Do Great Men and Women Shape History? Or Are We Slaves to Fate, Random Chaos, Divine Providence?

A very individualistic society like America gravitates easily to the  “great man theory of history” (which would be modernized to include women):

“a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of great men, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.”

Certainly, George Washington is still viewed as “the indispensible man” who shaped America by his character, humility, and actions. It’s hard to imagine the essential formation of the nation without him. The same could be said of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Winston Churchill, to name just a few great world leaders.

Conversely, there has been much speculation on how the world would be different if Adolph Hitler had never lived, or if he were murdered before doing so much damage. A credible argument can certainly be made that anti-semitism in Germany would not have been so virilant if Hitler did not fan the flames, and perhaps there would not have been an intensive campaign to exterminate the Jews. “Making History,” a novel by Stephen Fry published in 1998, created a scenario in which Hitler is never born. But instead of sparing civilization the trauma and carnage of World War II, a far more cunning and ruthless German dictator emerges, who uses German scientists to develop a nuclear bomb and win the war.

In most cases, great leaders aren’t just born, they are made by the moments in which they live, the culture, and by the movements that lift them to essential leadership. They are most often swept up in the tides of history, rather than masters of their own destinies. And if the specific leaders of these movements didn’t exist, someone else would probably come along to take their places.

Such speculation raises questions about the role of Providence, or God. Does our destiny turn on the outcome of seemingly random events, or is a higher power in the universe trying to teach us something from these simple twists of fate?

In studying history, it’s impossible to credibly pose the “what if” question to the great sweep of history. It’s absurd to ask, or imagine, what if the Renaissance or Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution or Great Depression never occurred? These were forces or waves building up over years and beyond the scope of a single individual to alter. While one can argue that some traumatic events — the American civil war, World War I, Vietnam — were accidents of history that could have been avoided or turned out differently with better leadership — individuals can no more stop great epochs of change than they can stop the ocean’s tides.

Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, “‘war and Peace,” written in 1879 and set in 1805-1813, shows how families are helplessly swept up in the forces of history, in this case Napolean’s invasion of Russia. Tolstoy challenges the Great Man Theory of History. From his perspective in Russia at that time, the individual actions of men rarely result in great historical events. Rather, he argues,

“great historical events are the result of many smaller events driven by the thousands of individuals involved, (he compares this to Calculus, and the sum of infinitesimals). He then goes on to argue that these smaller events are the result of an inverse relationship between necessity and free-will, necessity being based on reason and therefore explainable by historical analysis, and free-will being based on “consciousness” and therefore inherently unpredictable.

“Why does an apple fall when it is ripe?” he asks. “Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it? None of these is the cause…. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own freewill is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and preordained from all eternity.”

“To every administrator, in peaceful, unstormy times,” he writes,

“it seems that the entire population entrusted to him moves only by his efforts, and in this consciousness of his necessity every administrator finds the chief rewards for his labors and efforts. It is understandable that, as long as the historical sea is calm, it must seem to the ruler-administrator in his frail little bark, resting his pole against the ship of the people and moving along with it, that his efforts are moving the ship. But once a storm arises, the sea churns up, and the ship begins to move my itself, and then the delusion is no longer possible. The ship follows its own enormous, independent course, the pole does not reach the moving ship, and the ruler suddenly, from his position of power, from being a source of strength, becomes an insignificant, useless, and feeble human being.”

He describes how Frenchmen and Russians were caught up in the tides of history:

“Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west slaying their fellows…It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power — the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns — should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals…”

Average men were called to the service of “great men,” Napolean and Czar Alexander. But in reality, ” ‘Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”

Tolstoy seems to draw comfort from tragedies by embracing the idea that God is in ultimate control, and predetermines historical outcomes. “We are slaves to Divine Providence,” an unknowable mystery. But he also clearly states that we cannot live full lives unless we believe that we as individuals have free will.”

My friend Bruce Johnson has read Tolstoy but articulates a more modern view:

“I’m inclined to think that God leaves us to the consequences of our exercise of free will – God respects the outcomes of elections, whether the Supreme Court does or not – but hope that in some way he helps shape our awareness of choices.  The closest I can come to a hopeful view of that, which also makes sense to me, is that if Lincoln is right that “you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time” and if King is right that “no lie can live forever” then in the long run God helps shape our wise perceptions in such ways that we stumble toward the truth, and he also helps to guide people to wisdom who may come forward as our leaders if we have the wisdom to recognize them.

“For that reason, my earnest prayer throughout election years is that God will help us to choose wisely when we vote, in a way that responds to the better angels of our nature.

“In the heat of a campaign or the immediate aftermath, it’s natural for partisans to blame ‘stupid voters,’ or the candidate or a political party or the media. In the long run, it’s easier to see that greater historical forces are at work than we can see at the time.”

Drill Deeper:

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