e s s a y

r o b e r t  c a s t l e 


. . .let more than mere opinion reach you through me.

—Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

But today, the average man, because of historical ignorance finds himself almost like a primitive, almost like the original man, and hence — other things aside — the unexpected forms of barbarism and savagery which burst suddenly from his old and hypercivilized soul.

—Jose Ortega y Gasset

When I read that, during the Great Leap Forward, in China, between twenty and forty million had died, I thought this must be the apotheosis of statistical whimsicality, until a short time later the news that “between twenty and eighty million had died during the Cultural Revolution.”

We ourselves are the prisoners of these numbers, these figures, the statistics — the millions; and millions upon millions. Is it possible that our careless, our casual, use of these “millions” is one of the reasons for the brutality, for cruelty?

—Doris Lessing


Several years ago a college professor complained to a group of graduate students that a freshman student claimed never to have heard of Moses. How could someone pass through twelve years of schooling untouched by this essential religious-historical fact? The professor envisioned lazy and incompetent teachers failing to satisfy the most minimal educational requirements; he probably harbored a worse opinion of the student’s parents.

This situation is but a sample circulating through the faculties of high schools and colleges. Personally, I have tutored college students so deficient in geography they have located China somewhere near the Pyrenees — a mistake worthy of Gogol’s madman — and have taught students who mistook England for Japan on a world map. Added to this pathetic situation, student indifference to History rivals a past indifference to Latin and Greek, an indifference which really killed the dead languages.

“I knew things were bad,” my professor remarked, “but are they really this bad?”

Things may not be as bad as he feared. The poor achievements of American students documented in E.D. Hirsch’s CULTURAL LITERACY may exasperate the teacher, and drive the History teacher in particular to despair, but the official assessments of cultural and other illiteracies may be the benign side of the problem. Things may be worse in a way not yet considered.

For instance, our “Moses” student could have had the Old Testament read to him when he was a child; indeed, on television one evening he may have seen Charlton Heston (whom the student only knows as President of the National Rifle Association) part the Red Sea. The special effects, however, may be better remembered than the man who was being dramatized. And the student may have heard of the Exodus from Egypt between Ren and Stimpy cartoons and Gilligan’s Island reruns. Moses, again, may have come to his brief attention but amidst Play Station, skateboarding, and The Back Street Boys. Thus, upon reaching the college classroom, taking a course he would have normally avoided but which was required, my professor mentioned Moses in passing. Upon which, the student raised his hand and asked who this man was.

When you consider the quantity of information filling the average student’s mental reservoir in the first eighteen years, what he or she remembers tends toward the arbitrary and the increasingly unexceptional. One might question whether this student’s knowing who Moses was would make the state of education any better. That is, would the ostensibly well-prepared college-bound student have a better level of historical education than the apparently ill-prepared student?

The History teacher’s task in the “Information Age” has been made distressing when television and the Internet are the most active sources of our myths, folklore, and stories, without foundation in texts. How does the teacher distinguish for the student the historical past — events fossilized in a textbook: but also the events forming the nucleus of the student’s personality — from the news media, music, video games, comic strips, talk shows, magazines, and sports? In the News realm alone, current events are interpreted as fast as they are reported, in effect out-running History with a brand of hyper-historicism. How can the History teacher confidently instill in students a lasting flow of remembered time, when the regular conditions of contemporary life militate against effective remembering?

It would be another circumstance were the student exposed to two, three, or four information flows, and, thus, entrance into the Biblical stream, if you will, would have a chance of being a more vivid experience. Instead, the confluence of numerous streams floods the student’s mind and washes out the banks or sides that support the historical sense. Computers, televisions, radios, telephones, tape recorders, all of these gadgets allow him or her to obtain information whenever he feels like it, creating an increasing inattentiveness towards his experiences. If the teacher is not vitally aware of these conditions, he or she will be trapped within this same nonchalance and merely be contributing to the continued erosion of the historical sense.

