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Chapter 8: The Philosophy of History

1. The Theme of History

HISTORY deals with human action, that is, the actions performed by individuals and groups of individuals. It describes the conditions under which people lived and the way they reacted to these conditions. Its subject are human judgments of value and the ends men aimed at guided by these judgments, the means men resorted to in order to attain the ends sought, and the outcome of their actions. History deals with man's conscious reaction to the state of his environment, both the natural environment and the social environment as determined by the actions of preceding generations as well as by those of his contemporaries.

Every individual is born into a definite social and natural milieu. An individual is not simply man in general, whom history can regard in the abstract. An individual is at any instant of his life the product of all the experiences to which his ancestors were exposed plus those to which he himself has so far been exposed. An actual man lives as a member of his family, his race, his people, and his age; as a citizen of his country; as a member of a definite social group; as a practitioner of a certain vocation. He is imbued with definite religious, philosophical, metaphysical, and political ideas, which he sometimes enlarges or modifies by his own thinking.

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His actions are guided by ideologies that he has acquired through his environment.

However, these ideologies are not immutable. They are products of the human mind and they change when new thoughts are added to the old stock of ideas or are substituted for discarded ideas. In searching for the origin of new ideas history cannot go beyond establishing that they were produced by a man's thinking. The ultimate data of history beyond which no historical research can go are human ideas and actions. The historian can trace ideas back to other, previously developed ideas. He can describe the environmental conditions to which actions were designed to react. But he can never say more about a new idea and a new mode of acting than that they originated at a definite point of space and time in the mind of a man and were accepted by other men.

Attempts have been made to explain the birth of ideas out of 'natural" factors. Ideas were described as the necessary product of the geographical environment, the physical structure of people's habitat. This doctrine manifestly contradicts the data available. Many ideas are the response elicited by the stimulus of a man's physical environment. But the content of these ideas is not determined by the environment. To the same physical environment various individuals and groups of individuals respond in a different way.

Others have tried to explain the diversity of ideas and actions by biological factors. The species man is subdivided into racial groups with distinctive hereditary biological traits. Historical experience does not preclude

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the assumption that the members of some racial groups are better gifted for conceiving sound ideas than those of other races. However, what is to be explained is why a man's ideas differ from those of people of the same race. Why do brothers differ from one another?

It is moreover questionable whether cultural backwardness conclusively indicates a racial group's permanent inferiority. The evolutionary process that transformed the animal-like ancestors of man into modem men extended over many hundreds of thousands of years. Viewed in the perspective of this period, the fact that some races have not yet reached a cultural level other races passed several thousand years ago does not seem to matter very much. There are individuals whose physical and mental development proceeds more slowly than the average who yet in later life far excel most normally developing persons. It is not impossible that the same phenomenon may occur with whole races.

There is for history nothing beyond people's ideas and the ends they were aiming at motivated by these ideas. If the historian refers to the meaning of a fact, he always refers either to the interpretation acting men gave to the situation in which they had to live and to act, and to the outcome of their ensuing actions, or to the interpretation which other people gave to the result of these actions. The final causes to which history refers are always the ends individuals and groups of individuals are aiming at. History does not recognize in the course of events any other meaning and sense than those attributed to them by acting men, judging from the point of view of their own human concerns.

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2. The Theme of the Philosophy of History

Philosophy of history looks upon mankind's history from a different point of view. It assumes that God or nature or some other superhuman entity providentially directs the course of events toward a definite goal different from the ends which acting men are aiming at. There is a meaning in the sequence of events which supersedes the intentions of men. The ways of Providence are not those of mortal men. The shortsighted individual deludes himself in believing that he chooses and acts according to his own concerns. In fact he unknowingly must act in such a way that finally the providential plan will be realized. The historical process has a definite purpose set by Providence without any regard to the human will. It is a progress toward a preordained end. The task of the philosophy of history is to judge every phase of history from the point of view of this purpose.

If the historian speaks of progress and retrogression, he refers to one of the ends men are consciously aiming at in their actions. In his terminology progress means the attainment of a state of affairs which acting men considered or consider more satisfactory than preceding states. In the terminology of a philosophy of history progress means advance on the way that leads to the ultimate goal set by Providence.

