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Monday, April 15, 2013

The Great Man Theory Of History

The “Great Man” theory of history was developed in 1840 by Thomas Carlyle:

The Great Man Theory was a popular 19th century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of "great men", or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or Machiavellianism utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact (Wikipedia)

In 1860 Herbert Spencer developed a counter-argument which said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetime.  This view prevailed throughout the 20th Century and gained momentum with the rise of the Postmodernism in the Seventies.  Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault were believers in “historicism”:

Postmodernists use the term historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised. Both Lacan and Foucault argue that each historical period has its own knowledge system and individuals are unavoidably entangled within these systems. Answers to life’s questions cannot be found by appealing to some external truth, but only to the norms and forms within each culture that phrase the question.

Margaret Thatcher died last week, and much has been made of her resolve, conviction, moral rectitude, patriotism, and political passion, out of which she derived her particular vision “to make Great Britain great again”.  Much has also been made of her humble origins.  No man from her background had ever acceded to power, let alone a woman. Yet she, through an iron will, clarity and perfection of vision, intelligence and political savvy was able to put through the reforms that Britain sorely needed.  She, in fact, did turn around a sick economy; but more importantly instituted the structural reforms without which it would be permanently disabled.  She radically changed the relationship between labor and capital, between the State and the private sector; and perhaps most importantly between the individual and government. 

While no student of history would ever dismiss the currents of the past which had brought Britain to this intellectually impoverished state before Margaret Thatcher, few would have the temerity to dismiss this remarkable woman entirely. There is no doubt that Britain, in its dysfunctional social, economic, and political state was ripe for change; and it is likely that sooner or later the British people would have cried enough and somehow mobilized themselves for change.  All political regimes have their cycles, and British Socialism in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, had come to its end. 

To assume that the transformation of British society that came about in the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership would have happened anyway; or that the country was so exasperated with its Old Guard politicians, antiquated social class system, that it was ready to elevate a grocer’s daughter to the highest post in the land, does gross disservice to Thatcher and to the very quality of individualism that she espoused and in which she firmly believed.

How did history predictability produce a leader of such moral rectitude and aspirations? Where in the flow of European history with its sludge of venal politicians and Machiavellian plotters had there ever been room for a Margaret Thatcher?  Where did she come from? What historical antecedents determined with one hundred percent certainty a woman who not only had the most principled convictions but was able to convince others of them?  Politics has forever been the art of compromise, and principled politicians always fall by the wayside, and yet there was Margaret Thatcher, her eyes fixed on a greater good, a future of greatness not just improved mediocrity. 

For all of Winston Churchill’s heroism and leadership, he was a more predictable product of British history than Thatcher ever was.  Churchill was a 19th century aristocrat who had been brought up with Victorian values and had been imbued with the ideas of empire, patriotism, and valor.  He was a canny student of history, who understood exactly what Germany and Russia were up to.  Although we all owe a debt of gratitude to Churchill, in many ways we admire Britain even more than him. There was something in the British people – a pluck, resolve, and patriotism that had its roots in over 1000 years of the country’s history.  Churchill was indeed the right man at the right time.

No one doubts that The Great Man Churchill was indispensable to the cause of defeating Hitler.  Anyone with less fortitude, backbone, and resolve might not have provided that extra bit of defiance needed in dark times.  Anyone with less oratory, powerful rhetoric, and soaring prose might not have galvanized a devastated people in the early days of the war.  However, what Margaret Thatcher accomplished was in many ways more remarkable, and an even greater testament to The Great Man Theory.  All the odds were against her – class, sex, and youth – and yet because of something dominant in her character, a bit of Nietzsche’s Will, she prevailed.

It is also hard to imagine that the malevolent leaders of the recent past were but simple products of history. Can Hitler be explained only by the innate nationalism of the German people, the humiliating punishment after WWI, a visceral anti-Semitism, the remnants of old European empire? While these factors provided fertile ground for him, the sheer genius of his perversity, the unmatched inhumanity of his Final Solution, his imperial designs, and his powerful, emotional, and passionate oratory were his and his alone. 

Genghis Khan might have learned something from his father something about the Khamag Mongol Confederacy of his recent ancestors, but nothing in his family, his poverty, his nomadic life and the punishing harshness of the steppes, or the regional politics of the day could have predicted his brutal reign.  He was responsible for 50 million deaths, extended the Mongol Empire from China to Western Europe, and was unmatched in military strategy, battlefield valor, and an unquenchable will for conquest. 

In the case of all great men, there were elements of the predictable – the conditioning of history – and the unpredictable.  FDR was similar to Margaret Thatcher in that he had the vision, the commitment, and the moral authority to reshape American social, economic, and political life.  His legacy remains today, and although his progressive liberalism is fading in appeal, there is no doubt that he was a visionary, bold, and principled leader.  He was different from Thatcher because, he, like Churchill, was from a wealthy, aristocratic American family. Leadership was a family tradition, noblesse oblige a motto, and unflinching courage a matter of pride.  Thatcher, as mentioned above, came from nowhere. Her Great Man leadership is therefore all the more remarkable for it must be seen in greater isolation from history than that of either Roosevelt or Churchill.

Dismissing individual greatness in world leaders in favor of historical conditioning shows the same Deconstructionist vanity of regarding all ‘texts’ as equal.  Shakespeare and a barely literate slave of the antebellum South are equal, say Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault.  Both authors were equally influenced by history, and in particular the oppressiveness of a male, upper class, aristocracy.  Shakespeare was no more than the mouthpiece of the Elizabethans, a by-product of Machiavelli, Copernicus, and Martin Luther.  These post-modernists dismiss his elegant verse, his insights into human nature, his versatility, his humor, and his sublime understanding of love and jealousy.

Dismissing Margaret Thatcher, FDR, Churchill or any other unique, insightful and willful leader; or marginalizing writers who have illuminated history through the subjective insights of perceptive minds does perhaps the greatest disservice of all – demeaning and devaluing the individual, great or not.  Deconstructionism, historicism, and postmodernism are all collectivist in spirit and application.  Either we are all members of social collectives, or we are part of the greatest collective of all – human history. 

Ronald Reagan was another Great Man because he had vision.  Although not as politically savvy as Margaret Thatcher and without the brilliance of Churchill or the power of FDR, Reagan was the first to restate a fundamental principle of the Republic – the primacy of the individual.  After years of neo-Socialist meanderings in the Sixties and Seventies, the country was ready to return to earlier and more enduring values.  Reagan did not do what Thatcher did – totally reform and restructure British life – he only restated what people already knew but had perhaps forgotten.  His eloquence and implacability about big government, the Evil Empire, and Socialism were – as he himself put it – beacons to the whole world.  The individual was not just a cog in a historical machine, but a special part of God’s creation, endowed with inalienable rights.

The Eighties were criticized as being an age of excess.  Reagan had unleashed a monster which from its aeries in Wall Street ravaged the common man.  Thatcher came under the same criticism for neutering the unions and refocusing economic energies on private enterprise and away from statism.   Nevertheless, they both had a vision which celebrated the individual and his centrality to creativity, innovation, and progress.

Margaret Thatcher was a Great Man, and her life should be an example of how individuals not only matter, but make the world go ‘round.

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