Great Men, Great Events and Just Plain Luck
I love history. That, plus Social Studies in general were always my favorite school subjects growing up. Then in university I began studying Biblical Archaeology as a way of joining my two biggest interests - history and religion - before reverting to straight history. (I returned to religion in GraduateSchool, where I got my Masters Degree in Theology and considered a career in the ordained ministry.) I think that if you don’t know anything about history, then you really don’t know anything at all. It doesn’t matter how good you are in maths and sciences, or how talented you are in art, music or sports and athletics, or how clever and successful you are at business. It remains that you don’t know anything - anything of substance or lasting meaning and (therefore) value - if you do not know history. For me, history explains the world as it is. How did we come to this? Why are things the way that they are? Why is there war here, ethnic hatred there, a border through this valley and a different political/economic system in place over on the other side of that river than what we have on this side? Why does this country’s flag have a blue stripe on it, and that country has stars? Why was this style of art, or music popular at this particular time? Why was that building designed like that? Study history.
And, incidentally, for me History is practically synonymous with religion, or at least Theology. Because God is a god who acts through History, the study of history therefore becomes an act of faith, a study of faith, and a study of God through His revelation of Himself in temporal events. But I could be wrong.
Psychology and Sociology do not explain the world as it is like History does. History explains the behavior and evolution of entire societies moving through time like an amoeba - stretching, contracting, sliding along, changing direction, absorbing and evacuating - a journey filled with missteps, advances, retreats and restarts, but nevertheless following certain laws. Psychology and sociology will only explain individuals (within a group, of course), and many times explain them wrong, in my opinion. So, as a key to the world, I regard History more highly.
Now, it has been suggested that there are just two primary questions in history: the functional How? question, and the causal Why?question. We also learn in high school history discussions to consider the question of whether it is Great People who make history, or Great Events that cultivate greatness and bring it out of people? Were Alexander, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Saladin the Magnificent, Washington, Napoleon, Eisenhower, etc. great because by the force of their personalities they made great, lasting, important and meaningful things happen, or were they just average, or maybe even mediocre men accidentally in the right place at the right time? And, was there something unique in their personalities to begin with that was not evident at first but then helped them rise to the accidental time and places that coincided in their lifetimes? And, could anyone at all rise to meet occasions like they did? Are we all great, or potentially great and capable of joining the likes of Pericles, Bede, or Churchill in the human story? Saying that history is solely the record of the deeds of Great Men feels unsatisfactorily undemocratic, and saying that it is a mix of the two seems like an evasion, not to mention a weak position. I remain suspicious of too high regard for arguments advocating the greatness, or potential greatness of people because - especially these days - it clearly panders to the moral confusion that paints selfishness and egotism as virtues. Western (individualistic) cultures cultivate an inflated sense of Self among people but disguise it in the cloak of respect for human dignity which, we are taught, tells us that each one of us is neither more nor less of a man than the great names of history. Maybe it is true, but is it a recipe to address successfully the problems we live with every day?
I find myself leaning towards the proposition that all people are basically the same and that events bring greatness out of us. In addition, I have a fantastically high awareness of and regard for the innate chaos, randomness and pure lucky chance that produce one outcome over another in history. The proposition that great people make history by the force of their will and their genius grossly over-estimates the ability of people to react to the dominant uncontrollable factors of existence. The human intellect cannot grasp the full range of causes that lie behind any phenomenon. If it was not so foggy on a battlefield on a particular day, then a campaign might have ended differently, affecting the entire course of subsequent history. The outcome of a battle has less to do with perceived strengths and weaknesses, numbers and munitions than most people suppose. If a commander had positioned his armies along one hill rather than another, the same could be true. Or, if the weather had not been so cold or so hot, or, if one person had survived, or had lived a mere decade earlier or later it could have changed eveything. If a messenger hadn’t been killed, or a message had not been lost, mislaid, or mistranslated. I am persuaded that greater importance lies with the little things and the happenstance of life than people usually think, because it is my observation that those people who are involved in what are considered great events themselves have no correct or accurate understanding of the importance of and outcomes of those events. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Generals don’t so much know what they are doing and following a plan as they are just making things up as they go along. Recent history shines with examples: no one in American intelligence foresaw or predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and rise of a capitalist China, the Iran-Iraq War, the break up of Yugoslavia, or even the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I think that’s interesting. Surely it is the business of the intelligence community to understand, predict and know such things. But the things that happen are not what we are led to believe, leaving us constantly in surprise and unprepared. Oh, well.
The need to discover causes is deeply ingrained in our spirits, and so we ignore the infinite permutations and sheer complexity of all the circumstances surrounding a phenomenon, any one of which could be individually construed as the thing that caused it, and instead latch on to the first and easiest approximation of events. One glance below the surface of any historical event, one glance at the actions of the mass of humanity involved in it, is enough to show that the will of the historical hero, far from controlling the actions of the masses, is itself subject to continual outside control. But while we can confidently say that there is no single cause behind any historical event, and never can be, I believe we can still say that there are laws controlling events, some of them beyond our imaginations perhaps, but some discernable. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we stop looking for causes in the wills of individual people.