Should “providential history” be left to seers? Is it ever possible in a pluralistic world to persuasively ferret out meaning in the chaotic and seemingly arbitrary movement of history?
Perhaps such an effort is a lost cause in a pluralistic society where beliefs on the ultimate existence of God vary so widely. But to concede there is no purpose or direction in history seems a surrender to a similarly fallacious acceptance of the bankruptcy of this aspect of pluralism. After all, just because people are confused about a fact does not mean that the fact does not exist. And just because society deems something not knowable right now does not mean it never was knowable. Interpretation, however, remains a problem among autonomous individuals.
It seems that a work of “providential history,” which attempts to identify the guiding hand of God in history, weaving in and out of the human agency that results in the actual facts of history, can only be persuasive and valuable within a closed setting — that is, when created and used by a group that shares fundamental beliefs about the existence of God and divine purposes. Thus, a recent and fascinating exercise in providential history by Latter-day Saints (Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History (2003)) might be enlightening for Latter-day Saints but appear only to relativize history to others or at the minimum seem like insider speak. The problem is that such an exercise can be described as simple cherry-picking.
But who is to say that there is no value in this type of cherry-picking? This was much more common in the eighteenth century — among people who considered themselves perfectly enlightened, indeed whose era itself carries that name — than it is today. For example, the eighteenth-century German historian/writer/poet Friedrich Schiller (1759 -1805) encouraged it in the interest of a didactic, universal history (or Universalgeschichte).
After completing his History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands in 1788, Schiller was appointed as a professor of history at the University of Jena. He gave an enthusiastic inaugural lecture to resounding applause from his future students. In this lecture, which was titled “What is and why study universal history?” (May 26, 1789), Schiller expressed in no uncertain terms his optimistic philosophy that humanity was developing through the course of history to a state of “perfection.” This was the ultimate goal of human history. And the proof was in the pudding — in the study of history itself.
Initially, Schiller based his universal history on the teleological principle that world history is leading humanity to a specific progressive end. Outlining his program of reading teleological meaning into history, Schiller posits that the historian must make sense of the “chain of events” visible throughout history that has culminated in the present age (MA 2:18). History is like a stage, and although individual actors and their thoughts may sink into anonymity, history — with an unobstructed view of the liberating end — continually observes the theater and incorporates everything into this progression (MA 2:21-22). But to read meaning into something is to cherry pick, isn’t it? No matter, Schiller unashamedly endorses this approach anyway:
Man changes and flees from the stage; his ideas flee and change with him: History alone remains permanently on the stage, an immortal Citizen of all nations and times. Like Homerâ€™s Zeus she looks down serenely both on the bloody works of war and on peaceful peoples who nourish themselves from the milk of their flocks. No matter how arbitrary human freedom appears in the course of world events, she still observes the intricate play: for her far-reaching view discovers the distant scene in which this erratically floating freedom is anchored to the leading cord of Necessity. That which she veils from the punishing conscience of a Gregory or Cromwell she hurries to reveal to humanity: “that the selfish man may indeed pursue base ends, but in so doing unconsciously promotes excellent ones.” (MA 2:22.)
And history itself only follows the guiding hand of Nature. The historian’s job, figures Schiller, is to discern the path that history is taking based on an understanding of the teleological principles driving history. He goes so far as to write that
History, by interpreting the fine mechanism through which the silent hand of Nature has been developing the powers of humanity according to plan since the beginning of the world, and by demonstrating with exactness that which has been won in each earth-age for this grand plan of Nature, restores the true measure of bliss and merit which the ruling insanity in each century has falsified differently. (MA 2:22 (emphasis added).)
This is striking language indeed — purpose, plan, Necessity, etc. Ironically, however, despite this heady language about “restoring the true measure of bliss and merit” from the “ruling insanity in each century,” Schiller’s faith in this universal history, which closely resembles providential history, was shaken — even destroyed — only a few months later by the tyranny of the French Revolution, the implosion of the Enlightenment that had meant so much to Schiller. The irrational bloodbath of the French Revolution — which Schiller seemed to feel contradicted his idea of progress in universal history — influenced him to refocus his attention on the philosophical and aesthetic development of the individual to an ultimate moral end through aesthetical education rather than on the progression of society through a guided history. The ultimate moral perfection of the individual became, for Schiller, a necessary precondition for society’s teleological progression.
Cherry-picking constituted the fatal flaw in Schiller’s universal history. (For the world of literature, however, this was a good thing, even — providential? — because Schiller turned to philosophy and then adapted the Kantian ideas that he found so persuasive to a form of aesthetic education through literature meant to portray the perfection of the individual. Some of his greatest literary works followed this shift.) The French Revolution was too close and seemed like a step backward too big to be resolved by cherry-picking.
