Tolstoy debunked The Great Man Theory of history in Epilogue II of War and Peace; but despite his contention that since all human events are conditioned by events in the past and no any one individual can take credit for them, he was as much a hero-worshipper of Napoleon as anyone. Tolstoy was aware that the Emperor, although he had his comeuppance at Borodino and Moscow, and was later defeated at Waterloo and exiled, transformed France and by so-doing influenced the rest of Europe. He was indeed expansionist, territorial, and arrogant, but he was convinced that his conquests would spread enlightenment, justice, and equality.
In fact without the the likes of Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Mohammed, Louis XIV, and Henry V borders would be simply arbitrary perimeters, civilizations would be timid and communal, and little would ever happen other than the milling of barley and the tending of sheep.
Tolstoy knew this but wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He straddled the philosophical fence by expressing his nihilism but by writing a 1500 page book about the Napoleonic Wars. Of course he was right on both counts, for no philosopher has ever claimed that the two points of view are mutually exclusive. Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino may well have been because he had caught cold and couldn’t think clearly; and that his cold was brought on because of the forgetfulness of his valet who neglected to bring the Emperor’s gum boots to the battle; but there was no disguising the fact that he was in charge, that he had always been a strategic genius, and that it simply failed him this time.
Rather than a very common story of gum boots, nasal congestion, and fatigue, the tale of Napoleon is a heroic and tragic one - a very great man, the most powerful in Europe with grand designs, great ambition, and indomitable will, finally brought down and disgraced.
Shakespeare was a nihilist. In his Histories he wrote of king after king who rose and fell because of the same venality, arrogance, greed, and ambition as those who had come before. History repeats itself, said Shakespeare, because human nature has not changed in 100,000 years. Yet he delighted in telling the story of the uniqueness of kings, queens, and courtiers. History may be determined but the chance splicing of genes and accidental influence make it fascinating.
Nietzsche, perhaps better than any other thinker, understood that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of absolute will. All we know of life is through our own experience; and existence has no meaning except as we see it. Why then should we plod along with the herd, indistinguishable from every other beast, when only our self-expression validates, defines, and justifies our existence?
Not only did the early days of the American Republic produce one genius, but many. Jefferson alone might have been an Augustus or a Napoleon; but around him were Hamilton, a man of aristocratic temperament and philosophy who challenged Jefferson’s belief in populist democracy; a man who with technical, professional, and political astuteness set up the country’s financial system. Franklin, like Jefferson, was a polyglot – a man of science and diplomacy who was Jefferson’s emissary to France.
Franklin originally expressed his doubts over the draft Constitution, but in an address to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 displayed his particular if not unique understanding of democratic rule:
In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.
I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
Both Jefferson and Monroe had a particularly astute understanding of the political, economic, and military power of the new Republic. Jefferson’s sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition to map 0ut and plat the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory provided the legal and historical basis for Westward expansion and American colonization of the West. Monroe subscribed to the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were destined to expand their reach to the Pacific, and he provided political, moral, and financial support for this effort. His genius was that he saw what the country could become, and with only a necessarily sketchy understanding of territories west of the Mississippi, acted decisively.
Every civilization is known and remembered for its great men. The ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Socrates ruled The Golden Age and influenced philosophy, science, art, and literature for millennia. The kings and emperors of Persepolis, Rome, Assyria, Egypt, and Palestine were responsible for the superiority and lasting influence of their civilizations. The monarchs of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, while often embroiled in brutal warfare, ruled with legacy and supreme power always in mind. It was they who not only fought Europe’s wars but were responsible for the patronage of the arts and the encouragement of high civilization, life, and learning.
All societies are based on the Bell Curve. Even the most primitive Amazon tribe has the same distribution of genius as the France of the Sun King, the England of the Age of Enlightenment, or the heroic age of Augustus. They are the shamans and the witch doctors of the Amazon who have the intelligence to understand human nature, the environment, and the powerful forces of both. They are adept at interpretation, explanation, and the use of inspired power.
