This post was made possible by a generous contribution by Matt toward the BeerAndTrembling education fund. Now that the campaign is no longer live, I encourage readers to participate by reaching out in the comments or through the “Make a Recommendation” page.
Americans are obsessed with their president, whoever he happens to be at any given time. In part, that is because the president’s powers are grossly out of proportion with the original intent for the office. The current influence of the president on the day-to-day lives of Americans would be utterly unthinkable to the American founders.
But another cause for the obsession with presidents is the way that many people have internalized the “great man theory” of history. As Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher most associated with the great man theory put it:
Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.
I am inclined to believe that the great man theory is not only wrong; it is deleterious.
It is wrong because, as Aristotle observed, every human action is directed toward some good. Whether the act achieves its objective, or whether the actor has correctly identified a good are questions beyond our present scope, but I am inclined to believe that the aggregate of human action is net gain. As a result, human history and progress is really the story of innumerable actions by each member of the species, not merely the acts of “great men.”
And the theory is deleterious because people who believe it are inclined to support the rise of dictators. If you honestly believe that humanity is only advanced by exceptional leaders who take the reins of power and exert their will on the world, you are likely to seek out and support purported “great men” who happen to share your policy preferences. Carlyle’s philosophy is the philosophy of dictators. It is no surprise that Hitler was a fan, and that Carlyle has even been described as a “proto-fascist”.
Luckily, we commoners outnumber the great men. So long as we keep acting in our best interests–which are seldom truly at odds with the interests of others–and we work to limit the influence of great men–ideally through the implementation of limited constitutional government–the great march of history can continue in its generally positive direction.
And, just as we outnumber the great men, better thinkers outnumber Carlyle, at least on the subject of the great man theory. For example:
If it be a fact that the great man may modify his nation in its structure and actions, it is also a fact that there must have been those antecedent modifications constituting national progress before he could be evolved. Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him. So that all those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from. If there is to be anything like a real explanation of these changes, it must be sought in that aggregate of conditions out of which both he and they have arisen.
Ludwig von Mises:
Simplified accounts of history, adapted to the capacity of people slow of comprehension, have presented history as a product of the feats of great men. The older Hohenzollern made Prussia, Bismarck made the Second Reich, William II ruined it, Hitler made and ruined the Third Reich. No serious historian ever shared in such nonsense… Every man, whether great or small, lives and acts within the frame of his age’s historical circumstances. These circumstances are determined by all the ideas and events of the preceding ages as well as by those of his own age. The Titan may outweigh each of his contemporaries; he is no match for the united forces of the dwarfs.
Actually, it is not strange that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the human race was regarded as inert matter, ready to receive everything—form, face, energy, movement, life—from a great prince or a great legislator or a great genius. These centuries were nourished on the study of antiquity. And antiquity presents everywhere—in Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome—the spectacle of a few men molding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and of fraud. But this does not prove that this situation is desirable. It proves only that since men and society are capable of improvement, it is naturally to be expected that error, ignorance, despotism, slavery, and superstition should be greatest towards the origins of history.
There are too many “great” men in the world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.
Beer of the week: Alter Ego – Tree House Brewing Company is known for it’s IPAs, and Alter Ego is a good one. This is a very hazy, orangish American IPA. It pours with a rocky head that hangs around for quite a while. The aroma is loaded with fruity hops, and the flavor has excellent tropical fruit notes. A decent malt body rounds out this delicious brew.
Reading of the week: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Second Epilogue – Tolstoy had strong opinions about the great man theory himself. In this excerpt, Tolstoy writes: “So long as histories are written of separate individuals, whether Caesars, Alexanders, Luthers, or Voltaires, and not the histories of all, absolutely all those who take part in an event, it is quite impossible to describe the movement of humanity without the conception of a force compelling men to direct their activity toward a certain end. And the only such conception known to historians is that of power.”
Question for the week: How can you–presumably not a “great man”–shape history?
Earlier this year, I considered bringing this blog to a close. I even started drafting Post 300 as a farewell post. As much as I’ve loved writing this blog–over the past 8+ years and on three continents–it is work. And, more importantly at this stage in my life, it is time consuming.