Every variety of the philosophy of history must answer two questions. First: What is the final end aimed at and the route by which it is to be reached? Second:

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By what means are people induced or forced to pursue this course? Only if both questions are fully answered is the system complete.

In answering the first question the philosopher refers to intuition. In order to corroborate his surmise, he may quote the opinions of older authors, that is, the intuitive speculations of other people. The ultimate source of the philosopher's knowledge is invariably a divination of the intentions of Providence, hitherto hidden to the noninitiated and revealed to the philosopher by dint of his intuitive power. To objections raised about the correctness of his guess the philosopher can only reply: An inner voice tells me that I am right and you are wrong.

Most philosophies of history not only indicate the final end of historical evolution but also disclose the way mankind is bound to wander in order to reach the goal. They enumerate and describe successive states or stages, intermediary stations on the way from the early beginnings to the final end. The systems of Hegel, Comte, and Marx belong to this class. Others ascribe to certain nations or races a definite mission entrusted to them by the plans of Providence. Such are the role of the Germans in the system of Fichte and the role of the Nordics and the Aryans in the constructions of modern racists.

With regard to the answer given to the second question, two classes of philosophies of history are to be distinguished.

The first group contends that Providence elects some mortal men as special instruments for the execution of its plan. In the charismatic leader superhuman powers

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are vested. He is the plenipotentiary of Providence whose office it is to guide the ignorant populace the right way. He may be a hereditary king, or a commoner who has spontaneously seized power and whom the blind and wicked rabble in their envy and hatred call a usurper. For the charismatic leader but one thing matters: the faithful performance of his mission no matter what the means he may be forced to resort to. He is above all laws and moral precepts. What he does is always right, and what his opponents do is always wrong. Such was the doctrine of Lenin, who in this point deviated from the doctrine of Marx.[1]

It is obvious that the philosopher does not attribute the office of charismatic leadership to every man who claims that he has been called. He distinguishes between the legitimate leader and the fiendish impostor, between the God-send prophet and the hell-born tempter. He calls only those heroes and seers legitimate leaders who make people walk toward the goal set by Providence. As the philosophies disagree with regard to this goal, so they disagree with regard to the distinction between the legitimate leader and the devil incarnate. They disagree in their judgments about Caesar and Brutus, Innocent III and Frederick II, Charles I and Cromwell, the Bourbons and the Napoleons.

But their dissent goes even further. There are rivalries between various candidates for the supreme office which are caused only by personal ambition. No ideological convictions separated Caesar and Pompey, the house of Lancaster and that of York, Trotsky and Stalin.

[1] On the doctrine of Marx see above, pp. 112 ff.

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Their antagonism was due to the fact that they aimed at the same office, which of course only one man could get. Here the philosopher must choose among various pretenders. Having arrogated to himself the power to pronounce judgment in the name of Providence, the philosopher blesses one of the pretenders and condemns his rivals.

The second group suggested another solution of the problem. As they see it, Providence resorted to a cunning device. It implanted in every man's mind certain impulses the operation of which must necessarily result in the realization of its own plan. The individual thinks that he goes his own way and strives after his own ends. But unwittingly he contributes his share to the realization of the end Providence wants to attain. Such was the method of Kant.[2] It was restated by Hegel and later adopted by many Hegelians, among them by Marx. It was Hegel who coined the phrase "cunning of reason (List der Vernunft)[3].

There is no use arguing with doctrines derived from intuition. Every system of the philosophy of history is an arbitrary guess which can neither be proved nor disproved. There is no rational means available for either endorsing or rejecting a doctrine suggested by an inner voice.


[2]. Kant, Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschicte in weltburgerlicher Absicht, Werke (Inselausgabe, Leipzig, 1921), 1, 221-40.

[3]. Hegel, Vorlesungen uber die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, 1, 83.

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3. The Difference between the Point of View of History and That of Philosophy of History

Before the eighteenth century most dissertations dealing with human history in general and not merely with concrete historical experience interpreted history from the point of view of a definite philosophy of history. This philosophy was seldom clearly defined and particularized. Its tenets were taken for granted and implied in commenting on events. Only in the Age of Enlightenment did some eminent philosophers abandon the traditional methods of the philosophy of history and stop brooding about the hidden purpose of Providence directing the course of events. They inaugurated a new social philosophy, entirely different from what is called the philosophy of history. They looked upon human events from the point of view of the ends aimed at by acting men, instead of from the point of view of the plans ascribed to God or nature.

