05 February 2010

Idiosyncrasy and History, Part One

Henry and I have been having a neat discussion in the comments section to my entry Sunday on "The Invention of Lying," last autumn's Rick Gervais movie. I think it is worth bringing that discussion out of that thread, into the open, because we have reached a point of close contact with the original animating purpose of this blog -- refreshing the pragmatic philosophy of William James.

We moved from the question of the consequences of lying in politics to the issue of individual idiosyncrasies and their broad consequences for history. Said Henry in pertinent part:

Suppose that Napoleon's mother had induced Napoleon's father to marry her by lying that she was pregnant. Later, after the marriage, Napoleon was conceived. If she hadn't lied, then she might never have slept with Napoleon's father, and Napoleon would never have existed. According to Tolstoy in War and Peace, however, this wouldn't have mattered, because someone else would have played Napoleon's role, as the causes of history are too complex to depend upon one person's actions.

I said in reply that someone else would likely have played Napoleon's role in a general way -- the role of the man-on-a-horse who often takes over a revolutionary situation when the fervor of the crowds has waned. Someone would have gotten on the horse had Nappy never been borne. But this allows for the possibility that Napoleon had individual idiosyncrasies that made it important that he filled this role.

Napoleon sought to subdue Haiti, sending an army there in 1801. He lost that army, and this loss had enormous consequences beyond Hispaniola. Napoleon's desperate need for money after the loss in Haiti, for example, forced him to sell Louisiana to raise cash. And -- since Henry adduced Tolstoy -- the loss of the army in Haiti may have reduced the number of troops available with which to strike eastward into Russia years later. Might some other post-revolutionary strongman have produced a very different history by deciding against a Haitian expedition?

To this, Henry responded on behalf of Lev Tolstoy: Napoleon presumably did not decide to fight a war in Haiti on a whim; rather, that decision had multiple causes, not all of which was Napoleon necessarily aware. Therefore, Tolstoy might say that Napoleon was a puppet of these causes, as would any alternative leader of France have been at the time.

Tolstoy might indeed say that, so let us consider it. Is it plausible to consider that any possible leader of the French state in 1801 would have been the puppet of the same causes, and so would have necessarily sent an army to Haiti? Is it plausible, then, to entirely eliminate from history the idiosyncrasies of heads of state, generals, and other such pooh-bahs?

Let me acknowledge one aspect of Tolstoy's point. A lot of interesting history has little or nothing to do with heads of state, generals, and other pooh-bahs. Historians can and do discuss, for example, education and literacy in the provinces far from Paris in the early 19th century. In a book on that subject, some now-obscure schoolteacher may play a much bigger role than the Emperor. Insofar as Tolstoy in his observations about history was pointing aware from exclusive concern with the pooh-bahs, he was doing something healthy.

But humans are still going to wonder: do individual idiosyncrasies at the top of the social/political hierarchy have consequences? And if Tolstoy was saying they don't, Tolstoy's position was wildly implausible.

William James wrote about exactly this subject. For James, the paradigm of the deterministic view of history was not Tolstoy but Herbert Spencer. And Spencer (who himself was targeting Carlyle -- it is always convenient in writing of abstract matters to have a concrete target in view) wrote as follows against the significance of "great men."

"If, not stopping at the explanation of social progress as due to the great man, we go back a step, and ask, Whence comes the great man? we find that the theory breaks down completely. The question has two conceivable answers: his origin is supernatural, or it is natural. Is his origin supernatural? Then he is a deputy god, and we have theocracy once removed -- or, rather, not removed at all....Is this an unacceptable solution? The origin of the great man is natural; and immediately this is recognized, he must be classed with all other phenomena in the society that gave him birth as a product of its antecedents. Along with the whole generation of which he forms a minute part, along with its institutions, language, knowledge, manners, andits multitudinous arts and appliances, he is a resultant...."

I think that Spencer is on the Tolstoyan wavelength here and I note that James finds this unpersuasive, as a way of banishing the "great men" or their idiosyncrasies. But this post is already a good deal longer than is my norm, so I think I will make you wait for tomorrow for more.


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