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The Search for Meaning


ISSUE:  Summer 1978
Out of Chaos. By Louis J. Halle. Houghton Mifflin. $20.00.

Louis J. Halle’s Out of Chaos is a work of epic proportions written with the same motivation and compulsion which inspired Arnold J. Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, and Jacob Burkhardt. Underlying their several approaches is the same restless and brooding concern that all our segmental and specialized knowledge may be obscuring the search for life’s meaning. Historians seek principally to report and describe past events; philosophers of history explore why events took place as they did and try to fathom history’s patterns. From Thucydides to Halle, the aim of such philosophers is to establish certain viable principles of history founded on an organizing theme around which each study is built. Toynbee’s theme was his belief that world civilizations “may all reveal the same plot, if we analyzed them rightly.” That plot for him could be followed through three “Acts” described as growth and development; crisis, breakdown, and rally; and final dissolution. The respected British historian, H. A. L. Fisher, himself a skeptic about political prediction, wrote of Toynbee, he “does not wholly confine himself to facts. He is fertile in large historical ideas and suggestive comparisons. . . . We do not think that his volume loses in practical value . . .[for he] keeps an impartial mind.” Another “scientific historian,” Jacob Burkhardt also placed fact and spirit at the core of his history writing: “the task of history as a whole is to show its twin aspects, distinct yet identical, proceeding from the fact that, firstly, the spiritual, in whatever domain it is perceived, has a historical aspect under which it appears as change . . . which forms part of a vast whole beyond our power to divine, and that, secondly, every event has a spiritual aspect by which it partakes of immortality.” Man in history is both creature and creator, subject to forces he can only partly control but capable as no other living being of shaping them to his ends. That fact prompted Spengler’s controlling view: “Man has become the creator of his tactics of living—that is his grandeur and his doom. And the inner force of this creativeness we call culture.”

If Halle’s work calls to mind earlier classics in cultural and universal history, the origins, intent, and structure of his Out of Chaos are marked by significant differences. In 1922, Toynbee at age 33 becan to outline his monumental A Study of History. Halle was nearly twice that age and was the author of 16 somewhat diverse books on foreign policy, politics, philosophy, and natural history when he turned to his magnum opus, Toynbee and his predecessors had confined themselves to the historian’s craft and to the more traditional historical subject matter, but Halle with breathtaking audacity has undertaken to survey the whole of basic knowledge. To prepare himself, he studied treatises in the physical and biological sciences and entered into painstaking correspondence with the authors of the texts, Through self-education, Halle has reached out for his ideal of the Renaissance man and by every standard available to me has attained his goal. Parts I and II of a 650-page book are an awesome demonstration of the ability of a richly-endowed mind in the humanities to encompass the complexities of the physical universe and of the origins and development of life on the planet. To have accomplished such mastery as a member of an interdisciplinary research team would have been noteworthy enough. Not only, however, has the integration of vast bodies of specialized knowledge been achieved by an individual mind, but in their exposition Halle has written with a clarity that calls to mind James Reston’s review of an early book by one of Halle’s closest friends, George F. Kennan: “. . .he had an idea and he could write. . . . he had not been living in a university long enough . . . to smother his ideas in clouds of academic jargon.”

