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Last Rites

Last Rites

by John Lukacs

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Twenty years ago, John Lukacs paused to set down the history of his own thoughts and beliefs in Confessions of an Original Sinner, an adroit blend of autobiography and personal philosophy. Now, in Last Rites, he continues and expands his reflections, this time integrating his conception of history and human knowledge with private memories of his wives


Twenty years ago, John Lukacs paused to set down the history of his own thoughts and beliefs in Confessions of an Original Sinner, an adroit blend of autobiography and personal philosophy. Now, in Last Rites, he continues and expands his reflections, this time integrating his conception of history and human knowledge with private memories of his wives and loves, and enhancing the book with footnotes from his idiosyncratic diaries. The resulting volume is fascinating and delightful—an auto-history by a passionate, authentic, brilliant, and witty man.

Lukacs begins with a concise rendering of a historical understanding of our world (essential reading for any historian), then follows with trenchant observations on his life in the United States, commentary on his native Hungary and the new meanings it took for him after 1989, and deeply personal portraits of his three wives, about whom he has not written before. He includes also a chapter on his formative memories of May and June 1940 and of Winston Churchill, a subject in some of Lukacs’s later studies. Last Rites is a richly layered summation combined with a set of extraordinary observations—an original book only John Lukacs could have written.

Praise for Confessions of an Original Sinner:
“[Lukacs] is an often witty and always fascinating—even entertaining—writer.”—Washington Post

Editorial Reviews

Washington Times

"Mr. Lukacs is one of the more incisive historians of the 20th century, and especially of the tangled events leading to World War II."—Joseph C. Goulden, Washington Times

— Joseph C. Goulden


"'Send the audience home wanting more', they say in the theater. With this beautiful book, by turns captivating, amusing and moving, John Lukacs has done just that."—John Jay Hughes, America

— John Jay Hughes

Magill's Literary Annual 2010

"[Last Rites] represents a capstone to an impressive intellectual achievement...a gracefull summing up of [Lukacs''s] life."--Lewis L. Gold, Magill''s Literary Annual 2010

— Lewis L. Gold

Washington Times - Joseph C. Goulden
"Mr. Lukacs is one of the more incisive historians of the 20th century, and especially of the tangled events leading to World War II."—Joseph C. Goulden, Washington Times
America - John Jay Hughes
"'Send the audience home wanting more', they say in the theater. With this beautiful book, by turns captivating, amusing and moving, John Lukacs has done just that."—John Jay Hughes, America
Magill's Literary Annual 2010 - Lewis L. Gold
"John Lukacs has over the past forty years become one of the most interesting and popular historical writes in the United States. . . . [Last Rites] represents a capstone to an impressive intellectual achievement. . . . Lukacs's prose gives pleasure to his readers. He is a master of historical aphorisms and tart phrases that skewer sloppy authors and hapless historical actors. . . . A graceful summing up of [Lukacs's] life."—Lewis L. Gold, Magill's Literary Annual 2010

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Last Rites

By John Lukacs


Copyright © 2009 John Lukacs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11438-6

Chapter One

A Bad Fifteen Minutes

About twenty years ago, at the age of sixty-five, I wrote a kind of autobiography, entitled Confessions of an Original Sinner (published in 1990). It was fairly well received, and here and there is still in print. It was an auto-history rather than a routine autobiography. (I started it with two sentences: "This is not a history of my life. It is a history of my thoughts and beliefs.") In one of its chapters, entitled "Writing," I wrote about what and why I kept writing, and about some of the books I had written during the then forty years of my career as a historian. Well, now, during the following twenty, I wrote more books (though probably with fewer pages) than in the preceding forty, for all kinds of reasons. But in this there must be no place for a chortling summary listing (or even a melancholy one) of my published achievements. So my plan of this book is the reverse of Confessions, which proceeded, say, from 1924 to 1987, through the first sixty years of my life and from the personal to something impersonal, from something like an autobiography to something like a personal philosophy. Now my sequence will be that of a summing up of my recognitions of our present knowledge of the world to memories ofmy private life, from something like a philosophy to something like an autobiography. The precedence of the former: because of my conviction of its importance. That is my obsessive insistence that human knowledge is neither objective nor subjective but personal and participant-while (among other things) that we, and our earth, are at the center of the universe.

First things first is not always, and not necessarily, the best way to begin a book. I am taking a risk: but then all art, including writing, must contain a risk. Besides-I do not know who the readers of this book will be. And I know that because of the circumstances and the conditions of the world we now live in, their attention spans (very much including those of academics, intellectuals, philosophers, scholars, yes, myself too) have become, even if not altogether "brutish" and "nasty"-narrowed, constricted, and short. So, readers: please bear with me for fifteen minutes or so.

"Un mauvais quart d'heure," the French say, of those painful fifteen minutes when a son must tell his father that he failed in school; or that he stole; or when a man thinks he now must tell his woman that he will leave her. They have to tell the truth: a truth.

First things first. This is the most important part of this book. For fifteen minutes bear with me.

* * *

Un mauvais quart d'heure. Telling a truth.