Before condemning the conditions of everyday life, we must acknowledge that the greatest inhibitor of the development of the historical sense has been History itself, that is, the sheer volume of historical knowledge. I repeat: “has been.” Friedrich Nietzsche, one hundred and thirty years ago, diagnosed this malady of History in the second volume of his “Thoughts Out of Season,” THE USE AND ABUSE OF HISTORY. He focused on the excess of History and how this excess “attacked the plastic power of life” by crowding out the unhistorical. The unhistorical he defined as man “going into the present” and having the power of forgetfulness. Educators and historians in 19th century Germany were oblivious of the fact that history served an unhistorical power; the excess of history no longer allowed man to act unhistorically and spontaneously. In today’s classroom, the unhistorical is still neglected. Today, History is taught as another information stream, a formal competitor against video docudramas and mythologies for the student’s immediate attention, with History disappearing into an undifferentiated confluence. Nietzsche likens the unhistorical to “the surrounding atmosphere that can alone create life in whose annihilation life itself disappears.”

The unhistorical is an elusive component for the history teacher, who, upon comprehending its importance, might have trouble describing it in action. It is difficult to pin down the unhistorical, in the classroom or even in this essay, as if its very appearance dispels its importance and potency. At best, we might suggest its presence and hope for some result. The History teacher must do more than teach History and supply the unhistorical ingredient. How can a student leave the classroom with a sense of the unhistorical? A few years ago, I attended a lecture entitled “Poetry and Magic,” and one of the audience members remarked that in some cultures the “spell” incanted for a given occasion cannot be taught — it must be overheard — and one must acquire it by stealth or theft. The teacher puts the student in a position to overhear the “spell.”

Not every teacher is an historian, and it would be a great burden to require History instruction to supply a meaningful historical dimension. Yet, this precisely must be done. The History teacher must do more that teach History. How the teacher might restore this lost ingredient to the History program is one of the great lessons suggested by the books and lectures of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, especially from his history, OUT OF REVOLUTION: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WESTERN MAN.


The teaching crisis is merely a tributary of the historical crisis which runs through the last hundred years. History teaching feels acutely the effects of this crisis because of the symbiotic relationship between History and Education. When Rosenstock-Huessy discusses education in his essay “Teaching Too Late, Learning Too Early,” he writes primarily about teaching History:

We teachers are the cultural lag of mankind. Less politely, we are the hyenas of its battlefields, for we disembowel the heroes of antiquity if we are left to our natural tendencies as teachers.

We must occasionally avoid these tendencies if we want to develop the student’s historical sense, a sense he defines thus: “Every human being, for his own salvation, must be trained in the timing of his own experiences” (italics added). In a paper read before the American Historical Association in 1934 entitled “The Predicament of History,” Rosenstock-Huessy makes a similar point:

Modern Man seems no longer to register experience without special training. Without the capacity for keeping and developing the process of selection which we call tradition, the group can have no history. The power of selection which applied by Darwin to processes in the world of animals and plants is in reality the power of civilization. And this power can be wasted or lost.

History. Education. Special training. History. Education. A recirculation process. They feed one another to fortify the process.

The aforementioned crisis represents a fouling of the waters, and History and Education today merely recirculate the poisons. An antidote to this poisonous flow at once seems impossible to find or not worth finding because nobody knows how to administer it. What do we do?

Imagine a crisis generally as the last and most terrible swelling of a social or political problem. Following the lead of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, we can consider “crisis” an historical concept. In MAN AND CRISIS, Ortega rigorously defines historical crisis first and foremost as a predicament of History, a peculiar historical change. He describes this change when

the system of convictions belonging to a previous generation gives way to a vital state in which man remains without these convictions. Man returns to a state of not knowing what to do, for the reason that he returns to a state of actually not knowing what to think about the world.

Rosenstock-Huessy defines crisis in nearly the same terms in THE ORIGIN OF SPEECH, when he describes the four “diseases” of Speech: war, crisis, revolution, and degeneration. “The inner crisis of a disintegrating society is constituted by the fact that too many people inside this society are not told what to do.” No one can be told what to do because no one knows what to think about the world. He adds: “In crisis we wait for anybody to tell us.”

In this book Ortega deals primarily with the Renaissance, but he points to earlier periods, both times in ancient Rome: during the first century before and the third century after Christ, which suffered similar social and cultural upheavals. In pre-Christian Rome, in a reference to Cicero, a familiar problem: “From a world which has turned itself back into pure problem — and man is part of that world — one cannot hope for anything positive; the substance of life is desperation.” He quotes Cicero’s DE FINIBUS BONORUM ET MALORUM: “‘We academicians’ — that is to say, he, Cicero, declares himself an academician — ’are in a desperate state from too much knowing (italics added). In other words, understanding that a crisis exists does not necessarily guarantee an escape from it. The will to knowledge is not enough. “Our Soul,” writes Rosenstock-Huessy, “overloaded with so much past, replies by a nervous breakdown.”

