News & Politics

Does the Arc of the Moral Universe Really Bend Toward Justice?

Ours is a despairing moment, but not one without a certain amount of hope.

Photo Credit: Graham Davis (YouTube)

Almost a year before the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter and a bookish, bald, kind-faced minister and professor named Theodor Parker would die while being treated for tuberculosis in temperate Florence, being very far from his birthplace of Lexington, Massachusetts. Rev. Parker was of the New England intellectual vanguard; conversant with the transcendentalism of his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, deeply read in the new German philosophies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the higher biblical criticism of the time, as well as with the radical abolitionist politics of Boston. 

At the time of his death in that city of the Italian Renaissance, where humanists had argued that man must be the measure of all things, Rev. Parker’s country of birth contained 15 states where slavery was legal, with a population of close to four million slaves, 12.6 million black women, men, and children toiling in bondage. More than one out of ten of Rev. Parker’s fellow countrymen were conceived of as property in his corrupted native nation.

As a radical Unitarian minister Rev. Parker had agitated for emancipation, he’d supported the patriot John Brown’s struggle, he’d preached, organized, and fought against slavery, yet when he died in sight of Brunelleschi’s dome not a single slave had yet to be emancipated. Almost exactly four years after his death and the U.S. Congress would ratify the 13th Amendment, so that now “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

Even though it was heartbreaking that Rev. Parker never got to see the fruition of his activism, it was a schedule that was in many ways keeping with his own perspective on how history operates, for it was the good Unitarian minister who wrote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure that it bends towards justice.” 

Many have repeated the sentiment that the “moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends towards justice” as a kind of prayer, something to evoke precisely in the moment when it seems as if the moral arc of the universe is rectilinear, or even that it bends backwards. Millions more know Rev. Parker’s sentiment as expressed through the writings of President Abraham Lincoln, or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., or President Barack Obama. As an article of faith, it serves to console those in the midst of the struggle that even in our darkest days, victory is assured. As regards Rev. Parker’s poignant axiom, that assurance is both the sentiment’s greatest strength, but also that which is most dangerous about it. 

Parker’s famous contention is arguably one of the defining creeds of a segment of American liberalism. The belief that there is some kind of design to history, secular or otherwise, whereby humanity in general and the United States in particular must by necessity always move towards an ideal of liberty, justice, and equality permeates liberal discourse. One sees evidence of such reasoning when you hear pundits argue that history will judge the crimes of the current administration, or in the assumption that victory is assured. One sees it in the unconfirmed belief that Trump, or Sessions, or Miller or any of the rest of that gaggle of ghouls will get political comeuppance for the crimes they’ve committed. That the Angel of History shall tabulate their sins and render a righteous judgment. 

Such hope is, of course, everything. 

Such hope is also profoundly dangerous for those who believe it, because the reality is that there is no Angel of History. 

There’s only us. 

Jacob Silberman says as much in The Baffler when he writes that “in appealing to a vaguely defined angel of history, anti-Trump liberals seek a savior where there’s likely to be none.” With less charity to Rev. Parker than he deserves, Silberman still makes an important strategic point that a passive acceptance of the assumed curve of the universe “asks nothing of us but to wait out the clock until justice, somehow, wins.” As an active supporter of John Brown, Rev. Parker wasn’t as passive as Silberman’s formulation would imply, but the point that the status quo itself never just disappears is a crucial one. 

We must come to terms with the fact that the current forces of reaction are organized, global, and increasing in power. Putin, Orban, Salvini, and Erdogan are all beyond the reach of Robert Mueller’s capable hands. Even should we all be treated to the immaculately sweet vision of Trump being perp walked out of the White House in handcuffs (and that’s not happening anytime soon) the phenomenon of international fascism is horrifically more widespread and entrenched than one former gameshow host who happens to have an address on Pennsylvania Avenue. The question for us is how do we sustain ourselves when the Angel of History is mute? How do we push forward when there appears to be no gradation to the curvature of the moral universe? 

Especially after a month like June, which saw terrible judgement after terrible judgement handed down by the Supreme Court, when we were disgusted to learn about the retirement of the perennial agnostic Justice Anthony Kennedy, thus ensuring that an illegitimate president has the opportunity to solidify a hard-right majority on the bench for generations to come, and most horrifically of all when we saw the nightmare of children cordoned off into desert concentration camps. Where is that preordained curving of the moral universe towards justice now? Where are the Angel of History’s judgements today? 

Rev. Parker’s celebrated contention has a poetry that sometimes makes it crucial; it also has a certainty where the very curving it preaches about threatens to strangle those of us who wish he were correct. His millennial faith had a utility for his fellow abolitionists, it had a pragmatism during the Civil Rights movement, and it’s not completely outlived its usefulness today. Rhetorically, however, it does pose certain dangers to the social media passivity of our present age. What we must always be aware of are the deep ideological structures that bolster the myths by which we live, and to make sure that those myths exist for us, and not us for those myths.