The significance of this radical change in the ideological outlook can best be illustrated by referring to Adam Smith's point of view. But in order to analyze the ideas of Smith we must first refer to Mandeville.

The older ethical systems were almost unanimous in the condemnation of self-interest. They were ready to find the self-interest of the tillers of the soil pardonable and very often tried to excuse or even to glorify the kings' lust for aggrandizement. But they were adamant in their disapprobation of other people's craving for

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well-being and riches. Referring to the Sermon on the Mount, they exalted self-denial and indifference with regard to the treasures which moth and rust corrupt, and branded self-interest a reprehensible vice. Bernard de Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees tried to discredit this doctrine. He pointed out that self-interest and the desire for material well-being, commonly stigmatized as vices, are in fact the incentives whose operation makes for welfare, prosperity, and civilization.

Adam Smith adopted this idea. It was not the object of his studies to develop a philosophy of history according to the traditional pattern. He did not claim to have guessed the goals which Providence has set for mankind and aims to realize by directing men's actions. He abstained from any assertions concerning the destiny of mankind and from any prognostication about the ineluctable end of historical change. He merely wanted to determine and to analyze the factors that had been instrumental in man's progress from the straitened conditions of older ages to the more satisfactory conditions of his own age. It was from this point of view that he stressed the fact that "every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the providential care of its Author" and that "we may admire the wisdom and goodness of God, even in the weakness and folly of men." The rich, aiming at the "gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires," are "led by 'an' invisible hand" in such a way that they "without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means for the multiplication of the

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species."[1] Believing in the existence of God, Smith could not help tracing back all earthly things to him and his providential care, just as later the Catholic Bastiat spoke of God's finger.[2] But in referring in this way to God neither of them intended to make any assertion about the ends God may want to realize in historical evolution. The ends they dealt with in their writings were those aimed at by acting men, not by Providence. The pre-established harmony to which they alluded did not affect their epistemological principles and the methods of their reasoning. It was merely a means devised to reconcile the purely secular and mundane procedures they applied in their scientific efforts with their religious beliefs. They borrowed this expedient from pious astronomers, physicists, and biologists who had resorted to it without deviating in their research from the empirical methods of the natural sciences.

What made it necessary for Adam Smith to look for such a reconciliation was the fact that-like Mandeville before him-he could not free himself from the standards and the terminology of traditional ethics that condemned as vicious man's desire to improve his own material conditions. Consequently he was faced with a paradox. How can it be that actions commonly blamed as vicious generate effects commonly praised as beneficial? The utilitarian philosophers found the right answer. What results in benefits must not be rejected as morally bad. Only those actions are bad which produce

[1]. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Pt. II, Sec. III, ch.3, and Pt. IV, ch. 1 (Edinburgh, 1813), 1, 243, 419-20.

[2]. Bastiat, Harmonies economiques (2d ed. Paris, 1851), p. 334.

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bad results. But the utilitarian point of view did not prevail. Public opinion still clings to pre-Mandevillian ideas. It does not approve of a businessman's success in supplying the customers with merchandise that best suits their wishes. It looks askance at wealth acquired in trade and industry, and finds it pardonable only if the owner atones for it by endowing charitable institutions.

For the agnostic, atheistic, and antheistic historians and economists there is no need to refer to Smith's and Bastiat's invisible hand. The Christian historians and economists who reject capitalism as an unfair system consider it blasphemous to describe egoism as a means Providence has chosen in order to attain its ends. Thus the theological views of Smith and Bastiat no longer have any meaning for our age. But it is not impossible that the Christian churches and sects will one day discover that religious freedom can be realized only in a market economy and will stop supporting anticapitalistic tendencies. Then they will either cease to disapprove of self-interest or return to the solution suggested by these eminent thinkers.

Just as important as realizing the essential distinction between the philosophy of history and the new, purely mundane social philosophy which developed from the eighteenth century on is awareness of the difference between the stage-doctrine implied in almost ,every philosophy of history and the attempts of historians to divide the totality of historical events into various periods or ages.

