Resurrexit sicut dixit

Walter Benjamin’s Theses on History

Again, procrastination is on my side. Why is everything that the German Jewish philosophers wrote during the 1900s pure genius in terms of intellectual stimulation and mental ecstasy?

In any case, the two most poignant ideas presented in this theses (though the whole is worth reading) are the messianic notion of resurrection presented midway through part II and the analogy of the Angel of History presented on page four. The latter is self-explanatory, though extremely thought-provoking, but my reflections turn on the former elaboration.

It is interesting to note how humans always have a sense of living in the past in terms of harking back to a “golden age” and saying things were better back then. Thematic in most literature, good examples of this mindset are represented in notions of conservatism, restoration, nostalgia, resurrection. That what is dead in terms of former glory, bravery, nobility, truth, honour, virtue even mortality itself lives on, but only as a shadow of itself that continues to haunt our memories. From Charlemagne restoring the Holy Roman Empire to Martin Luther restoring Christian simplicity to Hitler restoring a notion of German superiority to Bush restoring a notion of liberty. These are all man-made resurrections of the “past” insofar as they seek to reinstate an illusory notion of historical values as somehow purer and nobler than the banalities of the present.

So are ideals always the impressions, the traces of bygone splendour? Here, we must be careful in distinguishing the ideal that is timeless (that is, either fundamentally grounded in the “human” or universal in the sense of being outside the constraints of time and space) and one that is grounded in historic materialism as hailed by Benjamin. Often timeless ideals are connected symbolically to a person who fulfills such ideals in such a way as deserves emulation, usually based upon Aristotelian virtues (and not virtu, in the Machiavellian sense). In the cases of historical materialism, it is often bloody revolutions, power-hungry conquerors, and incensed violence justified loosely by an ideal (which we may now term ideology) which often go awry and disturb moral progress.

The real war that Benjamin fails to grasp is that between the Platonic ideal and the politicized ideology. In this sense, we must be careful what we resurrect.

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