The “great (and not so great) man” theory of history *UPDATED*

According to David McCullough, in his wonderful biography of Truman, Truman’s favorite book as a child was one called, if I remember correctly, Lives of Great Men.  That book title perfectly exemplifies what I call “the great man” theory of history.

This is history as it used to be taught, with a focus on rulers and rebels who changed the world.  It is a history peopled with larger than life characters:  Moses, Alexander the Great, Pericles, Caesar, Jesus, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Napoleon, George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, etc.  History is also peopled with bad or incompetent (yet powerful) actors:  Pharoah, Nero, Caligula, Mary I, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Tsar Nicholas, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, etc.  Events may have crested, as waves do, driven by forces such as population explosions, agricultural or scientific innovations, epidemic diseases, etc., but it was powerful (or ineffectual) men and women who rode these waves, shaping their outcome.

By the time I reached UC Berkeley, the “great man” theory of history was completely discredited in favor of a Marxist view of history that focused entirely on class and economic issues as the driving forces in cultural change.  Individuals were irrelevant.  Social dynamics were the only thing that counted.  I found this school of history profoundly boring, since it was leeched of character, and it didn’t make sense to me.

My favorite example of the clash between my belief that people matter, and the Marxist view that they are irrelevant, is Henry VIII’s reformation of the Church of England.  To the Marxists, what mattered was that England, which had formerly been allied with Catholic Spain against Catholic France, lost its Spanish alliance and suddenly found itself facing off against both France and Spain.  It therefore made sense for the nation to forge an alliance with the Northern European nations, which had broken with Rome and embraced Protestantism.  To effectuate that new alliance, England went Protestant.  End of (boring) story.

But you can’t read that version of history without understanding the back story, which is all about one man and two women:  King Henry, Queen Katherine and Anne Boleyn.  The English were allied with Spain because Henry was married to Katherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess.  The English broke with Spain because Henry fell head over heels in love with Anne Boleyn.

Part of Henry’s desire for Anne had to do with the fact that Katherine clearly would never give him a son, and the English were terrified at the thought of a Queen (unsurprising, given that the last queen experiment, in the 12th century, had resulted in a bloody civil war).  However, the crudity and cruelty of Henry’s efforts to get a son were driven by his overwhelming lust.  This lust was helped by Anne’s corresponding lust, not for power, but for the throne.  She was also — and this proved very important — a devout and deeply committed Evangelical Christian.

This chapter in British history was also driven by the fact that Katherine was intransigent.  Had she yielded gracefully to the inevitability of Henry’s dynastic needs and his passions by immuring herself in a convent, that would have saved the British/Spanish alliance.  Her principled rigidity drove Henry into a stand-off with the Catholic Church, a battle with Spain and the inevitability, especially given Anne’s faith, of Reformation.

In other words, the creation of a Protestant England, which was one of the big engines for change in Western history, wasn’t driven by dry Marxist-style alliances, which broke and rejiggered themselves according to some rigid socialist algorithm.  It happened because powerful, pig-headed, passionate people made decisions that inevitably dragged history along in their wake.

People don’t have to be powerful to change history.  History can be affected just as strongly when a country vests power in someone who can’t handle it.

Louis XVI, who was the King of France as it headed towards Revolution was a perfect example.  This was a man who was so not meant to be king.  He was meant to be a sweet, gentle, village watch maker.  As France became a powder keg, with a parasitic aristocracy, and a overburdened and abused peasantry, and as articulate leaders rose to oppose the monarchy, Louis was completely helpless.  His helplessness was made worse by the fact that his wife, Marie Antoinette, was politically completely tone deaf.  Her instincts weren’t always bad, but she had a disastrous knack for making the wrong friends and the wrong political choices.

Between the two of them, it was almost inevitable that the throne would collapse, although I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the welter of blood, nor the power vacuum created for one like Napoleon.  (You can see a replay of precisely the same revolutionary flow in Russia, more than 100 years later, when the ineffectual Nicholas and the tone deaf Alexandria neatly paved the way for the Communists, led by the charismatic and quite evil Lenin.)

All of this is relevant to what’s happening today.  Although the Left is wedded to Marxist social and historical theory, it was the Left that placed all of its political, national security and economic hopes in a person the Left anointed as a great man:  Barack Obama.  Obama wasn’t going to be a mere politician, who made decisions appealing to Progressives.  He was going to be magical and god-like.  His oratory alone, aided by a little political jiggery-pokery, was going to cause oceans to fall, trees to grow, and the earth generally to reverse its right-ward axis.

Obama believed in his own press.  His faith wasn’t just in Big Government, although he is a devout believer in the merits of Big Government, as opposed to individualism.  Nope.  Obama believed in Big Government with himself at the helm.  Had he been in charge of Government, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened.  Had he been in charge, the federal government would have responded immediately and effectively in Katrina’s wake, showing that Big Government, and Big Government alone, provides total salvation regardless of circumstances.

Well, Obama got his Katrina, and he instantly proved two things:  Big Government doesn’t work, and Obama is not a great man.  Given the chance to surf on the crest of an historic moment (not a good one, but certainly an historic one), Obama has proven himself capable of only one thing:  finding someone else to blame.  The interesting thing about Big Men of history, whether they were good big men or not, is that they don’t stop with blame.  Blame may be a useful motivator (as with Hitler’s decision to blame the Jews for all of Germany’s ills), but it only goes so far.  You can’t just look for ass to kick; if you’re going to change the world, you actually have to kick some ass.

Obama is now trying to find some lemonade in the lemons that surround him by contending that the Gulf spill is proving that conservatives also crave big government.  This is not the case.  Conservatives are simply calling Obama on his promises.  By demanding that Obama step forward, they are revealing both that Obama is incapable of greatness and that Big Government is incapable of solving all problems — especially when the man at the help is a blamer, not a do-er.

I’m wandering a little here, but I’ll tighten it up with a closing song from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods:

In Obama’s world, “it’s your fault” — but, once having assigned blame, he doesn’t even know what to do.  He’s not even a good scape-goater.

UPDATE:  After writing the above post, I read Victor Davis Hanson, who makes the same point I do:  Contrary to Obama’s claim, conservatives are not suddenly clamoring for Big Government.  Instead, by demanding that Obama fulfill his “pie in the sky” pre-election promises, they are pointing out Big Government’s failure.

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  • Ymarsakar

    By the time I reached UC Berkeley, the “great man” theory of history was completely discredited in favor of a Marxist view of history that focused entirely on class and economic issues as the driving forces in cultural change. Individuals were irrelevant. Social dynamics were the only thing that counted. I found this school of history profoundly boring, since it was leeched of character, and it didn’t make sense to me.
    Probably because there was a “man behind the curtain” secret they weren’t telling you in school. And for good reasons, I would say. Can’t tell the cannon fodder what they are really being taught, now can they. It would be rather counter-productive for the Revolution.
    [cable got short circuited by two lightning-power surges and wasn’t functional until today]

  • Tonestaple

    Marxists don’t think anything through.  The whole reason their economic nostrums can’t work is because of individuals looking to satisfy their individual wants in the way that seems best to each.  For the same reason, history cannot be made by masses, if only because those masses are made up of individuals, each of whom is part of any number of different masses for as different reasons as there are individuals.  I’m never going to understand why Karl Marx was given the time of day by anyone.

  • Ymarsakar

    It was a great con. And it is still going on today. So they give Marx credit for making the foundations of such a con and also making sure that suckers were born every time wealth was redistributed.

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