Mircea Eliade (1907 - ‘86) was a Romanian Historian of Religion who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Myth of the Eternal Return (1949) set out his central insight: rituals do not just commemorate humanity's common cyclical myths, but participate in and regenerate them. These great cyclical hierophanies demonstrated a primitive ‘thirst for being’ against the ‘terror of history.’ ‘Primitive ontology’ therefore resisted history (personal identity, historical memory, politics, the individual detail on which modernity relies), in favour of archetypes and myths which embedded the participant back in their ‘real’ home; an atemporal, immortal world.
Abrahamic religions, beginning with Judaism, broke with this ‘archaic consciousness’. The Israelite Prophets introduced a personal yet wholly distinct God. If ‘primitive ontology’ resisted the profane world, then ‘modern ontology’ suggests Yahweh is legible in the linear, inexorable details feared for countless millennia. Yet this ‘terrifying dialogue with God’ was and is only ever a possibility. Indeed Judaism, Christianity, Islam all contain some ‘primitive’ echo that makes history tolerable. Even then, most believers resist it. Accordingly, no wholly secular, wholly modern ‘historicisms’, Eliade contends, can survive for long.
Mircea Eliade’s work therefore offers a useful guide to Francis Fukuyama’s apologia for liberal democracy in The End of History, Political Order and Political Decay, and Identity. Modern ontologies are at their most tolerable, Eliade argues, when some great progress is made. The problem is when ‘modern’ people are forced to endure the existential shocks from which primitive man fled. The End of History is therefore a quasi-millenarian defence of historicism and the modern individual. In retreating (despite his protests he is doing no such thing) from this optimism in the decades after the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama predictably requires recourse to these ‘primitive ontologies’. When conceptualising ‘Political Decay’ to explain 21st century state crisis, he pointedly concedes to the language of death and rebirth he eschewed when arguing the accumulation of scientific knowledge was unidirectional. Indeed, it is the accumulation of knowledge-cum-history that Eliade would say drives us back to archetypes. This is most evident in Fukuyama’s argument for the incompatibility of Identity Politics and the liberal state. In this he is correct, but not for the reason he thinks. The return of Identity is the return of Archetypes. It is therefore a symptom of historicism’s failures, rather than a cause of them.