenario, the downtrodden Hebrews will become a great nation, a Zion that will light up the world and lead it by example (without bombs). In the second scenario, only the few who believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God will attain paradise while the mass of humanity will suffer eternal torment. This may sound grim; but in declaring that the “circumcision of the flesh” was to be replaced by the “circumcision of the spirit,” St. Paul fired the imagination of the world. The fact that anyone could be “chosen” without being circumcised accounts for much of the stunning success of Christianity. In the third scenario, the Muslims will rule the world according to the dreaded Sharia—God’s law as interpreted by Muslims. Supposedly, only Sharia can inculcate virtue and give all of humanity a better chance at paradise.

What unites these different scenarios is the insistence that human beings are mere pawns in God’s plan and that it is God who directs history to its climactic conclusion; it is God who is the savior and redeemer. Unfortunately, God is slow to act, and his time horizon is colossal. Understandably, human beings get impatient and take matters into their own hands. The result is that humanity is divided into warring factions, each determined to do God’s bidding. The result is endless war and death that make life more intolerable and the need for salvation even more urgent and desperate. From the Crusades to the World Trade Center, humanity has witnessed more than its share of killing and mayhem in the name of God. All the while, he remains deaf and mute to humanity’s cry for deliverance.

In Europe, the schisms among Christians became so ferocious that the light of reason finally dawned and lifted the darkness. Unhappily, reason did not succeed in transcending the need for grand narratives. Instead, it replaced the religious narratives with an array of secular, but equally grand tales—liberalism, Darwinism, and communism are heirs to the grand narratives of monotheism. All assume that history is not static or cyclical but linear. All assume that human history is not a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing but a meaningful drama moving slowly but surely toward a climax. Each is certain that it is in possession of the truth and that it must subdue all contenders. And like their religious predecessors, liberalism, Darwinism, and communism did not bring peace but the sword. Indeed, these secular grand narratives were the ideological springboards of the three main players in World War II—the Allies, the Soviets, and the Nazis. I will examine each of their shortcomings in an effort to explain why grand narratives must be transcended in favor of a return to pagan sobriety.

Coming of age in the progressive climate of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the father of modern liberalism, adopted a progressive view of history as a march toward freedom. He thought of his own English society as representing the apex of human achievement. In contrast, the rest of humanity lagged behind and had not yet attained a level of civilization in which freedom could blossom. Primitive humanity was in need of a forceful and autocratic leader, an “Akbar,”* just as children were in need of forceful parental guidance. All that English conceit and condescension would have been bearable had it not been accompanied by an intolerable generosity of spirit. Finding themselves at the apex of historical progress, the British had a duty to help the rest of the world attain the summit. As the leader of Western civilization, England could not simply abandon primitive humanity to the machinations of history or to the ingenuity of the ruling Akbar. It was not a matter of biological superiority; it was a question of historical destiny. Not surprisingly, Mill played an important role in British imperialism. From the age of seventeen, he worked for the East India Company (a colonial trading company that ruled India without any parliamentary oversight), where he rose to a prominent position. He resigned only when the British Parliament assumed direct rule over Indian affairs in 1858. For Mill, British imperialism was a means of civilizing the world. This infamous “burden,” also known as the “white man’s burden,” justified and continues to justify Western imperialism.

Armed with this imperial liberalism, the Allies believed that World War II was a defense of freedom and justice against the forces of totalitarianism—fascist and communist alike. The military defeat of fascism in 1945, followed by the collapse of communism in 1989, allowed the global imperialism at the heart of liberalism to blossom. Defending the American invasion of Iraq in The New York Times on January 5, 2003, Michael Ignatieff, future leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, argued that America has “inherited the burden of empire,” and it is duty bound to “help other people attain their freedom.”

Unhappily, Americans can escape from neoliberalism (the Democratic Party) only to fall into the grip of neoconservatism (the Republican Party). They have no genuine conservative alternative. In contrast to neoliberalism and neoconservatism, classic conservatism was less optimistic about the trajectory of history, and this made it more sober in its political expectations. For example, Edmund Burke was an outspoken critic of British imperialism. Even though he believed that God was gu
iding history, he did not pretend that he knew where history was going, and he certainly did not believe in the inevitability of human progress. He was rightly skeptical about grandiose social engineering projects. For him, culture was a delicate fabric that took thousands of years to develop. Imposing an alien culture on a foreign people and expecting it to blossom like a plant is unrealistic and could only become the source of unnecessary suffering. Whatever its shortcomings, classic conservatism eschews grand narratives.

In contrast, neoconservatism has abandoned the sobriety of classic conservatism and embraces the imperialism of its liberal counterpart without any of the saving graces of the liberal spirit. As Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man testifies, faith in an historical determinism in which American liberal democracy is the universal paradigm of human civilization inspires grandiose imperial projects. In short, Americans are saddled with a choice between two equally imperialistic grand narratives. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism may differ in style but not in substance.

* Akbar is an Arabic word meaning “the great one,” which is usually applied to God. When applied to a leader, it suggests superhuman or inhuman power that is likely to elicit servile acquiescence.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and Karl Marx published the Preface to a Critique of Political Economy (all 1859). So, in 2009, we celebrate (or lament) the 150th anniversary of the roles played by these three big ideas in …

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