Step by step.

Or: "Architecture of a new humanism."

Oh, I was still very young when I saw that historians, or indeed scholars and scientists and human beings of all kinds, are not objective. And then, the trouble was with many who thought and wished to impress the world that they were objective. There are still many historians and even more scientists of that kind, men with gray ice on their faces.

But isn't Objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge-indeed, of human life itself-is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.

An illustration. To attempt to be "objective" about Hitler or Stalin is one thing; to attempt to understand them is another; and the second is not inferior to the first. Can we expect a victim to be "objective" about someone who did him harm? Can we expect a Jewish man to be "objective" about Hitler? Perhaps not. Yet we may expect him, or indeed anyone, to attempt to understand. But that attempt must depend on the how, on the very quality of his participation, on the approach of his own mind, including at least a modicum of understanding his own self. After all, Hitler and Stalin were human beings, so they were not entirely or essentially different from any other person now thinking about them.

History involves the knowledge of human beings of other human beings. And this knowledge is different from other kinds of knowledge, since human beings are the most complex organisms in the entire universe.

The ideal of objectivity is the total, the antiseptic separation of the knower from the known. Understanding involves an approach, that of getting closer. In any event, and about everything: there is, there can be, no essential separation of the knower from the known.

But: are there no objective facts? Ah! Beside the limits of "objectivity" there are the limits of "facts."

Yes, there are "facts." The door was open. The water was at a boil. The house was on fire. Napoleon lost at Waterloo. But "facts" have at least three limits-perhaps especially for historians. One: for us the meaning of every "fact" exists only through our instant association and comparison of it with other facts. Two: for us the meaning of every fact depends on its statement, on the words with which it is expressed. Three: for us these words depend on their purposes. (There are statements in which every "fact" may be correct, and yet the meaning, tendency, purpose of their statements may be wrong.)

We are human beings, with our inevitable limitations. We think in words. Especially when it comes to history, which has no language of its own, no scientific terminology: we speak and write and teach it in words. Besides, words and language have their own histories. One pertinent example: four or five hundred years ago the very words objective, subjective, fact meant not what they now mean or pretend to mean. Words are not finite categories but meanings-what they mean for us, to us. They have their own histories and lives and deaths, their magical powers and their limits.

* * *

Historical knowledge-indeed, any kind of human knowledge-is necessarily subjective. That is what I tended to think in my early twenties. Soon I found that I was necessarily wrong: that subjectivity is merely the other, the obverse side of objectivism and objectivity, that there is something wrong with the entire Cartesian coin, of a world divided into Object and Subject: because Subjectivism as much as Objectivism is determinist.

Yes, every human being sees the world in his own way. That is inevitable: but not determined. We choose not only what and how we think but what and how we see. According to subjectivism I can think and see in only one (my) way; he in (his) another. This is wrong, because thinking and seeing are creative acts, coming from the inside, not the outside. Which is why we are responsible not only for how and what we do or say but for how and what we think and see. (Or: for what we want to think and for what we want to see.)

Very few people have recognized that the essence of National Socialism, including its biological racism, was something like subjectivist determinism, or call it idealistic determinism, or call it subjectivist idealism. The Jews are a spiritual, even more than a biological, race, Hitler once said. They think in a certain-their-way: they cannot think otherwise. A great historian, Johan Huizinga, saw something of this peril early. Around 1933-not referring to Germany or to Hitler-he wrote that "subjectivism" was a great danger. (The other great danger, for him, was the increasing domination of technology.)

There were a few historians who realized the limitations, indeed, the very ideal of Scientific Objectivity, at least in their profession. (One of them was Charles A. Beard, who slid into Subjectivism from Objectivism around that very time: but, unlike Huizinga, he could not see further.) Twenty-five or thirty years later it took Edward Hallett Carr, a former Marxist, to make the academy of professional historians hear what they, probably, were getting inclined to hear. (This is how and why the history of ideas is almost always woefully incomplete: not what but when it is that people are finally willing to hear something.) In What Is History, still a celebrated book, published in 1961, Carr declared: "Before you study the history, study the historian." Well, yes (though the reverse of that applies too: before you study the historian, study his history). But Carr's thesis is nothing but Subjectivist Determinism: in his view a historian's background, and especially his social background, virtually determines the history he will write. This is nonsense: consider the sons of rich bourgeois who chose to become Marxists, or the offspring of Marxists who chose to become neoconservatives. The crucial word is: they chose.

Besides-or perhaps more than "besides"-the subjectivist Carr could not really detach himself from the Cartesian, the Objective-Subjective terminology: "It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different angles of vision, it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes." But the more "objective" our concept of the mountain, the more abstract that mountain becomes.

A few years after Carr the old bourgeois ideal of Objectivism was falling apart. Postmodernism appeared, even though that term and the "postmodern" adjective were confusing. (Was the ideal of Objectivity just another bourgeois ideal, a "modern" one?) "Structuralism" and its proponents, many of them French, appeared; entire academic departments of literature took them seriously, even though they were hardly more than yet another academic fad. Their essence was, and remains, not much more than Subjectivism. They will not endure. What will, what must endure is the piecemeal recognition that the division of the world into objects and subjects belongs to history, as does every other human creation: that whatever realities Objectivity and its practical applications contained and may still contain, they are not perennial, not always and not forever valid.