In the context of a philosophy of history the various states or stages are, as has been mentioned already,

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intermediary stations on the way to a final stage which will fully realize the plan of Providence. For many Christian philosophies of history the pattern was set by the four kingdoms of the Book of Daniel. The modern philosophies of history borrowed from Daniel the notion of the final stage of human affairs, the notion of "an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away."[3] However Hegel, Comte, and Marx may disagree with Daniel and with one another, they all accept this notion, which is an essential element in every philosophy of history. They announce either that the final stage has already been reached (Hegel), or that mankind is just entering it (Comte), or that its coming is to be expected every day (Marx).

The ages of history as distinguished by historians are of a different character. Historians do not claim to know anything about the future. They deal only with the past. Their periodization schemes aim at classifying historical phenomena without any presumption of forecasting future events. The readiness of many historians to press general history or special fields-like economic or social history or the history of warfare-into artificial sub-divisions has had serious drawbacks. It has been a handicap rather than an aid to the study of history. It was often prompted by political bias. Modern historians agree in paying little attention to such period schemes. But what counts for us is merely establishing the fact that the epistemological character of the periodization of history by historians is different from the stage schemes of the philosophy of history.


[3]. Daniel 7:14

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4. Philosophy of History and the Idea of God

The three most popular pre-Darwinian [1]philosophies of history of the nineteenth century-those of Hegel, Comte, and Marx-were adaptations of the Enlightenment's idea of progress. And this doctrine of human progress was an adaptation of the Christian philosophy of salvation.

Christian theology discerns three stages in human history: the bliss of the age preceding the fall of man, the age of secular depravity, and finally the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. If left alone, man would not be able to expiate the original sin and to attain salvation. But God in his mercy leads him to eternal life. In spite of all the frustrations and adversities of man's temporal pilgrimage, there is hope for a blessed future.

The Enlightenment altered this scheme in order to make it agree with its scientific outlook. God endowed man with reason that leads him on the road toward perfection. In the dark past superstition and sinister machinations of tyrants and priests restrained the exercise of this most precious gift bestowed upon man.

[1]. The Marxian system of philosophy of history and dialectic materialism was completed with the Preface, dated January 1859, of Zur Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie. Darwin?s The Origin of Species appeared in the same year. Marx read it in the first part of December 1860 and declared in letters to Engels and Lassalle that in spite of various shortcomings it provided a biological foundation (?naturhistorische Grundlage? or ?naturwissenschaftliche Unterlage?) for his doctrine of the class struggle. Karl Marx, Chronik seines Lebens in Einzeldaten (Moscow, Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, 1934), pp. 206, 207.

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But at last reason has burst its chains and a new age has been inaugurated. Henceforth every generation will surpass its predecessors in wisdom, virtue, and success in improving earthly conditions. Progress toward perfection will continue forever. Reason, now emancipated and put in its right place, will never again be relegated to the unseemly position the dark ages assigned to it. All "reactionary" ventures of obscurantists are doomed to failure. The trend toward progress is irresistible.

Only in the doctrines of the economists did the notion of progress have a definite, unambiguous meaning. All men are striving after survival and after improvement of the material conditions of their existence. They want to live and to raise their standard of living. In employing the term "progress" the economist abstains from expressing judgments of value. He appraises things from the point of view of acting men. He calls better or worse what appears as such in their eyes. Thus capitalism means progress since it brings about progressive improvement of the material conditions of a continually increasing population. It provides people with some satisfactions which they did not get before and which gratify some of their aspirations.

But to most of the eighteenth-century champions of meliorism this "mean, materialistic" content of the economists' idea of progress was repulsive. They nurtured vague dreams of an earthly paradise. Their ideas about the conditions of man in this paradise were rather negative than affirmative. They pictured a state of affairs free of all those things which they found unsatisfactory in their environment: no tyrants, no oppression or persecution,

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no wars, no poverty, no crime; liberty, equality, and fraternity; all men happy, peacefully united, and cooperating in brotherly love. As they assumed that nature is bountiful and all men were good and reasonable, they could see no cause for the existence of all that they branded evil but inherent deficiencies in man-kind's social and political organization. What was needed was a constitutional reform that would substitute good laws for bad laws. All who opposed this reform dictated by reason were considered hopelessly depraved individuals, enemies of the common weal, whom the good people were bound to annihilate physically.