The epigraphs which open this essay bespeak the seriousness and depth of the crisis and add an imperative to the search for some relief from our historical predicament. Doris Lessing’s passages dwell on public indifference born from numbness to hearing about mass murders and genocide. Reports of twenty to eighty million killed weirdly echo a fast food chain’s promotional claims: billions and billions sold. Rosenstock-Huessy had written that “objectivity without gratitude for the relation of our thought to other people’s lifeblood is intolerable.” History is transformed into a sideshow for trivia freaks. The facts and numbers lose reality in proportion to the frequency with which they are pressed upon us. The truth needs a rest occasionally, or it will not have the strength to penetrate our minds.

At some point during the slide into barbarism, our humanity is degraded and lost. The descent does not make good headlines nor is it distinguishable one day, one month, or one year to the next. There are only indications that things are wrong. Concentration camps and death chambers; tribal genocide; the gulags; death squads. When these kinds of events have occurred, inside or outside western nations, our response has been disingenuous. How could such savagery happen in a world of air-conditioned buildings, organized sports, and the general wish for all to live in peace? Only madmen would think of starting wars — you know the usual suspects: Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Khadaffi — and threaten to deny us our luxuries. Analogously, our personal sense of security is shattered each time we read about the latest serial killer or an otherwise friendly neighbor who has shot the wife and kids and himself.

Unthinkable things, once suppressed by a common if fragile humanity. We have forgotten that being born human is the most fragile state of life. Moderated by a sensitive historical brotherhood. Unthinkable things, now commonplace and nearly tolerable.

Ortega’s broad comments about historically ignorant man anticipate Lessing’s response to the statistical nightmare. Her question: “Is it possible that our careless, our casual, use of these ‘millions’ is one of the reasons for the brutality, the cruelty,” realizes a discernible way we can avoid the historical crisis. We cannot prove the connection between our attitudes and the brutalities; her analysis resembles the associative connections a reader makes within a short story, play, or novel and corresponds to a process Ortega labels “historical reason,” which will be our response to History’s breakdown.


“Do not believe any history that does not spring from the mind of a rare spirit,” Nietzsche writes in THE USE AND ABUSE OF HISTORY. Such a rare spirit we recognize in Rosenstock-Huessy’s OUT OF REVOLUTION. Despite its recognition as a great historical work, the book invites the kind of misunderstanding offered by Crane Brinton: “Written in what to an American seems the cloud-cuckoo-land of beautiful and inexact ideas, choosing convenient and rejecting inconvenient facts, something in the tradition of Spengler, but with the kindly hopes of a man of good will.”

When Nietzsche saw the excesses of History causing a malady of History, he proposed an antidote: the unhistorical by which he meant “the power, the art, of forgetting and drawing a limited horizon around oneself.” This anticipated Crane Brinton’s feeble objections to OUT OF REVOLUTION. To the contrary Rosenstock-Huessy increased the dose for curing the twentieth century’s historical malady. Unfortunately, the uniqueness of OUT OF REVOLUTION “left it high and dry on the sands of academe.” Page Smith adds in his assessment of the book that “[n]obody knew what to make of it because no one had seen nothing like it.” The book, “demanded to be accepted or rejected.” In the end, it was ignored. Again, Nietzsche best described how a work like OUT OF REVOLUTION should be construed: “The Delphian god cries his oracle to you at the beginning of your wanderings: ‘Know thyself.’ It is a hard saying, for that god ‘tells nothing and conceals nothing but merely points the way,’ as Heraclitus said. But whither does he point?”

Where does Rosenstock-Huessy point? OUT OF REVOLUTION’ s subtitle is one direction. It proposes the book to be an autobiography: but that of Western Man’s, and thus “no one man’s enterprise.” Referring to our own autobiographical circumstance, Rosenstock-Huessy invites our collaboration: “In adding from his own memory, whatever he knows of French, English, Russian, or Italian history [the reader] cannot but enlarge and round out our draft.” He points toward our own past, whence we may organize the chaos in ourselves in thinking our way back to our true needs.

