Since Montaigne feels obliged to force me into reading and writing about the greatness of Julius Caesar on consecutive days, I’m going to be equally unfair to him and contrast his view of history with that of Count Leo Tolstoy.
Like Tolstoy, I’m annoyed by the “great man” theory of history:
If we allow, as historians do, that great men lead mankind to the achievement of certain purposes, which consist either in the greatness of Russia or France, or in the balance of Europe, or in spreading the ideas of the revolution, or in general progress, or in whatever else, then it is impossible to explain the phenomena of history without the notions of chance and genius …. Only by renouncing the knowledge of an immediate, comprehensible purpose and admitting that the final purpose is inaccessible to us, will we see the consistency and expediency in the life of historical figures; the cause will be revealed to us of that effect incommensurate with common human qualities which they produce, and we will not need the words chance and genius.
Indeed, much of history is written as if life consists of endless drudgery until the “Great Men” appear and shake things up, leading Tolstoy to remark that “modern history is like a deaf man, answering questions that no one has asked him.” Why do wars happen? Because great men, who write great ideas and/or command great armies, lead the lowly people into great struggle:
If the aim of history is to describe the movements of mankind and of peoples, then the first question, without answering which the rest will remain incomprehensible, is the following: what force moves peoples? To this question, modern history anxiously tells us either that Napoleon was a great genius, or that Louis XIV was very proud, or else that the writers so-and-so wrote such-and-such books …. As long as histories of separate persons are written—be they Caesars, Alexanders, or Luthers and Voltaires—and not the history of all the people, all without a single exception, who participate in an event, it is absolutely impossible to describe the movement of mankind without the concept of a force that makes people direct their activity towards a single goal. And the only such concept known to historians is power.
Ah, power – and you might expect me now to bring in Nietzsche. But actually I find Nietzsche’s will to power theory to be completely incomprehensible and it makes complete sense to me that he eventually abandoned the project. I’ll stick with Tolstoy instead, who doesn’t have the most clearly developed scheme either, but at least he develops a cogent critique of “great man theory.” Tolstoy rejects the idea that power is something that can be willed into existence by strong individuals:
If the source of power lies neither in the physical nor in the moral qualities of the person who possesses it, then it is obvious that the source of this power must be found outside this person—in those relations to the masses in which the person who possesses power finds himself …. Power is the sum total of the wills of the masses, transferred by express or tacit agreement to rulers chosen by the masses.
Or, to put it more bluntly, power is submission. The only reason why Caesar can command an army is because men of fighting age agree to follow his orders. The only reason why the President of the United States can order U.S. aircraft to bomb Libya – without consent of Congress no less – is because the nation submits to the power of an elected President to order troops to do his bidding. But it remains a curious phenomenon … why do we so eagerly submit?
What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.
Real power, in Tolstoy’s view, is the joint action of individuals, not the orders of their leaders:
Power is that relation of a certain person to other persons in which the person takes the less part in the action the more he expresses opinions, suppositions, and justifications for the jointly accomplished action. The movement of peoples is produced, not by power, not by intellectual activity, not even by a combination of the two, as historians used to think, but by the activity of all the people taking part in the event and always joining together in such a way that those who take the greatest direct part in the event, take the least responsibility upon themselves, and vice versa.
Tolstoy hints at something mystical behind these tides of history, but I like his critique best when it keeps his focus on the mystery of it all:
Why does a war or a revolution take place? We do not know; we know only that for the accomplishment of the one action or the other, people form themselves into certain units and all participate; and we say that this is so because it is unthinkable otherwise, because it is a law.
From here, Tolstoy links his theory (or more accurately critique) of history to an examination of free will. He loses the plot eventually, but along the way raises some valuable points. The first is that, if humans were truly free, no great historical events would be possible, life itself would be incoherent:
If the will of each man were free, that is, if each could act as he pleased, the whole of history would be a series of incoherent accidents. If even one man out of millions in a thousand-year period of time has had the possibility of acting freely, that is, as he pleased, then it is obvious that one free act of this man, contrary to the laws, destroys the possibility of the existence of any laws whatever for the whole of mankind. If there is just one law that governs the actions of men, then there can be no free will, for the will of men would have to submit to that law. In this contradiction lies the question of freedom of the will, which from ancient times has occupied the best minds of mankind and since ancient times has been posed in all its enormous significance.
He relates this to how we act in our day to day lives … despite the rote nature of our acts, we still perceive our routine actions as being free acts. Here, Tolstoy actually starts to sound a bit like Heidegger:
However many times experience and argument have shown a man that in the same conditions, with the same character, he would do the same thing he did before, he, when he sets out for the thousandth time, in the same conditions, with the same character, on an action that has always ended the same way, undoubtedly feels no less certain that he can act as he pleases than he did before the experience. Every man, savage or sage, however irrefutably argument and experience prove to him that it is impossible to imagine two acts in the same conditions, feels that without this senseless notion (which constitutes the essence of freedom), he cannot imagine life. He feels that, impossible as it may be, it is so; for without this notion of freedom, he not only would not understand life, but could not live for a single moment.
Why is this important? Merely for perspective – the longer in the past an event occurs, the less free actions seem to be. For example, I cannot conceive why, sometime around the age of 13, I decided that I was going to spend my life writing. This completely arbitrary decision in isolation led to a long chain of life events that brought me to where I am now and have helped define the person I’ve become. In retrospect, it all seems inevitable:
If I examine an act I committed a moment ago, under approximately the same conditions as I am in now, my action seems unquestionably free to me. But if I review an act I committed a month ago, I involuntarily recognize, being in different conditions, that if that act had not been committed, many useful, agreeable, and even necessary things which resulted from that act would not have taken place. If I transport myself in memory to an act still more remote, ten years back or more, the consequences of my act will appear still more obvious to me; and it will be hard for me to imagine what would have happened if the act had not been done. The further back I transport myself in memory, or, what is the same, ahead in my judgment, the more questionable my argument about the freedom of the act will become.
Tolstoy then suggests that the way we think of history – and of free will in general – is tantamount to the way ancients viewed heavenly bodies:
History examines the manifestations of man’s freedom in connection with the external world in time and in dependence on causes, that is, it defines that freedom by the laws of reason, and therefore history is only a science insofar as that freedom is defined by those laws. For history to recognize men’s freedom as a force capable of influencing historical events, that is, as not subject to laws, is the same as for astronomy to recognize a free force moving the heavenly bodies.
All of this is a long way of saying that I’m not on board with Montaigne’s use of exempla to define the good in humanity. These exempla are based on legends – not actual human behavior. And they require a view of history that only great men matter … that the day to day actions of humanity are meaningless without the guidance of genius hands. Don’t get me wrong, I admire genius and believe we should celebrate it … but I’m much more in favor of celebrating the art than the man. We’re instruments of art. As individuals, none of us are any better or more valuable than another.