This morning, as is my penchant, I single-handedly attempted the demolition of three friends’ self-esteem at a post-wedding brunch. As is the extent of my self-delusion, I think I succeeded. The reason these friends have lost their right to self-esteem? Their evil, malevolent, disgusting love for Aaron Sorkin.
To the half-dozen readers of this blog, my belief in the eternal evil of Aaron Sorkin is well-documented. I firmly believe that insofar as a single television writer is capable of corrupting American discourse, Aaron Sorkin has established that over and above what any other writer could ever have done. To this day, he is the only verifiable evidence conservatives have to demonstrate that liberalism and fascism go hand in hand. For his genius, I shall always revere him. For what he does with his genius, I declare open, attritional, total, and eternal war against that vile messenger of Satan.
Of course, this is (mostly) hyperbole. No artist, perhaps no single historical actor, can move the forces of history to the extent which I claimed above. But it says something about my friends’ view of the world that they took what I said even 1% seriously. History is an inexorable state of flux. Surely people can affect history, but only History can put people in the proper position to affect it.
For over a hundred years, the modern study of History was dominated by the ‘Great Man Theory’, which posits that only people at the top can truly affect change. According to this theory, men like Augustus Caesar, Mohammed, or Martin Luther created history, and in no way were they created by history – and the same goes for great aesthetic creators like Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo, or great scientific minds like Newton, Darwin, and Pauling. And yet by writing history as though all that matters is the lives and ideas of such people, all historians managed to prove was that there were many external factors involved in the creation of Great Men. The experiences which formed these great men mattered as much as their inborn talent, and there are many, many potentially great men (and many more potentially great women) who did not accumulate the necessary experiences to achieve their world-changing potential.
There was a long while when this theory was regarded as the summit of informed opinion. It was endorsed by thinkers as diverse as Gibbon, Carlyle, Emerson, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Spengler, Keynes, Barzun, Arthur Schlesinger, Harold Bloom, Egon Friedell, and many lesser-known thinkers. According to these thinkers, we lesser people are all the creation of greater beings whose thoughts create the world as we currently understand it. It should go without saying that, at least to an uncomfortable extent, they are right.
But they’re not completely right. Ironically, the most famous critic of the Great Man Theory was himself one of history’s great men who used his greatest work to rail against it. Tolstoy devoted the last 100 pages of War and Peace to a veritable polemic against the Great Man Theory – claiming that such theories were nothing more than a medieval vestige of the need of the hyper-religious for a god to explain their destinies. Ever the follower of the 18th century encyclopedists, Tolstoy had a fanatical opposition to any religious belief which smacked of submission to authority. Like Rousseau, his hero, and virtually all the other encyclopedists, Tolstoy primary belief was in the natural laws of nature. Since, according to Tolstoy and Rousseau, it is systems of rule which keep mankind from fulfilling his ultimate potential, it follows that no man is greater than any other. In the correct circumstances, any uneducated peasant can contribute as much to the growth of society as the best educated nobleman (like Tolstoy).
As so often happens in philosophy, both schools of thought are absolutely right, and absolutely wrong. In recent decades we have seen the virtual collapse of the Great Man theory in university teaching. In an era when the study of critical theory is so prized, how can such an old-fashioned notion of biographical ‘Great Man’ history survive in an age of Marxist history, deconstructive history, sociological history, feminist history, - all of which share a similar intention of overthrowing the top-down, Great Man theory and all of its forgetfulness of those who suffered underneath the great men.
I don’t think many historians of a generation ago would have predicted that the Great Man theory would come back with such force into today’s discourse. But even if the Great Man theory isn’t true (and it isn’t…), it’s apparent that people need the theory of ‘Great Men’ in order to make sense of today’s world. Without it, history is a dry series of micro-speculations that is far too speculative to make an over-arching narrative. Therefore, the study of history becomes an ass-backwards proposition. The paradox of history is that to properly ascertain how history happened, we need scientific reconstruction, not a narrative recreation. But if events are reconstructed with all the precision of science, history becomes a nearly useless exercise. There are far too many historical events to exhaustively analyze them all with the precision of science and data entry. If such a project were attempted, there would be no point to history. Very little could be learned from it because it would only be a dry series of speculations that has very little bearing on people’s understanding of the world. What matters in history is not the detail but the sweep. It is the narrative of history that matters, and a proper understanding history’s narrative will always involve an artfully approximate guesswork, not any precise science.
Even if we’re mindful not to, we all assign superhuman qualities to the ‘titans’ of history, qualities that have very little to do with who these people really were, what they did, and how the world made their accomplishments possible. We can’t help it. History is too large to be understood. Therefore, there is an overwhelming temptation among thinking people to ascribe all the history which we experience in our own time as paling in comparison to the accomplishments of past heroes and villains.
The example given this morning was, of course, Barack Obama, and how his refusal to use the bully pulpit for great achievements makes him pale in comparison to an historical figure like Franklin Roosevelt – who allegedly never stopped using his position as the leader of the free world to advocate for good. Never mind that Roosevelt placed 200,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps rather than using the bully pulpit to stand up for their rights, never mind that Roosevelt refused to bomb the railroad tracks to German death camps rather than confront those who would accuse him of being controlled by a Jewish cabal; never mind that Roosevelt would never have ordered America to enter World War II without the bombing of Pearl Harbor, never mind that Roosevelt gave into to conservative clamoring to balance the budget and thus prolonged the Great Depression by four years; never mind that he thought he could make Stalin relinquish control of Eastern Europe and what would eventually become the Soviet Bloc…