The Next Day: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History XVIII
“In relation to the history of organic life on earth,” writes a modern biologist, “the paltry fifty millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twenty-four hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last second of the last hour.” The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides with the stature which the history of mankind has in the universe. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 263
In this final thesis, Benjamin is driving home the point that revolutionary time is qualitative, and distinct, from historicist time. The metaphor of the 24 hour day is both well-known and well-used as a way to make clear the relative place of humanity, and human “civilization”, in the whole scheme of the Universe. I remember encountering first 34 years ago watching the first Cosmos hosted by the late Carl Sagan. Here, however, Benjamin is using it to highlight a social and political point: the present, as the historical materialist understands the concept, is the close of the day not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well. For the historical materialist, the present is understood as that moment that is filled with past, present, and future, ready to burst forth in revolutionary possibility for the future.
The present moment is the close of the day, the end of what we have known and understood, and the beginning of a new day. Precisely because it is present, it has this potential qua present. It is not a temporal succession. It is kairos, as written about earlier. It is the moment of decision, filled with possibilities that, as Benjamin wrote earlier, “blasts open the continuum of history”. The present, understood as a historical materialist understands it, is always there, ready to be grasped by those who see and know and are willing to risk the coming of a new day.
In this way, Benjamin’s vision is remarkably like that of premillennialist Christians and Messianic Jews such as the Hasidim: the moment for the coming of the Kingdom is always present, and those who understand and believe and live with this present always at hand will be those who move to the New Creation/Kingdom/Messianic future aware that the New Day has dawned. Even mainstream Christian thought understands the Easter event of the resurrection in this way. Jesus’s resurrection is the first moment of the new era, the sign sine qua non that the promises of God are being fulfilled. Christians and Messianic Jews both grasp this, and profess being grasped by this, and live to bring about the completion of this task. In many ways, such are the revolutionary class, abiding not by the clocks and calendars of the world but by the Time of the Present, the breaking forth of God’s New Creation.
That Benjamin was echoing long-held beliefs, particularly in his case of Messianic Jews, has not been lost on many commentators, both favorable and unfavorable. Benjamin’s close friend Ernst Bloch would pick up similar themes in his Marxist-Utopian vision set out in The Principle Of Hope. Christian theologians, in particular, have used similar schemes for making clear an understanding of the Christian faith for our times; both liberation theologians in South and Central America as well as European “political” theologians such as Johann Baptist Metz and Jurgen Moltmann owe much both to Bloch and, much earlier, Benjamin, who was, in turn, indebted to his friend Gershom Scholem, an early interpreter of Messianic and mystical Judaism for the 20th century.
There are two subsequent “clauses”, perhaps best described as background that need to be looked at. After them, there will be a final overview of the Theses as a whole.