“Great Men” and the Tide of History

550full-leo-tolstoy“Hindsight is 20/20” goes the cliche. And in my experience a lot of people want to say “I told you so.” I have to say I’m a terrible pundit—over and over in the last US presidential election cycle I predicted the meltdown of Donald Trump. I was wrong every time.

I got it completely wrong because I’m an amateur historian, and the last US presidential election cycle was the essence of that overused word “unprecedented.” History didn’t reveal much about what was occurring.

Every the amateur historian despite my recent failures to predict, I’ve been thinking recently about what has long been called the Great Man Theory. It was the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle who named Great Man Theory in 1841 when he wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Needless to say, there have long been cults around leaders. Poems, histories, oral tradition—the praise of one leader or another appears to be as old as humanity itself, and the fact that the leaders praised are mostly male points out the distortions of patriarchy.

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who had experienced the chaos of war as a young man, was incredulous concerning the Great Man Theory. Tolstoy wrote his super-long novel War and Peace in part to disprove the theory by showing just how complex and confused the invasion of Russia by the French army had been.

Just to underline his conviction, Tolstoy stuffed War and Peace with nearly 600 characters. Tolstoy’s message is clear: Napoleon didn’t do it all.

To illustrate his claim, Tolstoy focused on the Battle of Borodino. Fought in 1812 during the French invasion of Russia, Bordino was fought by a quarter of a million soldiers and led to seventy-thousand casualties. The French army won the day but was so depleted and exhausted that pursuit of the retreating Russians was impossible. This fact meant that the Russian army remained intact and therefore the Russians did not surrender, though they did retreat from and burn Moscow. This led to disaster for the French army.

Tolstoy wrote,

. . . it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will . . .

The decisive battle for the fate of Russia; the decisive battle for the fate of the French empire. No one was in charge.

In the darkest days of the First World War, Lord Northcliffe wrote, “victory is for those who make the fewest mistakes.” This is perhaps a moment of candor that wouldn’t have occurred in more normal circumstances. We don’t like thinking that the turning points in human history have been largely accidents do we?

Would there have been a Second World War without an Adolf Hitler? Think of the list of “great” leaders from that time period: Tojo in Japan; Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao in China; Mussolini, Tito, Franco, Stalin, de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt . . . . Did the economic depression of the 1930s and the horror of the Second World War period really create so many great leaders . . . or did the need for leaders to be great create the atmosphere in which they were assumed to be great by their people?

Did Trump create the Age of Trump or did the age create Trump?

There isn’t a clear answer to whether or not leaders create the zeitgeist of their times. Tolstoy felt adamant on the point because he hoped that the mass of individuals that make up human history could by collective action make humanity more humane. A pacifist himself, Tolstoy hoped that individual conscience could aggregate into peace for humanity.

Perhaps we do well to forget about the “great men” and the tides of history, working instead for the good of those around us. The individual decisions at Bordino added up to a great slaughter. But Tolstoy is there to tell us that it didn’t have to.

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