The main defect of this doctrine was its incomprehension of the liberal program as developed by the economists and put into effect by the harbingers of capitalistic private enterprise. The disciples of Jean Jacques Rousseau who raved about nature and the blissful condition of man in the state of nature did not take notice of the fact that the means of subsistence are scarce and that the natural state of man is extreme poverty and insecurity. They disparaged as greed and predatory selfishness the businessmen's endeavors to remove need and want so far as possible. Witnesses to the inauguration of new ways of economic management that were destined to provide unprecedented improvement in the standard of living for an unprecedented increase of population, they indulged in daydreams about a return to nature or to the alleged virtuous simplicity of early republican Rome. While manufacturers were busy improving the methods of production and turning out more and better commodities for the consumption of

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the masses, the followers of Rousseau perorated about reason and virtue and liberty.

It is vain to talk about progress pure and simple. One must first clearly designate the goal one has chosen to attain. Only then is it permissible to call an advance on the way that leads to this goal progress. The philosophers of the Enlightenment entirely failed in this regard. They did not say anything definite about the characteristics of the goal they had in mind. They only glorified this insufficiently described goal as the state of perfection and the realization of all that is good. But they were rather hazy in employing the epithets perfect and good.

As against the pessimism of ancient and modern authors who had described the course of human history as the progressive deterioration of the perfect conditions of the fabulous golden age of the past, the Enlightenment displayed an optimistic view. As has been pointed out above, its philosophers derived their belief in the inevitability of progress toward perfection from the confidence they placed in man's reason. By dint of his reason man learns more and more from experience. Every new generation inherits a treasure of wisdom from its forbears and adds something to it. Thus the descendants necessarily surpass their ancestors.

It did not occur to the champions of this idea that man is not infallible and that reason can err in the choice both of the ultimate goal to be aimed at and of the means to be resorted to for its attainment. Their theistic faith implied faith in the goodness of almighty Providence that will guide mankind along the right

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path. Their philosophy had eliminated the Incarnation and all the other Christian dogmas but one: salvation. God's magnificence manifested itself in the fact that the work of his creation was necessarily committed to progressive improvement.

Hegel?s philosophy of history assimilated these ideas. Reason (Vernunft) rules the world, and this cognition is tantamount to the insight that Providence rules it. The task of philosophy of history is to discern the plans of Providence.[2] The ultimate foundation of the optimism that Hegel displayed with regard to the course of historical events and the future of mankind was his firm faith in God's infinite goodness. God is genuine goodness. "The cognition of philosophy is that no power surpasses the might of the good, i.e., God, and could prevent God from asserting himself, that God is right at the last, that human history is nothing else than the plan of Providence. God rules the world; the content of his government, the realization of his plan, is the history of mankind."[3]

In the philosophy of Comte as well as in that of Marx there is no room left for God and his infinite goodness. In the system of Hegel it made sense to speak of a necessary progress of mankind from less to more satisfactory conditions. God had decided that every later stage of human affairs should be a higher and better stage. No other decision could be expected from the almighty and infinitely good Lord. But the atheists Comte and

[2]. Hegel, Vorlesungen uber die Philosophie der Weltgeschicte, 1, 4, 17-18.

[3]. Ibid., p. 55.

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Marx should not have simply assumed that the march of time is necessarily a march toward ever better conditions and will eventually lead to a perfect state. It was up to them to prove that progress and improvement are inevitable and a relapse into unsatisfactory conditions impossible. But they never embarked upon such a demonstration.

If for the sake of argument one were prepared to acquiesce in Marx's arbitrary prediction that society is moving "with the inexorability of a law of nature" toward socialism, it would still be necessary to examine the question whether socialism can be considered as a workable system of society?s economic organization and whether it does not rather mean the disintegration of social bonds, the return to primitive babarism, and poverty and starvation for all.