In those tribes which are less circumscribed by the forest and have more economic and military potential, shamans become priests and then kings. The ancient kingdoms of Mesoamerica – the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and Aztecs – were ruled by geniuses no less able than Darius of Persia.
We live in an age of democratic excess, and far from venerating the heroes and geniuses of the past, we hold them up to pedestrian scrutiny. Jefferson was not such a great man because he owned slaves and slept with them. The legacy of both Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy has been tarnished because of their sexual appetites, manipulation of women, and arrogation of male power.
Kings and Queens of the 17th and 18th century were privileged, autocratic, feudalists who held back social progress of the disenfranchised for centuries. Dostoevsky, Mencken, Eliot, Faulkner, and Joyce were – according to deconstructionists who see history and human events through the lens of race, gender, ethnicity and a strictly communal environment – impossible of greatness because of their social myopia.
‘Inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ rather than individual excellence and uniqueness are today’s passwords. Not only are men created equal in opportunity but equal in fact. No child is less able than any other, just differently abled. Any culture regardless of promise or dysfunction equals any other. We begrudge geniuses their fame and fortune and find fault with their rise rather than admire and emulate them. The One Percent are not American heroes who through financial prowess, intelligence, innovativeness, and risk-taking enterprise have enriched millions of Americans, enabled businesses to grow and pension plans to fatten; but viciously greedy predators.
We limit political intelligence if not genius because of our distorted view of democracy. Our leaders must be ‘regular guys’, easy to have a beer with. Men of simple language, simple manners and simple beliefs. We accept the lot of candidates thrown up by the system – Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Perry, Rubio, and Walker – and are willing to consider them despite their ordinariness, lack of curiosity and insight, and self-serving ambition.
Populist democracy has ended noblesse oblige and genius cultures forever in the United States. The more electoral democracy devolves to the level of the common man, the more it becomes ruled by parochial interests, unformed or ignorant opinions, emotion instead of intellect, and image instead of character.
Because of the ‘democratization’ of the political process according to which the popular vote begins at the level of rural caucuses, old, traditional, universally-respected models of leadership are gone. Interests have become local, venal, self-serving, and anti-communitarian. Both voters and candidates exist within this same context. It is remarkable that even one legitimate leader emerges out of the street-fight, let alone a cluster.
Our public schools have become factories of mediocrity. The theory of multiple intelligences rules, neutering the idea of individual genius as classically defined, and stirring everyone in the same, homogenizing pot. Billions have been spent on attending to ‘children with special needs’ and little on those who have the potential to be highly productive, creative, and enterprising.
Relativism is still current, and adhering or promoting classical moral and ethical values is considered Eurocentric and insulting in a pluralistic society. The fact that honor, courage, respect, compassion, discipline, enterprise, and honesty have been the hallmarks of Western civilization since its inception, they are dismissed as retrograde and revisionist.
As a result, Americans are befuddled by the likes of Vladimir Putin, a strong, aggressive, extremely intelligent leader who understands geopolitics, history, and the aspirations of his people like no other. Putin understands the current pusillanimity of the West which which is floundering and uncertain whether to man up and face the music of terrorist enemies or to cling to old notions of exceptionalism and rights. We dismiss the leadership of Iran as a backward cabal of religious clerics still living in the Dark Ages rather than a canny, smart, bunch of men who can out-dance Obama any day of the year.
In short we live in an age of mediocrity. We dismiss and demean the concept of greatness; reconfigure our educational institutions to favor ordinariness, empathy, and consideration at the cost of losing ambition and attainment; continue to dumb down our electoral process; and refuse – out of concern for the civilian populations of our enemies – to win battles at any cost.
The days of great American visionary men and women may be over, leaving genius to the predators. Media, social media, information technology, virtual reality, and gaming further erode genius and reward commonness.
It is not to late to turn the tide and to reject the corrosive insistence on ‘diversity, inclusivity, compassion, and empathy’; but almost since the infection of progressive idealism seems to have met no firewalls.