Theses on the Philosophy of History

by Pericles Lewis

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), the German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin presents a striking image of the fear that the individual human being had lost control of time in a modernity characterized by the rapid succession of world-changing historical events. Benjamin writes of Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus” (1920), interpreting its central figure as the angel of history, whose “face is turned toward the past”:

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]

In Benjamin’s interpretation of the painting, the angel is looking at us, the human beings who move through time. Much as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s modern Americans in their boats are ceaselessly borne into the past at the end of The Great Gatsby, Benjamin’s angel of history is irresistibly propelled into the future. History would be the attempt to make sense of the continual passage of time, but history is defeated by the same force that makes it impossible to fulfill all our dreams of what Fitzgerald calls an “orgastic future.” Time, progress, history—all are forces that constantly transform our lives and that we cannot halt or even adequately represent.[2]

  1. ↑ Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Knopf, 1969), pp. 257-8.
  2. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 32.