No Comment, Quotation — September 5, 2007, 12:00 am

Benjamin on the Philosophy of History

‘One of the most peculiar characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is. . . alongside so much selfishness in specific circumstances, the lack of jealousy which the present displays toward the future.’ This observation leads us to guard an image of happiness which is thoroughly tinted by the particular era to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is inextricably tied up with our image of salvation. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the subject of history. The past carries with it a secret index by which it is connected to salvation. Are we not touched by a whiff of the breeze which surrounded those who passed before us? Do we not find in voices to which we lend our ear and echo of those now made silent? Do the women who now we court not have sisters, whom they no longer recognize? If so, then there exists a secret agreement between the generations which have passed before and our own. Our appearance on earth was anticipated. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past lays claim. That claim cannot be simply dismissed. The historical materialist understands why.

Walter Benjamin, Über den Begriff der Geschichte: II. geschichtshistorische These (1940) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I/2, pp. 693-94 (S.H. transl.)

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