Great Men, Bad Historiography

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:

Herbert Spenser:

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.

Bastiat:

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?

 


Scoundrel Worship

This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle

It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.

If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.

But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.

What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”

Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.

Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.

Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”

Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?


Industry

This is the seventh in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.

INDUSTRY:  Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
– Franklin

It is often discouraging to observe how much work has yet to be done. There are papers to write, dishes to wash, bridges to build. And the sheer quantity of work that will remain undone at the end of each day can make one despair of every really making a difference. This pessimism must be combated.

According to Helen Keller, Charles Darwin’s ill-health made it impossible for him to write for any more than half of an hour at a time; “yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy.” In fact, it seems that Keller vastly undersells Darwin’s illness. According to Wikipedia, “Darwin suffered intermittently from various combinations of symptoms such as: malaise, vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, cramps and colics, bloating and nocturnal intestinal gas, headaches, alterations of vision, severe tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, skin problems such as blisters all over the scalp and eczema, crying, anxiety, sensation of impending death and loss of consciousness, fainting tachycardia, insomnia, tinnitus, and depression.” Chronic vomiting is bad enough, but to have to find the puke bucket a bucket with blurred vision and vertigo must be a special kind of hellish. Yet somewhere between the cramps and sensation of impending death, Darwin was still able to change the world.

Helen Keller herself was no slouch in the overcoming adversity department. Unable to see or hear, she still learned to read, write, and speak(!) several languages. She also became a noted political advocate and lecturer. But international fame was not her primary ambition. “I long to accomplish a great and noble task;” she writes, “but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”

So when the mountain of work seems unclimbable, follow Franklin’s advice and waste as little time as possible. Remember Darwin and let nothing, even yourself, prevent you from achieving your goals. Be like Keller and take pride in even the most humble tasks. And heed the exhortation of Thomas Carlyle:

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

 

IMG_0052Beer of the week: Sublime Ginger – This hazy, straw-colored offering from Forbidden Root is really good. The base is a dry wheat beer, with ginger, key lime, and botanicals. And those additions all make themselves known. The aroma is dominated by the ginger and citrus. The flavor is bright and limey. The ginger and herbs are also in the flavor, but without as much bite as one might expect. Overall, a nice refreshing drink.

Reading of the week: Optimism by Helen Keller, Part I – Keller’s optimism must be among the most sincere examples in history. For seven years, she lived in a totally isolated world of darkness and silence. Then she learned language, and the inertia of that “first leap out of the darkness” carried her forward for the rest of her life.

Question for the week: Recreation and relaxation are productive to a point; they improve our state of mind and reinvigorate our bodies and souls for the tasks ahead. But is there any clear line between relaxation and idleness?