The purpose of Marx?s philosophy of history was to silence the critical voices of the economists by pointing out that socialism was the next and final stage of the historical process and therefore ahigher and better stage than the preceding stages; that it was even the final state of human perfection, the ultimate goal of human history. But this conclusion was a non sequitur in the frame of a godless philosophy of history. The idea of an irresistible trend toward salvation and the establishment of a perfect state of everlasting bliss is an eminently theological idea. In the frame of a system of atheism it is a mere arbitrary guess, deprived of any sense. There is no theology without God. An atheistic system of philosophy of history must not base its

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optimism upon confidence in the infinite goodness of God Almighty.

5. Activistic Determinism and Fatalistic Determinism

Every philosophy of history is an instance of the popular idea, mentioned above [1], that all future events are recorded in advance in the great book of fate. A special dispensation has allowed the philosopher to read pages of this book and to reveal their content to the uninitiated.

This brand of determinism inherent in a philosophy of history must be distinguished from the type of determinism that guides man's actions and search for knowledge. The latter type we may call it activistic determinism-is the outgrowth of the insight that every change is the result of a cause and that there is a regularity in the concatenation of cause and effect. However unsatisfactory the endeavors of philosophy to throw light upon the problem of causality may have been hitherto, it is impossible for the human mind to think of uncaused change. Man cannot help assuming that every change is caused by a preceding change and causes further change. Notwithstanding all the doubts raised by the philosophers, human conduct is entirely and in every sphere of life action, philosophy and science directed by the category of causality. The lesson brought home to man by activistic determinism is: If

[1]. See above, p. 79.

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you want to attain a definite end, you must resort to the appropriate means; there is no other way to success.

But in the context of a philosophy of history determinism means: This will happen however much you may try to avoid it. While activistic determinism is a call to action and the utmost exertion of a man's physical and mental capacities, this type of determinism-we may call it fatalistic determinism-paralyzes the will and engenders passivity and lethargy. As has been pointed out[2], it is so contrary to the innate impulse toward activity that it never could really get hold of the human mind and prevent people from acting.

In depicting the history of the future the philosopher of history as a rule restricts himself to describing big-scale events and the final outcome of the historical process. He thinks that this limitation distinguishes his guesswork from the augury of common soothsayers who dwell upon details and unimportant little things. Such minor events are in his view contingent and unpredictable. He does not bother about them. His attention is exclusively directed toward the great destiny of the whole, not to the trifle which, as he thinks, does not matter.

However, the historical process is the product of all these small changes going on ceaselessly. He who claims to know the final end must necessarily know them too. He must either take them all in at a glance with all their consequences or be aware of a principle that inevitably directs their result to a preordained end. The arrogance with which a writer elaborating his system of philosophy of history looks down upon the small fry of palmists

[2]. See above, pp. 79 ff.

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and crystal gazers is therefore hardly different from the haughtiness which in precapitalistic times wholesalers displayed toward retailers and peddlers. What he sells is essentially the same questionable wisdom.

Activistic determinism is by no means incompatible with the rightly understood-idea of freedom of the will. It is, in fact, the correct exposition of this often misinterpreted notion. Because there is in the universe a regularity in the concatenation and sequence of phenomena, and because man is capable of acquiring knowledge about some of these regularities, human action becomes possible within a definite margin. Free will means that man can aim at definite ends because he is familiar with some of the laws determining the flux of world affairs. There is a sphere within which man can choose between alternatives. He is not, like other animals, inevitably and irremediably subject to the operation of blind fate. He can, within definite narrow limits, divert events from the course they would take if left alone. He is an acting being. In this consists his superiority to mice and microbes, plants and stones. In this sense he applies the -perhaps inexpedient and misleading- term "free will."

The emotional appeal of the cognizance of this freedom, and the idea of moral responsibility which it engenders, are as much facts as anything else called by that name. Comparing himself with all other beings, man sees his own dignity and superiority in his will. The will is unbearable and must not yield to any violence and oppression, because man is capable of choosing between life and death and of preferring

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death if life can be preserved only at the price of submitting to unbearable conditions. Man alone can die for a cause. It was this that Dante had in mind: "Che' volonta', se non vuol, non s'ammorza."[3]

One of the fundamental conditions of man's existence and action is the fact that he does not know what will happen in the future. The exponent of a philosophy of history, arrogating to himself the omniscience of God, claims that an inner voice has revealed to him knowledge of things to come.


[3]. Dante, Paradiso, IV, 76: ?The will does not die if it does not will.?

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