Indeed, looking back, there is something ennobling about the place Halle has earned for himself over the past three decades in American thought and letters. If he had been a less committed man, he could have spent his years in the family’s comfortable surroundings in upper Westchester County and New York. Childhood and college experiences pushed him toward an interest in natural history, and his Spring in Washington remains a minor classic. He joined the Department of State serving in Latin America and became a member of a remarkable group whom Kennan recruited for the first Policy Planning Staff. He left the Department to become a member of the faculty of the University of Virginia and thereafter the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, eventually taking out Swiss citizenship. His earliest political writings may have been too measured, discursive, and philosophical to place him at the center of the public controversies which swirled around the more outspoken and often pole-mical writings of Kennan, Morgenthau, and Niebuhr. Yet for those with a taste for historical interpretation, no book on the postwar period is more important than his The Cold War as History. Those who know these earlier writings and Halle’s broad cultural interests and unquenchable intellectual curiosity will not be surprised that in later years he turned to a vision of universal order arising from the underlining chaos in which our lives are immersed. Throughout this book, Halle has probed areas of human experience few humanists have dared to approach, such as Part III, “Mind,” which is subdivided into “The Origin of Mind,” “The Coming of Man,” “The Evolution of Brains,” “The Beginnings of Human Culture,” “Promethean Man,” “Imagination,” and “Language.” Parts IV, V, and VI, and a concluding Part entitled “Implications” are more characteristically the work of the philosopher of history but with at least one conspicuous difference. The themes of the first three Parts in which Halle draws most heavily on renowned physical and biological scientists are recapitulated and applied throughout the discussion of cultural and political history. Science is invoked not to bring a superficial respectability to Halle’s work but to support and enrich it with the knowledge science has contributed to human understanding. But it is science as creative theory, mathematics, and synthesis, not science as ever narrower research that captures Halle’s thinking illustrated in his words: “A research scientist disassembles a watch to measure and catalogue its parts; whereas a theoretical scientist, seeing a chaotic variety of scattered parts, puts them together in his imagination to make a single whole. . . .”

Halle’s major thesis is that men in historical civilizations over the past 6,000 years have brought order out of chaos through the application of mind and spirit and the establishment of a normative order.”Every civilization . . .is the product of an inspiration associated with some normative order of the mind that takes the form of a religion or an ideology.” Civilizations, like any living organism, have life-histories, extending from infancy through youth to old age and death. Halle implies that our civilization, which has spread to the ends of the earth through the influence of science and technology, is entering old age. The birth of Western civilization coincided with the ending in about 1000 A.D. of the Dark Ages. Its vision was based on its aspiration to infinity (the Gothic cathedral), its complex balance of forces (the arch as contrasted with the Greek column and lintel), and its polarities and tensions. Throughout history, civilizations have broken down when their normative vision has been weakened and sheer military force replaced it. Tyranny and Caesarism or the police state have been last-ditch responses to growing social anarchy expressed in the expansion of military empires that become overextended and collapse.

At such a moment in history, Halle offers two predictions concerning the “unknown future.” First, it will not be what any of us have anticipated, and, second, the most ominous sign on the near horizon is the specter of mankind’s coming loose from all cultural moorings and the shattering of psychological security. Hitherto men in the West had been able to conduct their lives, regulate their behavior, and make their decisions on the basis of a normative order founded on tradition, deriving its authority from custom and moral consensus and providing an established hierarchy of values for distinguishing good from bad or right from wrong. When the conditions of life to which traditions and customs are bound change overnight, people lose their moorings without having gained new ones and are prey to outlandish fashions, political demagogues, and convulsive mass movements. Because the pace of change is too rapid for tradition and custom to keep up, Halle believes we face over the next two or three centuries a period of unprecedented chaos and disorder, more damaging because our civilization has developed the most lethal powers of destruction, represented by nuclear weapons, which could in a few days destroy a large part of conscious life on what would become an essentially uninhabitable earth.

Halle, like Toynbee, asks what the outcome will be and if mankind can find a way out. Toynbee, believing with Halle that Western civilization is in decline but refusing to accept Spengler’s pessimistic determinism, suspended judgment on prospects for the West, and so in considerable measure does Halle. Toynbee took hope for the more immediate future in the possibility of a realistic political settlement between East and West and ultimately in world government. Halle sees some chance of the former but none for world government in our times. Toynbee was persuaded that the movements of civilizations have been recurrent but “the continuous upward movement of religion may be served and promoted by the cyclical movement of civilizations round the cycle of birth, death, birth.” Religion and particularly Christianity provide the ultimate hope for Toynbee; Halle, concludes his monumental work with words reminiscent of Toynbee:

”. . . with one exception, we can have absolute knowledge of nothing. The exception was stated by Descartes. . . I think, therefore I am. . . . My thoughts encompass divinity, therefore divinity is. The divinity that my thoughts encompass is associated with the order that arises out of chaos. . . . As we expand our knowledge of this realm, we . . .see it in terms of one sublime order that awaits full realization.”

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