But I got some vital feedback at just the right time to keep me going. In the first place, I learned about the Beer Appreciation course offered by Cornell University. Then a friend convinced me that my readers care enough about this blog to contribute actual money toward tuition for that course. Even more important than the money was the fact that people wanted to engage. Many of the readers who were willing to contribute money were also eager to recommend beers and readings, and become part of the blog process. (By the way, from very early on, I have encouraged readers to make suggestions through the “Make a Recommendation” page. I don’t think that form has been used once.)
Secondly, I got a very encouraging (and unsolicited) message at a critical time. Of this blog, a friend said: “I hope it never ends.” How could I quit after reading such a sentiment?
Friends, you’ve kept me going. Thank you all for your contributions, be they monetary or just kind words. Please always feel free to comment or reach out. For my part, I will keep writing this blog until you are sick to death of it.
Beer of the week: Licher Weizen – This German Hefeweizen seems like a good representative of the style. It is quite cloudy, with a big, fluffy head. (As I now know from the Cornell course, the high protein content of wheat contributes both to the cloudiness and the foaminess.) The aroma has notes of banana and clove. (Typical of the esters associated with wheat.) The flavor follows the smell closely, especially the banana. There is just enough hops to remind you that this is, in fact, a beer. I don’t know if this is the best Hefeweizen, but it is definitely everything the style should be.
Reading of the week: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This excerpt is almost entirely dialogue, with the characters debating whether it is better “to yield readily—easily—to the persuasion of a friend” or to insist that the friend provide argument and reason. For, as one character argues, “to yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either [friend].”
Question of the week: Is there any way that this blog could be more engaging? What features/subjects/beers/etc. would induce you to comment/suggest beers/etc.?
If you are reading this, you have probably never been “in the fell clutches of circumstance.” You’ve likely never suffered “the bludgeonings of chance.” And odds are, you haven’t been engulfed by a metaphorical night as “black as the pit from pole to pole.”
If you have not been tested to the utmost, how can you know whether your soul is unconquerable? Or whether you really are the master of your own fate? And, more relevant for our present purposes, what good is the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley?
In his youth, Henley suffered from tuberculosis. He had a leg amputated when he was sixteen. Later, rather than submitting to the amputation of his remaining foot, Henley traveled to Scotland to be a patient of a doctor later to be known as “the father of modern surgery,” Joseph Lister. Lister’s antiseptic treatments saved Henley’s foot. During his three-year course of treatment, Henley wrote and published his famous “hospital poems,” including Invictus. Although he eventually lost the battle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused him constant pain and cost him his leg, Henley had spent his whole life with his head unbowed.
Invictus is also associated with Nelson Mandela and his time at the infamous Robben Island prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently with no obvious hope of ever again being a free man, Mandela supposedly recited Invictus to fellow inmates. Even in a cage, Mandela remained the captain of his own soul. (As an aside, the CIA had a hand in Mandela’s arrest. So there’s your fun fact for the day.)
For men such as Henley and Mandela, Invictus appears to affirm their mettle. The poem’s value, however, is not as an affirmation, but as a bulwark. The poem is not a boast about one’s fortitude and strength of character, but a brace against the bludgeonings of chance. Just as The Quitter by Robert W. Service helped Douglas Mawson overcome the compounded difficulties of being sick and alone in the uncharted antarctic wilderness, Invictus has served as a source of inspiration for those in fell circumstances. It would behoove us all to study poems such as Invictus while we are relatively safe and comfortable, so that we can call them to mind if and when we must face true suffering.
Beer of the week: Official by Bell’s Brewery – This hazy wheat IPA pours with a white, rocky head. It has a very faint aroma, with a hint of grass. Notes of peach are followed by a dry finish and nice wheat notes.
Reading of the week: Invictus by William Ernest Henley – This poem also lent its name to the most successful rugby movie ever made. On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it is worth a revisit. (By the way, this poem uses the adjective “fell”–meaning “terrible” or “ferocious”–to describe the “clutches of circumstance.” It is the only time I can think of where that adjective has been used to describe anything other than a “swoop.”)
Question for the week: In case of emergency, you may stock up physical needs such as canned foods, candles, and bottled water for disaster. But how do you prepare for your mental well-being?