* * *

Knowledge, neither "objective" nor "subjective," is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the "individual" has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique: but he does not exist alone. Not only is he dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals), his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

Every person has four relationships: with God, with himself, with other human beings, and with other living beings. The last two we can see and judge; the first two we may but surmise. But connected they are: we know some things about others through knowing some things about ourselves. That much is-or at least should be-obvious.

But there is more to that. Our knowledge is not only personal. It is participant. There is not-there cannot be-a separation of the knower from the known. And we must see farther than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, "objective" separation. What concerns-or what should concern-us is something more than the inseparability, it is the involvement of the knower with the known. That this is so when it comes to the reading and the researching and the writing and the thinking of history should be rather obvious. "Detachment" from one's passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from "separation"; it involves the ability (issuing from one's willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective: and the choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one's personal interest, of participation-perhaps even the contrary.

Interest includes, it involves participation. But keep in mind: participation is not, it cannot be complete. What "A" says to "B" is never exactly what "B" hears-usually because of his or her instant associations with some things other than the words of "A." Yes: their communications, all human communications, are necessarily incomplete-because of the complexity and the limitations of the human mind. But there is a wondrous compensation for this. That is that the charm of human communications resides precisely in their incompleteness, in the condition that what "B" hears is not exactly what "A" says-whence, in some instances, even the attraction of "A."

But this inevitable involvement of the knower with the known does not exist only in the relations of human beings with other human beings. It involves, too, what we call "science," man's knowledge of physical things, of nature, of matter. I shall come to this too-soon. Before that, a mere few words about the relationship of mind and matter. Did-does-matter exist independent, without, the human mind? It did and it does: but without the human mind, its existence is meaningless-indeed, without the human mind we cannot think of its "existence" at all. In this sense it may even be argued that Mind preceded and may precede Matter (or: what we see and then call matter).

* * *

In any case, or event, the relations of "mind" and "matter" are not simple. In any case or event they are not mechanical.

What happens is what people think happens. At the time of its happening-and at least for some time thereafter. History is formed thereby.

What happens and what people think happens are inseparable. That human condition is inevitable. (Does pain exist without one's recognition of pain? When someone thinks he is unhappy he is unhappy. Etc.) What we think happens or happened may of course be wrong, something that we may recognize later, at another time. (Or not. Even then we may be right or wrong, since memory is not mechanical either but another creative function: we may clarify or deceive our memories too.)

This does not now matter. What matters is the necessary and historic recognition that the human mind intrudes into causality, into the relation of causes and effects.

Causality-the how? and why?-has varied forms and meanings (Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas listed four): but for centuries the terms of mechanical causality have dominated our world and our categories of thinking. All of the practical applications of "science," everything that is technical, inevitably depend on mechanical causality, on its three conditions: (1) the same causes must have the same effects; (2) there must be an equivalence of causes and effects; (3) the causes must precede their effects. None of this necessarily applies to human beings, to the functioning of their minds, to their lives, and especially to their history.

Illustrations thereof. (1) Steam rising in a kettle: at a certain point, at a measurable temperature, the pressure becomes intolerable, an explosion is inevitable and determined: the lid of the kettle will fly off. But in human life the lid is thinking about itself. "Intolerable" is what it chooses not to tolerate. What is intolerable is what people do not wish-or think-to tolerate. (2) There is no equivalence of causes and effects. Suppressions, restrictions, taxes imposed by one ruler on one people at one time are not the same when imposed on other people or even on the same people at another time. It depends on how they think about their rulers and about themselves, and when. (Under Hitler many Germans-the most educated people in the world at that time-thought that they were freer than they had been before.) (3) In life, in our histories, there are "effects" that may, at times, even precede "causes": for instance, the fear (or anticipation) that something may or may not happen may cause it to happen (whence a view of "a future" may cause "a present").

In sum, mechanical causality is insufficient to understand the functioning of our minds, and consequently of our lives, and even the sense and the meaning of our memories, of the past, of history. Every human action, every human thought is something more than a reaction. (That is, too, how and why history never repeats itself.) The human mind intrudes into, it complicates the very structure of events.

To this let me add my own conclusion: that this relationship, this intrusion of Mind into Matter is not constant; that perhaps the evolution of human consciousness may be the only evolution there is: and that in this age of democracy this intrusion of mind into matter tends to increase. That is a startling paradox, a development at the same time when the applications of mechanical causality govern the lives of mankind more than ever before. Wendell Berry wrote (in 1999): "It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."


Excerpted from Last Rites by John Lukacs Copyright © 2009 by John Lukacs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Lukacs is an internationally read and praised historian, the author of some thirty books, a winner of numerous academic honors and awards, past president of the American Catholic Historical Association, and a member of the Royal Historical Society of the United Kingdom. He lives in Phoenixville, PA.

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