In my scholarly writing I’ve conceived of something which I term “implied teleology.” The later word refers to the varied and individual theories that postulate what the actual metaphysics of history might be, i.e. any conception of time that believes there is a structure or design to how the affairs of people operate and change over the ages. In arguing that all ideologies have an implied teleology, I’ve claimed that even ostensibly secular political beliefs show the genetic code of supposedly dormant theologies that helped gestate them. Rev. Parker may have been a liberal Unitarian who read the Bible as entirely allegorical and who didn’t believe in the literal pronouncements of orthodox Christianity, but his implied teleology as manifested in his famed declaration bore all of the hallmarks of his Puritan ancestors’ beliefs. 

That is not a condemnation, nor is that a reason to not agree with Rev. Parker. All of our beliefs, whatever they may be, are at their core mythic and are at their core theological. In Rev. Parker’s case it simply was a secularized variety of what scholars call “post-millennialism.” This is the belief, common among many Puritans and other Christians, which held that the return of Christ would be heralded after humanity had helped perfect the temporal world on our own, by making it more equal, just, and free. 

Post-millennialism is optimistic, progressive, and utopian; divorced from its religious origins it becomes an encapsulation of a liberal perspective that sees moral strides as implicit within the arc of history, an organic process of greater rights being acknowledged for greater numbers of people. The difficulty with such a faith is when even in its secular form it holds to the assumption of predestination that defines the theological vision, where we maintain that progress is some kind of natural inevitability. The biggest risk is that when history doesn’t conform to our hopes and expectations it encourages a pessimistic despondency. 

Myths must be commensurate with the necessity of their moments, and the implied teleology of Rev. Parker’s vision could endanger a complacency in those resisting Trump, could erroneously convince us that the Angel of History’s verdict on this corrupt administration will inevitably be delivered, or that because things have gotten worse that there is no hope in trying to move forward. Nothing could be riskier than assuming that victory is assured, nothing more foolish than resting because we assume that the fight is already won, and nothing more disastrous than fretting that everything is already lost and conceding the fight before its even begun. 

What we must do is find different myths of history fitted to our present moment, and in that I elect the vision given by the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin 80 years after Rev. Parker’s death. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin critiqued historical materialism, the perils of belief in progress, and most of all the impotent Angel of History whose “face is turned to the past” and who is so caught up in the storm of events that the Angel “can no longer close” her wings. An idiosyncratic, heterodox, mystical-minded Marxist, Benjamin saw a danger in a “concept of progress which did not hold to reality, but had a dogmatic claim.” 

The philosopher, in his wisdom, knew that social democracy’s faith in progress as being synonymous with “the progress of humanity itself,” as “something unending,” and as “something essentially unstoppable” are all “controversial, and critique could be applied to each of them.” Writing in 1940, a refugee staring down the gathering storms of European fascism, Benjamin understood that nothing could be more naïve than that faith which holds that progress is promised. Benjamin knew that the implied teleology of either moderate liberalism or radical Marxism was one of predestined inevitability, but that there is something constraining in predestination, and something liberatory in abandoning it. 

Benjamin found a different myth to structure his implied teleology, jettisoning the certainties of millennium for the understanding that “every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.” One need not believe in literal millenniums or messiahs to see what is useful in the idea of either, or to consider that the latter model is more potent. In believing that every second is charged with electric, redemptive potential we eschew that position which holds off on revolution and we will begin to understand that the possibility to turn it all around is latent within the eternal present – right now, in this place. 

Perhaps some presents more than others, for even as Trump has shattered norms, poisoned our national dialogue, and seemingly abolished the very chance of progress, he’s also demonstrated that ours is a moment pregnant with radical possibility. He and his supporters have perhaps outsmarted themselves, for if political moderation was the best strategy for leftists trying to halt Trumpism in 2016, it surely isn’t in 2018. There is a space for radical left-wing politics that did not exist even two years ago; if there is an irony to Trump’s winning of the presidency let it be that, and let the tragedy be his. Ours is a despairing moment, but not one without a certain amount of hope, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory last month demonstrated (and evidenced from the fear she’s inculcating among the right, hers is a strategy and ideology with some staying power). 

Ocasio-Cortez is evidence of the promise that exists when things can seem at their lowest, her stunning achievement is demonstration that when it appears that the moral arc of the universe is a straight line that it is the task of the living to hammer it towards justice. We can tweet and post on Facebook about how history will judge Trump, and we can identify our Angel of History as either Robert Mueller or the Blue Wave. The simple fact is that no justice will ever be served on the enemies of democracy unless we march, organize, resist, and vote. If you wish to see the Angel of History’s face, go to the nearest mirror. Now, it is time to get to work.

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Ed Simon is the editor-at-large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A frequent contributor at several sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post Religion will be released by Zero Books in November 2018. Follow him on Twitter @WithEdSimon.