Saturday, May 30, 2009

Great Men in History

I'm reading a bunch of books on or about Heroes these days.  (Why have I capitalized that word?  I don't know).  Mostly to research/get ideas for the screenplay.  I'm also reading historical biographies (as opposed to fictional biography) dealing with, well, heroic-type individuals.  Right now, I'm reading one on George Washington (known for discovering peanuts).  Yesterday, I came across an interesting sentence, which I share in the (almost certainly vain) hope that one of you yahoos can offer up some sort of intelligent response:
Periods of rapid transition in the history of man often produce extremely great men because the simultaneous existence of two systems of thought and behavior opens twice as many alternatives as are available to individuals living in a static time when only one system prevails.


JMW said...

I've been trying to think of something smart to say about this, but failing. The sentence doesn't seem strictly logical to me... I'm not sure what it means to say that in all times of rapid transition, there are two "systems" available, instead of just one. I imagine that's not always true. I'm also not convinced it has a lot to do with creating "great men." What examples are given, if any?

Anonymous said...

Great man history is ridiculous, but it is the only kind of history normal people like to read.

What are the structures that make it possible for individuals to act, is a far more interesting question, in my mind.

Anonymous said...

L, you unreconstituted Marxist. I would love for you to explore your comment more--about structures that make action possible. I have some ideas about what you mean, but I would wait before I know for certain.

One thing is true, Carlyle is pretty ridiculous. I'm reading him right now ("On Heroes and Heroism") and finding it entertaining, if hugely unpersuasive.

About Great Man history, I would say this. It's not enough to say, as Carlyle does, that all history is the history of great men. That is absurd. However, I do think that without certain people at certain places in time, events would be irrevocably different. A Marxist can convincingly argue that the US Civil War, e.g., would have happened at some point no matter the historical personages who happened to be on the scene, but I wonder how things would have turned out had James Buchannan or Andrew Johnson been the President, instead of Lincoln. A leader without Lincoln's many gifts would have had a much harder time keeping the Union whole, and might indeed have failed. I guess you can argue that eventualy the underlying economic structures would have forced the two regions to reunite, but in that 'eventually' there are a lot of possibilities. If the North and South were separate countries for 50 years, e.g., well...that's a big deal.

Or to take another example, if Henry VIII had been of a different temperament (or had been able to produce male children with his first wife) would he have tried to break away from the Catholic church? That separation seems to me in no way inevitable, yet its implications for future history were profound.

You may be right about what questions are more interesting: I don't know, I'm not a historian. The quote I took this post from has made me consider those figures that historically are considered 'Great'--who, in the words of Shakespeare, did bestride the world like a colossus. Caesar, Napoleon, Lincoln--all of them did in fact exist (pardon the cliche) at exactly the kind of moment Flexner (the quote's author) describes--at a time when two different systems of thought or systems of power, were vying with each other, neither entirely dominant. I'm sure a number of counterexamples can readibly be found, but I, at least, in my low, benighted hole, did find much in it worthy of thought.

Thanks, though, for responding. I'm reading and thinking a lot more about history as of late, and have been wanting to talk to real historians. In their absence, you'll have to do. [ ;-) ]


JMW said...

I think a history that was strictly Great Man would be totally absurd, but I also think a history that was its opposite would also be absurd. I believe in some Great Men, for the reasons our host put forth in his last post. I see what you mean about Lincoln's time representing the "two systems" rule quite neatly. So yes, it makes more sense in light of that.

I also think the Great Man theory has to allow for men who weren't "great" in a value-judgment way but very powerful -- like Hitler. Would the conditions in Germany have created something like the Nazi party, etc., etc.? Sure. But in a mirror image of your example of Lincoln, ANCIANT, would the party have been as cohesive and destructive without such a persuasive leader? (This could be an endless discussion, of course: i.e., would the Democrats have won in 2008 if they had a thoroughly average candidate? etc.)