exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity
Professor Carl Gustavson
A Preface to History
The Individual in History
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"When I was at Oxford studying history 60 years ago the fashionable approach was to discount individuals and stress the importance of forces and classes. Everything I've learned since, reporting in the real world ... has proved how important outstanding individuals are, for good and evil." Paul Johnson
Editor's note for further discussion on the dismantling of "The Great Man Theory," see this page.
The chapters so far have dealt mostly with the impersonal factors that help to determine the course of history. Individual persons have usually appeared to be little more than pawns of powerful social forces. Most of us prefer, however, to believe in man's free will, in his capacity to make decisions both as a private individual and as a public figure. We like to think of history as an arena where the heroic emerge victorious by reason of a righteous cause and by superior personal qualities. We cannot help but distribute praise and blame for men's actions as we encounter them.
There are two extremes of interpretation in regard to the amount of influence which the individual may have in deciding historical issues, determinism and the so-called "Great Man theory."
The proponents of the Great Man theory would have us believe that the major developments of human history are accounted for by the great men who sometimes seem to exert an almost superhuman control over the fate of their generation. Human progress is regarded as being primarily due to the work of these geniuses, who may be generals, statesmen, saints, or men of ideas, but who seem to tower over the men of the times in their vision and ability to lead others. They frequently are so gifted -- according to this point of view -- that ordinary rules of behavior do not apply to them. They have been able to master the circumstances of their times and remold them according to their own ideas…
Sidney Hook, in his volume The Hero in History, distinguishes between what he calls the “eventful man” and the “event-making man.” The eventful man is one who happens to be at the right place at the right time and, due to his position, makes important decisions or appears to make them. He comes into the limelight because he is part of larger events which are important. He may be borne to power by forces beyond his control, his conduct may be determined by pressures about him, yet it was he who was obliged to make the decision. The event-making man, on the contrary, is actually able to control the events to a degree and drives society in the direction which he wishes it to go. He is a genius, one who by his outstanding characteristics of intelligence, will, and ability to influence other people, has an actual capacity to accomplish his purposes. He is much more than a pawn in the game.
We may sum up this section with a few general characteristics on the ability of the individual to influence historical events; (1) some social forces are too powerful for any man; (2) the details of a single historical episode are determined largely by the work of the actors concerned; (3) the actual long-term trends are far less likely to be determined by the individual hero; (4) cases of obvious great influence are usually actually cases of the "right man at the right time"; (5) an occasional genius, by extremely dexterous and willful actions, may achieve a historical mutation; (6) every instance must be judged in its own particular context, for no universal formula will cover all cases.
The ambition, intelligence, and exertion of the countless individuals making up society is, of course, the basic source of the energies in social forces. A powerful component of this is the specific struggle of the individual for power over his fellow men, for a position of authority over others. Desire for personal aggrandizement is probably the most explosive of all social forces, Marxist emphasis on economic factors notwithstanding. Individual ambitions furnish the brains, the personal leadership so necessary for success, and frequently spearhead movements otherwise economic or religious in origins.
The constant osmosis of the competent up the social scale is generally healthy for society. It prevents the social structure from becoming static, and it brings high intelligence and vitality to leading positions. That leadership can become a peril to society, however, is testified to by the numerous devices adopted in various countries to prevent one person from acquiring too much power. This in itself, incidentally, is testimony from experience that the individual certainly can influence the development of history. Such measures have often failed, an indication that greater forces than that of individual ambitions were at work.
As has been mentioned before, a man in a position of authority will almost inevitably seek to enhance his own power. He seems to feel that he lacks enough power to accomplish his purposes. He may be completely honest in his feeling and believe that he has no personal desire for it. The problems that face the conscientious official and the constant pressures that assail him from every direction seem such that his goals cannot be attained without additional power. The temptation, where the republican tradition is not strongly engrained in a people, is to step outside the slow, cumbersome processes of popular government altogether the more readily to achieve his goals.