OUT OF REVOLUTION also points to the unhistorical in the form of an aesthetic principle: the invisible ingredient used by Rosenstock-Huessy to bind an account of 27 generations from Gregory the Great to V.I. Lenin. Brinton had fretted over the author’s selection of facts, but by just looking at the book’s table of contents, he might have seen that more than convenient choices were made. The first thing you see is that the events will be cast in a backward chronological order, starting with the Russian Revolution. This represents a bit of startling inspiration, especially when one compares it to Rosenstock- Huessy’s THE EUROPEAN REVOLUTIONS, in which he used a straightforward chronology, published only eight years before OUT OF REVOLUTION. Why he changed his approach is unclear, but the significance of the change is unmistakable. Rosenstock- Huessy writes:

We are recording vive voce the autobiography of Europe during the last thousand years with regard to its connection backwards; we are convinced, however, that any history of the evolution of mankind will prove a failure if it tries to deprive us of the greatest contribution of the last twenty years. I mean any history of mankind which fails to start frankly and modestly from the experiences and sufferings of our generation.

Bruce Boston, one of the book’s principal interpreters, connects the autobiographical element to the “backward” structure: “Rather than viewing the great upheavals of western history as shameful interruptions in the course of its orderly flow, [he] is prepared to present them as exhibiting the same inner cohesion one would expect to find in the life of a single individual.”

The aesthetic pull from OUT OF REVOLUTION’s structure emanates from this inner cohesion. The choice of working backward from the Russian Revolution, to invert the regular order from which we normally discern cohesion (for instance, in a history course in high school or college), is as profound and meaningful as the choice by the Church Fathers to order the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In Rosenstock-Huessy’s THE FRUIT OF LIPS, OR WHY FOUR GOSPELS, he points out that

[t]he sequence of the four gospels is necessary because this sequence reverses the order which begins with the natural individuality of Jesus. And such a reverse of nature is the necessary sequence in human articulation!

The gospels, he is saying, work under an aesthetic principle to articulate a unity among them which can admit no other gospel. Likewise, the unhistorical as an aesthetic principle should articulate History that can admit no other information flow!

They begat each other. Every gospel begins exactly at the point to which the previous gospel has progressed on its tortuous path. The last word of the one is the overture and sets the tone for the next!

If Rosenstock-Huessy’s scheme for the Gospels seems farfetched, examine Richard Elliott Friedman’s book, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF GOD, in which he shows how the order in which the Old Testament was written doesn’t conform to the order we get in the Bible; yet, Friedman describes a cohesion of which suggests a nearly artistic or aesthetic subtlety.1

The aesthetic quality and attraction of Rosenstock-Huessy’s OUT OF REVOLUTION is never more obvious than after viewing Harold Pinter’s play BETRAYAL. The backward development of the drama2  raises the story of a conventional love triangle to a level where we can come to terms with the vital human or individual elements of the drama. In the case of this play, the begged question is, “Why does the affair fail?” The backward device particularizes what was an invisible dimension in the adulterous relationship, Time, and articulates Time’s failure and constant betrayal of Man by changing him.

Pinter’s characters are squashed by Time, but they never comprehend the slow disintegration of their relationships and the draining of their emotions. The intimacy dissolves as if it would inevitably lead to this point — except that Pinter started with the dissolution. Moreover, all the relationships seem tainted by betrayal.

The characters had believed their feelings to be everlasting, imperishable. Then Jerry falls in love with his best friend’s wife and speaks of satisfying his desires instantly in the present, as if he could defeat time’s betrayal. He has just cornered Emma in a bedroom. The speech occurs at play’s end.

Jerry. Look at the way you’re looking at me. I can’t wait for you, I’m bowled over, I’m totally knocked out, you dazzle me, you jewel, my jewel, I can’t ever sleep again, no, listen, it’s the truth, I won’t walk, I’ll be a cripple, I’ll descend, I’ll diminish, into total paralysis, my life is in your hands, that’s what you’re banishing me to, a state of catatonia, do you know the state of catatonia? do you? the state of. . .where the reigning prince is the prince of emptiness, the prince of absence, the prince of desolation. I love you.

