On the topic of the role of individuals in history, I read a pretty interesting book called Ubiquity recently (reviewed on my blog ) that addresses this issue as part of its investigation into critical systems (earthquakes, forest fires, markets, etc). Towards the end, the author compares the roles of individuals in history to the grains of sand that cause mini avalanches on a sand pile:

'… the largest avalanches are far and away the most influential in terms of the effects they have on the pile. … how should some historian explain these movements?

Our historian will be sorely tempted to identify certain individual grains as having been massively influential. After all, colleagues will point out that in 1942, an individual grain of immense courage named Granular Columbus triggered an avalanche that ultimately carried grains all the way from the East to the West, and so altered the face of the world and its future. … For each great event, they can identify some extraordinary grain that touched it off, and perhaps a few others that kept it going at crucial stages. And these grains, they might conclude, are the real agents of history.

Despite being tempted to agree, our historian (a subtle observer of individual character) will have noticed that in the sand world every grain is identical to every other, so there really can be no question of any one being a Great Grain. … By understanding that the pile is always on the edge of radical change, our historian comes to realise that there are always places in the pile at which the falling of a single grain can trigger world-changing effects. These grains are only special, however, because they happened to fall in the right place at the right time. In a critical world, there are necessarily a few great roles and some grains by necessity fall into them.

Might the same be true of human history? There is no denying that some people, by virtue of their personality or intelligence, are more influential than others. And yet it is at least a theoretical possibility that our world exists in something very much like a critical state. In such a world, even if human being were identical in their abilities, a few would nevertheless find themselves in situations in which their ordinary actions would have truly staggering consequences. They might not even be aware of it, as the potential for their actions to propagate might only become apparent as history unfolded. Such individuals might come to be known as great men or great women, as creators of vast social movements of tremendous import. Many of them might indeed be exceptional. But this need not imply that their greatness accounts for the greatness of the events they sparked off.

Just as it is almost irresistibly tempting to seek great causes behind the great earthquakes or the mass extinctions, it is also tempting to see great persons behind the great events in history. But the sand-pile historian comes down firmly against the ‘great grain’ theory of history … Our historian might agree with Georg Wilhel Friedrich Hegel, who concluded that:

‘The great man of the age is one who can out into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age; he actualises his age.’

Rudolf Hauser comments:

For a fire to start one needs something that will burn and oxygen. Without either there will be no fire. With them there will still not be a fire without a spark, or more precisely enough heat to start the process. It is the same with history. No individual can change the course of history if the necessary conditions are not present. Sometimes a fire is more difficult to start and it takes greater skill on the part of someone trying to light it than when conditions are more favorable. The same with history. Sometimes a very unique person can make changes happen if conditions are only slightly favorable to such changes. At other times, conditions are so clear that almost anyone can push history in a certain direction. In short, individuals do matter in the direction history takes but more will be likely to push history in a particular direction at times so that the individual who does so matters little and at other times it takes a unique person to do so. Even if change seems inevitable, the exact direction events take can depend on individuals.

Jeff Watson writes:

Sometimes, wrong or false ideas get put into the mainstream and become accepted as fact. Consider the old axiom that fire always needs oxygen or an oxidizer to occur. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are examples of fire occurring in the absence of oxygen, such as lithium burning in the presence of a pure nitrogen atmosphere at high temperatures, forming lithium nitride. I consider this reaction to be fire as there's a visible flame, but some might dispute the fact that it is really a fire because of the lack of an oxygen component. Since it is ingrained in our heads from an early age that combustion requires four components (oxygen, fuel, heat, and chemical interaction to start a chain reaction), many will scratch their heads with disbelief at the idea of fire without oxygen. People who scoffed at the truths of Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Newton and were found to be proven wrong. Some market participants hold similar wrong ideas that get put into the mainstream. The benefit of the economic policies promulgated by John Maynard Keynes comes to mind. It will take time to get the mainstream to prove these ideas wrong, much like it took generations for the ideas of Copernicus to become accepted.

Stefan Jovanovich responds:

Riz Din mentioned Columbus. He became important in late 19th century American eyes because Italian-Americans (but, interestingly, not the descendants of his bosses, the Spanish) celebrated his discovery of the West Indies as a holiday. Before then he was no more important a figure than Vespucci and far, far less important to Americans own view of themselves than the Pilgrims. To his contemporaries the Genoese sea captain was simply one of the literally hundreds of explorers who were doing VC start-ups - looking for ways to break the Ottoman-Venetian monopoly on the spice and silk trade. When other explorers found what Columbus did not - gold and then silver - the focus of Europeans shifted somewhat from East to West; but it was not really until the sugar boom (the one commodity that could not be profitably grown in Asia) that our New World became as important as the Indies. And, even then, North America was very, very unimportant. It is always helpful (and properly humbling to us Americans who think we are truly the center of everything) to remember that after what we Inglese call the French and Indian War, the French peace treaty negotiators thought that keeping Guadalupe was more important than retaining Canada and for half a century thereafter the Brits thought they had gotten the worse part of the deal.

That is the most plausible story of what the Europeans did. But that, or any other story of how Europeans dealt with America, cannot tell us anything about the relative causal importance of individuals. The story is not an equation or an scientific test; there is no empirical answer. After enjoying and wasting half a century reading millions of words of written "history" and dragging my dear wife to old buildings, museums, and shrines, I have come to the same conclusion Hayek came to about "macroeconomics". The idea of "history" is an interesting construct, but it is an aggregationist illusion. Human action does not have a course or a moral or a lesson or a burning point; it is not a river, a sermon, a lecture or a fire. A good history is a plausible story about the past that is honest about the known records, is properly skeptical about our human capacity to tell stories that say "hooray for our side", and views the events from all sides. Not surprisingly, for every good history there are a hundred bad ones. What the bad ones all have in common is the same thing that Hayek found so dispiriting about Keynes as much as he enjoyed and respected the man: the ease with which inconvenient facts can be discarded in favor of a causal theory.

The book Guns, Germs and Steel is the most notorious recent example of really rotten history, but just about everything on PBS will do. But, to be fair, if you mute the narrations and turn off the closed captioning, the photographs have considerable interest. Or, they did, until documentaries decided to become awful dramas of "reenactment". If you want examples of the other kind of history, J.S. Holliday's history of the California gold rush, The World Rushed In, remains a classic; and his later work, Rush for Riches, is an even better story.





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