All democratic governments must be on their guard against such dangers. The French, twice burned by their experiences with the Napoleons, have hobbled their leaders to such a degree that the French government is notoriously inefficient. The French President occupies little more than a nominal post, and strong men have little chance to be elected to the office, while the Premier, who is responsible to the parliament, very seldom holds office for even a single year. European countries have followed the French example. The Swiss limit their President to 2 position little more than that of a chairman of an executive committee and curtail his term to a single year and also specify that he cannot be immediately reelected. The Latin-American republics often have constitutional provisions that the President, who there wields a great deal of power, cannot be immediately reelected. (It may be added that this provision is frequently overridden by ambitious men.) The ancient Romans, during the republic, entrusted authority to the office of consul. but established two of them so that each would check the other. The classical Greeks and the Italians of the Renaissance city-states went to great lengths and to peculiar constitutional devices in order to prevent too great concentration of power in the hands of one person. In the United States the President was traditionally limited to two terms; but Franklin D. Roosevelt broke this rule and was elected four times. After his death an amendment was written into the Constitution limiting the presidency to two terms.
It is, of course, impossible for a man to become a leader simply by dreaming about it or even by dedicating himself to a world-saving task. Society, as has been noted earlier, is composed of many social groups or associations, various interest groups, weak and strong institutional machinery, other ambitious or jealous persons, and social forces that keep a constant pressure on all forms of leadership. A leader must have someone to lead. Either by deliberate intent or by adoption by a group, he must come into a position to influence some association or institution in order to have enough power to make his will felt on a broader plane. An association or institution permits the voice of the single individual to be magnified to the point of being heard by a wide audience: The association or institution is the lever, a very powerful lever, whereby the individual may transform his own personal hill into social action.
Roughly speaking, a man attains such a position by one of four processes: (1) by inheritance; (2) by institutional selection; (3) by organizing his own association; (4) through influence of ideas.
A rather large proportion of the men mentioned in modern history have attained their status by the easiest method, by inheritance. They did not first have to surmount the problem of getting into power; they found themselves in such a position whether they wanted to or not. It was very commonly believed that persons of upper-class background were born with a special capacity for leadership not possessed by commoners. The crowned heads were not the only ones to inherit positions, it should be noticed, since the aristocracy, which produced most of the other important political figures, were themselves born into positions of some leadership. They were trained for leadership and grew up in an atmosphere where such qualities were constantly present; their social environment itself tended to create the habit of command. To some extent, the same atmosphere is likely to prevail in upper-middle-class families in democratic countries today.
In the second type of leadership, by institutional selection, the leader also steps into a position of power which has already been formalized by his predecessors. Earlier leaders had developed the position, created the controls which went with it, the area over which these controls were held, and the methods used to maintain the controls. The difference from the first type of leadership lies in the method of coming into power. Those leaders have most usually come up through the institution, holding lesser offices in successively more responsible positions until their obvious qualifications make them eligible for the top positions. Because such a person has been trained in the service and proved himself well adjusted to the values and practices of the institution by successive promotions, he normally makes a true representative of the institution …
On the face of it, human liberty has made less progress in the twentieth century than in the preceding one hundred years. We need not, however, be unduly pessimistic about seeming retrogression. Individual freedom in the Western countries had been developed over a long period of time until the habit of respect for the rights of the individual became engrained. Beyond a total of some twenty countries, at most, this process had never been completed or, in many cases, even started. The idea of liberty became popular in the nineteenth century, but the habit of liberty had not been established. In periods of crisis, reversion to more direct ant' primitive political action is likely to occur. As far as human liberty is concerned, most of the peoples of the world are in the stage of development that the West was in a century or two ago. In the meantime, conditions in police states provide us with good perspective on how far we have come.
We live in a society wherein a tradition of individual freedom has evolved. In the free modern society, the individual is presumed to be at liberty to express himself in talents and opinions unless his actions prove damaging to others. He has gained a right to autonomy, the privilege to choose, a right to be more than just a member of a certain family, caste, or association. However much social forces may continue to influence his conduct, we believe almost instinctively that he need no longer be merely a pawn of historical forces.