Thursday 29 April 2010
The Return of the Hero
In criticising Thomas Carlyle's great man theory of history Herbert Spencer said that an individual is the creation of a series of complex influences and long before he can remake his society, his society must make him. He was, of course, reacting to Thomas Carlyle's statement to the effect that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men" by pushing the pendulum in the other direction. The reaction is understandable, and the corrective necessary. There are few modern historians who take Carlyle's inflated accounts of Robespierre or Napoleon seriously, just as few have any patience with his over-ripe and flowery prose.
The unfortunate thing is that pendulum has remained for too long at the other extreme, held in position by those who followed in the steps of Ferdinand Braudel, E P Thompson and the like. The altogether tiresome 'history from below school' has become just that-tiresome! In my experience academics are, once again, beginning to pay close attention to the actions and decisions taken by key players at key moments in time.
What, for instance, if Constantine the Great, had been killed at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, would the history of the Roman Empire have proceeded along the same lines; would we now, perhaps, be investigating Christianity as just another vanished cult along with Mithraism? What shape would the modern world have if Mohammed-or Lenin-had never been born? Is it possible to imagine that the history of Europe would have taken the same course in the middle of the last century if Adolf Hitler had never emerged from the doss-houses of Vienna, or if Soso Dzhugashvili had become an Orthodox priest?
I can assure you that it is far, far easier to get students interested in the sex-life of Henry VIII, or Charles II, than it is in crop rotation and trade patterns! Make room always for the big ideas...and for the great people.