Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Reflections on Benjamin's Theses Part 2: A Weak Messianic Power

A Weak Messianic Power

What is the relationship between happiness and time, happiness and history?

If we believe the world is getting better, why don't we envy the future?

This is because, Benjamin argues, we don't envy what will come, but we regret the things that might have happened - pasts that have permanently passed. Things that could have happened, but didn't.

When we look at the past, our evaluation of it is bound up in judgements about how that past should have been. When we think about how it should have been, that is where we locate the promise of happiness. If only such and such had happened in the past, we would be happy.

So we, in the present (and in every present, including the ones that came before), have this 'weak messianic power', this responsibility to redeem humanity from the should-haves of the past. And still, we don't look to the future, our redemption is bound up in the past that (in the present) we will fix.

That means that the people of the past have a claim on us, we are their weak messiahs who (before we even existed) promised to fix the the things they did wrong, or failed to do.

It is hard work.

II. 'One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time 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 indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

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