Friday, February 10, 2017

The Generational Covenant

If there is one outstanding theme in the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, it is that of the covenant of the generations—that our lives as human beings, as persons, take place in a sequence of the generations. This theme is succinctly stated in a short paper of 1942,  “The Future Way of Life,” found in Volume I of the Rosenstock-Huessy Papers (Argo Books, Norwich, Vermont, publisher). In reading this essay, I was struck by one sentence, in which he says that if one generation may carry out its temporal spirit unhampered, “war becomes the only principle of life.” In the text, he applies this observation to the Nazis. But for me, the statement brought up the question of American militarism.

The above-referenced article states that America has been at peace for only 21 years since its founding! But why does ceaseless and unending war characterize the American imperium? I believe that Rosenstock-Huessy has provided us with a way to address the problem.

Let us, therefore, trace out his argument and see what understanding we may glean from it. Rosenstock references the last book of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi, whose last verse—“Each time when the hearts of the fathers and the hearts of the children are not turned to each other, the land is cursed” (Malachi 4:6) points to the action of the spirit, which ascends through interaction of two generations. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Thus the Trinity is not a mere “belief,” a sort of “hereditary property” or gift you receive when you become a Christian. It is actually the dynamos, the action of life, that which makes possible “the flow of life into the future.”

The pagan mentality, by contrast, is to worship its own genius, to think that  mind is generated within self from birth.  Rosenstock takes pains to disabuse us of this individualist folly. One generation’s background, he notes, is the previous generation’s foreground.  In a similar vein, the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, whose thought is akin to that of Rosenstock's in many respects, remarked that "the re-appropriation of the circumstances is the entire destiny of man." That is to say, human life is a process of taking what the previous generation has given and transforming it, making it our own. This is, to be sure, "education." But it is also more than that, and Rosenstock in the 1942 essay took pains to clarify his meaning on this subject. For "education" has come to mean dispassion. To demand of the young that they have the quality of detachment is to "sterilize" them-- and of course, the scientists are "detached," and only "scientific statements are regarded as true statements, in this modern dispensation. Rosenstock quotes Alfred North Whitehead to the effect that youth is defined no so much by age as by creative impulse, and that to age belong logic and deliberation. But when everyone  is detached, when everyone keeps cool,  the world decays.

 The constitution of vital truth depends upon the collaboration of the thinkers and the doers, the meeting of acts and thought. “The living speech of the community results from the polarization of acts and thoughts, like the spark crossing the dark gap between the positive and negative poles of electricity.” It is this dynamic back and forth, this overlapping of kinds of speech and of generations, that defines the action of the spirit. “The coexistence or more than one generation at the same time, the deliverance from blind cycles and sequences, was called the achievement of the Holy Spirit.”

This is an encapsulation of Rosenstock’s generational covenant. Elsewhere, Rosenstock commented upon Cotton Mather’s observation, as far back as the 1700’s, that Americans tended to act as though they were all the same age. And speaking of today, it is impossible not to notice how many young parents act toward their own children, as if they were friends rather than parents. The children as a result seem often unable to find themselves. But does the denial of generational reality lead to violence, aggression, and self-righteous militarism? Sadly, we have the example of “American exceptionalism” –reviewed elsewhere on this blog—to thank for this.

But why would a deterioration of awareness of the generational covenant, a failure to honor and commemorate one's line of inheritance, lead to a society of aggressive militarism-- if indeed it does? Perhaps there are too many other factors at play here, and it is impossible, or presumptuous, to make a judgment. Still,  the matter bears thinking about, in my view. It is as if in the age of nuclear weapons we need to carefully rethink and rebuild our humanity from the ground up-- as a adventure in time. Perhaps if we were more appreciative of the time it takes to form humanity we could begin to overcome our infatuation with evolution and just dedicate ourselves to the slow steps of  creating the future--  of making  future possible.

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On a personal note, my memoir of race, slavery, civil rights and religion in one Southern family over five generations, Stewards of History,  was originally subtitled “The Covenant of Generations in One Southern Family.” I later changed the subtitle to “A Study of the Nature of a Moral Deed.” But perhaps I should have kept it. My original subtitle was closer to the truth of the matter. We have hardly begun to fathom the significance of the generational  bond that attests to our humanity.

Two Additional Notes
February 16, 2017
[1] Ortega y Gasset's Man and Crisis [1958] contains two chapters relating to the generations-- "Generations in History" and "Again the Generation"--"the generation is the fundamental concept of history"--"...each human generation carries within itself all the previous generations..." And: "The presentiment that things are about the undergo a radical change before they actually do change should not surprise us, for it has always preceded the great historical mutations; also it is proof that such transformations are not imposed on humanity from without by the mere chance of external happenings, but emanate from interior modifications generated in the hidden recesses of man's soul."  Mankind is generational: this is our inward and indelible character and history, so to speak, is its outward manifestation. This is my objection to that popular work by Strauss and Howe, The Fourth Turning, where they say that man's "seasonal" nature (infancy, youth, middle age, elder, etc.) is the "cause" of the generational turnings that occur in history. But I would say that there are seasons in our life because we are born in generations. That is the inner reality. The authors have attempted, however, to characterize the succeeding generations in a way that resonates with unfolding historical events. It is an interesting and valuable  contribution, and shows that western mankind is beginning to seek an avenue out of the dogma of "Individualism."

[2] On another level entirely, the Russian thinker Nikolai Levashov (died June, 2011) in his book Russian History Viewed Through Distorted Mirrors  made an interesting comment concerning the attainment of a fully human status--  He says: "...the critical information content necessary for transition from the stage of reasoning animal to that of man requires the common experience of at least several generations of the whole human society. The greater the number of people who take part in the creation of this informational bank, the faster will the individual be able to transition from the stage of reasoning animal to human...."(p. 65)

It seems to me that the concept of the generations is enormously important. It is no accident that the dark and inhuman forces active in genetic manipulation today are threatening this foundation of our life.






  1. Thanks! Do you have a way to sing up to get blog posts via email?

    1. Sing up- well yes, I love to sing too! But I have not been very much of a faithful keeper of this blog. Perhaps you will inspire me to do better!

  2. 'Sing up'--what a felicitous mis-typing!