Schiller gave up perhaps a little too easily on the idea of universal history (although it is not certain that he did give up on it altogether). For those who believe in prophecy and seers, the contours of universal (or more accurately, providential) history can still be seen. It would seem, however, that the writer of providential history, whether a true seer or otherwise, is cherry-picking much like Schiller was in his universal history. (Or is this a valid assumption?) I am tempted to think this is, or can be, a good thing. It has to be honest to be good. My problem with the whole idea is with the manipulation or distortion of history by the dishonest in the interest of a questionable political agenda — the East German elementary school textbooks, Chinese history books that falsify China’s relationship with Tibet, or any host of other sinister examples of historical cherry-picking. And this brings us back to the beginning because, arguably, in a pluralistic society, a seer’s statement about the past or future, although in the interest of providential history, is viewed as such a sinister distortion. Pluralism is here to stay. Does that mean that our (LDS) providential history must go? I certainly hope not.
 Friedrich Schiller, Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte? in Werke (MÃ¼nchen: Hanser, 1966), 2:9.
 The German for “perfection” is “Vollkommenheit.” Schiller uses the word vollkommen (“perfect”) in many of his writings with the sense of “completion.” The Duden dictionary defines vollkommen as “fully developed according to its nature and without mistake” (“seinem Wesen entsprechend voll ausgebildet und ohne Fehlerâ€? (Das groÃŸe WÃ¶rterbuch der deutschen Sprache in sechs BÃ¤nden , 2807). At the end of the eighteenth century, a dual sense of both completion and wholeness conveyed by vollkommen was perhaps more pronounced. Adelungâ€™s dictionary of 1780 defines it first in its historical sense of completion: “having arrived at the desired place” (“an der verlangten Ort gekommen“) and “to complete, to accomplish” and (“vollenden, zu Ende, zu Stande zu bringen“) (Johann Christoph Adelung, Versuch eines vollstÃ¤ndigen grammatisch-kritischen WÃ¶rterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart, mit bestÃ¤ndiger Vergleichung der Ã¼brigen Mundarten, besonders aber der oberdeutschen [Leipzig: Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf, 1780], 1234-35). But the sense of wholeness in Vollkommenheit was more common even then: “that state in which a thing possesses the necessary characteristics in the right degree for its purpose or designation” (“derjenige Zustand, da ein Ding die zu seiner Absicht oder Bestimmung nÃ¶thigen Eigenschaften in dem gehÃ¶rigen Grad besitzt, oder in der wissenschaftlichen Sprache, die gehÃ¶rige Ãœbereinstimmung des Mannigfaltigen.”
 Der Mensch verwandelt sich und flieht von der BÃ¼hne; seine Meinungen fliehen und verwandeln sich mit ihm: die Geschichte allein bleibt unausgesetzt auf dem Schauplatz, eine unsterbliche BÃ¼rgerin aller Nationen und Zeiten. Wie der homerliche Zeus sieht sie mit gleich heiterm Blicke auf die blutigen Arbeiten des Krieges und auf die friedlichen VÃ¶lker herab, die sich von der Milch ihrer Herden schuldlos ernÃ¤hren. Wie regellos auch die Freiheit des Menschen mit dem Weltlauf zu schalten scheine, ruhig sieht sie dem verworrenen Spiele zu: denn ihr weitreichender Blick entdeckt schon von ferne, wo diese regellos schweifende Freiheit am Bande der Notwendigkeit geleitet wird. Was sie dem strafenden Gewissen eines Gregors und Cromwells geheim hÃ¤lt, eilt sie der Menschheit zu offenbaren: â€ždas der selbstsÃ¼chtige Mensch niedrige Zwecke zwar befolgen kann, aber unbewuÃŸt vortreffliche befÃ¶rdertâ€œ. (MA 2:22.)
 Indem sie [die Geschichte] das feine Getriebe auseinanderlegt, wodurch die stille Hand der Natur schon seit dem Anfang der Welt die KrÃ¤fte des Menschen planvoll entwickelt, und mit Genauigkeit andeutet, was in jedem Zeitraume fÃ¼r diesen groÃŸen Naturplan gewonnen worden ist: so stellt sie den wahren MaÃŸstab fÃ¼r GlÃ¼ckseligkeit und Verdienst wieder her, den der herrschende Wahn in jedem Jahrhundert anders verfÃ¤lschte. (MA 2:22.)