This passage actually describes Jerry at the play’s beginning when he meets Emma for the first time since the breakup of his marriage. He’s desolate, empty, lost. While all the characters feel betrayed or seem to have been betrayed, Jerry suffers the deepest funk because he has failed the most to adapt to the change of feeling.

In OUT OF REVOLUTION, the backward development not only acknowledges the primacy of Time but witnesses the continuity of the generations. Time is an element of salvation, not damnation. One can admire Rosenstock-Huessy’s faith at the time of the writing, 1938, when Stalinism and Fascism were squashing Europe. The historical and political squeeze soon deprived the European his autonomy, his life becoming less and less his own and more the state’s, as Ortega wrote. Analogously, Pinter’s characters suffer fates characteristic of the eternal love triangle: their lives become less and less their own because they are unable to circulate the “time poison” out of their relationships.

Rosenstock-Huessy recognized the crisis and refused to turn away. He actively engaged his world as a swimmer would the wall of a pool, propelling himself from it forward into the past toward something beyond the daily eternities.


In applying the lessons from Rosenstock-Huessy’s book to the teaching of history or education generally, we should not necessarily look to the school or classroom to work “magic.” That is, we shouldn’t expect an administrative directive or national standards to guide teachers. It would be too much to expect the powers that be to understand that the accumulation of facts is not enough. Nor should students look forward to a time when detailed factual knowledge is expendable. How can we make anyone understand the wisdom that “we must allow our young people a deliberate amount of ignorance lest their genius be stifled,” he wrote in THE FRUIT OF LIPS.

Could we as a society extend this wisdom and curb the infinite excitements of our everyday life? Could we not deliberately limit ourselves to a modest range of resources? Limit the information flows? How can we protect students who are being drowned in a flood of meaningless facts, when we are unaware that the very forms that protect them from historical illiteracy have eroded? Will this alarm merely become lost amid all the other calls for the “improvement” of our educational institutions?

The imprecision of the concept “unhistorical” compels me link it to something experienced but indefinable. Rosenstock-Huessy’s historical work, like OUT OF REVOLUTION, teaches us how to sneak the unhistorical into the classroom: in the form of an aesthetic principle. By this I mean that history teachers will consciously lessen their information flow and more sharply design their lessons. Sooner or later, an effective application of their teaching may lodge itself in students’ minds, and the students in turn will sneak the unhistorical back into society. Perhaps they will turn off their televisions for a few years and pay attention more closely to their own sense of the shape of things. Eventually, the information flow will slowly adjust itself to levels students can handle.


1 He makes the greater claim in THE HIDDEN BOOK IN THE BIBLE that one writer was responsible for a large part of the Old Testament.

2 Scenes 1 & 2 — Spring 1977; 3 — Winter 1975; 4 — Autumn 1974; 5, 6, & 7: Summer 1973; 8 — Summer 1971; 9 — Winter 1968.


Boston, Bruce. “I RESPOND ALTHOUGH I WILL BE CHANGED”: The Life and Historical Thought of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1973

Brinton, Crane. THE ANATOMY OF REVOLUTION. New York: Vintage, 1965

Hirsch, E.D. CULTURAL LITERACY. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987

Lessing, Doris. THE WIND BLOWS AWAY OUR WORDS. New York: Vintage, 1987

Nietzsche, Friedrich. THE USE AND ABUSE OF HISTORY. Trans. by Adrian Collins. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957

Ortega y Gasset, José. MAN AND CRISIS. Trans. by Mildred Adams. New York: Norton, 1962

Pinter, Harold. BETRAYAL. New York: Grove Press, 1978

Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen. I AM AN IMPURE THINKER. Norwich, Vt.: Argo Books, 1970

_________. THE FRUIT OF LIPS, OR WHY FOUR GOSPELS. Pittsburgh, PA: The Pickwick Press, 1978

_________. THE MULTIFORMITY OF MAN, Norwich, Vt.: Argo Books, 1973

_________. THE ORIGIN OF SPEECH, Norwich, Vt.: Argo Books, 1981

_________. OUT OF REVOLUTION: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WESTERN MAN. Norwich, Vt.: Argo Books, 1969

_________.“The Predicament of History,” The Journal of Philosophy, September 1935

Smith, Page. HISTORY AND THE HISTORIAN. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964


©2003 Robert Castle


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